How are we supposed to have failures already?

It is our goal in innovations class to be learning through doing, well, through failing to be more specific.

In order to celebrate failures, we completed our own failure résumés, an idea from Tina Seelig’s What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. Here is how Tina explains it on her website.

I require my students to write a failure résumé. That is, to craft a résumé that summarizes all their biggest screw ups — personal, professional, and academic. For every failure, each student must describe what he or she learned from that experience. Just imagine the looks of surprise this assignment inspires in students who are so used to showcasing their successes.


So I did the noble thing and shared a few of my failures to the class:

In junior English my first year teaching high school, we tried genius hour. I thought of it as “vague Friday projects,” but that name didn’t seem to have much staying power. Unfortunately neither did the system. I did see some passion, and one group did something pretty awesome, but there was a lot of wasted time and many voicemails to the CEO of Monsanto about school lunches.

Lesson – students need time to explore their passions. High school students need more time than just one day per week in order to create something that lives up to their expectations.

I was convinced as a high school senior that there was no way I could possibly be happy staying anywhere near home. I also have procrastination issues, leading to a late admission into the University of Wisconsin. I was not able to get a place in the dorms, so I ended up in a private residence hall, a hotel-like building where everyone had their own friends, or at least that’s what I decided. I got homesick and transferred, but that campus, the city, and the college atmosphere is something I wish I would have been a part of longer.

Lesson – get out and do something. Meet people. It is ok to put yourself out there. People won’t think you’re a loser.

There are more, of course (not getting a job I applied for, underestimating an opponent as a basketball coach, not walking a girl home when I clearly should have), but you get the idea.

My students enjoyed my examples, but when it came time to write their own, I found lots of blank looks and weak statements. That’s when Grace spoke up:

But all of your failures happened while you were in college or later even. How are we supposed to have any failures when we’re still in high school.


Isn’t that the truth?

I paused for a second. Thought about what gave me the right to think they should do more than me. Then realized that if I don’t hope for more from my students, ask for more of my students, that I can’t expect them to go beyond what I did and learned. I had a high school career full of successes and absent of major failures. It’s no wonder why I took six and a half years to finish college. I’m not a doctor, by the way.

So I replied, “That’s exactly why we’re here. If we wait to fail until college or when you’re 25, or even later, it’s too late. Mistakes cost you even more when you’re older. If you choose a major and end up hating it, you don’t get a refund. We learn from our failures, and giving you the opportunity to fail in this class is the greatest gift I can give you. You won’t be punished for it; you’ll be rewarded with some of the best learning opportunities you can have before you graduate from high school. I want you to have goals that you don’t know for sure that you can reach, something that may seem out of reach, something that you care enough about that it doesn’t matter what happens because you know that you just have to try and see what happens. That’s why you’re in this class.”

That may not have been the exact quote, but in the film version of our class that is how it went.

Fail. Learn. Grow.

And as teachers, share your failures, show that it is ok to take risks, reflect on your failures, reward your students for doing the same.


Everyone’s masterpiece is different

Henry, my two-year-old son, loves cars, racing, and pretty much anything that involves throwing projectiles across the room. It was no surprise when he used his little brother’s Pack ‘n Play as a ramp for his Hot Wheels. One by one he shot them high into our bedroom wall with no regard for the paint on either the walls or the floorboards.

In order to spare our paint job, I suggested he might have fun racing them down the ramp instead of up, and, to my surprise, he loved the idea! He called out, “Marks…set…go!” and began flinging cars wildly towards the middle of the room. Hey, at least they stayed out of the air. That, my friends, is a parenting victory.

After the five-car race, Henry stood back, looked at the Hot Wheels strewn about the floor, surveying the landscape of destruction in front of him. With his hands on his hips, and his chin up high, he proudly exclaimed, “This is my masterpiece!” Or “massapiece” if you want to get technical.

A few thoughts crossed my mind: first, he sure is proud of a car race. Second, how often do I put my hands on my hips like that for him to be copying me, and do I actually look like that when I do? And third, is this what my students feel like when they do something new?

We ask our students to do new things all the time. We also ask our students to do the same things all the time. When we grade, we’re not making a distinction.

As human beings, it is natural to feel proud when we do something we never even thought about doing, things we didn’t even know we could do before we had been given a chance. It is easy to forget that, as a teacher, we have seen and done much more than our students in many cases.

