While so often in this space you read about the successful and exciting things that are happening in my classroom, there are many things that are disastrous. Trust me, there are days when I’m glad that another teacher isn’t present to witness the chaos. So often we don’t talk about these things. We need to.
I recently blogged about the importance of cultivating a culture where our students are expected to fail sometimes — it’s part of taking risks. We need to do this as teachers too. The first step, of course, is to create a culture of trust and support among teachers, and that’s hard in the midst of high-stakes testing and the publishing of teacher and school rankings. The only way this will happen is if we’re honest.
I’ll go first . . .
In the fall, my high school English class created a social media campaign against modern day slavery. We created some fantastic photos & videos. But the truth is, in the end, not much came of them. Originally, we created a blog to house all of our work in, but if you take a look, not much is there. Why? The fancy academic phrase is cognitive overload; in short, they’d had enough.
The content was heavy and the work was hard. We’d had an initial meltdown in the inquiry process when we hit the October wall, but we were able to recover and keep going forward. By the end of October my students were at a place where they could start filming their videos. It took weeks to finish them. Going in, I don’t think they had any idea how hard it would be.
So what was the problem? It’s hard to deal with the issue of contemporary slavery for three months. And while my students are competent researchers and creators of content, the subject took an emotional toll. By the end, they didn’t want to hear the word slavery anymore. At first this kind of irked me. I thought, “Really, after all you’ve learned?” But the truth is, I’ve had this experience too. When I used to teach the Holocaust in a traditional classroom, I would spend weeks researching. By the end of the unit, I couldn’t handle any more death and destruction. It’s like a part of you shuts down because you just can’t manage the emotional load. I could empathize with my students; I knew what they were feeling.
I asked each of them to write a post about their experience with the slavery unit. It didn’t happen. I could have threatened them with bad marks, or coerced them, or even laid on a guilt trip. But the truth is, they had nothing left to give. They had learned and been pushed to the limit: they had nothing else to offer. In all of my years of teaching, I don’t think I’ve had a unit produce that effect before.
I don’t know the fix
And here’s the thing. I have no idea how to fix it. I have no idea how to scaffold and support my students so that they don’t experience this overload in the future. And maybe that’s not even possible. I don’t know. It’s a failure, for the moment, that remains an enigma.
More recently, as part of an assignment for The Secret Life of Bees, my students were to create a museum box. The concept looked amazing. The problem? It didn’t work amazingly. My students kept losing pictures, audio and video they had embedded. Some of them tried for hours. I received frantic emails. The end result? We ditched the assignment. Why? Because my students were able to critically evaluate the tool for its usefulness and usability, and it came up short. And maybe that’s more important. But in the end the assignment, as conceived, was a failure.
Yet, it’s this failure, along with hundreds of others, that inspires me to learn more. When things fall apart it makes me think, “Why did that happen?” “How can I change it?” And I dive into the research to find or cobble together a working thesis that I test.
While some great things have happened in my classroom, the truth is that I have failed over and over again in my teaching. And that’s where the great things come from.
Creative Commons images: Pretty/Ugly Design and Comicbase
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Thanks for this post. I just posted a response to another blog about what makes a bold teacher and I talked about this very thing. When we try to give our kids ownership of their learning and we allow ourselves to relinquish some of the micro-managed control we run a huge risk. There will be epic failures, but also tremendous breakthroughs.
When I typed it up, I was a little afraid to post it. I was wondering if I was just saying that because it’s what I aspire to. I was also wondering if I was alone in feeling that way. What if other people are trying this and not having the epic failures. It’s nice to know someone else is contemplating the same issues and forging ahead with conviction.
I think sometimes the tremendous breakthroughs are because of the epic failures. I find that I don’t usually stop to think through why something went really well. But failure always causes me to stop and evaluate a situation, and then apply my learning.
Not all ‘failures’ require fixing. In fact, few actually do.
Agree. At times, my students and I discuss what happened, learn from it, and move on.
