The Young Originals: Non-conformists in the classroom

Young OriginalsWhat are Young Originals? Inspired by Adam Grant’s best-selling Originals: How Non-conformists Move the World, I developed this term to identify the non-conformist students who occupy our classrooms every day. Grant’s Originals focuses on adults who have changed the world, whether it was in Civil Rights, business, technology, or sports. Some of them were typical students who thrived in schools, but later learned to challenge the status quo as adults. Others were non-conformists from the beginning. I couldn’t help but think of some of my students as Originals in the making, just younger – Young Originals.

Reflecting on this thought, the questions abound. How many young originals do we stifle before they ever get the chance to use their originality? How do I make my classroom a place where these Young Originals feel comfortable, confident, and successful? How does a school develop a culture that supports non-conformity? How do we get more young originals back into education, because they are the ones that need to question our current system?

My mind was drawn to a particular parent-teacher conference from my earlier years of teaching. In this particular conference, I remember saying to the parent, I think things will get better for your child as they get older, as they move into higher grades – middle school, high school. They’ll find clubs and activities that help them cultivate their strengths more. My thought now is, WHAT? SERIOUSLY? As that parent asked why our school wasn’t providing those opportunities now, I couldn’t help but agree, but also sit quietly, not sure how to shift my teaching in that direction.

It has been a driving force for much of my teaching since. It inspired me to gamify an entire third grade unit. It motivated me to incorporate genius hour over the past few years. I know these aren’t enough on their own, but it was a start. It’s why I continue to read about teachers committed to these goals (Joy Kirr, Angela Maiers, AJ Juliani and John Spencer, George Couros), and why I attend Edcamps. One critical factor in this shift is that now I don’t feel alone in this goal – not that I ever really was in the first place. It is becoming clearer than ever now that other teachers are working with similar concerns and motivations.

What makes Young Originals so captivating?

I have always been drawn to books about kids that are unique – Fudge-a-mania was one of the first chapter books I remember actually enjoying, Calvin and Hobbes one of the few my parents could get me to read regularly, Into the Wild one of the only books I enjoyed in high school, and a recent discovery, My Name is Mina. I have felt a similar connection to stories about people with autism – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Born on a Blue Day, and just this week, The Reason I Jump.

As I completed The Reason I Jump, I started to think, what is it that draws me to these stories? What seems to bring me back to these books is that they tell the stories of children who don’t fit in the typical classroom. Since that parent-teacher conference I mentioned, and the recognition that I wasn’t connecting with these unique learners, these are the students I worry about most in my classroom. (I know teachers aren’t supposed to give every student equal amounts of support and attention, and I can assure you that I worry a lot about all of my students, but there is something about these young originals that is particularly inspiring.)

These students might have trouble staying still, struggle to complete assignments the way we expect, or have difficulty making friends. They may not understand why schools or classes look, feel, or work the way they do. They see the world differently; they are incredible artists, talented performers, and often have a surprisingly mature sense of humor. They call out in class, which can be frustrating, but the ideas they share are frequently brilliant, ideas you would never expect from someone their age. They seesaw between being challenging and endearing, frustrating and innovative, limited and limitless.

While the fictional characters are endearing to readers (otherwise the stories probably wouldn’t work), a key reason I am drawn to these atypical students is because they are the complete opposite of me. Adam Grant wrote his book with similar motivation. He and I seem to have a proclivity for rule-following, teacher pleasing conformity at its finest. We also seem to envy those willing to challenge the system. While I was completely unwilling to do so as a student, I wanted, and want, to know how to challenge the system effectively. More importantly, I want to know how to help my young originals do it effectively in my classroom. For all the frustration they can cause, they can also be the catalyst for teacher growth in ways they may never know.

What have these unique learners taught me?

Thinking back to my early years, I’m pretty confident that I did not help these students much. As a young teacher, I was so caught up with trying to implement new ideas, improving my classroom management, and making it through the curriculum, that I had trouble giving them the time and energy they deserved. All of our students need our time and energy, but for these students, the personal connection with a teacher seems to be of even greater importance. A good book, an engaging activity, a fun project, don’t seem to motivate them in the same way as other students.

Aaron Hogan, author of Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth, highlights the importance of treating behavior challenges in the classroom more like we treat academic struggles.


The most important to me is “Give them just one more chance.” We let emerging readers continue to practice, we should do the same with attention-seekers, or students that fidget. I know there are limits, but giving these students another chance, which they feel like they never get, goes such a long way with these students. I’m not saying to let misbehaviors go – consequences and consistency are critical – but speaking with students calmly, showing them that you are still supporting them, that you still believe they can reach the expectations you’ve already agreed on, gives them the encouragement to keep trying. “When at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is exactly what these students need.

