#Fail (Or, Recovering after an Instructional Misstep)

Oh, Failure.

You're one of the best tools for learning -- and yet nothing feels worse than that moment when you instructionally faceplant right in front of all your students. And since it happens to the most seasoned teachers, regardless of how much preventative planning they might have done, you may as well learn how to roll with the punches now. Especially if you ever plan on doing anything in your classroom other than worksheets.

I've been taking some major risks this week in regards to student leadership. On Monday, I put our Lead Producer in charge for the class period -- selecting which shots should be filmed (based on the materials that were available), giving instructions to the cinematographer and actors, and maintaining discipline on set. We were able to wrangle some quality footage, but it was definitely more challenging than I'd anticipated. The Lead Producer kept looking at me every time she gave a direction, like: "I think that we should do the shot of Sarah and Bobby walking through the dog pound?" I kept trying to non-verbally redirect her to address her classmates instead of me -- and, by the end of the period, she seemed a lot more confident taking charge. I think that, in another few weeks, I should basically be superfluous in my classroom, which is always my goal.

I also tried having some of our eighth graders choreograph dance numbers for the younger students. That? Was a disaster. I had one student choreographer who stood in front of an entire class and said: "I don't know the dance." She didn't know her dance after two structured work sessions, a final showcase (with teacher feedback), and a written reminder the day before. The other student choreographer had a much better grasp on the material, but still forgot half of the steps once she started teaching. (Understandable. It's sometimes challenging for me, as an adult, to teach. I imagine that it must be exponentially harder for a middle schooler.) The one step that I skipped over with student choreographers this time around, but won't in the future, is a work session where students need to demonstrate how they'd teach the lesson before they're scheduled to go into an actual fifth grade class. I'm not giving up on the idea of student choreographers. I just need to rework the process of training and following-up with them.

So here are my key takeaways for recovering after an instructional misstep (or, how I plan on learning from this week's many failures):

1. Have a packet of go-to activities.
If your lesson implodes into a blazing firestorm, always have a packet of go-to activities copied and stocked in your classroom. Have a list of TV episodes on Netflix (or Hulu or Amazon Prime) that you can turn on in case of emergency. Or an art activity that will get students silently drawing for 10-15 minutes -- while you MacGyver a new lesson plan out of a pack of Expo markers, a ream of copy paper, and half a dozen paper clips. Even if you have a list of Turn and Talk topics taped to your whiteboard, those few seconds where students are focused on each other (instead of you) could be a lifesaver in terms of getting your act together.

2. Take smart risks.
I thought that having student choreographers would be a "smart risk." I knew from watching years of talent shows that our students are able to choreograph independently. I was also acknowledging my own limitations -- in this case, my lackluster dance skills. My choreography would involve a lot of swaying from side-to-side and pointing at the audience. But this skill deficit is exactly what DIDN'T make this a smart risk. When you're taking an instructional risk, it needs to be in an area where you're strong enough to readjust the lesson at a moment's notice. When those student choreographers forgot all of their pre-planned dance steps, I needed to be able to say from the back of the classroom: "Do you think we should add a box step here?" Make sure that you've mastered the basics before you start taking major risks.

3. Take ownership of what happened.
There's nothing wrong with admitting that you tried something new today, and it didn't work out exactly as planned. In fact, it sets a great example for your students. Middle schoolers are terrified of putting themselves out there and taking risks. What if something goes wrong? What if they are totally embarrassed in front of all their FRIENDS? WHY DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND THEIR STRUGGLE?! By stepping up and taking ownership of your instructional missteps, you can show that not only do you understand their struggle, you also take steps to learn from your failures and make adjustments for next time. (And look! You were totally embarrassed and the world DID NOT END!) Remember that your students will (in the words of Sondheim) "look to you for which way to turn, to learn what to be." So make your best behaviors clear so that they can replicate them.

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