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.

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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.

For learning or money?

school-testIt happened. I was hoping it would never come to this, but it did. It seemed innocent enough. Our student council cabinet was starting class and doing their usual round of “Today was a good day because…” It was the last student, a great kid, someone I would never expect this from. But she said it.

“Today was a good day because I found out that if I pass my AP test, I get paid a hundred dollars.”


Please do not send our school district on a path that emphasizes tests over learning, that uses carrots and sticks, that teaches test-taking skills over life skills. Please, don’t do it!

But it’s not her fault. I see the reasons why students take AP classes, but most of them are because they want to look better for college and not because they love learning. And that’s what scares me.

It’s not even our district’s fault. North Dakota has a huge amount of money to give away thanks to ExxonMobil’s $13 million donation because, as stated in the linked article, “The success of North Dakota’s industries depends on the quality, ingenuity and diversity of its workforce.” But what type of workers will we get through creating more great test takers?

At the North Dakota Governor’s Summit for Innovative Education this past June, we heard three speakers who encouraged the possibilities of what education in North Dakota could look like. The first presenter, Ted Dintersmith, implored us to see North Dakota as the next Finland, a magical place where creativity, collaboration, and just being a child are celebrated.

Because of it’s size, North Dakota could be in a position to build skills rather than take tests, to learn rather than be assessed.

The final speaker of the day, however, was from AP. He talked about getting more kids to take AP, having money from ExxonMobil available to pay them, and finally imagined North Dakota as the next… wait for it… Alabama.


I’ll be honest, I know nothing about the education system in Alabama. But after hearing this session, it sounds like there is a lot of AP and teaching to a test.

This says nothing about the downfalls of AP, and how Dartmouth, for example, is no longer giving credit to students for their AP scores because they find that the students are not prepared for the next course. And a majority of other top colleges are restricting AP credit as well. We know how tests work: study, take the test, forget most of the information.

At it’s best an AP class is a challenging dive deep into a curriculum and our most rigorous curriculum. At it’s worst our advanced classes are teaching strategies to “game the test in a way that gets kids to pass it” as one student told me.

Let’s pause here to add the fact that now our AP teachers are going to be paid for each student who passes the AP test as well. Incentivizing the test score rather than the learning or performance in the class can only lead to overlooking the potential of the AP curriculum for a majority of our teachers in favor of focusing on a test. Teachers are hired because they are professionals who will do what is best for kids. This monetary reward is saying that if teachers just had a little more motivation, they would work a little harder for their students. Maybe this is true in some unfortunate cases, but what happens when this money disappears in a few years?

The student from above went on to say that “many AP classes are completely focused on passing the test. Even the textbook, is made specifically on how you can pass the AP test. It’s not even about the history or whatever the class is. It’s really frustrating that that’s what they’re deciding to focus on and not on student learning.”

And we don’t think this is going to just get worse now that we’re paying teachers and students to pass?

Out of curiosity I searched for Alabama’s education rankings. According to US News and World Report’s best state rankings, Alabama is 47th. The good news is that they are number one in the growth for AP scores. So I guess it depends on what your goal is.

But this is not a place to come and bash Alabama. Saving $47 million in college tuition is a big deal. This is the system we are working in. We have to make choices in what we value. Getting kids to challenge themselves is not a bad thing; however, handing out monetary rewards for high test scores can’t be the best we can come up with for student motivation.

If the point of school is to be good at school, then we’re missing the point entirely. If good test takers and compliant students are what we want, imagine what we are going to get.

Here are two students’ comments overheard this school year:

Student A: My parents and I were just talking about how I need to start getting ready for the AP test.

Student B: I was just talking to my mom, and we’re so excited about making this Culture Fair happen.

Student B is a student in my innovations class, a project-driven class where students find and solve problems. She and her group proposed and carried a culture fair for over 1,000 students featuring food, dancing, henna tattoos, Green Card Voices banners featuring local stories of New Americans, and more. Her group worked with members of the community to receive donations, sell t-shirts, and promote the event, and it all came together for an incredibly successful day. She found the problem of a cultural divide in our school, she proposed a solution, and she carried it out.

The skills these students built during this experience go far beyond correct answers. They marketed to an audience, fundraised, connected with community members and businesses, designed and created t-shirts, planned and replanned, spoke to audiences, met with administrators, managed a budget, talked to the press, and everything else that goes into an event like this. Those are great skills, but just imagine the lessons she learned about herself along the way.

There are all kinds of students who go the be-good-at-school route. Do well on tests, be complaint, don’t take any risks. But there is another way. Do something amazing. Be who you are and be awesome at it. Find a passion and live it. Now. And if you think you have one, and it doesn’t work out, at least you found out in high school!

If we continue down the path of focusing on tests and not skills, we will never change the culture that emphasizes knowledge over skills.

