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Learning and Growing From Our Mistakes in the Classroom

Whenever I visit New York City, I almost always look for rats scurrying about under and around the subway tracks. I blame Colleen Cruz for this. Nearly 15 years ago, I listened to Colleen talk about how she finds ideas for writing, and one of them was the rats of the NYC subway system.

You would’ve thought that was reason to stop listening to her, but she became one of my favorite pessimists (as Kate Roberts dubbed her on Twitter) and educators. I’ve had the good fortune of learning from Colleen for many years — taking workshops, listening to keynotes, and reading her books. This is why I shouldn’t have been surprised by how much I love her latest book, Risk. Fail. Rise. A Teacher’s Guide to Learning from Mistakes.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my teaching career. (You can read about some of my top hits here, here, and here.) Somehow Colleen has been a witness to all of them. Fortunately, I’ve learned and continue to learn from most of these mistakes because I’ve worked in schools and with colleagues that have provided a supportive environment to risk, fail, and rise. But not all teachers (or kids) have been so lucky. That’s where Colleen’s book comes in.

In this “choose-your-own-adventure” book, Colleen presents a series of essays that you can read in any order or alone. Once I started listening to the audiobook, I couldn’t stop, so I just listened to it from beginning to end. These essays layout the research behind mistake-making, the different types of mistakes we make, how we recognize and learn from our mistakes as teachers, and how we can create a mistake-embracing culture in our classrooms.

There’s also a set of lessons at the end to use with our students to teach them about errors and how to learn from them. No more telling our students, “It’s good to make mistakes!” without walking the walk!

It’s hard to name my favorite essays in this important book. I found myself making connections to every one of them, but here are a few that resonated with me the most.

Essay 1: Mistakes Cost More for Some

At the beginning of this essay, Colleen describes a scenario that many of us who have been teaching for any amount of time, has experienced: 

You see a student punch another student. You ask the student, “Did you just punch him?” The student denies it, and when you say, “But I saw you do it!” the student responds with, “They punched me first!”

You can insert many different possible mistakes here, but the point is that it’s human nature to protect ourselves and avoid consequences. Oftentimes this takes the form of emphasizing intent over impact like the scenario described above or in the words, “But I didn’t mean to.” This is true for both kids and adults. Sometimes we might say, “That wasn’t what I intended.” This essay helps us recognize the impact our words and actions have on students and their families, especially given our position of power as teachers. Colleen also shows ways to gracefully own our errors and repair the harm we may have caused.

Essay 4: Common Cognitive Error: Fear Makes Us Vulnerable to Mistakes

This essay spoke to me as both a teacher and a literacy coach/staff developer. When I reflect on some of my biggest teaching mistakes, such as using some form of behavior charts for far too long, I can trace back one of the biggest reasons to fear. Fear that others would think that I didn’t have control of my classroom. Fear that I actually didn’t have control of my classroom! It was that fear that kept me from making better decisions. As a literacy coach, teachers are often trying things that may be out of their comfort zone. Reading this essay reminded me of the responsibility I have to ensure I’m providing a safe environment for taking risks. Colleen’s essay gives us tools to reflect on common categories of our fears and prepare for them. “By thinking more about what you can do to mitigate that category of fear, what strategies you can take to avoid the worst-case scenario that causes you to act, not think, we can prepare ourselves.”

Just as important as the work we can do to reduce our fears, this essay also shows how we can use the power of storytelling to help reduce our students’ fears. More specifically, it shows how to use story editing — looking back at events that have happened, analyzing them, and reimagining them in ways that offer a more positive interpretation or outcome.

Essay 6: Thomassons: Maintaining Mistakes for the Wrong Reasons

When I read this chapter, I wondered whether or not Colleen had been spying on me in the classroom. First, let me explain the title of this essay. Thomassons, a term coined by Japanese artist, Akasegawa Genpei, are architectural elements that are characterized by the fact that they are “completely and utterly useless” and “being maintained.” I can think of some of these in the school buildings I’ve taught in — one of my favorites are the many signs on doors that have nothing to do with the rooms they’re attached to but never removed. In education, we also have Thomassons, those practices that are utterly useless, but we continue to maintain. Did I ever tell you about how I used behavior charts?

While reading this essay, I recognized so many Thomassons in my teaching, our school-wide practices, and many classroom and school policies that continue today. Colleen shares examples of some common Thomassons and explains why they’re problematic. She also helps us to name our practices and challenge them. After reading this essay, you might feel uncomfortable, but you’ll probably be ready to let go of some of your own Thomassons.

Throughout this book, Colleen allows us to confront our mistakes and learn from them without judgment and weaves in issues of equity, and reveals how our intentions may have greater negative consequences than we realize. I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say that this should be required reading for all educators. Don’t make the mistake of missing this book!

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