It was meant to be easy. It was meant to be epic. It was meant to show off what I thought I already knew; how my students had mastered everything there was to know about theme, evidence, and how to do a great presentation. Yet, a few presentations in on Tuesday, it was pretty clear that this was not epic but instead a massively big failure. And I got upset. After all, these kids have had 2 months to work on this as they have been in book clubs for that long. All I had asked them to do was choose their book, discuss and read at their pace, and in the end create a book talk in whichever format they chose. I gave them plenty of time and plenty of choice. What could be so hard about that?
While some rose to the occasion, most did not. Yet instead of assuming that I knew why this had turned so awful, I asked them what happened. A few in each class bravely raised their hands even though they knew I was upset…
“We weren’t sure what you exactly wanted…”
“We felt overwhelmed by how long we had to do it…”
“Our group didn’t work so well together so we got distracted…”
“We didn’t put in much effort…”
“We didn’t think you would get so upset…”
“We had other things to do…”
And they waited for my reaction, expecting me to get madder. Yet as I looked at my students, I couldn’t help but just be a little bit proud of their answers. Sure I was upset over all of the wasted time, how they hadn’t stepped up to my expectations. Yet here they were, class upon class, with the guts to tell me that they didn’t think it was important. That they didn’t think I would care as much as I did. That they pretty much dropped the ball and now had to face the consequences. And I realized in that moment, that this lesson wasn’t about theme, opinions, or even how to be a great speaker. It was about guts and failure; having the guts to embrace their failure, discuss it, and actually learn from it.
How often do our students actually tell us the truth when it comes to their own mistakes? I know we talk about modeling and embracing our failure, but do our students actually pick up on it and do it as well? Not often enough.
The next day, we watched Diana Laufenberg’s amazing TED talk on learning from failure. Not what I had planned but it was what we needed. My students loved her message; yes to learning from failure, yes to allowing students to fail, in fact, they got pretty passionate about it, started to argue why school doesn’t let them just fail so they can figure it out. I chuckled a bit and then reminded them; many had failed the day before. Here was their chance to show me everything they knew. To not let one presentation define them. Silence. Then it clicked. Not for all, but for many.
While I had huge dreams of of the great content that students would have shown me on Tuesday, I am now thankful they didn’t. They needed the freedom to fly and to fall. They needed the freedom to to not care, to push off, to procrastinate. Because I can preach about failure, I can preach about personal responsibility. I can even preach about letting them try and picking themselves up when they fall. Or they can experience it. We say we want kids to be afraid of failing and yet still try, yet how often do we have opportunities for just that? My students taught me again. It is because of them I want to keep trying to be a better teacher and that includes having lessons fail in the most epic way.
I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark, who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade. Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day. The second edition of my first book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” will be published by Routledge in the fall. Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press. Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.