Imagine hearing a student say, “Today is a great day because I am living my passion.” A hundred bucks sounds great now, but the experiences and possibilities that are out there are worth much more than that.

When we need to recharge

What happens when you hit a rut? In the 180 plus days of school, it is bound to happen. The mid-semester innovations slump seems to be upon us here in the basement. We have had a few failures, a few successes, but now it is time to take what we have learned and do something amazing.

As I sit and listen to an unusually quite room here in innovations class, it is clear that my pre-blogging speech inspired some reflection today. So what do we do when we need to be inspired?

Reexamine your passions

Why are we even here? What are we good at? How can I align those passions and skills with a problem that lies ahead? On Monday for our brainstorm activity, we made a list of our passions and skills. We then narrowed them down by grouping them together in order to find “the sweet spot” where our passions intersect. We then made a list of problems we have seen around us. How can our passions and skills help to solve those problems?

Take a look at the video below to see what we did at the start of the week.

The next step is for those who were unable to determine a problem they cared about in that session. The assignment over the weekend will be to start a “Bug List” in the notes app of their phone.

Put yourself and your beliefs out there

When we are challenged, we have to determine whether we will stand behind our beliefs or want to disregard them. Blogs help us do to this. My most important example came from innovations class last year. She and I each tweeted her blog post about sexual assault and a discussion with a teacher. The responses she got were rude, offensive, and ignorant. She came to class and asked, “What should I do? Should I take it down?” What we learned was that when trying to make a change, we often run into resistance. This is the time when we determine how strong our beliefs are. That resistance meant that she hit a nerve and needed to keep going. After seeing that response, the student had a renewed commitment to her project and her ultimate goal of educating her fellow students on sexual assault and rape culture. If our beliefs go unchallenged, it can be difficult to find the dedication and determination to make something happen.

Collaborate with trusted peers

When we work with others whom we respect, we have an opportunity to grow our thinking. Even more important is the energy that comes from a great sharing session with a group. We have a chance to be that source of energy for others each day. Think about the last time you met to talk about a great idea, great book, or great speaker. When we have something to discuss that truly matters to us, it is energizing to share that sense of community and build ideas together. Be an energy creator, not an energy vampire!

My hope is that our innovations class continues to see the potential in their ideas and the world around them. Looking back at these three ideas, I find that I use them in my professional life, and that is what makes innovations class so important. If these students can build these skills in high school, they will be far ahead of their peers as they head on to their next steps in life.

Knowing and addressing this slump is an important step on our road to big successes.


It doesn’t have to be Genius Hour

Genius Hour, what isn’t there to love? And it is easy to see why – learning becomes a joyful experience that is owned by each student. Our classes become authentic environments where students choose what to learn. Of course this sounds great!

But I’m slightly afraid.

I love the idea of inspiring kids to learn by giving them ownership over the topic. I have been experimenting with Genius Hour/20% Time/Innovation Hour in my junior English classes this year, and let’s just say that I’ve learned a lot.

What happens if we ruin it?

My biggest fear is that I’ll have a group of juniors walk in to my room and moan because, “We did this last year,” or, “I never know what to do,” or, “This is boring,” – all sure signs that we ruined it. But it is so important that we do not destroy this experience.

In order to do my part in avoiding ruining Genius Hour, I decided to do something different with my sophomore English classes, something with a little more structure. We created magazines in small groups in order to address real-world writing purposes. It has been a great experience and has helped my students develop a sense of the audience they are writing for.

We still had the most important element in a project like this – student choice.

We created a magazine for each of the first two quarters, and there was some great work! But now it is time to switch things up. Students are going to create a blog or a video blog/YouTube channel on the topic of their choice. The goal is to build a following and create their own brand.

Our first brainstorming session had a great buzz. Students were coming up with great ideas, thinking deeper about those ideas and their potential audiences, and coming up with even better ideas. Some student were working together, and some were working in a group of up to three. There were even a few people who are going to do their own thing but be in the videos of another group.

One key that we discussed in the brainstorming process is that usually our first idea is not our best idea. If I were to sum up my inspirational speech of that day, I think it would sound something like, Get past that first idea, take it out of the mix. What else do you have? Keep building on something unique. Find you niche. What can you offer that others cannot? 

The highlights of my day were the few interactions that went just like this one:

Student: Mr. Sanders, this (a makeup blog) is actually what I want to do for my career.

Me: Yes, this is the start of your career! In a year you will be able to point to your blog and say that you have been doing this for a long time.

And the young man who wants to be a baseball scout will be able to point to his portfolio and show off how much experience he has.

There are groups doing fashion advice and makeup advice and spoofs on makeup advice with guys who are clueless. Food, hockey, tattoos and more.

Give students some choice and see the excitement build. Instead of prodding students to get going, you’ll answering the question, “Can we get started right now?!” Trust me, that’s slightly more fun.

It isn’t Genius Hour, but it sure feels genius to me!