Just over a week ago we held our first ever Human Rights Museum, an event open to fellow students, teachers, and the public. This project was in conjunction with a variety of books centered around the question, “How do we promote and protect human rights?” Students had a choice of novels: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, All American Boys, The Help, Just Mercy, Ghettoside, and The Hate U Give. We read of human rights issues across our country and the world and determined what we could do in order to create something to make our audience think. Students had to think big in order to create something original that got their point across. They worked to expand their creativity and many students said they got so far past their first idea and into ideas that they were extremely proud of.

There was no recipe, no rubric, no limits. We joked that this type of project would often lead to a large poster to be narrated by the creator, and I modeled the conversations that would likely happen if we didn’t push beyond our first ideas. What should we do? Hmmm… How about a poster? We could put pictures on it? I have a color printer at home! We could title them with cool writing. I love to write! Lets do it! Poster!!

Why do students get so excited about a poster? Because they know it works. It’s a thing that happens in school. It’s safe, easy to do, correct.

Fear of living without a map is the main reason people are so insistent that we tell them what to do.

– Seth Godin, Linchpin

But students can do so much more if they are challenged, supported, and given permission to do great things. And we owe it to students to help them build those skills.

The problem comes when we begin to assess things like this. Skills. Real-life, important skills: thinking times ten, considering and communicating with an audience, being creative, and working cooperatively with a group are important skills we worked on.

One group had to call a bus company in order to get a bus seat that could be painted to demonstrate Rosa Parks’s courage and how people still show courage like that today. The hardest part? Making the phone call, real-life skill.


One group member arranged meetings with five people at a local coffee shop where she photographed them in front of a blank wall with stereotypes and harsh words projected around them. This student came back to show me the pictures, and we talked about certain phrases and what they would do or not do to her audience. She revised a few and took a few new photos. Considering an audience and revising her work, a real-life skill.


I am like many other teachers in that I hate grading. Feedback during a project, I love it. Conferencing with students, absolutely. These actions give students something they can do right now. Grading feels so final. So judgmental.

So when Miss Lewis, the English teacher who worked on the museum with our class, came to me to ask about grading these projects, it was a difficult conversation filled with back and forths. This project had so much effort put into it. These girls were here for hours after school. Even though it might have been the most creative, it was way more creative than they thought they could be.

So how do we grade things that are creative? How do we grade things students have never imagined they could do before they started this process? And maybe, just maybe, why do we even grade anyways?

In our Human Rights Museum, we had goals of building teamwork, leadership, creativity, and initiative. Those are tough to score on a rubric, and that is why they are so important to be taught!

So when a group of students came up with all kinds of ideas way beyond what they thought they could, but they still just have a poster, what does that mean? When a group gets the viewer to think about their best and worst features as they look in a mirror, then go to the reverse side of the poster board to see, “No matter if you’re short, tall, fat, skinny, pretty, or ugly, anyone can be sold into sex trafficking,” what does that mean? How do we grade them?

If the argument is that we grade to make sure that the students do the assignment, then we might have to look at what we are doing for the assignment. Not one student asked me how much this project would be worth, how it would be scored, or what the minimum they could do to get an A was. I can’t tell you how refreshing that was!

So what would happen if we stopped grading?

What about the group who worked for hours after school to research and map terrorist attacks in the United States in order to show that we cannot label one group of people terrorists. But they had only a poster. How much does their hard work factor in? How about how much they learned? How about how much their opinions developed and changed?

What grade do they get?

What if we lived in a magical world where the public exhibition of their work was enough? A place where the feedback from the audience and everyone who visited their piece was what mattered. A place like the real world. A place like High Tech High.

Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 10.53.26 AM

My students gave me feedback on the unit. Many students commented that we should do more work in promoting the event to the public to ensure their work is seen. Zero students commented on anything to do with grades.

The culture of schools tells students to do things for points. This is not something that we inherently have from birth. Schools train students to work for grades, but this focuses on the minimum rather than the possibilities.

Avoiding mistakes is valued over trying something new. No mistakes = 100%.  This is why we end up with posters. But mistake-free work rarely turns into something amazing.

The culture of schools right now tells students that they must be rewarded. How can we make learning the reward? How can we give our students the audience that their work deserves? Public feedback should have a much greater emphasis than one teacher’s opinion.

So let’s stop having to grade things. Let’s start changing the culture.

Let’s reward students through feedback from peers and the public and create positive pressure to do great things.

Everyone’s idea of a masterpiece is different. When our students look back on their best work, something they never imagined they could do, it is a transformative experience. We must continue to help our students to see the possibilities and push the boundaries, grow, and develop skills that will benefit them throughout their lives.

