Archive for the 'Claudia Felske' Category

Almost a Huge Hypocrite

—By Claudia Felske

Almost a Huge Hypocrite.

That’s me. Well, it was almost me.  

After reading a recent New York Times article on the notion of “smart failure,” I was ready to start next school year by giving each of my students a  “Failure Certificate.” After all, if it’s good enough for Smith College students, it’s good enough for my students. I had learned that these days, students at Smith, receive a  “Certificate of Failure” which reads:

“You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.”

How great would that be for my students? What a relief it would be, I reasoned, for these high-strung scholars, many with 4 or 5 AP classes and as many extra curricular activities on their docket—to receive permission to fail. “Brilliant!” I thought…until I gave it some more thought.

smith

What’s the snag? Doesn’t it make perfect sense? All the en vogue educational experts these days (Carol Dweck’s Mindset research and Angela Duckworth’s work on Grit) seem to be quantifying this wisdom, wisdom which common sense has long purported, namely that we necessarily learn and grow from failure. In order to grow, we must traverse our comfort zones, which often entails failing in order to acquire the kind of experience and first-hand wisdom that ultimately breeds success. We know this.

So then, what’s the problem? Why won’t I be handing out “Certificates of Failure” this fall?

Because the whole thing reeks of hypocrisy. Would Smith, Harvard, and Stanford students have been accepted into these prestigious schools had they lived by this motto? Would they be Ivy Leaguers today had their parents encouraged them to fail? To experiment? To disregard points and grades and test scores in favor of learning?

Is it the very institutions which have perpetuated the need for perfection the ones now hypocritically offering bandaids and ice cream cones to their bleeding victims?

The simple answer: yes. The only reason the solution of embracing failure is needed is because we, as educators, created the problem in the first place. The need to teach the value of failure exists precisely because we have created a high-stakes, grade-obsessed, avoid-failure-at-all-costs educational system to which a student stroll through platitude park is not the panacea.  

It should be no surprise that the institutions leading the charge to embrace failure (Smith, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton) are the most competitive universities around. The perfectionism, elitism, and cajolery required for acceptance into these schools are precisely the catalysts for the anxiety, depression, stress, and suicide rates which have necessitated the “fail up” movement.

Is it any wonder that it was Harvard and Stanford faculty who coined the term “failure deprived” to describe the students dotting their campuses “students (who) seemed unable to cope with simple struggles.” Through observing their students, they recognized the need to encourage productive failure, a need which arose directly from the game their students were forced to play in order to receive their highly-coveted acceptance letters.

More than a bit of hypocrisy here.

I was having tea with a parent the other day, the mother of lovely and extremely high achieving students. The expectations in their family are very high and very clear. She, too, had read the New York Times article and was pondering giving her children a copy of the “Certificate of Failure.”

And again, I couldn’t help but spot the thick coat of hypocrisy in her words. As a parent who expected 4.0’s, could a “Certificate of Failure,” no matter how well-intended, be given in good faith? As an AP English teacher, could I give my students a “Certificate of Failure” knowing that the reason they are in AP English in the first place is because they (and their families) do not subscribe to a “fail to learn” mentality, and that doing so would have likely precluded them from enrollment?

How many of us share our children’s failures as oft as their successes?

How many of us encourage our children to be artists…for a living?

How many of us encourage our children to learn…without grades in mind?

How many of us encourage our students to do what they love even there’s no spot for it on a resume?

The “fail gracefully” sentiment may be bantered about by administrators, teachers, and parents when they happen across an article in the New York Times, but its opposite is clearly expected on a day-to-day basis.

Perpetuating the “fail well” philosophy is sheer hypocrisy. It’s merely handing out band-aids and ice cream cones while ignoring the perpetual bleeding.

