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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