Teaching satire – the real thing

Before a teacher, especially a middle-school or high-school instructor, sits down to plan a course, he or she should ask the question “What can I reasonably expect that students will retain from this course after a decade?” – Alfie Kohn from With Rigor for All by Carol Jago

What do we want students to know ten years from now? In the past as my junior English classes began Huck Finn, I have always mentioned that Mark Twain intended for his work to be a satire. Ok, let’s move on.

At least that’s what it felt like. Will my students have an understanding of satire that they will remember in the future and can apply to their lives? Not unless they had a teacher who did a better job than I did! So this year we did something a little different.

The first step was to listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast on satire. As students listened, they were to use the following questions to guide them: What is satire? When does satire work? Click on the picture below to check out the podcast.


Short version: we use satire to make fun of people’s stupidity in politics and current events, but the quality of satire, especially in the United States, has greatly deteriorated into comedians going for the laugh over proving their point. In other countries this is not the case; satire is pointed and thought provoking.

As Gladwell addresses, Tina Fey’s role as Sarah Palin is one of our most famous memories of political satire. We might even remember the fake Palin better than we remember the real one.


Saturday Night Live is our most well-known criticizer of politics, but, as explored in the podcast, there is far too much “going for the joke.” In a recent Time article, “SNL Actor Michael Che Agrees With Donald Trump That Show Is ‘One-Sided,’” Michael Che responds to Donald Trump’s criticisms with exactly what our class was looking for.

“But comedy should take both sides,” he said. “No matter who is in power, we should be making fun of them.”

Exactly the problem, and my students were quickly able to see it. While other countries are using satire to accomplish a goal, one of our most-watched satirical programs is making sure we can make fun of everyone.

We then applied our new understandings about satire to the SNL skit on the third presidential debate. Was this an example of satire to prove a point, or was this simply a collection of goofs on both candidates intended to get the laughs?

Armed with our knowledge with what satire truly is, my hope is that is much easier for my students to connect this idea to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and to their own lives. Who knows, maybe even for ten years!

PBL, what a way to end the year!

So my English class is not exactly traditional. The “rules” about what to teach and how just don’t seem to prepare students for their future. That’s why instead of writing a final paper at the end of junior year, my students participated in a project-based learning experience. It was the best end to a school year that I have ever been a part of.

Here’s a quote about the project that I’ll never forget, “We’re actually, like, doing stuff in this class. That’s so weird for the end of the year. Usually we don’t do a whole lot.” And let me tell you, that is pretty enthusiastic approval from a junior! So project-based learning will make a return to junior English this year, that’s for sure.

Schools tend to breed question answerers. We want students to be able to recall information and use it to display their knowledge. This is no longer enough in our world where information is so readily available to those who wish to find it. It is the thinking that matters.

The next step is to help students to become problem solvers. Apply available knowledge to solve a problem. But even that is lacking something. We need to train students to look for problems and find them if we want to help students become independent thinkers and have the chance to innovative.

Enter project-based learning.

First of all every project needs to have a driving question, one that asks students to truly solve a problem. Here was ours:

How can we, as a PR firm, positively influence the perception of Red River High School?

Students have to evaluate and discover where the problems with perception lie in our own student body as well as in the public. Are these perceptions related to RRHS or to students/teenagers in general? Should effort be focused to influence our own student body or the community?

The students ranked their preferred roles and were assigned one of the following:

  • Presentation coordinator – Leader of presentations, creating slideshow, notes/script, gathering information from other team members and generating one document, coordinate a schedule
  • Video coordinator/Field coordinator – Script writing, film director, set up, planning and execution of strategy
  • Communications coordinator – Publish work , promote positive public image, contacting resources and individuals in the community, gathering resources

The groups then proposed and carried out their project ideas. We had greeters at our doors in the morning (and one day even the band was playing), we had random acts of car washes (students would find their previously dirty car now sparkling in the parking lot), and we had Cuts for Mutts (mowing a lawn after receiving pledges for donations to the humane society). We had a music club with students with special needs and musical performers, an ELL pen pals group, interactions with elementary school classrooms, a book drive, a revamped system to nominate classmates for positive actions, and many more.

But the part that really added incentive to the project was that each group would present their accomplishments as well as the impact that it had to a panel of judges. Our principal, associate principal, a technology partner, our activities director, and our school district’s communications director each generously gave up their time to choose a winner from each class.