Here’s the real message: Maintain your 4.0, do well on ACT and SAT’s (or take them over repeatedly), do what it takes to get into a good college, land a good job, have a responsible life that ensures your economic stability and reflects well upon the rest of us. We can talk all we want about the value of “failing well,” but when our actions speak the opposite, perhaps its time to stop with the band-aids and ice cream cones.

Let’s call a spade a spade.

spadefeature

Unless we’re willing to change the data-driven, high-stakes testing state of child-rearing and educating of which we’re complicit members, we cannot with clear conscience, talk about handing out “Certificates of Failure.”

 

Celebrate. Get Sleep. Be Proud.

– By Claudia Felske

Celebrate. Get Sleep. Be Proud. Anyone who reads my blog with regularity will know that this is worlds away from my previous post: Worry. Lose Sleep. Be AnxiousThe simple reason for this 360? We’re done with our collaborative novels. Done!

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Our 4th hour novelists: Epoch

So, how does it feel, this collective exhale? How does it feel to be click-ready published authors on Amazon.com? First, a glance inside, a peek behind the curtains. As you’d expect, we didn’t go directly from bile-inducing anxiety to euphoric celebration.  There were more than a few bumps along the way.

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Our 1st Hour Novelists: First Draft

Mantra time. I opened the next class period by scrawling my favorite writing mantra on my board as students watched: “An author is a writer who didn’t give up,” a sentence which remained on front board for the duration of the project. I then openly shared my anxiety with them, I shared my sleeplessness with them, I shared my own publishing experiences with them. I explained the level of precision required for publication. I told them that we could get there, but it wouldn’t be easy.Our first sizable hurdle was a sobering reality check after first drafts were turned in. Student writing was not at the caliber I had hoped; rather, it was at a caliber, to be truthful, that terrified me. The prospect of getting these chapters from their current state—underdeveloped and error-laden, in other words, fiction written by freshmen in high school—to publication seemed inconceivable. That night, sleep eluded me. Getting from point A to point Z would require much more than wishful thinking.

After our heart-to-heart, I gave them a survey, asking for their honest feedback. The result (see graphs) is what pushed us ahead. Ninety percent said they felt like with the help of their teacher and editors they could do this. Only three students said they weren’t sure (but they’d try); and only one person said they weren’t interested. Buy-in was apparent. I knew that if we had the mindset and the work ethic (which we clearly did) we could do this. I could pull in the naysayer and provide a structure that would support my writers and get us across the publication finish line.

1 graph graph 2b

Then came the delegation of work. This was a critical step. Yes, I’d be editing each story, but many rounds of editing would have to happen before publication.  I needed help. Recruiting student editors would also give my strongest writers a challenge worthy of their skills. However, it would, of course, mean more work for already busy students. Would students be interested in being editors? cover artists? organizers? Again, the stars seemed aligned: my strong writers seemed to naturally self-identify and volunteer to be editors, my artistically-inclined students started working on cover art they’d submit for a class vote. And the momentum began.

editors

Blanket-wrapped editors on a late-night editing session (the heat was turned off).

What happened in the two months that followed was writing, revising, mini-lessons, pep talks, Saturday and Spring Break work sessions, and did I mention writing? What did not happen was “point mongering.” Not a single student asked “What’s my grade?” They were, as educational researcher Alphie Kohn calls it, intrinsically motivated learners. Remarkably, as freshman in high school, they were determined to write stories worthy of publication, to achieve a degree of excellence that transcended grades. And that, I’m deciding right now as I type these words, is the true indicator of authentic learning, the mark that what we’re doing is truly worthy of my time and theirs. That is the new standard I will hold myself to.

