Dress It Up for Prom / The Paperclip Project

Moving from Groupwork to Teamwork

“Oh my God, Mr. Downs, we need help.”

I’m pretty sure that this was their opening line when I met with Dress It Up for Prom on February 4, 2015 at 7:15 AM. At that point, they were going by “Bike for Change,” and had the intention of collecting and distributing used bikes to kids in the Charlotte area who might not otherwise be able to afford them. But, it was pretty clear that they really didn’t know what they were doing or how to get started. Here we were, almost two full weeks into the project, and my only group of six—all-star students by just about any measure—was also the only group that had yet to trade its paperclip.

Their anxiety was palpable. From the moment that they walked in, all four girls started speed-talking at once (the two boys in the group, being somewhat less prone toward proactive effort or asking for assistance in any situation, hadn’t shown up). Rather than breathing, when they would run out of breath, each barrage of words would be replaced with a sudden gasp, as though, one at a time, the girls resurfaced from an underwater breath-holding contest, only to continue peppering me with words that I couldn’t discern all at once and at such a pace. They were one stressor away from a full-blown quadruple panic attack.

Once they tired themselves out and could no longer do anything but pant and try to catch their breath, we started to unpack their stress. After they left, I wrote the following thoughts in my project journal:

“I just met with 4 of the partners of ‘Bike for Change’ this morning before school. They had yet to make a trade and were feeling stuck and frustrated. They simply didn’t know what to do. I suspected and our meeting seemed to confirm that their issues stemmed from three different challenges.” The rest is a combination of visual and verbal notes, which I’ve included below, but the challenges that I could identify involved structure, fear, and thinking too big (and too small). I think that the images speak for themselves, but I’ll also add some clarifying commentary as needed:


StructureWhen you put six high-achieving students together, their work should become exponentially better with the addition of each one, right? Not so in this case…at least yet. As ambitious individuals, they could undertake most assignments with great determination, little direction, and faith in their ability to be successful—both in terms of learning and any other objectives of the assignment. Put together in a situation in which each was necessary to the others’ success and all were responsible for their company’s ability to deliver on a promise, they froze.

Six students, most of whom I would be willing to entrust with my own children’s safety, couldn’t work out what to do with a paperclip. Why? Because they had no structure. They had too many leaders pulling in different directions and no structure or system for decision-making. As all “heads,” they were lacking a “body” of workers to accomplish tasks in the event that a decision was made. By identifying their lack of organizational structure, we were able to open up the door to content and conversations about the structural components of collaboration—a door of whose existence this team-in-the-making was previously unaware.


Fear of FailureIn addition to their organizational challenges, there was also an important emotional component that we were able to begin addressing—their fear. As consistently high-achieving students, they were terrified of messing this up, and the fear was crippling their ability to take even the first step. Their fears varied by student. For some it stemmed from the fact that there was no clear path to success. For others, it came from uncertainty about their ability to fulfill the promise to do good for others. And, while none of them may have said it, I suspect that each was afraid that the others might not come through, causing some negative effect (whether a bad grade, personal judgment, or more work for themselves). Because we were able to locate some of the emotional aspects of their struggles, they were able to address their fears (and each other) much more productively.

Thinking TOO BIG and too small

Thinking too BIGThere were also two related intellectual obstacles that kept this group from uncovering and accessing their first step. They were thinking too big and thinking too small.

Our students are well-practiced at imagining solutions for global problems. They can put together a thoroughly researched and supported plan to address global warming, human trafficking, overpopulation, discrimination, or any other hairy problem. They’ll write a great paper, make a captivating presentation, and impress a lot of people with their knowledge and academic skill. The intellectual challenge here was not in imagining solutions, but in locating themselves in relation and pursuing a path toward those solutions. They were thinking too big in at least three ways, by (1) trying to tackle problems that were too big, (2) trying to impact too many people all at once, and (3) trying to accomplish everything all at once.

Thinking too SmallIt surprised me to discover that they were also thinking too small (and I’ll admit that I didn’t realize this until I was reflecting on our meeting later on in the day). “All we have,” one of the group had said, “is the paperclip.” No wonder they couldn’t locate themselves in relation to their vision. They didn’t even see themselves as assets! Not only that, but they hadn’t considered their relationships, networks, and social or family connections. They hadn’t considered their capacity to use technology to access more people and resources. Above all, they hadn’t considered the story into which they would be inviting their potential trading partners. By seeing their only asset as the one that I had handed them, they’d underestimated their own capacity to leverage all of the assets that I could never have given them.

In the end, I believe that their struggles took them on a necessary journey that allowed them to see both what was possible and what was necessary to achieve their vision. Before they wandered into the frustrations that lay beyond their comfort zones, they had no idea where they had been…or where they could go. They had a vague sense that they could accomplish anything, maybe because adults are always saying so, but no faith in their ability to step toward the “anythings” and to make them possible and real. By dealing with their struggles, the group was able to begin seeing themselves and each other differently. They were able to make collaboration important—as a concept and a practice. They were able to see beyond their fears and find their way. They started to become a team in the truest sense. They started to become Dress It Up for Prom.

To see where their journey led, click here.


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