Because of this final presentation, students had to learn how to give an effective presentation that did not involve mindlessly reading bullets in a slideshow. They had to truly engage with their audience. And that’s just the presentation part. While carrying out the project, students had to engage with members of the community or school administration in order to carry out their plan and change perceptions. If you want to take a look at one period’s collection presentations, here is the link. What you’ll find is that students actually had to present, a skill that is sometime lost when creating presentations.


What many groups began to discover was that they wanted to build community in our school, then the public would see more positive students. Instead of just being given a problem, these students had to determine what they actually wanted to address then formulate a plan to make a difference. Some might say that isn’t really “English,” but I’d argue that these skills are the skills these students need in their future. And that’s better.

Instead of watching Netflix, I just read now


When a student chooses a book over Netflix, it’s a victory. When a student tries to read straight through from before the bell rings through my instructions, and into reading time, it’s a victory. And when a student is already on his fourth book just 15 days into the school year, it is a huge victory!

For the past two years in my classroom we read on Mondays. It was a great way to start the week, give students time to read for pleasure, and build reading stamina. But in the interest of improving, I had to move out of my comfort zone.

This year we are doing it a little differently. Each class period starts with 10 minutes of reading. Being the time protestor that I am, there are days when we go 12. I admit it. But I do my best to stick to a quick book talk to start class (2-3 minutes), independent reading (10 minutes), then our instruction for the day. The shift was a little different for students right away, especially those who had been expecting full reading days, but it seems like we have gotten ourselves into a nice groove now.

Here’s what I notice:

  1. I never have to wake anyone up. We start first period at 8:00 am, and there were times when students would fall asleep. I get it. It is a lot to ask of a 17-year-old kid to be awake enough and engaged enough to read for 40 minutes at the beginning of a day on only a few hours of sleep. This problem is no more. I once heard someone say, “You can do anything for 10 minutes.” Even students who see themselves as nonreaders. My hope is that I can even trick a few students into becoming readers through these painless reading sessions.
  2. The pace of class is much faster. Everything we do has to be done with a sense of urgency. Instead of taking an entire hour to write, we have to get things done quicker. Instead of me babbling on a tangent, I have to be focused and know where we need to get to during the class. One piece of feedback I got in my first year teaching high school English was that the pace needed to increase. I finally feel like I have done it.
  3. It is not as hard to get into a book for a short time. To start the year I have been reading at the same time as students. I was a little concerned after the first class because I had a little trouble settling in and getting going. This went away after a few sessions. Now when we get to reading, the room is quiet within a few seconds and everyone is reading. They know that there is only 10 minutes, so it isn’t nearly as cool to waste time now.
  4. When I begin conferencing with students in the next few weeks, I will be forced to be focused with my questions and discussions. The goal will be to get to 3 students each day. My note-taking sills will need to be sharp so that I am prepared and make sure each conference builds on the previous one.
  5. Having a book talk each day right when the bell rings gives students insight to the possibilities that are out there. It is building this idea that books are important enough to talk about every single day.

My hope is that by reading every day our class builds a culture that is centered around reading and a celebration of books. When I over heard a junior girl say, “Instead of watching Netflix, I just read now,” I have to say, I felt pretty good about the culture we have here in the basement.

Just shut up already

Sometimes as a teacher I think I have to keep guiding, pushing, and leading my students. Let’s do this. Let’s talk about this. Here’s what you need to know.

In my innovations class everything is so new. We have to break some of the traditional rules of school, rules that students have followed for up to eleven years. Much of our success depends on how quickly we can get past those, get into something new, and create and design experiences.

Funny that I tried to teach them to break the rules by following those same rules myself.

Yes, there are things they need to know. Yes, we have to have the basics. But when I finally made myself just shut up and let the students go, it was the most energizing class we have had so far.

Here’s where we started this year. We did a brainstorm on day one of what we care about – passions, interests, what gets you up in the morning. Those tend to be big ideas, but when we dig deeper we can narrow those down. A number of students took some of those ideas and found inspiration for their first project.

To start week two we did a gripe/dream session. You complain to your partner who takes notes on everything the griper/dreamer says. When that is done, the recorder asks probing questions to see where the two of them can come up with potential project ideas. A note on this is that it is tough for students to get past the initial complaints, but that is what I have to teach.

That’s when I finally got out of the way. My last piece of advice about choosing projects was to make sure they chose something small enough to not overwhelm themselves. What happened? Exactly what was supposed to happen.

Groups came up with great ideas. Visiting an elderly-care home and interviewing residents about their experiences. Making dog beds and treats for our animal shelter. Blogging using art and film inspired by and for domestic abuse. Learning how to edit videos and create something using GoPro. Cooking those cool Facebook videos and reviewing them.

