Published in the MACUL magazine">

Published in the MACUL magazine, 1998

My Inspiration Project: Students’ Self Exploration
by John McCarthy

Too often high school students wander towards graduation without a connection between a clear understanding of what drives their personality and future choices of college and the work force. This project resulted in an electronic journal that they could refer to as they grappled with post graduation decisions. It also promoted better understanding of self in their daily lives.

The first of four sections took a week to accomplish. It was the most challenging for the students and myself. They brainstormed five choices they made that had an important impact on their life, and explained one of them in a journal entry. For example, I told my students about why I chose to leave a good teaching job in Chicago to pursue a master's degree, full time. My choice rejuvenated my desire to teach high school. No two choices could be selected from the same year, which brought about many groans.

Getting them to open themselves to the pleasures and pains in their lives was crucial to this project. To build their trust in me, I shared snippets from my life. Trust is always the biggest request a teacher can ask at anytime of the year. This project’s success was completely in their hands.

They examined their list of decisions for most of the hour. I did not want them to rush into writing the reflection in order to finish an assignment. Through out the year, we practiced thoughtful reflection for two to five minutes where they sat quietly and pondered the topic without discussion or writing. This practice resulted in taking careful consideration of choices that changed their life in some way such as dedicating themselves to a single sport, signing-up for or transferring from a class, or choosing to date a significant other. They started to write near the end of class, and finished the piece as homework.

Next, they examined events that they may have had little or no control, but impacted their lives, such as moving to another state or divorce. Once again, no two events could come from the same year. Encouraging them to dig deep inside, I promised that the later parts of the project would be easy and rewarding. If they only chose safe events that lacked significance to them, the later stages of the project would be difficult and boring. I was not threatening them, but warning them of the nature of the project.

The catalyst came that second day as I read through the reflections regarding life choices. While they brainstormed a list of events, I read a reflection about an experience that contained such painful memories that if the events had not already been addressed I would have had to report the circumstances by law. Well motivated this person to share such hardship was courageous. I thanked the student for sharing with me such a poignant experience.

The trickle became an unrestrained flood as more students described events that were important to them. Several went back to the life decisions and wrote about a different choice on the list. Now most experiences were not nearly traumatic; and there were many tame events. What was important was that the situations were significant in the student’s mind.

On the third day, students mapped crossroads of their major decisions. They analyzed their previous work on events and choices and chose one as the top of their pyramid. Beneath the experience on the left, they listed five events and/or choices that built to the crossroad. On the right, they inferred three future goals as a result.

I shared going to graduate school as my crossroad. During my first three years of teaching, I struggled with understanding why students were resistant to trying any activities in my History courses. Reading a page for homework was an incredible up-hill battle. On my first day of teaching, one student's polite words haunted me, "Sir, I don't do homework on weekends. I've got important things to do." Modeling, I shared with the students my frustrations and triumphs using the crossroad shown below:

Attended Graduate School Full Time. (1992)

NEH summer grant to study Chaucer's Canterbury Tales at a graduate level. (1991)

Experimented with various approaches to student motivation (1989-92)

"Sir, I don't do homework on weekends. I've got important things to do." (1989)

1st Teaching job in Chicago. (1989)

Undergraduate study to become a teacher. (1985-8)

Understand the connection between classroom dynamics and student motivation (Master Thesis - 1994)

Returned to high school teaching to test my thesis. (1994)

Exploring different ways learning styles and personality influence student motivation. (present)

When they completed theirs, they probed for key personality traits that characterized their actions, and wrote a self-evaluation regarding three of them. The results of these pieces were rich with personal epiphanies for them. I learned more about them, than in the seven months of class time, previously. While rewarding, this first section was grueling both mentally and emotionally. But the biggest pay-off was yet to come.

I began the next section by reading Robert Frost’s poem "The Road Not Taken" and "We are the Champions" by the band Queen. I explained how I identified with the pieces' meaning in terms of my outlook on life. Fresh from the week of self-examination, my students spent four days using the media center’s resources searching for a poem and song that they identified with their outlook on life, and explaining in writing, using a key quote from each with a personal experience.

Searching for poems and lyrics was generally done from literary resource links on my classroom website ( and a lyrics site ( The strength of these web sites was the immediate access to poems and songs, categorized for easily accessible browsing. Country, rap, and R & B were top choices as well as love sonnets and inspirational poetry, such as "Star Fish" and "Footsteps."

