Celebrating Failure: Lessons learned in a sixth-grade classroom
By Stacie Sanders Evans, Young Audiences/Arts for Learning Executive Director
Last week I visited the classroom of teaching artist and improv master Bridget Cavaiola and science teacher Heather Tuttle, who are teacher partners in our 22nd Century Pioneers Arts-Based Summer Camp in West Baltimore. Like in all of our classes, these two teachers were “starting with the art” by warming up brains and bodies with the drama game “Big Booty.” This particular game required kids to call on each other using a number instead of their name, and the goal of the game was to keep the it going as long as possible and as quickly as possible, without someone “messing up” by forgetting who had what number. (I realize this description doesn’t explain why this game is called Big Booty but just stick with me here…)
The first time a student messed up in Big Booty, everyone clapped. I wasn’t sure what was going on but smiles ensued and the game started over. Quickly another kid forgot which number they were and when their number was called, the game stalled. Once again everyone clapped and Bridget looked over at me to clue me in and said, “We celebrate our failures in here.” The game continued, and as the kids’ brains warmed up and the fear of making a mistake in front of their peers dissipated, the need to clap wasn’t as frequent. When they did clap, they laughed, they shrugged it off, and they quickly moved on.
When it came time to move on to the science lesson, the teachers wanted to recap the lesson from the day before about the engineer design process. Bridget realized she had mistakenly erased the board which had listed all the key terms shared yesterday and Heather realized she forgot her notebook for reference. Oops! I don’t think the situation could have been better orchestrated, in that moment Bridget and Heather, modeled “the way” by shrugging off their mistake and asked the class, “What can we do?”
The kids immediately started calling out the key terms they learned the day before. “Imagine!” “Investigate!” “Test!” In a quick minute all the key terms were there. I noticed each term was delivered with a gesture. The day before, the students came up with a move that conveyed the essence of each word. This lesson recap evolved into sixth-grade boys and girls (remember those awkward years?) moving their arms, hands, and heads in space as they defined the engineer design process.
Bridget and Heather and their sixth-graders are onto something. The simple act of celebrating failure creates a safe space for trying something, even if you are unsure if you are right or if you might look silly. Just imagine what is possible when you remove that fear–real opportunities for exploration, experimentation, reflection, and growth emerge.