Will they all be huge successes? Who knows? But the key is that we are starting. And once we start, we can learn. Fail or succeed, we are going to start, reflect, and grow. That is the only that we can move towards innovation!


Pass the genius on

My innovations students love sharing what we are doing. This is one of the ways I have been able to see success in our innovations class, through the excitement that my students have developed about doing something. It is clear that their confidence has far surpassed where they thought it would be at this point. We visited with one elementary class, and after the visit everyone asked if we could find another class to go to. Now it’s my turn to share what happened!

For our second class visit, one Mrs. Freund, a second grade teacher, invited us in to help her begin genius hour. I sent her a few ideas that I’ve collected from other elementary teachers.

I would think that 2nd grade projects should only take 1-3 weeks at the start of the process. It is best to start small. Learn something, share it, move on to the next thing. Build their confidence in the process of learning and directing themselves.

Here is one interesting blog post about 2nd grade genius hour.

Here is an email from @BetseyMcIntyre, whose class we visited a few weeks ago:

“Okay, I started by showing some sort of short video every day for about a week to try to get them thinking. A couple examples are the Ted Talk Richard Turere: My invention that made peace with lions and Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation Documentary. After that, I introduced Genius Hour with a PowerPoint Tiffany Mannasau shared with me. Then we brainstormed. They had post-its and I had 4 categories on my bulletin board: learn to do, learn to change, learn about, learn to make.We spent a good amount of time brainstorming. We use that board now when we are ready to start a new project.”

Week two – our first visit

Five students from our class went to visit the classroom. We discussed everything that we thought was important and that the students wished they knew as they began their projects – coming up with ideas, current projects, biggest successes, biggest failures, and what we learned through them all. The hope is that the 2nd graders can see the possibilities and be inspired to do something awesome.


Week three – now what?

After our initial visit, I heard from Mrs. Freund about how genius hour week three went. Kids had started planning and researching with their partners. She is already seeing some of the difficulties that come with genius hour – it isn’t that easy! We are asking students to start breaking the rules of school, and that is a little strange.

A few students want to make a poster to get people to stop smoking. One group wants to find out if the Sasquatch is real. And while interest is a big part of genius hour, these ideas just aren’t good enough. But how do we push students to go beyond the easy and the obvious?

My advice for the smoking poster group: your first idea is usually not your best idea. We train our students, whether implicitly or explicitly, to go with that first conventional and safe idea. Genius hour is to encourage students to try new things and maybe even fail. We don’t fail by doing what we’ve always done or what everyone else is doing. Here are a few ideas to prove that point:

  1. Tell students to line up in birthday order without talking. The best part of this one is to hear the initial complaints even though they aren’t supposed to be speaking. Eventually one students will start doing something, usually hand signals for months. They will get in an order then figure out days from there, and they’ll be mostly accurate. But the key to this is the conversation afterwards. “Why did you go with that strategy?” The answer is always, “Because it was our best idea.” Was it? Or was it the only idea? So often we just go with the first idea because it seems like the easiest or best, but we don’t spend the time to explore other options. Students could have written their birthdays on a scrap of paper, taken out their driver’s licenses, created a timeline on the floor and found their correct spots. What about singing? I said no talking. Break the rules! (taken from inGenius by Tina Seelig)
  2. Come up with a list of 20 ways to share your project or findings. How can you get students to move beyond the initial set of ideas, past the better set, and into the deeper stuff that is actually innovative?
  3. Ask questions. Ask enough to help students realize the potential their idea has and that a poster just isn’t good enough to realize that potential.

For the Sasquatch group whose topic doesn’t seem to offer much depth, ask questions, encourage, let them find out if their project has no legs. The excitement for learning is an important part of genius hour, and we don’t want to squash it. But we do have to help students realize the importance of a powerful question. Help this group discover what really interests them about the Sasquatch. Maybe they research for a day, present to the class, and move on. Maybe they find something that fascinates them in terms of conspiracies that they can learn about. They will hopefully figure out what makes a good project. This is where sharing with our classmates can be effective. What questions are groups asking in order to be successful? Understanding what makes a good project is an important skill to learn at any age.

These classroom visits have beneficial to the elementary students, of course, but so have mine. I’ve learned, and so have the elementary teachers. Genius hour is a great movement when we have dedicated teachers who are planning what is best for our students. It’s a pleasure for my students and I to be a part of the process!