Failure Is an Option

Working with students outside of a graded classroom is very satisfying for many reasons.  One reason in particular is that I get to allow my students to fail, and they don't consider it failure. Failure is such an ugly word.  It conjures up images of an ugly red "F" on a test, of losing the race, of being ridiculed.  But, as is being confirmed by psychologists and educators, failure is really the only way we learn!  We have to plan, try, fail, re-plan, tweak, revise, and get better slowly.

When my students fail at a task, there is no ugly red mark, no animosity on my part, and no emotional panic on theirs.  When my students fail at a challenge I pose to them, it's an opportunity.  I can get creative and figure out a new way to present the concept so that the student understands better.   I can devise a different activity or assignment so that the student can practice smaller chunks of the concept at a time.  We can look at examples and samples so that the student can pick out what works (and what doesn't work!) in an "ego-neutral" setting.

In many classrooms, students are asked to apply complex concepts of literature and writing directly to books and essay topics they must also work hard to understand or plan.  If there is time, they may see one example, although in the case of writing, examples are few and far between because of the constant fear of plagiarism.  Students are then expected to pack all of their analysis, comprehension, the new concepts, and any previously-learned concepts into one stellar assignment that succeeds the first time.  If they don't perfectly apply 60% of the concepts at play, they fail.

To learn, students (and everyone!) must be given several opportunities to complete tasks and demonstrate mastery of concepts.  In math, they aren't asked to complete only one problem in order to establish their understanding of the concept.  And before the test, there have no doubt been homework assignments and a quiz or two so that both students and teachers can see where the disconnects are happening - what needs to be re-explained, re-learned, and drilled.  The analogous assignment in math to writing an essay is taking a combined final and unit test, where the final covers all the math you have ever learned, even in previous years, and also any math you "should" have learned up to this point, but that may not have been on the curriculum.  You can't forget how to divide fractions, but you also have to decide whether to use factoring or the quadratic formula to solve equations.

It's an unfortunate fact that in many classrooms, there isn't the time for enough small literature and writing assignments to allow students to learn in increments, and to fail at the first several attempts while still having the opportunity to demonstrate mastery.

This is where I'm spoiled: I have the time to work with students on smaller parts of the writing process and on one aspect of literature analysis at a time.  They can get halfway through an outline and scrap it because it doesn't make sense.  They can re-brainstorm, re-outline, re-write, re-edit, and all the while, discuss what they don't understand.  My students get many chances to fail!  They practice skills separately.  They see a lesson plan divided into different skills, even if on the same novel or essay topic.  So, when they have written and revised a complete essay, they know it is the result of many smaller skills that came together - some more successfully than others.  They get to see that the end product was achieved through the completion of many small tasks.  And even then, they may assess their work and say that they think the structure is strong but the transitions could be more interesting.  Their failure - if it exists - is not huge, and it is balanced by several successes!

Remember that old adage, If at first you don't succeed, try, try again?  Let's give our students the chance to try again, to learn from their mistakes, and to realize that "failure" is not the end of the world.  If your student is consistently bringing home poor grades in writing, look beyond the grade.  Is there improvement in any area?  Perhaps the spelling is atrocious, but your student used a new vocabulary word.  Maybe amid all the disorganized information there is one really astute observation.

Writing does not improve all at once!  It takes patience, and your student may have to face some very real failures in terms of percentages and letter grades.  But you can help to point out the small improvements that happen over time.  Look at rubrics and teacher comments and find and acknowledge the areas where your student is gaining strength and understanding.  As much as we all yearn for that "A" paper, we will only get it if all the pieces fall into place at exactly the same time!  You can model for your student that you are proud of the individual areas of improvement.  ("Hey, last time you got a 3 for mechanics, and this time you got a 5!")  In this way, you can also help your student prioritize and plan.  Which area will he or she need to address in order to raise performance over all?  Are there areas of uncertainty? What resources are available for improvement?  What does the teacher want to see as proof of mastery?

By making failure an option, you are not lowering your expectations for your student.  Instead, you are providing the necessary space for trial and error.  You are encouraging your student to put his or her best effort into work by taking away the fear of not being perfect (or 80-90% perfect). You are showing your faith in your student, and you are ultimately helping him or her to learn the most important lesson of all: let teachers see what you don't understand so that they can help you learn it!