It has come to my attention that students hate to fail. And if you’re five, and you have only ever held a pencil in your hands, say, 50 times in your life, failure at school is imminent. Or, at least, the feeling of failure is.
I have grown quite bored of children constantly bursting into tears when writing their name is too hard, and grown quite irritated when children wander away from a task because they “can’t.”
A few years ago, I spent every writing block painstakingly modeling how to write a simple sentence. I modeled how to illustrate that sentence, which is always required in kindergarten, and then I would leave it on the document camera for students to copy. How could they not get it, I wondered, as I peered over the heads of all the children crowding around me, squealing, “I can’t!! I can’t!!” I literally gave them the answer. There were always 6 or 7 little nuggets– and that’s way too many– who were crumbling messes of tears by the end of writing. “We have a rubric,” I kept repeating at them. “Just look at it.”
Little Addison finally spoke up at the end of one stressful session: “My work is never going to look as good as yours,” she muttered miserably. And the light bulb in my brain turned on.
It has come to my attention that students need lessons in how to fail (and fail spectacularly, because if you’re going to do something, do it right).
Put yourself in their place.
Many times during a lesson, I adopt a kindergarten alter-ego that mimics the same worries they express during work time. “Oh my GOSH!!!!” I might wail, at the top of my voice. “I have to write a word BUT I DON’T KNOW HOW!!!!!!!!!” (Insert a little fake cry here, it helps). My tiny students, who always want to help, try to pat my arm sympathetically. “Don’t worry,” one of them says. “You can do it!” In their desperation to help their teacher, often times our roles are reversed, and they begin to coach me in what to do, handing over Teacher Status to them.
Meet kids where they are.
I think this part goes without saying. Although I used to model a perfect sentence the first time, I sure don’t anymore. Every lesson has a failure component. In every lesson, I make an effort to show them what it looks like to fix mistakes. My lesson is not so much talking at them as it is me talking to myself. Often times, the example paper I present to them has eraser marks, a few crinkles, and some scribbling outside of the lines (gasp). This is not to say I am lowering the bar, because I will certainly present to them a different standard of work as the year goes on. This is only to say I grow as they grow. I model the level where they currently are so they can feel successful every time they do work. I become one of them (only with slightly more honed fine-motor skills).
Model an imperfect final product, and model pride.
It always cracks me up to hear how many teachers are terrified to draw in front of their students– you see, it’s the feeling of failure that gets in our way, not the failure itself. In our class, we say “Let’s see work that’s awesome– not perfect” (thank you, Minions). I often have to model how to laugh at my own illustrations because, let’s face it, they’re not perfect. BUT it’s SO IMPORTANT to model how proud you are of your AWESOME work. “Oh man, this thing doesn’t look very realistic, but hey! I love how the eyes turned out, and my coloring took me SO LONG! I really worked hard on it. That’s awesome.” For the littles, it really helps ease their anxiety about living up to The Teacher Model. We’re all in this together.
Provide a script for failure.
This is very similar to Tip #1. Sometimes– at least once per thematic unit– I model a truly atrocious piece of work. I am sloppy, I make mistakes, and I vocalize what I suspect some of my kiddos think of when they are challenged.
“I’m just going to do this fast so I can get to center time,” I might say. “This is too hard anyway.”
I am usually stopped by a chorus of, “Don’t!!!!” because, by now, my students know how to talk me off a ledge and guide me towards making a good choice. At the end of my lesson, my example is still not perfect.
“This was a really tough job for me. It was really hard to sound out the words. I might need to go home and ask my mom to help me practice that, huh?” I ask the kids. “You better,” a sassy girl says. “I’m going to do a better job tomorrow though, that’s for sure. I want to be able to write ANYTHING I WANT TO!!!!!!!” I yell.
5. Read Pete the Cat.
Or My Brave Year of Firsts.
Or The Dot.
Or Sky Color.
Or The Most Magnificent Thing.
Or Elephants Cannot Dance!
They give you a mantra to live by when things get tough. There are so many good children’s books out there that teach growth mindset, resilience, and ultimately, how to fail, and fail spectacularly. And when we fail, are we going to cry about it? Goodness, no! We’re going to keep on walking, singing our song…because it’s all good.
How do you teach your kids to fail?
My dog also has an Instagram, and it's better than anyone's. @mrdarcy_theiggy