Yesterday, Jim Burke began his presentation at NCTE with this slide.
I thought- Thanks, Jim. That’s exactly what I need, more pressure when it comes to writing. If writing is a public performance of my intelligence, then what does it say for all the times that the page is filled with garbage, or even worse, blank?
It didn’t matter that Jim then followed that slide with a hilarious story about burning his own poems in his backyard when he was in high school or acknowledging that we are always at risk of feeling stupid when we’re writing. I still had that first slide burned into my head.
But then Jim said, “If the page is blank, that’s evidence of struggle.”
Evidence of struggle. Not evidence of stupidity. Not evidence of failure. It was such a useful characterization for me. I’ve always heard the blank page characterized as a place possibility and opportunity. But the idea of the blank page as a place of struggle seems to helpfully reinforce the idea that the work of writing starts even before the pencil hits the page or the fingers hit the keys.
For the writing to happen, there do eventually have to be words on the page if the writer is to win the struggle, and so I was also grateful for Penny Kittle’s reminder of Tom Romano’s entreaty to, “Write in faith and fearlessness.”
In addition to a motto, I like the idea of adopting a poem for the school year. If I’d chosen a poem for last year, it likely would have been “To Raja Rao” by Czeslaw Milosz. A few days ago, the poem below was included in the Writers’ Almanac email (which is a great way to ensure you read at least one poem a day), and I quickly decided it would be my poem for this year.
Increasingly, I hear people extolling the value of failure in learning and teaching. (It’s not a new idea, but it seems to be popping up recently.) That resonates with me to a degree, but I also struggle with finding ways to move forward after failure, either failure according to my expectations or others. I think what I like best about this poem is the way it imagines embracing failure without discounting the work and joy that came before.
by Wendell Berry
I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.
From Leavings, 2010
Online in the Writers’ Almanac
If you were to choose a poem for the year, what would it be? If you need a place to start, poets.org is a great resource.
From my my class blog. I wrote for my students, but I also wrote it for myself…
At the end of today’s first period, I proclaimed class “an epic fail.” We’d been working on our bushido projects, creating some really awesome SpicyNodes. Then disaster struck! Ok, maybe not disaster, but all the sudden people’s nodes started disappearing or not saving. The culprit was likely the fact that several students were logged on to a particular username at the same time. (Now who would have told you to do that? Oh yeah, that was me 🙂
A couple of thoughts I had after class…
In life, things rarely go perfectly. Thomas Edison said about his initially failed attempts to create the light bulb, “I have not failed. I have merely found 1,000 ways that didn’t work.” As teachers, we would be cheating you, giving you a false view of the world you will encounter if we created conditions where there was no failure. We’d also be depriving you of the opportunity to do some really cool things.
Experiencing failure often makes things easier the next go-around. While losing work was definitely frustrating for first period students, their “learning experience” helped me figure out how to do things better when seventh period rolled around. I also bet that for first period students who have to re-do their SpicyNodes, it will go faster the second time around.
It matters how you tell the stories of your failures. I purposely declared the class an epic fail, rather than just a fail. The word epic comes from a Greek word meaning word, speech, or poem. An epic is something you tell- a story of an adventure or journey. Epics bind together people who experience them. Now you may be thinking, Seriously?! Ms. Stewart, aren’t you putting too much thought into this? Wasn’t it just a bad class everyone wants to forget? But I’ll tell you that by lunch several people had told me that they’d heard that I’d said that first period was an epic fail, so I knew that people were telling the story.