For this post, I'm reposting an edited version of Kate Roberts' and Maggie Beattie Roberts' recent post from their blog, Indent. I think it captures the spirit of risk-taking in self-selected challenges that many of us may have been afraid to try in recent years.
In the essay “Failure is a Good Thing,” columnist Jon Carroll writes that every week, he knows that no matter what, one of his columns will be the worst one of the week. He says that while he used to try and avoid this each day, now he looks forward to it:
I have learned to cherish that column. A successful column usually means that I am treading on familiar ground, going with the tricks that work, preaching to the choir or dressing up popular sentiments in fancy words. Often in my inferior columns, I am trying to pull off something I’ve never done before, something I’m not even sure can be done.
We can think of our lessons and units in a similar way – that only by trying new things, by venturing out into uncharted territory, will we discover ourselves and our students as teachers and learners.
Of course, it is difficult these days to embrace imperfection. We are in the age of teacher evaluations and multi-faceted performance assessments. While these new initiatives offer insight into what makes good teaching, it is equally true that our current climate does not lend itself to a spirit of “hey you guys, let’s mess up a lot!” But without this spirit, we will be in a choke hold. We will hang back. And if we hang back, it often means our students’ needs are not met. Hanging back means we don’t get better; we stay scared longer. Hanging back means we plague ourselves with doubt or guilt.
Here are some ways to get started looking for the imperfect places in our teaching to dive into this year:
1. Pick a unit/topic/issue/text you have always wanted to teach but aren’t sure how:
Do you love graphic novels? Teach your kids how to write them! Frustrated by the lack of poetry in the CCSS? Teach the heck out of poetry, knowing that the skills found there will certainly be used elsewhere. Thinking that now is an essential time to teach your kids about the forces at play in places like Ferguson, MO? Dive in and try to do it right, knowing that even if you are clumsy now, you will teach it better next time.
2. Try out a new “thing”
Maybe it’s a new device, like using your iPad to track student conferences (try Evernote App for your notes), or maybe you’d like to start a class blog. Or you were at a workshop where someone shared how their students made movies to go along with the stories they wrote and you thought, “my class would love that!” Take this year to play with a new whatchamacallit.
3. Take on an impossible challenge
You may have notices a few gauntlets that have been thrown down in education. The standards ask us to help our students
reach great heights. High-stakes testing asks students to do challenging tasks on demand. Then there are the challenges we have always faced – our students who read far below grade level, our students who feel unconnected to school. One way to dive into imperfection is to take on something that you may not be able to accomplish, but feel would help your students succeed.
Do a full court press this year on a challenge you believe in and see what happens. Educator Lucy Calkins suggests that teachers choose one child and decide to change that child's life this year. Yes, more would be better, but if we do everything we can for one of our students, while still doing a great job with the rest, we can make a huge difference.
4. Invite people to watch you teach (and vice versa)
Of course, the ultimate test of our desire to find areas of imperfection in our work is to work publicly. Teaching in front of colleagues is the heart of our work, learning from each other, seeing what works, brainstorming solutions to tricky bits, leaning on each others’ expertise. Set up some classroom visits this year with people you like (or are intimidated by). Practice with each other and be sure to have fun.
5. Learn how to frame your failures
The thing about inviting imperfection into your life is that you are going to have to develop a good, healthy relationship with failure. You have a choice to make. Do you treat the chaos around you as a bad thing, something to be ashamed of, and apologize to the group in nervous tones? Or do you smile broadly and say, “Welcome! I’m so glad you are here – we are working on our debate skills. Today we focused on being sure to debate with passion and a sense of the counterargument. Clearly, we need to work tomorrow on a structure for our conversation. Any tips?” This ability to frame any imperfection against the goals you are aiming for allows you to name what your focus is, while allowing room for growth.
With any challenge, self-selected or not, it's important to have appropriate support. The Office of Teaching and Learning strives to support you in your work with your students. We welcome your calls:
Sheryl Lipski, Director: ext. 3918
Cindy Bauer, support for language learners, migrant & homeless students, TAG, ext. 3959
Joan Flora, support for literacy & instruction, ext, 3919
Cathy Lambeth, support for mathematics & instruction, ext. 3917
Happy New School Year!