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I remember in my first year of teaching, I had this student named Dave who rarely said a word and never turned in work. He just sat quietly by himself the first part of his freshmen year of high school. I knew there had to be more to the story, but nothing I did made Dave want to let me in on his life. One day I was talking to another teacher about how frustrated I was trying to connect with Dave, and she told me, "Oh Trevor, don't stress about it, that kid is too far gone."
"He's too far gone."
Unfortunately, this was not the last time someone would say this exact line to me. Fortunately, I did not believe them.
About halfway through the year, we did a project in my class where Dave was given a chance to paint. And it turns out, in the broken home Dave grew up in, as well as the many different foster homes he spent time in, his favorite way to escape the pain and abuse was to draw. When I gave him a paintbrush to use for an English project, his world changed. A whole new side of him showed up, and he came alive in school for the first time.
And with Dave's new engagement in my class came a new attitude and outlook on the world. He started talking and even sharing about his life with me. When the project was over and Dave had to put away the paintbrush, the engagement was still there. It even carried over into other classes, and 5 years later- Dave is now in college defying all odds.
Some kids are really difficult, and at times, positive change seems hopeless. But time and again I see there is never a point at which a kid can't be reached. It's true, you cannot save every kid.
But you can love every one of them. You can make sure they all feel safe and cared for. You can call every student by their name when you shake their hands or give them high fives. And you can give every kid opportunities to create and use their talents.
And more often than not, when you do these things, lives change.
My class once did a project where the students used a set of content standards to create board games that would be played by kids at a local elementary school. Judging by the unique ideas and artistic creations, I thought my students had excellent pieces of work to present to their target audience- which was little kids. However, when we brought the games to a cafeteria at the nearby school to be played by the elementary students, it was a complete disaster.
The kids were bored of the games in a matter of minutes, and actually started begging their teachers to go back to class. I paced around the room trying to coax the children to engage in my students’ games, but it was all to no avail. These board games were not interesting to them, and so they would not play. Their boredom in this open space soon turned to pandemonium, and game pieces started flying across the room as the third graders grew more and more restless. Their teachers began yelling at them as the volume in the room rose higher. My students, untrained in how to deal with young kids, started yelling at them as well in their frustration for them to stop ruining their stuff.
Third graders began to cry. Some of my students began to cry.
The principal stomped through the cafeteria doors to ask one of the lead elementary teachers what all of the commotion was, and she immediately turned to me and said that this was not what she expected and asked if we could cut our time short
My students and I felt dejected. A month of hard work they put into creating these games felt wasted, and only served as a distraction for some third graders for about five minutes that morning. Being that we still had fifty minutes left of our planned field trip (remember, we got kicked out of the school), I took them outside to sit in the grass to talk about what just happened.
My sensitive students cried from the feeling of rejection. My emotional students were angry with the grade school kids for not giving their games a chance. Some students were mad at me for not preparing them more for this authentic presentation. And almost all of the students sat on the grass with nothing in their hands, as most of them stuffed their game boards in the trash cans on the way out of the cafeteria (I went back and fished them out later on).
I let it all air out on the lawn next to the elementary school parking lot. When they were done lamenting this experience, I asked them what they have learned so far from it. The first response was, “What do you mean learn from it? This sucks!”
“Yes I agree this was not fun. But what are we learning from it?”
After about a minute of silence, one student suggested that maybe the games we created were not suited for elementary students, and more for high schoolers. Another suggested that they perhaps should have introduced themselves to the students and “broke the ice” before they started playing the games. I suggested that I probably should have asked the elementary teachers what kind of games their students liked to play with before we started creating games for them.
The tension was releasing in that open space, and only twenty minutes after the event, the power of positive failure was starting to have an effect.
For the next project in my class, my students used a set of content standards to create lesson plans for college students to use. They were very aware of who their professional audience was, and ensured the products they created were tailored to them. When we went to present the project at a local college, my students brought coffee and cookies with them to the presentation to “break the ice” before the lessons. I contacted the professors and asked what their needs were.
My students and I learned from our failure. We did not let it live as a negative experience in the back of our minds the rest of that school year. Instead we embraced and viewed it as an instance where we tried to create something incredible and did not succeed. And that was okay, because this failure shaped us as learners and people, and did more to shape us as characters than an hour of third graders playing board games ever could have.
The key to innovation is vulnerability. Creativity and innovation always involves risk. Risk of failure. Risk of rejection. Risk of judgment. There is a potential for all of these to happen when something new is created.
This leaves the creator vulnerable.
But when vulnerability is embraced, and there is no shame in failure, students have a potential for brilliance. I was able to witness my students have brilliant achievements following that morning at the elementary school, which is why I am more than okay with the fact that we failed.