 

boardNow, instead of subjecting you to all of the sordid details of our writing and editing process, I will pass the ball to my students, in their own words. Here’s what they wrote in their blogs the day after our book signing event. I asked them to reflect on the unit and offer advice to next year’s novelists: 

  • I’m a published author! It’s so worth it so look at the experience as a lesson that sometimes you need to do what you find uncomfortable and make it into something fun and worth it in the end. 
  • The biggest thing I learned was I have a vivid imagination that I am really good at putting it on paper. I couldn’t stop writing and I won’t.
  • It was amazing to see people reading and buying OUR book. Just seeing it on Amazon was really cool.
  • I was an editor for my classmate’s chapters and I think I learned more editing than I did writing. I already knew how to write decently, however, I had never critiqued and changed other’s fictional works before. I learned about writing in different voices than what I write in and how to give positive feedback mixed with critiques.
  • Here’s my advice: Treasure and appreciate extraordinary experiences. This really just sunk in for me. I collaborated with a number of very creative and intelligent people and in the midst of that collaboration we created something awesome. 
  • Some people are really bull-headed, others shy, some just don’t like to work with others. People can be difficult. They are difficult because everyone is different. But when making the book we somehow made the book happen. I gained knowledge on how to work with other people and how to deal with things that I really don’t agree with.
  • I am a published novelist! That’s right, you read that correctly! Our English class decided to do something a little different. You might have read books, but we wrote one.
  • It sure was a ton of stress and lots of hard work and many hours spent on this project. I remember how crazy our English teacher sounded when she told our first hour class that WE were going to be writing and publishing a book. A legit, freaking, book!

And my reluctant novelists? The ones who weren’t sure they could do it? Here’s what they wrote:

  • Writing a chapter allowed you to stretch your creative muscles and learn something about yourself that you didn’t know. 
  • All I can tell you is that it takes work to get there, but it’s worth it.

My “not interested” student?

  • The writing process wasn’t my favorite but seeing the connection between stories of completely different people in completely different places in the world was amazing. Overall, I learned a lot from the experience, about myself and about writing. I usually hate the idea of short stories but this story is something I am sort of proud of. Writing is not my dream, but it is definitely be a good skill to have.
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Students proudly signing copies of their novels

Finally, what about me, their “fearless” (a.k.a “fearful”) leader? As one of my students duly noted: I think that this novel really took a toll on our teacher, but it all worked out in the end.” Yes, and yes—a worthwhile toll, I would add. None of it was easy, all of it was worth it.

And now, through it all, we are bound together for 70 years past my death (copyright law, the great uniter).

 

Clearly, it’s time to celebrate, get sleep, and be proud.

Worry. Lose Sleep. Be Anxious.

By Claudia Felske

Worry.   Lose sleep.   Be anxious.  It means you’re doing something worthwhile. 

anxiety glassLately, I’ve been feeling anxious, I’ve been losing sleep, I’ve had daily, probably hourly misgivings. And yes I’m a teacher, so this is all a bit par for the course, but I’ve been a teacher for  24 years—I should be well past the nervous, sleepless, anxiety-ridden stage.

So, what’s going on? I’m trying something in my classroom that I’ve never tried before. Something uncertain, something risky, something unpredictable. And I’m in too deep to turn back.   

I am writing a “class-sourced” novel with my Freshmen English students. It’s a concept I ran across at a conference in last summer. Jay Rehak, writer and English teacher in Chicago Public Schools, has collaboratively written several novels with his high school students.  

“He did WHAT?!” I asked myself this past August, scrolling through the list of conference offerings.

After reading his session description, I gathered my laptop and my free Google swag (the second best thing about conferences) and headed for Mr. Rehak’s session, hoping to have my questions answered, namely: How in the world did he motivate his students to write a novel? How did he get a classroom full of teens to create an end product good enough to publish? How was all of this managed in the context of a teacher’s life (at school and home)? I headed to Room 309 of Whitney Young High School, seeking answers.

