Dignity in Defeat

There is lots of talk about how great failure is… in books, articles… all over the Twitterverse people are praising the merits of accepting failure. How great is it, really? When was the last time you experienced a real, core-shaking, devastating defeat? It’s pretty painful.

A couple of years ago it was popular to make compilations of videos of people “failing” at tasks that made them look silly. Guys with skateboards fumbling  rail-slides down handrails; girls messing up gymnastics; trucks miscalculating the height of overpasses; and more. I fell into the trap of watching several of these. Is there something therapeutic in watching others fail? Laughter is definitely a healing salve, and these short clips will cause you to chuckle, for sure. But, many of these videos are bloopers of people attempting to do amazing feats. Where are the compilation videos of successes? Also, the seemingly therapeutic laughter is achieved at a cost, albeit difficult to measure, to the person whose failed feat will live on in infamy forever captured by video shared so that the public can laugh at his or her embarrassment. Make no mistake about it. We are laughing at others’ misfortune.

To be sure there is therapy in laughing at one’s own misfortune. Additionally, there is a trend spreading where embracing failure is being given value. TED (n.d.) has a collection of talks; over 17; on this topic. I have preached the positivity of negative results to science experiments for years. Failure breeds future discoveries and unforeseen understanding. While this very well may be noble, what about the person relying on results to bolster claims necessary for earning a grant to fund more failures? Companies and governments are probably going to be less likely to give money to projects that prove unsuccessful. Defeat can be incredibly disappointing.

Ss with catepillar in front of ship
Students found a caterpillar crawling around the room.

I experienced a deeply depressing defeat at the beginning of this school year. The fact that it has taken me several months to share it illustrates the emotional impact. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to frame it. The story is a little embarrassing and revealing. I had to throw away something that had taken me many hours to build. Money had been spent on constructing something that in the end needed to be thrown out. Were these hours and this experience wasted? Yes… and no.

Cubbies in Nursery
I made these cubbies for my daughter’s nursery, 8 years ago.

Many teachers and parents (Hampton, 2015) experience a sort of nesting phase, similar to a woman about to give birth, prior to the school year. They buy more school supplies than they need, arrange, rearrange, and re-rearrange their rooms over and over, making everything just right, perfect for the new class. Maybe it is a guy thing, or perhaps it’s just “my” thing, but I like to build stuff to get ready for the school year.

The very first item that I ever made was a couple of bookshelves. I love books, and I wanted to have a room full of them. So, I made homes for them. An idea of what I wanted the shelves to look like, how I wanted them to function, and the ease of making them grew in my mind throughout the summer. In between Professional Development sessions and team planning meetings I was drawing, measuring, sawing, hammering, etc. my bookshelves. They came out great, functioned flawlessly, and are still being used… But, the middle shelf was accidentally placed the exact height of the outlet the construction was to hide. It was impossible to plug anything in with the shelves against the wall. This was easy enough to fix. I simply cut a notch out of the unit so plugs had a space to stick out of the wall. From planning to constructing to fixing this problem, the experience prepared as much my pedagogical psyche as it provided a home for my classroom library.

Bookshelves
The shelves are still in use, today!
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You can see the cut away of the shelf behind this crazy pirate guy.

In the next few years I built a classroom island, a castle, a workbench, fish tank stand/hood, and conference table, among other smaller projects. The classroom island was something I obsessed over the summer prior to making it. The cubbies that I purchased for housing the plunder of books I had been pillaging from second hand bookstores were unattractive and sat flush with the floor. My island has a platform that raises the cubbies off of the ground. I made a countertop that covers the ugly cubby roofs and extends backward to allow students to sit under it. With stools it functions just like the kitchen islands that most students have in their homes.

The castle deserves its own blog.

My workbench was really neat. I didn’t like the way the teacher desk quarantined me behind it, cutting me off from the action of learning. One year I took it all apart and lined it up. The parts included the desk that a teacher’s chair can pull under, a similar table/desk with space under it, and two giant filing cabinets. I placed one of the filing cabinets under the table to hold it up; It had been attached to the teacher desk for support. The other filing cabinet was placed at the end of the twelve foot long line of equipment. Similarly to the classroom island, I built a frame of two by fours to attach one by eights, hanging the creation over one of the long sides and the end so that kids could pull up to it like a gigantic table. Because it was slightly higher than their little student desks, most kids stood to work at it. In my pirate-themed room this came to be known affectionately as “The Plank”.

