Things I Know 143 of 365: I failed Tuesday

Do or do not. There is no try.

– Master Yoda

I failed Tuesday.

Standing in front of a few hundred people, I failed.

As the setup to what I wanted as a teacher from “21st Century School Design” I had turned to what I knew – students.

Namely, I want school design to imagine places that inspire students to wonder and create.

To set the tone, I’d prepared the brief video below from my student Thea. She created it as her product for the Building History project.

I gave it a great introduction – explaining the project and the fact Thea chose to create a product I could have been absolutely no help on.

The last words before clicking play were probably something like, “It’s pretty amazing.”


Well, not exactly nothing. The sound accompanying the video was playing. Something was happening. If you watch the video, though, I think you’ll agree the sound wasn’t the most impressive bit.

I stopped the music.

“You’ve just seen me fail.”

Laughter from the audience.

“I knew I was going to fail at some point up here, I’m glad it happened so early.”

I meant it.

Walking up on the stage, I knew I’d packed music, photos, links and more into my presentation and that any of it could have failed. I’d created the possibility of failure as well as a space in my head where I would be fine with that failure.

The failure was actually more to the point of what I wanted to illustrate. I want school design to create spaces where both teachers and students are willing to try new things without the fear of failure.

Thea had been told to choose whatever medium she thought best for presenting her project. Both Diana and I told each of the students we wouldn’t be mandating a specific tool and wanted the students to have free reign.

We worked as diligently as we knew how to create a space where students knew we’d help them back up if something new they tried kicked them on their butts.

I left the high possibility of failure in Tuesday’s presentation because I worry teachers aren’t given that same space to play and learn.

It’s all well and good for the students to be lifelong learners, but it’s nothing we’d necessarily want for ourselves.

Even in the instances where teachers are ready to play with ideas and try new things, they often haven’t had the spaces prepared for them by colleagues and administrators that would give the experience the chance to progress from failure to learning.

If we’re programming students to play school and not simply play, its because we’ve done the same for generations of teachers.

If you want classroom where students are challenged to be critical thinkers, problem solvers and wizards of the ingenious, then we must create schools where teachers are trusted and expected to do the same.

Patrick Larkin wrote the other day that he wants his faculty to be willing to relinquish more control as they head toward a 1:1 laptop program. While I think Larkin is on the right track, many of the other principals and district leaders I’ve heard say this never take the question any deeper.

If they want teachers to relinquish control and stop fearing failure, are they also willing to relinquish control and remove some of the stressors leading to their teachers’ fears?

I made a conscious decision as I took the stage Tuesday that I would be fine with whatever failures came my way.

I was able to make that decision because I’ve had a string of principals who supported my instinct to play and a family who was offering their support long before that.

If we want our teachers to give students room to play, we must give our teachers that same room.

Things I Know 104 of 365: I learned outside

I went into the woods to live deliberately.

– Henry Davi Thoreau, Walden

I grew up surrounded by nature.

When I was younger, I’d go visit my grandparents and explore the farm that has been in my family since my ancestors settled in Illinois over 150 years ago.

When I entered fifth grade, we moved outside of Springfield and my postage stamp yard was suddenly 5 acres.

Many a shoe or shirt or pair of shorts was sacrificed to the mud I inexplicably fell into while playing in the creek that ran along our property line.

When I got back from South Africa last summer and was emotionally drained, I set out to the woods of New Hampshire and then Acadia National Park to remember who I was.

Tomorrow, two teachers, ten SLA juniors and I will make our way to Arizona and then Utah for camping and rafting down the San Juan River.

I cannot wait.

Last year, when the students saw the Grand Canyon for the first time, one commented, “I looks like a screen saver.”

I know I’m biased, but there’s immeasurable value in outdoor education.

Encouraging kids to recycle is much easier when they’ve experienced an environment beyond sidewalks and streetscapes.

Students will exist sans cell or iPod for a week. They’ll breathe air cleaner than they’ve ever experienced and they’ll get to know the planet.

Mr. Trueblood required all of his advanced biology students to curate leaf collections of at least 40 species of trees when I was in high school. Later in the year, we took a quiz requiring us to identify species of local birds. Walking through a park is a different experience for me still.

And, while I don’t imagine our students will return able to tell an oak from a maple or a starling from a sparrow, they will come back knowing they’re connected to a larger system.

They’ll experience beauty beyond any painting they could ever find in a museum. They’ll hike and raft and explore.

When they get back, what they’ve learned about themselves and the world will be akin to what I learned on the farm and in the creek. They’ll know mess and the beauty of nature.

It should be a part of every child’s education.