Failing in order to Excel


“When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.”- Eloise Ristad

Picture this: It’s Friday night. Your biological children have finally (finally!) gone to sleep. You curl up on the couch in your sweatpants, clutching a glass of wine and a mound of cookies, and prepare to binge-watch Netflix while grading a pile of quizzes you gave to your school children that week.

One of two things is going to happen. One, all of your students will perform beautifully on the assessment, you fly through them in an hour tops, and that glass of wine happily turns into a bottle while Walter White’s downfall comes to full fruition on your screen.

Or two, all of your students clearly stuffed their ears with wax and wore blindfolds all week while you apparently taught yourself how to (fill in content skill here), and that mound of cookies becomes two boxes while Walter White tempts you with some viable options for leaving the profession because you are clearly terrible at teaching. Either way, you wake up Saturday morning with a bloated stomach, a pounding headache, and the illusion that your students either absolutely “get it” or have miserably failed. No wonder Monday mornings come as such a shock.

I have found myself in the previous situation more times than I would like to admit. If I think my students get it and we move on, I am shocked and frustrated weeks down the road when I ask them to complete the same task in a different way and they look at me like I have three heads. If I think they don’t get it at all, and I spend the next two weeks banging them over the head with it, they resent me and I get really, really bored.

Recently, after beginning a unit on the power of storytelling created by myself, my teaching partner, and my colleagues in the Next Generation Instructional Design cohort, I slipped into sweatpants and curled up with the stack of pre-assessments we created on analyzing a text for narrative techniques using Alice Walker’s “The Flowers”. I felt pretty good about those assessments. After reviewing them, I came to the conclusion that most of my students understood what the narrative techniques were and were fairly proficient at explaining how an author might use them. I generally received answers like this:

  • Term: Details/description, Explanation: It describes the location and the feel of the area where she is walking. It also shows what she thinks and feels about the environment.
  • Term: Point of view, Explanation: Third person singular point of view of the protagonist, allowing the audience to know what she’s thinking but not from her own point of view.
  • Term: Foreshadowing, Explanation: This paragraph illustrates a bit of a foreboding feeling contrasted with the whimsical air of the previous ones.

For the most part, many of the answers from all of my students resembled the ones above. These answers seemed to prove that my students knew what the terms meant and had a working knowledge of how the techniques might function in a text. Granted, it was a pre-assessment, but I thought, “Hey, they get it! We can skip all of that early foundational stuff and get right to it.”

But I happened to be ahead of my collaborating partner at this point in the unit, so I decided to slow down just a bit and let the students get outside in the fresh air and do something creative. So on Monday morning, I asked them to work in groups and use their cellphones to create a “pop up video” film of the story we read. The assignment required them to use their body language, tone of voice, and annotations in the form of pop ups on the screen to illustrate the author’s use of narrative techniques in the story. We had a pleasant day outside. I wandered around from group to group as they took their films very seriously, filming near the brush and creek behind the school building to create the correct mood and scenery for the story. I felt awesome—my kids got it, and we got a nice day outside for them to create.

Until I started watching the videos. As I watched film after film I realized that they had absolutely no idea what the techniques were and why an author would use them. How could I have been so wrong? The paper assessment had told such a different story.

I felt so defeated. We would have to start from the beginning. I would have to drill them with academic vocabulary. We would need to read at least three more stories before we could even start the official unit, just to focus on basic literary analysis. I was not looking forward to it.

But then it occurred to me: They have been learning these terms since sixth grade at least, and they probably learned them year after year in exactly the same way–the basic, rote learning style that I was gearing up to launch. The way all of us teachers feel like we have to teach in order to make anything stick. But they clearly knew how to provide a term, give a generic explanation, and pass a quiz. They knew that because they had done it for most of their academic career, and they may not know the answer, but they do know how to “do school”.

But what they had probably never done, was recreate a story and “annotate” it in live action form. When I gave them control of telling the story in the way they had read it, I learned so much more about what they actually understood.

There is a pivotal scene near the end of the story when the main character steps on a skull and discovers a frayed noose lying beside it. This scene is essential to understanding the story, and many of the students told me that they didn’t even realize what had happened until they made the films. And although many of the annotations were completely wrong, with explanations that made little to no sense, it obviously wasn’t that they didn’t know the terms or couldn’t explain them. It was simply that few people had ever asked them to bring those terms to life.

When the complexity of the task changed, their understanding of the story and the narrative techniques needed to deepen.

And although I was frustrated when I first watched the videos, my frustration virtually disappeared when I started laughing at their silliness, or gaped in awe at the length with which these students went to create a beautiful film. If I had noticed these issues from the pre-assessment while sitting on my couch at home, I would have only seen one picture—my students’ failures. But because I gave them an opportunity to create, I noticed much more than the fact that they didn’t get it. I saw their strengths too.

I saw the power of letting students take control of how they learn, and of how they fail. And I felt like less of a failure for it.



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