I learned something new each time I constructed something, and many of the lessons involved solving problems. Every creation proved to be incredibly useful, fun, and loved… Until…

This past summer I got an idea in my head that I could not shake off. It consumed my thoughts. I was picturing building a sunken pirate ship, using planks from the classroom workbench. The workbench had served its purpose, and I wanted to do something different with that space in the room. Plus, I needed lumber for this new obsession–Make no doubt about it–I thought about this project constantly June, July, and August of 2018. Each beginning of the year construction project has been a sort of puzzle. My mind bends ideas and works out how I can form structures quickly and use as little funds as possible. The structure is always something that you can’t simply buy, either. Lastly, it has to be both functional and cool looking. The sunken pirate ship was going to be my masterpiece.

First of all it would be almost completely constructed of wood that I already had, making it virtually free of funds. Second of all, what I pictured in my mind did not exist anywhere but the bottom of the ocean. Thirdly, and most importantly, this new project was going to be the most beautiful, complex, impossible to reproduce, no-one-else-could-possibly-make-this-creation the pedagogical world has ever known! And, it was.

Frame
The frame was a puzzle in my mind.

I began by taking a part the beloved workbench and planing each edge of the one by eights so that the angle was 70ish degrees, rather than square. After doing this to all of my planks, I took four foot by four foot pieces of plywood that I brought from home, and I cut out a curve that would serve as the hull of the ship. This was one of the trickiest parts of the project. I brought the plywood up to my room and looked at it for a long time. I wanted the sunken ship to show the curved bottom of the boat, but also come up from the floor at an angle. This meant that I needed a few curved pieces, but different sizes. Additionally, I wanted the model to be the front of a ship, so I had to have the frame graduate from a large curve to a smaller and smaller one. It is almost as hard to write about this as it was to ponder it in my brain. This puzzle took me a long time to solve. Even after I had constructed a frame, it was tricky to figure out how to attach the planks. Should I build the whole thing outside, or piece it together right in my room?

First Plank
The first plank

 

I decided to assemble the ship in my room, rather than run up and down the stairs over and over. I figured out what angle to cut the bottom of each plank, ending at the floor, and attached my first one. It was beautiful, already! Just the success of figuring out how it could work was exhilarating.

I kept adding planks, alternating lengths and looks. I wanted it to look like the front of a pirate ship that had broken in half, so I left some of the boards ending at varying lengths. The front would be cut in an arching round curve, or so I hoped. This was still a little fuzzy in my head.

Partial completionThe top part of the ship would be flat or vertical, having no curve, to show that this was more than just a rowboat. It had been a tall mast ship. I continued the framework and attached more planks. curved front creation

As you can see, from these images, the ship was a work in progress. Much like a sculpture, I was cutting, shaping, adding, removing, and attaching pieces to adjust the art as it evolved. (Through constant formative assessment I made adjustments.)

Some of the shape of the ship would be produced simply through optics. I would position it at such an angle as to make the front of the boat look like it not only curved up, but also came to a seam with the opposite side (which obviously did not exist). One final extremely difficult, mind-bending trick was figuring out what to do with the front of the ship. I wanted it to look like a beam running the spine of the hull. Luan is a very thin wood that comes in sheets and is used for subflooring. You use it to make an otherwise uneven or bumpy floor smooth before laying tile. Because it is so thin, it is very pliable. It was very difficult to bend, hold, mark, and cut, but I got a piece that curved with my boat’s bow pretty well. I tossed around having a spear like staff sticking off the front, also, but the monstrous beast was already nearly touching the ceiling! A broken off point seemed to fit the theme of disaster.

Little did I know the disaster that was about to befall my creation, next.

Fellow teachers from my building visited my room, having heard the commotion or news of my creation. They were increasingly impressed as the structure was developed and took on shape. I remember wanting the boat to have a certain semblance to a ship before inviting my principal, Dr. Moyer, up to see my masterpiece’s progress. When I did finally invite him, I didn’t receive an enthusiastic response. In fact, it took a day before I even heard from him. At the time I was happy to have more minutes to get the ship that much closer to completion. When Dr. Moyer did finally join me in my room, he brought bad news.

Clearly, it pained my principal to inform me that after all of the work that I had put into this beautiful masterpiece, it was going to have to go. It wasn’t his decision. He shared with me an email from maintenance that he had received. The message explained that “The pirate ship being built in room 207 had to be removed, immediately” due to several violations and concerns. Dr. Moyer didn’t see any way around it, but suggested that I talk to the head of maintenance.

The pirate ship was just about done at this point. I called my school district’s head of maintenance several times before we finally connected. Over the phone I told the person who is in charge of not only maintaining all of the district’s facilities, but also responsible for students’ safety that I understood every point that he was making in his email to my principal. I explained that some of the concerns could be remediated and I asked for a chance to make some adjustments to my creation. This saint of a man told me that he would consider my changes and take another look at my project.

This was it. I had to move the ship away from the sprinkler head in the ceiling, make sure the structure was secure, and smooth rough edges as much as possible. I put last minute, finishing touches on the ship to make it look as good as it could… And then, I waited for a verdict.

I am not listing every concern that my masterpiece had raised in the mind of the head of maintenance, but suffice to say, I was unable to completely rectify enough of them to satisfy the justification of leaving the heap of wood in my room, permanently. It was honestly touching how obviously moved this understanding and caring individual was when he told me that, “Unfortunately, the pirate ship still had to be removed from the classroom.”

I had worked feverishly with an obsessed passion to complete this project before school began. I wanted to have this amazing, awe-inspiring, gigantic addition to my pirate-themed room ready for students to appear Monday morning. I couldn’t wait for them to feel the presence of the sunken pirate ship looming in the back of the room. Removing it would be like losing a limb.

Ella and ship
Although temporary, the pirate ship made an impression.

Hesitatingly, I inquired if I could just keep it long enough for students to see it. After a pause, my savior said that he needed the ship removed, but that he wasn’t planning to do a walk through of my building on the first day of school. It was understood that if anything negative happened, it was on me. Having constructed the creation myself, I knew that it was perfectly safe. And, I was very confident in my classroom management, so I took the chance of letting my students at least view the craziest creation I had ever attempted.

Dignified Defeat

I took the pirate ship down. I was okay with this decision because it was made with the safety of students in mind. But, make no mistake about it, this was a defeat, a loss, a failure. As I said earlier in this text, I struggled to publish any information about the pirate ship. I never tweeted images of it or talked about it publicly on Facebook. Was I simply embarrassed? Yes, but even more than that, my dream was defeated.

…Or, was it?

I told the head of maintenance that I had envisioned this creation over the summer, and I felt like I just HAD to make it. He suggested that I speak to the people who produce plays at the high school to help with making their sets. There was a respect for my creativity. I’m not sure that he ever completely understood, but I could not NOT construct this pirate ship. I had to see if I could do it. I had to see if my vision would work. I had to see if I could puzzle out the angles and curves. I had to see what it would look like. Could it become anything even close to what I envisioned? As it turned out, yes, I could. Yes, I did. Yes, it was… beautiful. And, now it is gone.

I eased myself into my defeat by thinking I would reconstruct the ship down by my pool. But, I’d have to build a whole new frame, and I didn’t think that the low-quality wood would hold up outside. In the end I let the thing get moldy and threw it all away.

A chess tournament training I attended recently shared what kids must master before attending their first match. They have to know how to checkmate or win a game. They IMG_1708should know how to operate a chess clock. There are a couple other elements, but what stood out the most to me was the idea that kids must learn to lose. At the time I pictured my 7 year old daughter who hates losing. She has melted down to tears when she loses. But, since then, I have mulled this concept over. At both the beginning of a chess match and at the end you shake hands. It is different from other sports. You don’t jump into competition and then slap hands carelessly at the end, chanting, “Good game, good game, good game,” while never looking the victor in the eyes. A dignified defeat is thankful for the opportunity to learn through this match. I was able to try out my skills, make some good decisions, show my stuff, prove myself to myself and perhaps others, and I am now a better stronger person having competed against you. Maybe, like a match I played against someone better than I, the outcome will be a feeling of “At least I held my own.” There is dignity in that attitude. Dignity is an attitude.

In conclusion, I am pleased to profess that although my room does not dawn a disaster of a sunken pirate ship, it does house one classy educator who has learned the lesson of dignified defeat.

What defeats have you dignified?

 

Sources:

Hampton, K. (2015, August). THE ART OF AUGUST NESTING. Retrieved March 16, 2019, from https://kellehampton.com/2015/08/the-art-of-august-nesting/

 

TED. (n.d.). A collection of TED Talks (and more) on the topic of Failure. Retrieved March 17, 2019, from https://www.ted.com/topics/failure

 

Building Bridges–Classy Connections

Earlier this year a student from my room hurt the feelings of a peer by pointing out a physical characteristic that contrasted the child’s appearance with the other kids in the classroom. The rudeness was unintentional (Whitman, n.d.), but painful nonetheless. 

firstThe only reason that I knew about this interaction was the hurt child came over and told me about it. It almost seemed like she wasn’t sure if she should be upset or not. As she told me her story, others, overhearing the tale, chimed in with their two-cents. This additional commentary seemed to spin the story into a negative frenzy, so that I put an end to the retelling in order to address the class.

I talked to my third grade students about the effect that pointing out differences among people can have. I explained that while the observant student may not have done anything overtly wrong, it wasn’t polite to focus on what makes someone different from you. It is great to be proud of what separates you from others; These characteristics make us unique and special, but don’t draw attention to how other people are different from you. Rather, we should celebrate our similarities.

secondWhat the boy did when he pointed out the way a little girl looked different from himself was a natural thing to do. We humans can’t help but categorize things (Vanderbilt, 2016). We have genres for music, books, movies, art, dance; You name it! It’s much easier to find things when they are labeled. When I’m in the mood to read a mystery, it’s much faster and easier to go to that section of the bookstore, rather than sift through every single shelf. But, what about those books that are very funny true stories about a person’s life that happen to also be highly mysterious? Now what? Often times, we simply create a new category.

silly facesTom Vanderbilt (2016) goes a step further, suggesting that the more we like something, the more we want to categorize. A person who enjoys candy will separate a bag of treats into several groups of like sweets. How many times has the book-lover rearranged his or her library, recategorizing titles? I have grouped books that I read close in chronology, only to separate them after reading new texts.  

The problem with doing this to people is that genre-making exaggerates differences (Kaufman, 2012). When we categorize things, we look for what makes them unique. When it comes to relationships, it is wise to seek similarities over identifying differences. Contrasting characteristics can create wedges and rifts between people. Locating, examining, celebrating, and strengthening the things we have in common will pull people closer together. This will build relationships that will be useful, helpful, comfortable, and enduring.

IMG_0463I came up with an activity to help reinforce this concept in my classroom. I call it “Building Bridges”. We have a snack/play time in the afternoons, when we give ourselves a brain break. I instituted a “constructive” play rule, where kids use items that can be connected or built upon in order to make things, rather than just mess around. We have Legos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, 30+ year-old Robotix toys from my childhood, and we also use the colorful interlocking blocks that came with our math curriculum. Because we have the most of this last medium, I chose to have the whole class use the colorful blocks in a contest. (The competition makes it more exciting.) Groups of kids–I not only let the kids pick their own groups, I didn’t limit the size of groups–arranged and connected blocks to form bridges that spanned distances between desks. I told them that the bridge had to be able to hold and transport a Thymio robot–This is a little robot that students can program to drive. The robot was the trick. Students worked to make their bridges wide enough, thick enough, and strong enough for the robot to use. Rather than drop robots on the floor during trial runs, we measured the weight with a simple scale. The robot was equal in weight to a half-full pencil box.

We discussed the concept of working together right after having experienced it first-hand. The kids loved constructing the creations.

The thing is, the blocks in our bridges were all different colors. Not only that, but they stuck together in varying strengths. Some had tight connections. Some were very loose. But every block had way more in common with the others than it did with the desk it rested on!

In the same way, humans are all different; We look, think, behave, talk, dress, and smell different. But, we have way more in common with each other than our differences would let on. Lets focus on our connectivity, building bridges, rather than tearing each other down.    

last
Celebrating similarities is classy.

Sources:

Kaufman, S. (2012, October 13). The Pesky Persistence of Labels. Retrieved November 5, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beautiful-minds/201210/the-pesky-persistence-labels

Vanderbilt, T. (2016, May 28). The Psychology of Genre: Why we don’t like what we struggle to categorize. The New York Times. Retrieved November 5, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/opinion/sunday/the-psychology-of-genre.html

Whitson, S. (n.d.). Is it Rude, Is it Mean or Is it Bullying? Retrieved November 6, 2018, from http://signewhitson.com/is-it-rude-is-it-mean-or-is-it-bullying/

It’s #Playtime!

For years I’ve let my students bring in a snack, but I usually have them eat it while working. I tried that this year, but quickly realized that this wasn’t going to work.

IMG_5667
These kids missed the classroom #playtime, so they took a brain-break in the hall.

Because of an early lunch, my students and I have a very long afternoon. Our math time is from 11:30 to 12:30. Then I have Language Arts time until 2:25, when Special time begins. So, I have students for about three solid hours!

I never even considered playtime before. I figured, that’s what recess was for. But, a class I am taking from Kutztown U changed my mind. During snack time, I have introduced our classroom makerspace. I am calling it playtime, but the idea is that students will be involved in creative creating or building. 

 

IMG_1276
Learning Social Skills

Mission Statement: 

Students will take a break from formal learning every afternoon post Math time and prior to Language Arts learning (12:30-12:50, approximately), in order to creatively construct things with a variety of toys and tools, while snacking.

Philosophy: Hybrid of “Open Space” (self-driven) and “Workshops” (learning/practice time)

Screen Shot 2018-10-07 at 7.18.01 AMMerriam Webster defines playtime as “a time for play or diversion” (n.d.). The very first time I introduced this idea, I talked all about the concept and went over the parameters or policies prior to math time. Then during math we used connecting blocks to build arrays that  were broken apart, displaying split multiplication problems. When math time was over, I told the students that they could keep using the blocks, but now, they could “Build whatever you want.” They were in heaven. It was like I had taught them the proper way to use the monkey bars, and then told them they could play all over the playground doing anything they wished. Stay within the fence, and follow the general rules, but have a blast and blow off steam. They sure did.

Playtime isn’t relegated to only grade-school pupils; parents and adults can benefit from merriment as well (Chatty Feet Team, 2016). It helps us relax and promotes problem-solving skills. Also, it will help us play with our kids better. Libraries are using playtime to help kids develop literary skills. Parents at a library in Texas get out toy cars, tape, race tracks, and bowls of tiny road signs (Celano, Knapczyk, & Neuman, 2018, p. 68). Playing and building with these road toys helped the kids learn some of the concepts necessary for understanding the read aloud they were about to experience.

Policies

This is NOT a “free-for-all”, nor is it even “free-time”. It is playtime, and it is governed by rules.IMG_6875

  1. No fighting or arguing.
  2. Don’t be too loud.
  3. Share/Play nice
  4. Keep clean; Wash hands first/keep snack away from toys.
  5. Don’t be gross. No licking your fingers and then touching the toys. (I’m not even going to mention picking noses.)IMG_6999

Supplies

I limit the supplies that my students have access to during their playtime. I do this for a variety of reasons. One is that I want this time to be manageable. If there are ten different things out and spread around the room, it will take too long to clean up. Another reason that I limit the supplies is because I want the groups of students to interact. If one group is playing with Legos and another is building with Lincoln Logs, kids will not be as likely to share, collaborate, blend groups, etc. They have to stop playing with Legos in order to work with Lincoln Logs. Eventually, I want to see the class creatively incorporate a variety of building mediums into the same project, but all in good time. I want the kids to have some experience with each one, learning, exploring, and problem-solving with a single medium before branching out and combining.

