Sharing the Fails - Half-Baked Ideas that Don’t Pan Out

This week’s post comes from a quote in Tisha Richmond’s book, Make Learning Magical: “Let’s share our wins as well as our fails.”  That quote really resonated with me because I was always afraid to talk about my classroom.  Sure I felt I had some cool lessons and ideas, but I never felt confident sharing them with the world or even some of my colleagues.  Every time we had to share lessons during professional development, I would always fall back on a couple of tried and true activities that I had used in class so many times that I could do them in my sleep.  They weren’t super exciting or innovative, but I knew they worked and I wouldn’t get laughed at for suggesting something crazy or get told why it failed. For me, that has always been my biggest fear: Being mocked, laughed at, or worse, simply failing.  

As a gamer, I was the kid who hit the reset button A LOT!  I rationalized it, saying “The computer cheated! I hit JUMP!” Words I’m certain any true 8 bit Nintendo player has uttered countless times.  Failure was not acceptable to me. I know I’ve said it to students and my players before that “failure is not an option!” I know they will make mistakes, they’re teenagers, but I felt I had to be demanding in order to set high expectations.  I rarely valued the effort and risk-taking that came with great learning, and often would direct students to simpler, less-risky project ideas (or worse, gave them a “recipe” to follow) to prevent their possible failure, and in turn, me being seen as a failing teacher.  It made me hard to relate to for my students, and as a result I was seen as the tough, hard-nosed teacher who doesn’t have fun in class.

I still live with this fear.  Fear of failing. Fear of being “found out.” (Side note: I discovered there is a term for this phenomenon: Imposter Syndrome.)  It seems ridiculous, but whenever I have one of my “half-baked ideas” I always worry that this will be “the moment” when everyone discovers I’m not that good at this whole teaching thing.  As a result, my ideas usually spend days rattling around my head and are usually walked quite a ways down the path, searching for pitfalls and traps that will lead to failure, but I’m more willing to embrace a risk now, even when I don’t see it as much of a risk.

Which brings me to point of this post.  Last post, I talked about student agency, voice, and choice and mentioned my National Parks project having to be scrapped.  The original idea was that students would research important natural and human historical sites in various regions of the US and construct arguments for their preservation.  Simply put, there was not enough work for all members of the groups, and it became a tedious exercise in research and entering information into a database. Talk about a BORING activity and not at all a true “learning experience.”  I wanted my students to enjoy and discover my passion for the natural and human history of this country, and this didn’t cut it. So we revised, the new project was designing a museum for their region that would provide guests with an experience of the natural world while also incorporating the history of the nation in that region.  The first round through, students were doing great work designing layouts for museums, researching ways to present historic sites and include nature in their exhibits. They presented to another small group about their projects and the plan was to get feedback and support from each group at the end of each unit. Then, QUICKSAND! I had fallen into “the trap” of not scouting ahead and seeing what might happen at semester.  I had simply assumed that everyone would remain in the same hour and we could just keep right on down the trail. Nope, about 12% of my students would be switching hours, which meant switching groups, and being locked into a project that they weren’t passionate about. In a word: FAILURE!

So we punted it, leaving it as a Fortune and Glory Quest (sidequest in my gamified world) for those that wished to work on it on their own time and schedule. Which, of course, lead to another pitfall: Time.  I soon realized that I had planned the end of the semester thinking they would be working on this National Parks project on Fridays, which would sync up perfectly with the end of the year, as students finished content-related work as well.  Now they didn’t have enough time to complete a new activity, but too much for what we still had left. Anyone who has taught middle schoolers knows this is a dreaded conundrum. My best solution was to adapt a Google Doc into a Google Slide activity and do a quick tutorial on #BookSnaps by Tara Martin to see how the students responded.  To be honest, it’s not my best effort at planning and lesson design, and it’s left me really pushing kids to try Fortune & Glory Quests or revise their previous work to ensure that we have full “time on task” during class these last two days.

I still hate failure.  I’m better at learning from it now (though I will still hit the RESET button on video games every now and then), but it definitely makes me uncomfortable.  My new “half-baked” idea is Adventure Paths, allowing students to challenge themselves as they complete activities for each unit. It’s better, but not fully fleshed-out.  Which is how I plan to spend my Winter Break recharging, hoping to be far enough down the path to avoid the quicksand and traps, but still willing to take the risk that I might just stumble into another one.

Happy Holidays to everyone and thanks for following!

Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out two more of my wonderful colleagues: Josh Stock & Jordan Billings. Josh is an English teacher in Olathe who I finally got to meet in person last week!  He’s been a huge help in game-design and engaging students. His room transformation during their study of Peak, a young adult novel about climbing Everest is so cool!  Kids read for an hour straight in tents, while getting to drink hot chocolate or tea!  It is amazing to see a teacher get kids to love reading by repackaging it! You can follow Josh on Twitter @teachlikeaninja.  Jordan is a fellow social studies teacher who is a Classcraft Ambassador if you are looking for a more pre-packaged system for gamification.  He also has incorporated so many fun elements into his classes and his kids are creating some incredible work! He also joined Josh & I for a meetup to just talk gamification, and hopefully all three of us will get to present about the ideas at district PD soon! You can follow Jordan on Twitter @MrBillingsclass.