Using Microsoft Word, they wrote poetry inspired by their selected pieces in a writer’s workshop. They synthesized the thematic meanings of the lyrics and poem with their life view. The section required introspection and inference making. Because they worked with material from their lives and music very familiar to them, the tasks were enjoyable.

Section three of the project was where the students built understanding of their internal motivation. Students self-evaluated their personality tendencies based on Meyer’s Briggs by using the book Do What You Are by Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger, one of many such books, and a personality test on two websites ( and Based on their findings, the students affirmed career choices that accentuated their personality tendencies, bringing them good feelings about themselves. Many learned of occupations that they had never considered before. At times we laughed, remembering past class incidents, serious and humorous, that were newly clarified by our Meyer’s Briggs self-assessments. For example, there was the extravert who openly gave opinions regardless if anyone wanted to know or the impact of their words on others. One Introvert-Feeler rode a daily emotional roller-coaster requiring me to perfect eggshell walking. I understood why I struggled meeting eye to eye with students whose traits were opposite mine.

The students’ success with this key part of the project could not have been so smooth without the work done in the previous sections. Having accepted the challenge to explore important issues from their past, students were neither frustrated or indifferent. They attacked this introspection with enthusiasm because they had built a framework that was personalized with much of their experiences. Evaluating their internal motivations became simple and intriguing.

In the final section, students took all that they had learned and synthesized it into an electronic journal about what internally motivated them that brought them happiness. The motivation had to be fueled from within. Achieving someone's love is not an independent motivation. For example, mine was the desire to problem solve for others. With PowerPoint and a scanner as their tools, they used snippets from the project. They created a title page that stated their internal motivation. Within the file, they used reflections of experiences, the poem and song that represented their outlook on life, the crossroads, a creative piece, and their Meyers-Briggs self-evaluation. For each of these, they created or found a quote that connected each piece to their internal motivation.

When the journal was completed, they had a record of themselves to refer to as they considered college choices and career opportunities that would offer a positive environment ideal for them. Most importantly, they learned much about themselves based on their choices.

Internet resources, word-processing, and PowerPoint—Skeptics would ask how has these technology uses helped improve student learning over traditional practices. I could argue that the Internet is a major resource tool; word-processing software is widely used in businesses; and PowerPoint is a presentation format that has replaced the slide projector and overhead. Though valid reasons, they are not why I use them.

As a teacher, technology use has become part of the air I breath, just as the telephone and automobile are integrated into our society. With information at my fingertips and software and hardware, planning complex lessons and interactive projects has become easy.

In this project, I could have just used the Media Center without the Internet, but offering students access to poetry, lyrics, and the Meyer’s Briggs test would be limited to the volumes on the shelves and the in-house Meyer’s Briggs experts to score the test. Students can hand write and revise on paper without using a word-processor, but their revisions would not be as honestly accomplished as if they typed on crisp paper. Some students would rebel from rewriting their papers over when they could open a saved file and only write in the changed sections. Construction paper could replace a PowerPoint file. But the program enabled even the artistically challenged, such as myself, to produce a quality visual piece using a scanners, digital cameras, and software.

When my students finished this project, the technology resources we used became natural options to them as they have demonstrated in other classes. I was truly inspired by them to use this project again when in course evaluations, students mentioned their enjoyment of this project. Some of their words were:

"The my inspiration project was fun and informative. I liked it because it helped us to learn about ourselves rather than someone else."

"I think that the main thing that I learned was PowerPoint. It was very useful for me cause I was able to use it for my presentation in Current Events. I believe that PowerPoint will help me next year too for future projects."

"I think you should do all these activities again next year such as the…PowerPoint assignments. I am basically computer illiterate so these helped me learn about computers."

"Another assignment I liked was when we picked a song and poem that represented us. It was fun to see everyone’s song they chose and it was also interesting to learn something new about yourself. All of the lists we did like 5 decisions we made, that was really productive. I learned a lot about myself and how the decisions I make/made affect me."

"It was fun and I learned how to use a computer better. I believe that it is worthwhile also because it helped us find more good in ourselves instead of criticizing the bad."

With the electronic journal at their fingertips, these students had a lighthouse to guide them through the dense fog of post-graduation choices in the work force and college. They enhanced their technology skills for college and work. Most importantly, they learned much about themselves that surprised and pleased them.

Go to My Inspiration Project