If there’s one thing we need to teach our students, it’s how to make use of failure.
For the final instalment in my series celebrating seven years of blogging here at Classroom as Microcosm, I give you my most shared post ever. This response to Paul Tough’s article “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” (a precursor to his wonderful and deservedly celebrated book How Children Succeed) was chosen by WordPress as a “Freshly Pressed” feature and attracted 246 insightful comments and exchanges.
It’s also my favourite post, one I return to over and over to remind myself that when my students are panicking, the best thing I can say to them is, “You can’t do it? That’s fine. Do it anyway.”
(I might also show them this, because it is awesome.)
Last week, my students were preparing for their first in-class essay, and they were freaking out.
We’re writing commentaries. In a commentary, you read a short text you haven’t seen before and then comment on the themes or effects that the author has produced, and explain how he/she has produced them. Commentaries are hard, but we’ve been working on them for weeks now, and they’re mostly getting the hang of it. Now that they know they’ll be graded, though, they’re panicking.
In one class, a handful sat paralyzed during our final exercise, unable to write anything at all on their paper. I visited each of them periodically, asking them probing questions and nudging them to put something, anything, down. They scratched a few notes, then stared at the page, their faces immobilized.
“Is this ok?” Octavia asked me repeatedly. “Does my thesis statement make sense? If I want to talk about the point of view, can I do that? What should I say?”
“Just write it down,” I said. “We’ll discuss in a few minutes. Just write it down.”
At the end of the practice class, I asked all the students to share what they had come up with, and some seemed to have a handle on things. Others who’d been floundering looked more and more relieved as I wrote thesis after thesis on the board and said, “Yes, this is what you’re after! Please explain! You see, it’s not easy, but with a bit of thought, you can get started.”
I went directly to my other section of the same course, and there, things went south much more quickly and noisily.
I asked them to do the same individual exercise, to be discussed together at the end of class. It was clear that a number of them had no idea where to begin. For a few, this wasn’t surprising: they’d missed classes and previous practice essays and were only now realizing that it was catching up with them. Nevertheless, the instructions were clear, they had a rubric with all of the criteria in front of them, and EVERY SINGLE CLASS SO FAR THIS SEMESTER has been preparation for this essay.
Some students were working diligently away, but most, after a cursory reading of the assigned text and a few moments of simmering silence, began talking to their neighbours. They were on task – they were asking for help, comparing notes, all things that would normally be par for the class. But the noise was growing louder, and the purpose of this exercise was to do the work alone.
I reminded them of this. “Next class, you have to write this essay by yourself. Your neighbour can’t help you. Why aren’t you taking advantage of the practice time right now?”
The grumbles began. “Miss, can we have, like, a five minute discussion after we get the text next class, so we can share our thoughts?”
“But miss, it’s hard!”
“Of course it’s hard!” I cried. “If it were easy, there’d be no reason to study it in school!”
But I paused. Something was happening here that I wasn’t acknowledging. What was it? I let them buzz a little longer, and then I marched to the front of the room.
“Listen to me,” I said. They stopped talking.
“I am VERY CONCERNED,” I said. “But it’s not because I don’t think you can do this. I’m concerned because YOU don’t think you can do it. You’re panicking and throwing your hands in the air and not even trying.”
“We’re like the girl in the passage!” Jamila piped up. “She can’t do what she wants, so she just gives up doing anything!”
“You see?” I said. “Jamila and I have been talking for twenty minutes and she’s been saying she doesn’t understand. But see? She understands SOMETHING.”
“But it’s not enough, miss,” Jamila said. “What else am I supposed to say?”
“Listen to me,” I said. “I guarantee you, if you come in next class believing you can’t do it, you won’t be able to do it.”
“Guaranteed!” Zack nodded and pointed through the air at me in a “sing it, sister” gesture.
“But you can do SOMETHING, if you stop worrying about doing it wrong. If you sit there for two hours and write a bunch of notes and come up with a thesis statement or a literary device or anything, you’ll get any points I can give you. Then, when you take it home later to revise, you’ll have something to start the next draft with. You might fail this essay. But if you fail the essay, THE WORLD WILL NOT END.”
Zack raised his hands to the sky. “Thank you miss!” he yelled. “I need to hear that. I do.”
“Just do it. Even if you think your ideas are ridiculous, just write them down. If the draft you do in class doesn’t make any sense, we’ll work on it, and you’ll do it again at home, and maybe next time it will be better. Honestly, guys, if you get out of college not knowing how to write a perfect literary commentary, it’s not a big deal. But if you get out of college knowing that now you can sit with a random text for a couple of hours and come up with some things to say about it, that will be an accomplishment.”
I let them go. I came home exhausted. My New York Sunday Times was still sitting on the table, untouched. I pulled out the Magazine, to discover, on the cover, Paul Tough’s essay “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” In it, he interviews teachers, principals and other educators who believe that “character” – variously defined – is a more important ingredient in long-term life success than academic smarts are.
Tough writes much of his article about the American KIPP schools, charter schools for students in difficulty. KIPP graduates an impressive number of its at-risk students, but followup studies have shown that these students don’t always thrive once they get to college, and a large number don’t complete their degrees. According to one of his subjects,
the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically [at the KIPP schools]; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead…
Another researcher tells him,
…learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.
Tough, reflecting on these observations, comments that
the struggle to pull yourself through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them — is exactly what is missing for so many students…
According to Tough and some of his subjects, the key ingredient is grit, the ability to persist in the face of obstacles and even failure.
GRIT! I thought. This is what I’ve been saying all along! If I can face down my limitations, if I can labour to be, not perfect, but better – I will be … happy? Is grit something we can learn? If so, how can we teach it?
Two days later, my students were still labouring to be perfect. In my first class, I had to visit Octavia several times. “STOP SECOND-GUESSING YOURSELF,” I told her.
“I know, miss,” she said. “I always do that, always. I don’t know how to stop.”
I don’t know how to help her stop, either. But after I whispered “WRITE IT DOWN” one more time, and walked away, she began writing things down. She filled a couple of pages. I haven’t read them yet, but those pages, regardless of what’s on them, are an achievement.
Teaching them how to write a commentary is all very well, but what is it for? Maybe the main thing is for is to help them practice grit: Yes, it’s hard. Just keep going. If you fail, fail as well as you can, and then try again.
We need to spend less time talking about literary techniques and more time talking about grit.
Image by shho