We’ve all experienced units like this, and part of the learning process includes ending a project mid-stream and moving forward. The process of getting to the stopping point including lots of learning and the stopping point itself is a learning decision. Starting a project with a meaningful, student-created vision of the end product/outcome helps, then revising along the way. Thanks for sharing this post. I’m in the midst of one of those projects with my students right now, and I’m wondering what it will look like when we reach the end point.
Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for sharing this. I always try to encourage my students to embrace failure, but I’m scared of it myself. Sadly, I’m not afraid of it for personal reasons but for professional. As you mentioned, this environment of high-stakes testing cultivates fear. Next time I’m tempted to succumb to it, I’ll re-read your post!
Thanks, Fawn. It’s hard to be in one of the few professions where it seems, quite often, that we’re expected to be perfect. It’s impossible!
I think education will be a whole lot better when we begin to foster a culture of honesty & acceptance, then we can collaborate, instead of compete, and begin to deal with what really matters.
I love this post– thank you, Shelley. The blog I just started writing is based on just this principle– that we cannot learn without taking risks and that we need to model and share the risks we take, as well as the failures.
I remember reading a post by you about this project and was so impressed with the work you were doing. I am only more impressed to hear you share where things landed, and your reflections on why.
I have found myself in the same situation as your students. A number of years ago, I was running simultaneous projects around the Feb 2002 Gujarat violence and the Rwandan genocide. Part of the process is immersion– to understand, at the deepest human level, the experiences of the victims and the motivation of the oppressor. But, as human beings, I think we will always hit a point with these issues where we must turn around and take a break. That you recognized when your students hit that wall, and gave them the opportunity to shift gears, was both insightful and brave.
I am interested in how you wrapped up the unit. So often, we need “a grade” to round out a unit or a marking period. Your post indicates that it just … faded out… am I understanding this correctly? Or were there other pieces (possibly part of the process?) that demonstrated engagement and tied things up? Will you return to this later in the year and have them process at another time?
That’s a really good question. We wrapped up the unit once our projects (pictures, videos, paintings) were complete. There were marks for the projects that were completed, as well as student reflections up to that point. Once I realized my students were completely overloaded, I left it for a bit, actually, almost 6 weeks.
Then I had them write a reflection on the entire process. What they learned, what they enjoyed, what was difficult, and the things they would change. I found what they wrote increbily insightful, and this is how I learn what needs to be changed. Sometimes distance provides the clarity we need. I’ll likely blog about their responses in the near future.
Even though they found the process incredibly difficult, most of them were changed because of it, and would do it again. They found out they had talents that were unknown to them, and more importantly, many began to care about something much larger to themselves.
For me, failure is always an important part of learning. I remember something I heard in a webinar … FAIL = First Attempt in Learning. We fail and we learn. We suceed and we learn. A baby falls hundreds of times before it get its “sea legs”. The amazing thing about your post is that you are transparent in your journey to failure. It also helps the new teachers with our honesty that my teaching style was NOT born in a day and that sometimes failures can be good!
Thanks again for your reflection!
Shelley, excellent post, however, I have a really hard time calling something a failure when learning has taken place. The successes are just different from the intended ones. When I taught in a PBL classroom and challenged students with a lot of difficult problems and scenarios, we always ended their two years with us with a big debriefing session. What became predictable was the selection by the students of the challenge where they learned the most. Invariably it would be the one where they didn’t meet their own expectations, fell short, or fell apart during the presentations! Over time, students had recalibrated their assessment of experience from one that was fixated on success to one that was focused on learning. Failure to me is when nothing of value is learned.
Thx for the post. We can’t elevate failure enough. This is especially true in math classes and especially in ‘saving face’ Thailand where I’m now teaching. A couple of years ago I experimented with a unit and made several “mistakes” in order and anticipation of student response. Result? Unit took about 1-2 weeks longer. One student was bored and this came out when I hadn’t finished the curriculum. Sometimes there is a public cost – yet no one said anything per se….
As to your post and comment that the students were overwhelmed at the end of a unit – “nothing left to give”, I’m wondering if they could have reflected orally about how they felt. Somehow getting the feelings out. It might be that overwhelm happens when feelings pile up with no outlet.
Like— How does it feel to read about this stuff…. Just a wondering…