Monday, December 8, 2014

Fortunate Failure

I'm taking up Jeremy Hyler's weekly NWP iAnthology prompt today:  "Share a lesson that failed, a student, a piece of writing, etc. Let's embrace failure this week." 

Flickr Creative Commons image by John Liu
With over a decade of teaching experience, I have a number of stories I could share. As I've heard other veteran teachers say, there are days when I wish that I could go back to those students I had my first few years of teaching and apologize. And, I have. I now call a couple of my former students colleagues. But so many of those students and those failures have shaped who I am in the classroom today. I wouldn't be where I am today without them.

In thinking about how a moment of failure shaped how I teach today, I remember Drew.  I had Drew in my honors tenth grade English class about seven years ago.  I was in my fifth year of teaching and had recently switched from teaching ninth grade English to tenth grade English. We were reading Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir Night when I asked students about how the memoir was applicable to modern times. Drew sighed and declared:
"What does it matter? Teenagers don't have power, anyway. We can't change anything."
In one of my very first blog posts, I reflected:
"I stood there gaping for a few moments, the class watching intently to see how I would respond. How could someone so young, just at the start of his journey, be so disenfranchised? How does someone at 16 years old lose all hope? What is it that this student and others in the class who agreed with him be so afraid of, be so demoralized by? Now I know in part that such a comment was meant to goad me; I’m obviously a teacher who believes that the individual can make a difference, can change the world; otherwise, I wouldn’t be a teacher. ...It is a sad day when our future leaders lose their idealism, a belief that they can make a difference, can change the world. What hope does that leave for any of us?"
I had failed Drew and his classmates. I was teaching a book to them. Students were not engaged in the content and ideas of our class because it was something I was doing to them. Learning was not in the hands of my students. It was not meaningful because I was not facilitating learning; I was dictating it. And along with many other failures that year, Drew's question helped to propel my teaching in new directions.

Just this past weekend, one of my friends and fellow Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project teachers Judy Jester shared a quote from her recent trip to Washington D.C. for the National Writing Project annual conference.  In reviewing the 40-year history of NWP, one of the sessions speakers made the distinction between directions and direction, which applies to my role as a writing teacher today: it is not our job to provide directions; instead, it is our role to provide direction.  Kylene Beers, former president of the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE), writes on a similar idea in her book Why Kids Can't Read, asking her readers to reflect on how much time we spend giving instructions rather than on effective instruction.  I first stumbled upon Beers' ideas not long after Drew posed his response to me. That initial failure lead to some critical reflection and revision on how I think about teaching and how I facilitate learning.

I needed that failure to reorient my thinking. In many ways, it was a rather fortunate failure.

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