Learning From Failure

18 Feb

Many people envision a one-to-one classroom as a sterile nightmare, a room filled with distracted students glued to sickly blue screens, so constantly plugged in that they are completely checked out. The reality is quite different. The more experience I gain in a wired classroom, the more I realize how much easier it is to humanize education when students have immediate access to personalized technology.

I teach a senior elective entitled Local Living Writers. The premise of the course is simple….We study work by writers living in and around Boston and then invite these writers into our classroom. This past term, for whatever reason, brought a group of students that did not identify as readers or writers. These seniors were funny and earnest and curious…but they were not model English students. They struggled to write with the style and control. Some of my typical approaches fell flat. I typically run the elective like a college literature course, and most of my writing prompts require students to develop literary analysis skills. Such prompts, however, were not working this term.

We had just finished William Landay’s The Strangler, a suspenseful and stylish crime thriller about three brothers wrapped up in the investigation of the infamous Boston Strangler. The students thoroughly enjoyed Landay’s cinematic setting—a gritty city on the cusp of a modern future—and they viscerally related to the authentic characters the author spun to life. Yet, I struggled to get them to notice the finer points of Landay’s craft.

As I wrestled with a writing prompt that would engage my students, I had an ephiphany. I was going about my planning all wrong. Why was I trying to create this assignment by myself?

Bill had just visited the class, and the students really responded to him. They now had a better understanding of the wizard behind the curtain. They had a nascent understanding that literature is created not by some strange deity pulling words out of an artistic stratosphere; it is created by real people willing to put in the often isolating grunt work of pounding away at a keyboard. I decided I could ask the students to write guest blog posts on Bill’s site. I emailed him and he like the idea.

Within 24 hours he sent me a detailed list of various questions and prompts. He produced more questions than I would have ever generated on my own. He is a writer, after all, and he was genuinely interested in how teen readers reacted to his book. I modified his list slightly and produced this writing prompt.

Bill had just one caveat. Whatever the students wrote had to be interesting.

The added bonus of this approach was that now the students had an authentic audience. They were no longer writing for me but a professional author whom they had just met…and his loyal readers. They had to think about what would interest William Landay and the people that read his books. What a wonderful, realistic way of stretching my students to write better.

The students and I made a deal: if anyone wrote something that was published on Bill’s site, that piece would earn an automatic A. A grade of 100% would go directly in the grade book. Their writing would still go through the typical process of our course—prewriting, first draft, revisions, and final publication—but now I was not the arbiter of “publication.” Instead, they had to write in such a way that an unbiased audience of one would deem their work “interesting.”

Think about how much more challenging such a prompt is. The students still had to engage in the skills I want them to learn—close reading and stylish writing—but they had to cope with the ambiguity of the real world. How were they going to capture the imagination of actual readers beyond our classroom walls?

Within twenty-four hours, I had gone from being frustrated to excited. Before using technology on a daily basis, I did not think in this manner. Despite my best efforts to open the metaphoric door of my classroom and teach within a community, the day-to-day reality of teaching made me fall back on prompts and approaches that I had experienced as a student. I often worked alone. Yet, as I make social networking a part of my daily routine, I am finding that I am more likely to look outside myself for answers to the big questions I wrestle with as a teacher, and my students benefit as a result.

I would love to end with an inspirational story of how one of my average writers took up this challenge and produced original, engaging art. In the end, this didn’t happen. Despite heroic efforts on my part—holding individual students accountable for fixing grammar mistakes, creating what I deemed engaging, constructivist lessons on the nature and purpose of blogs, and forcing my students to revise until I was satisfied their work was presentable—Bill did not find any of their posts interesting enough. [The students’ posts]

He was magnanimous in his rejection, writing this feedback to the students:

Unfortunately I don’t see any that I can post on the web site. It isn’t about the quality of the writing, though the essays would probably need a little more polish before publication. The real problem — and this may be a good lesson for your students too — is that I don’t see any that add to the conversation in a meaningful way. I need to be very sure that anything I publish — and that includes publishing on the web, since it’s all under my name — is worth my readers’ time. Otherwise they will simply tune me out. There are simply too many writers out there today, too many contestants for my readers’ time. Readers today will move on to the next thing very, very quickly.

That is a very, very high standard and there is no shame in your students not meeting it. Alas, it is the reality of being a professional writer. The reading public is absolutely unforgiving. Bore them and they’ll walk. As they should, probably. I have no right to their time and attention, after all. I have to earn it, every time.

Yet, I don’t consider this moment a failure. I know that I brought students closer to understanding what good writing really is and how much work is actually required to produce it. They did not sour to the experience. They did not blame Bill. They did not complain when none of them earned an A on the assignment. Instead, they took the feedback as a realistic assessment of where they were as writers and realized they still have much work ahead to improve…just like we all do. Any writer, no matter how talented, is in a constant state of evolution and such a nuanced revelation would not have happened if I had not reached beyond my classroom walls to construct a meaningful writing opportunity.

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