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.

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.