Foundations on Failure | J. E. Johnson

On the last Monday morning of the DECATS[1] camp I walk across St. Theresa’s Catholic School campus with a knot in my stomach and my head throbbing with anxiety.

 Failure seems assured in all three of my classes. I am teaching two “big project” classes, Sand Power and Gears and Gravity, and most of my students are so far behind that I am beginning to wonder if we’ll have anything to display at the closing ceremony.  Conversely, the Animation Machines class rushed through all of their projects and now I am staring down a week of twelve boys without enough to do in a room full of sharp tools.

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Each class is plagued by the same failures.  Students select the wrong materials, they lose or break finished parts, and some projects are falling apart for lack of glue while other projects have glue where no glue should be.  Worst of all, my pet project, the hand crank drill press that I have spent months developing for these classes, is proving to be more challenging to these 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders’ dexterity than I anticipated.

I feel out of my depth: “I’m not smart enough for this.”
I feel like a hack: “Who do think I am? I’m not a real teacher.
I feel like a failure: “I just want to quit.”

With defeat on my mind, I walk into my science lab turned workshop, flip on the lights and open my satchel to look for the “Quote of the Day” printouts to post on the cork board.  After searching and swearing to myself for a while I accept that I have forgotten them in the printer at home.  Another failure.

I stand at the quote board trying to decide what to do next and my eyes land on Willa Cather’s kindly face staring back, “There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.”  And below her, the fiery intensity of George Bernard Shaw, “When I was young, I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures.  So I did ten times more work.”

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Wait a minute.  Haven’t I just spent two weeks trying to get my students comfortable with failure? Isn’t that the point of this quote board?  Isn’t that the point of the slide I flash on the screen every morning that asks, “HOW DID YOU FAIL YESTERDAY?” Don’t we talk every day about how failure is the only gateway to success?

Every day we learn how hard it can be to make new things, about how it can hurt our bodies as well as our egos.  Every day we talk about how need to give our bodies a break when they hurt and how we need to give ourselves a break when we’re disappointed.  After two weeks all these young makers are all seasoned pros at failing.  They fail often and fail with gusto.

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They have fun failing.  In our daily discussions of failure there are always good reflections on how they go wrong, what they are learning, which tools and techniques work best.  And there’s always, always, more than one story of latest hot glue burn or bloodletting.  These minor injuries are thrilling to them and we all love the war stories.  So if failure is part of my foundation curriculum, and all of my students are failing every day, and having a great time, why am I so worried about it?

I am teaching because I like to make refined things and I want to share the enthusiasm I have for a job well done.  But this is a camp not a factory or a production shop.  Kids go to camp in the summer to do things they don’t do at home and school.  Camps are about experience. They don’t need the clocks, or the automata, or zoetropes we’re making.  They need the experience of making a clock, and seeing something they made really work for a while, they don’t need it to keep accurate time. They need to burn their fingers a little with hot glue, they need to saw all their pieces of wood too short, they need to drill the holes in the wrong place and too big, and they need to learn how to recognize these failures and move on to success.

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The next four days are a storm of activity and I learn that I never really had that much to worry about.  The looming deadline improves motivation and focus; we all do “ten times more work.” Suddenly, it is the last day of camp.  Parents and family stream into the gym for the closing ceremony.  I always wonder how much of the camp experience is carried home so I really enjoy this opportunity to meet parents.  Soon surprising trend comes into focus.  It is the parents of students who have struggled the most—those who have had to redo elements of their projects multiple times, those who have come close to tears—these are the parents who seek me out and say, “My son/daughter just loved your class, they talked about it every day.  Thank you so much.”

I look down the display table and see our clocks ticking (and stopping), our acrobats flipping (while the sand that powers them persistently leaks out from sloppy glue joints), and our zoetropes and ludoscopes spinning (off-kilter).  Our circles aren’t round, our edges are rough, and our creations might not survive the car ride home but not one of these projects looks like a failure anymore.

[1] DeBusk Enrichment Center for Academically Talented Scholars

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