Friday, June 7, 2013

#TEDxCHSNED: A reflection


Last Friday (5/31/13), I spoke at a TEDx event at my high school. This event was organized by two juniors at the school, and consisted of a blend of students and teachers and administrators speaking over the course of an almost 3-hour time frame. The theme was "Education and Inspiration."

I was incredibly impressed that all speakers not only stuck to the theme so well, but overlapped each other so well. I mean, to the point of repeating words and phrases (we had not seen/heard the other speeches until "go time").

I was the second speaker after our guest speaker, Dr. Arnold Dodge. My speech was title "Time to Fail." I have included my presentation, for your viewing pleasure (though it won't make too much sense without the audio). I have also included my written speech below, which I ditched two minutes before I went on. I managed to hit most of my talking points (I think), but ended up ad-libbing a bit.

After my speech ended, I attempted to live tweet the rest of the night. I created a Storify post to attempt to capture the tweets.

Finally, I am still trying to track down a link to the video of the event. Evidently, TED has a whole process that needs to occur before they choose to stream our event (once I find out, I will update the post with the link). My one hope for a webcam stream died - the webcam "recorded" but did not broadcast....oh well.

All in all, it was a wonderful opportunity to spend a night with like-minded people. And, most importantly, the students' voices rang out loudly and clearly. It was SO refreshing to hear the students echo the concerns that so many educators share.

[My prepared speech]

I realize the potential irony of a high school teacher titling his talk "Time to Fail." But I'd like to delve into some "big" ideas in the little time I have, so let's start with semantics. We currently operate inside a system which stresses success, right? The point of teaching is to transmit information and context, right? And we need to know how well the material was taught and how well the students learned it, so we assess them constantly, right?
Now, there are some problematic words in there. Success is the first one. Teaching, learning, assessing are others. Who defines these terms? I mean, we have a general acknowledgement that the next generation of Americans needs to receive certain knowledge. Those kids need to be presented with the skills and ideas to make it in this crazy world once they leave the safety net of high school. And if they make it, they've succeeded. Right?
What does that success look like? Is it earning the Ivy League diploma? Is it landing the big paycheck? Buying the big house? Or is it being happy with what you have? Is it the joy of helping others first? Is it working together to create a better world?
Success is defined differently by different people. Most, though, would agree that success is an improvement on your previous state, an increase in your proverbial coffers. And failure is the opposite. It is everything success is not. It isn't pretty. It's shameful. It's to be avoided at all cost. It's where no one wants to be (or wants to stay).
As a teacher, some argue my job is to make each child pass and be successful. After all, we can't leave any child behind in this race to the top. And, for the record, a race implies a winner. A winner implies a loser. And a loser has failed. The loser is a failure. Right?
As a society, we plan to ensure that every child is not failing. How? High stakes testing. Because that seems to be the only method by which we can ensure that each child is being judged in an equitable manner. And the tests are never wrong. Right?
Here's what I see every day: an inability to use that tested knowledge. I mean, they got a 93 on the test, so that means they learned something. Right? 
Wrong. 
We are creating a generation of students who are being zombified by schools - the very place where the exact opposite is supposed to occur. A culture of testing means a culture of knowing. Not learning. You know something for a bit, and then you forget it (the day after the test). What you learn is that knowledge is temporary and fleeting, useful for the short term, and then to be discarded. You memorize and forget. You try and should succeed. Every child deserves get an A (which, by definition, destroys the value of the A). Is that the lesson we want to teach? 
Learning is one of the biggest joys in my life; it's the reason I am here today. But how do you teach inspiration?
Let's start by changing our attitudes and beliefs about failing. Here's another way to look at the word FAIL: First Attempt in Learning.  And what about SUCCESS: becoming a reflective, lifelong learner. 
You can look to the books (or Google) for how many successful people were once considered failures. The list is long. And impressive. Einstein, Jordan, Winfrey, Jobs…
What do these people have in common? What traits do they share? What is it about their journey that is inspirational?
Well, for one, they did not see failure as a finality - they saw it as an opportunity. Failure was just that - an attempt at success that did not work. But they did not stop there. They used that failure as a checkpoint, a signpost, a directional marker. Failure was simply a step in eventual success. And sometimes, it takes a lot of steps to succeed.
So how do we teach the young generation to be comfortable with failure? How do we teach them to deal with the adversity we know they will encounter in their lives? Do we put it off for as long as possible? Do we shelter them from consequence? Do we forgive them their inadequacies? 
Or: do we embrace it? Do we recognize that learning is a process and learning to deal with failure is an essential part of that process? Do we let the kids experience being wrong…and then give them the tools to be right? How can we, as a community, carve out the precious time needed to allow our students to fail. 
I'm certainly not the first to think of this, but I am currently struggling with this concept in my own reflective practice as an educator. How do I best meet the needs of my students? Well, to work through my failures. I will try anything in the classroom to see if it works. If it doesn't, I work to see why. I want to understand the moment of weakness, and then turn it to strength. I try to be open about this with my students as well, so they can see that learning isn't easy, it isn't pretty, and it doesn't always manifest itself in an A, B, C, or D. There is something more genuine about learning that simply cannot be measured by a non-stop battery of high-stakes tests. 
I want my students to be comfortable with failure. I want them to deal with adversity and hardship in their learning. I want them to have grit and character when they graduate. And they will never learn to do this if we don't let them. I have a zen saying on a magnet on my fridge: "Leap, and the net will appear." Learning can indeed be a leap of faith - the learner trusts the teacher to guide him or her through those unknown waters. Let's teach our learners to be comfortable with  jumping into the void and discovering something new. 
Spoken word artist Suli Breaks said "If education is the key, then school is the lock." This paradox scares me. I don't want my students' experience of learning to be one of barriers and rigid definitions. School should function as the great leveler, allowing ALL students the chance to develop a burning passion for learning. Instead, they get burned out and they tune out. And we continue to churn them out, one a replica of the next. Students always ask me for an answer. I usually say, "I don't know. Answers are boring. They end conversations."
Let's shift our focus and our perspective a bit, and allow our students to succeed, by giving them the time to fail. Let them find the problems in this world, and then let them work on the solutions. Let them be uncomfortable with a new piece of knowledge, and then watch them grow as they figure out how it fits into their world view. Let's teach them that the answer to number 42 is not always "C." Let's teach them to never stop asking why and why not. 
For if we don't, I fear that we, as a school and as a community, have failed our children.