Friday, August 16, 2013

Failing Fast and Forward

As the Sandbox participants know, I [Tikvah Wiener] hopped on a plane to Israel right after the Summer Sandbox. However, I didn't stop thinking about the wonderful three days of big dreaming, hard fun, and iterative prototyping we'd done together, and I also continued to think more deeply about the many rich and meaty discussions we'd had about education and the practices we wanted to keep or change in our classrooms.

One thing Penina, Akiva, and I spoke about right after the conference, as we were loading up my car with leftover M and M's and the Keurig machine that had been so popular, was that we hadn't had time to have participants write on the Fail Wall we'd created. We'd failed to share our Fail Wall.

Now the reason for that was we'd decided to mimic a real inquiry-based classroom at the Sandbox, and so when participants showed a desire to go deeper into a topic that we'd allotted a specific amount of time for, we quickly adjusted the conference schedule so we could allow a longer discussion to take place.

We weren't sorry about that decision, and it confirms for us the idea that failure shouldn't be seen as a negative and demoralizing word but rather one that reflects a process on a journey toward accomplishment and greater self-awareness. We've had discussions about this in JEDLAB, where we've debated whether the word failure needs to be replaced with something else or whether we -- as educators in particular -- should use it, in order to de-stigmatize it.

So one of the things I boarded the plane contemplating -- aside from what kind of dinner ELAL was going to serve (pasta and meatballs at 2 AM, if anyone needs to know) -- was failure. And that idea was with me in Israel as I . . . learned to surf for the first time.

In Haifa, about to fail spectacularly at surfing!

Now I know the big question is: how did a California girl manage to avoid a surfing lesson for 43 years, and I have no easy answer to that, I'm afraid, but I will say it was a lot of hard fun and a good lesson in failure. While my nine-year-old daughter, five nieces and nephews, stepbrother, and sister all managed to get up on the board at least once if not multiple times, my brother-in-law and I didn't get up. Not once. (At least my brother-in-law has the excuse of being English; I grew up in LA, swimming non-stop.) Our utter lack of success didn't stop us from trying repeatedly, however, with my brother-in-law commenting, "You know, it wouldn't be so hard if the water would just stop moving underneath the board."

I ended up swallowing about half the Mediterranean, getting whacked in the jaw by my or someone else's board (I still can't be sure whose), and getting tossed about the sea like a piece of flotsam. I can't remember when I've had so much fun. And I can't help thinking how glad I am not to have succeeded. Putting myself in the position of inexperienced learner was great: the surfing teachers were constantly coming over to help me, desperately trying to make me get up at least once before the hour was over. But though I really wanted to stand on that board, I didn't mind in the end that I hadn't.

I think it was more important for me as teacher and lifelong learner that I could be open to a new experience, work hard to master a new skill even though I didn't succeed at it, and feel what it was like to struggle as a student. In fact, I hope all teachers spent part time of the summer trying something new and feeling the insecurity of failing.

I also don't think all my surfing efforts were in vain. I know the next time I try the sport, I'll be further along in the process than I'd be if I'd never attempted it.

My thoughts on failure took another turn as I worked on two articles over the course of my Israel vacation. One, for The Jewish Week, was about RealSchool and the Sandbox and can be found here. The other was one I wrote with JEDLAB colleague Andrea Cheatham Kaspar for RAVSAK's journal, Hayidion. About getting started with PBL, it will appear around Rosh Hashana time. I'm an English teacher, so I'm usually the one suggesting edits and tearing apart student papers, but when I handed in the articles, it was me being told where I had "failed" to convey an idea properly. It was Julie Wiener at The Jewish Week, and Elliot Rabin at Hayidion, as well as Andrea, pushing me to clarify, refine, and hone my thoughts. And again, it was really good to be put in my students' shoes -- not only to taste what "failure" felt like but to have a chance to improve and so rethink what failure means in the first place.

I don't much care whether we think up a new term for failure or simply re-imagine it. I just think we have to be comfortable as educators with being in positions of vulnerability, not only so that we ourselves grow as people but also so that we can empathize with students about their growth as learners.

That was confirmed for me again once I returned from Israel and met with Frisch English department colleague and Sandbox participant Daniel Rosen. As we procrastinated, I mean, took a much-needed break from planning our sophomore PBL year, we scrolled down his Facebook page and found this, posted by another Frisch colleague, Rabbi Neil Fleischmann:

'Nuff said. 


It's not too late! We can still post our summer failures, and now even those who didn't attend the Sandbox can join us. Feel free to post your summer failures: