Transforming a Tradition


Building Soapbox Derby cars have been a tradition on my campus for numerous years. Parents anticipate the year that their child enters 4th grade so they could build their own car that topped all cars from the previous years. Students and parents, designed and built cars at home and then hauled them up to the school on race day. Parents that participated in the building process are just as excited as the kids on race day and look forward to see which car will race down the hill the fastest.

I looked up the definition of a tradition and found this:

a long-established custom or belief that has been passed on in this way.
Traditions are great, unless there is a way to make them better. I knew when I watched my first Soapbox Derby race that this was a tradition that I wanted to participate in but it was also a tradition that I could do better and allow for more students to participate.

It doesn’t take much analysis to realize that cars built at home are not 100% student created and 100% of students don’t get to participate. I wanted to find a way to allow all students to participate, and participate in their interest area. I wanted the gear heads, the artist, the advertisers, and the daredevils to all be excited about the project.

Sounds easy, right? Wait, now I have to explain to the traditionalist that I will be making changes. Easier said than done…. Taking away a project from parents is difficult, but through persistence and focusing on the end goal there can be successful.

I found a way to include all students in the project through team roles, collaborated with the High School construction class to build at school, and then invited parents to join us on building days to provide guidance/help.

When the project launched I immediately received emails and phone calls from parents questioning my change in tradition. The changes were difficult for parents to understand on paper, but after short phone conversations that were on board. I took a deep breath at this point and thought the phone calls were now over.

Unfortunately, through ever step of the process I received more phone calls, more emails, and more explanations to the staff. After 3 months of explaining my ideas and keeping my eye on the end goal the race day finally arrives.

I am happy to report the following things occurred due to transforming traditions:

  1. 25 cars entered the race, 20 more cars than the previous year!
  2. 60 high school students cheered on cars they designed and built with their elementary students. Zero high school students attended the previous year.
  3. More parents attended the race than ever before, because ALL students participated in the project.
  4. Community members and businesses donated over $2000 in building supplies.
  5. Every student participated in race day!
  6. Every student practiced problem solving, mathematics, science, advertising, art, building, collaboration, creativity, and team work.


After all of the ups and downs of this project transformation I reflected and wondered if this change in tradition was really worth all the phone calls, emails, and explaining. The morning after the event, I received the following message:




The fact that a teacher broke the tradition of sleeping in on a Saturday morning to send this message verifies that yes, traditions deserved to be transformed!

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