Here is a list of the mediums that I have so far.

IMG_9554
Abe Lincoln may have carved these, himself. They are from my childhood!
  • Connecting blocks
  • Legos
  • Lincoln Logs
  • Tinker Toys
  • Robotix
  • Thimios (robots)

Potential Future Play Mediums: Video and Music

A future direction of this playtime that I foresee is publishing videos. Students will use the things that they have built to produce films with plots and themes. I imagine these to be silly and fun; Remember this is playtime! I can picture students making Monty Python-esque cartoons, old school Gumby claymation-style movies, and motion-stop videos.

Publishing videos on Youtube is scarily public. Students and kids have no idea what that means. They are lured by the fame of notoriety and the glamour of numbers. The idea of something going “viral” is the new “anyone could be president”. Except that there are serious hurdles to achieving most powerful person in the world, while going viral needs nothing more than a video camera, creativity, and luck… mostly, luck. And, every kid in America is banking on luck, these days. What if one of our videos did go viral? It is important that our movies present an accurate picture of our playtime. 

When kids publish to Youtube or another online video platform, they are taking their play on the road… or information highway. What kids want is for their numbers to rise: They want the number of views to go up. The way to do that is to promote the videos, but more importantly produce something that people want to watch. In the same way that playing the games that others enjoy playing will get more people to join your playtime activity, videos that are attractive will get the views. In the incredibly interesting and informative article on this subject, “Raised by Youtube” author Alexis Madrigal (n.d.) writes about a company that I hadn’t even heard of: Chuchu Tv. This company is dwarfing Disney, Sesame Street, and all the rest of American video producers on Youtube. Their BILLIONS of views make these other companies look like online ants. The Indian-based company uses seemingly lotech imagery–two-dimensional characters to tell traditional nursery rhymes. Madrigal (n.d.) went to the headquarters and interviewed its creators and CEOs. The concept began with an audience of one: The creator’s toddler. The entrepreneur with a background in media began making videos for his young son. They almost instantly took off and went viral. He now employs 200 artists. Compared to Disney’s thousands of employees, this number is infantesmal! The mission of Chuchu Tv is to provide wholesome videos for toddlers that share moral messages. Madrigal spoke with a child development expert who reviewed Chuchu’s videos, Colleen Russo Johnson from UCLA’s Center for Scholars & Storytellers. She told him that the videos were so overly-stimulating that the good message is lost on young kids. Chuchu was born on the concept of seeking the most views. Although its mission is admirable, Chuchu plays to what is going to be viewed the most. Johnson sees this as dangerous, because it will develop viewers who want (need, like an addict) more and more stimulation.

I’ll be blogging about this a lot in the near future, but suffice to say, the app Garageband is a virtual playground of music. We had one lesson with Dylan Peters, and I now have to pry the iPads out of student hands!

Screen Shot 2018-10-07 at 7.17.33 AMMy students and I are super excited for this new #playtime initiative. I haven’t told them about making videos, yet. But, our creative building has completely revolutionized our Language Arts time. Kids are more attentive, well-behaved, and cooperative in centers, after having a brain break. I look forward to sharing more about this time, how it is working out, and what my students are producing throughout the year. Please share with me articles that you have read that either support this idea, add to this concept, or even contradict my thinking. Thank you.

Sources:

Celano, D. C., Knapczyk, J. J., & Neuman, S. B. (2018). Public Libraries Harness the Power of Play. YC: Young Children, 73(3), 68. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy-kutztown.klnpa.org/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=edb&AN=130304856&site=eds-live&scope=site&custid=s3915793

Chatty Feet Team. (2016, June 14). Why It’s Important For Adults To Play Too. Retrieved October 7, 2018, from https://www.chattyfeet.com/blogs/chattyfeet-socks-blog/the-importance-of-play-for-adults

Madrigal, A. C. (n.d.). Raised by Youtube. Retrieved October 6, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/11/raised-by-youtube/570838/?utm_source=twb  [No publishing date, but available in the November 2018 print edition.]

Merriam Webster. (n.d.). Playtime. Retrieved October 7, 2018, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/playtime