Making the Grade: Failing better
January 21, 2004
Noise makers, funny hats, and confetti should greet each day in an elementary school classroom. After all, commencing in September, elementary school classrooms celebrate a version of New Year’s Day 180 times a year. You’d think children would be certifiable party animals by the time January rolled around. For them,the sense of a new beginning happens every weekday morning at 8 A.M.
Now that it’s January, resolutions have been flying around like snow flakes in a blizzard. I can anticipate seeing some of the same ones on my student’s lists every year: learn the times tables faster, remember to indent when beginning a new paragraph, ask a question when you don't understand something, get better at kickball.
Speaking of repeat performances, getting to work ten minutes earlier, writing every single day, reading more fiction, and being on time for meetings are resolutions which have been on my list for more years than my fourth graders have been on the planet.
Have you ever made a resolution that hasn’t been a competition between you and your will power or ability? By definition, we resolve to do something we haven’t mastered yet. Samuel Beckett’s quote could be a perfect resolution for my fourth graders and me. “Try. Fail. Try again. Fail better.”
Classrooms are the first place we learn to manage failure on a regular basis. For any but the geniuses among us, failing is an inherent part of learning. Once a student succeeds at a task, what’s the reward? Harder books, harder questions, and inevitable failures small and large as a kid struggles to get some traction on the slippery slope of learning.
I remember sitting in one of six rows of fixed wooden desks, with a hole for an inkwell in the right hand corner, learning my times tables, and thinking I’d never remember the difference between 7x9 and 8x7. That was after I’d struggled to learn how to “borrow” in subtraction.
On and on it went, long division, fractions, algebra, trigonometry, physics. Each time I successfully grasped one skill, I was introduced to another one that seemed intractable.
There were many days where I felt like Sisyphus, the legendary Greek doomed for eternity to push a block of stone up a steep hill only to have it perpetually roll down to the base just as he reaches the top. I remember my teacher’s mysterious faith and optimism that sooner or later I’d succeed in perching my long division rock on the summit, where I could see that I was accumulating enough of them to make a reasonable foundation for my castle of knowledge. With the notable exception of the unmovable rock of physics, being persistent, ignoring the voice of my inner pessimist, and listening to the cheers from some of my teachers kept me from wanting to run away and join the circus, where kids probably wouldn’t have to write compositions or answer questions about velocity and mass.
Failing, trying again, and failing better are all in abundant evidence these days as my students push long division up the hill. Every day in December, we began at the bottom of the hill. For days, few even got above the tree line. I wouldn’t be surprised if their grunts and groans could be heard every morning a few blocks away in Brookline Village. During the climb, they were using some of the rocks they’d already firmly laid on top of their hills, subtraction and multiplication. But division was so elusive. At the chalk board, then hovering around their work tables, I was a one-man cheering section, expedition director, and fact checker. Yodels of “Is this what I do now?” “What do I do next?” “ This is soooooo hard!” echoed through the classroom valley. But each day, the trekkers got a little closer to the cloud shrouded peak, slowly realizing that each failure got them a step further up the hill. One by one, they planted their little flags beside their rocks at their summits and admired the view of the trail below.
Before I asked my students to compile their New Year’s resolutions for school, I had them list the academic and social skills they’d already pushed to the tops of their own mountains. For every one of those successes, I asked them to recall the failure or uncertainty that preceded it. The lists revealed that they’d scaled some pretty impressive peaks. You can bet that I’m going to remind them of this list when we enter the valley of fractions next month. By the time June rolls around (no pun intended) we’ll all have added another story to our castles on the hill. And the knowledge that we learned to “fail better”.
Paul Tamburello is a writer and teacher who has taught in Brookline since 1970.