While some of these books are fictional and idealistic, there is something to learn from the adults who connect with the young original characters. These connectors are patient, kind, but firm when needed. They are honest and speak to the young character as a person worthy of a conversation, talking with them, not to them. The connector lets the Young Originals know that success will not be immediate, it will take time, sometimes much more time than either of them wants to allow. These adults are also questioned by many adults around them, wondering why they aren’t being more forceful, enforcing stricter consequences, as if they are wasting time with these Young Originals. Yet, these connectors stick to their intuitions, confident that their support and encouragement will lead to greater good than most can imagine.

In my own classroom, it feels like I’m really starting to connect with my unique learners. My intuitions feel right, giving me the confidence to keep supporting their growth, no matter how slow it may be at times. I am starting to find the balance between the need to guide them toward some conformity (i.e. writing legibly or in complete sentences so others can understand their brilliant thoughts) and a celebration of their talents; the balance of second chances with honest, but achievable expectations; the balance of limits and freedom.

What do Young Originals need from us?

This year, while reading My Name is Mina aloud with my class, a few thoughts resonated clearly. First, the students recognized that the book is unique on its own. It is nonlinear, completely breaking from the story mountain we had studied earlier in the year. The prose and personality of the writing, however, kept us immersed throughout. Second is from a question I posed to my students. “If Mina were in your class, how do you think she would fit in?”

The students, like me, wanted to believe that we would have welcomed Mina with open arms, giving her the freedom she desired to be herself, allowing her to fit in our community despite her flaws. I let the class know that I wanted to be the teacher that created that type of classroom culture, but I worried that maybe school isn’t for every kid. It scares me to think that there are students out there who might not feel successful in my classroom.

I know that I have had students like Mina, but I don’t know if I’ve been successful guiding them. I know that I have anecdotes to show that I am getting better at working with those students, but I don’t know what long term impact I may have had. I hope someday that a student will come back to visit my school and say, “Chris, you remember when… That helped me …” But if I have to wait for that moment ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road, how can I be sure that I’ve ever been successful? How can I be sure that I am improving?

I tend to think this is simply the case of real teaching (not test taking data focused teaching). Real connections are immeasurable by grades or scores. But anecdotes aren’t always reliable and this ‘real teaching’ theory doesn’t bring me much solace, knowing that I might have to wait so long for validity. Luckily, there are other ways to judge success, in which I can be somewhat confident. But for these Young Originals, I will continue to worry. I will continue to worry that my class didn’t help them believe in their own power and talents and capabilities. I worry that a future class will stifle them. I worry that a future teacher will misunderstand them.

This quote from Naoki Higashida, the 13 year-old autistic boy who wrote The Reason I Jump, was incredibly powerful when I read it. I know this is written from a different perspective than the students I’ve had, but it also feels like his words could have been delivered by so many students, some of which I have had the privilege to teach.

Us kids with autism would like you to watch out for us — meaning, “Please never give up on us.” The reason I say “watch out for us” is that we can be made stronger just by the fact that you’re watching.

Just going by how we respond, it’s difficult for you to tell if we’ve understood what you’re saying or not. And often we still can’t do something however often you’ve shown us how to do it.

That’s just the way we are. On our own we simply don’t know how to get things done the same way you do them. But, like everyone else, we want to do the best we possibly can. When we sense that you’ve given up on us, it makes us feel miserable. So please keep helping us, through to the end.

Which student wouldn’t agree that they can be made stronger by the fact that we are watching (not judging, but watching)? How often do we worry as teachers that a student didn’t understand what we said? Which student wouldn’t feel miserable if they felt a teacher gave up on them? The clarity in which this 13 year-old expresses this common feeling stopped me in my tracks. Sometimes, it is these unexpected perspectives that open our eyes and help us see clearly.

Adam Grant found that MLK, Lucy Stone, Jackie Robinson, Warby Parker, and Carmen Medina were not necessarily Original because of a world-shifting ideas or ability. They were Original because they were able to help those ideas and abilities affect others in a way that was uniquely successful.

Naoki Higashida is undoubtedly unique, but there are numerous students who sit in our classrooms every day waiting for the opportunity to shine a similar light in their classroom. These Young Originals, who are often more likely to be the object of our disdain than our admiration, can be the individuals that bridge the gap between traditional education and the future of learning.

Learning about the ways that students have obtained nontraditional success in school may be the next step in helping educators and learners understand why the gap exists and how we can help every student, especially the non-conformists.

*Adam Grant, if you want to take on this project, I’d be happy to join you on that journey. If not, maybe I’ll just have to write it on my own.






4 thoughts on “The Young Originals: Non-conformists in the classroom

  1. I think it was John Spencer in LAUNCH who shared a similar story about a parent teacher conference like yours. And had both a similar reaction and “awakening.” When posed with the statement that “school isn’t for everyone,” he replied, “But Learning is.” I think that is exactly what you are saying. You are creating the culture and environment where all your kids will be empowered to learn.


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