Fifteen minutes later, I found myself back on the conference agenda, scrolling for a different session. I still don’t know what happened to Jay Rehak that day. He didn’t make his first session (full disclosure, he had two more sessions scheduled, but as a presenter myself, I couldn’t attend them). He had, however, provided a link on the conference agenda to his presentation slides which was enough to get me hooked on his idea…a class-sourced novel…and enough to send me, five months later, into my current state of anxiety and sleeplessness: I am writing a “class-sourced” novel with my Freshmen English students.  

rehakSo how DOES one write a  class-sourced novel? In a nutshell, Jay Rehak’s method (generously shared and clearly explained in his How To Write a Class-Source Novel  book) begins with the teacher writing the first chapter of a narrative which teens can connect to. Then, each student writes a chapter which can stand on its own as a short story but also contributes to the growth of novel’s larger narrative. Finally, the teacher writes the concluding chapter. And then, the novel is published.

Easy, right? So where’s the anxiety?   

Let me count the places:

  • The Newness: Imagine trying something new. Now imagine this something is a very challenging something. Now imagine you’re trying this very challenging something in front of a class of 30 high school students.
  • The Writing: Writing fiction is itself anxiety-producing, as are many creative acts. Ask any writer about what it’s like to hand your new work over to your first reader.  Now, imagine that your first reader is a classroom full of teenagers.
  • The Release of Control: Writing fiction in English class requires a teacher to relinquish some control and grant a level of freedom that can be a bit unnerving. And then there’s the assessment of fiction:  How does one quantify creativity? How does one grade a work of fiction? It’s much easier to teach more concrete writing: the research paper or a persuasive essay.
  • The Uncertainty. Having students write is one thing; having them publish is another. Last week it was time to read all of the 1st drafts of the chapters. Doing so gave me some encouragement, but mainly anxiety. We have much work to do. The next day, I wrote on the board: “Author: a writer who hasn’t quit.” I shared my anxieties with them and gave them an anonymous survey. All but one student said they’re excited about the novel and they’ll do what it takes with their student editor and with me to get to the point of publication. I can work with that.
  • The ego. Publish a book with my Freshman English students and there they are, and there I am, for everyone to read and judge. 

eustress
That anxiety I’m feeling? I’m certain my students are feeling it too. Collective stress. But I believe it’s eustress, a term from the Greek prefix eu-meaning good, and stress, literally meaning good stress  This is not a new concept. Endocrinologist Hans Seyle coined the term in the 1930’s, convincing the scientific community that a manageable amount of stress elicits optimum performance and can lead to personal transformation. 

So that’s the story I’m sticking with. This anxiety, this stress, is precisely what will lead us to do our best and most meaningful work.

Rehak himself, in his 2016 TED Talk (yes he gave a TED Talk, how cool is that?) speaks of a similar end game: “I can’t promise you big dollars or a spot on the New York Times Best Seller List,” he asserts, “but what I will tell you that if you do write a book (with students) and you publish it…that the joy that you feel and the community that you create and the pride that you feel will bring joy to you for the rest of your life.”

So that sleeplessness? That anxiety? That stress?  These are trivial entrance fees into the land of the worthwhile. They are signs that I’m alive and that I’m doing things that matter. I’m not counting the days until retirement. I’m counting the days until my students see their names in print. I’m counting the days until our book signing event.  I’m counting the days until they see the connection between struggling with words and communicating worthy ideas with the larger world.

dessertSo, fellow teachers, whatever your grade level or content area, I implore you: go to conferences, read professional journals, and seek opportunities to go beyond your comfort zone, to lose sleep and feel anxious, for it means you’re alive, it means you have purpose, and that students likewise will feel alive and have purpose.

That’s worth losing sleep over.

 

She’s the Right Person for the Job if the Job is to Destroy Public Education

By Claudia Felske

This month, I’ll cut to the chase: short but not at all sweet—

Betsy DeVos is President Elect Trump’s nominee for United States Secretary of Education.

DeVos is an activist and millionaire donor in national efforts to divert public educational dollars away from public schools and toward for-profit corporations undermining the original intent of charter schools.

This is the woman set to lead public education in this country.

The charters DeVos advocates have little to no oversight as to the quality of the curriculum, credentials of the teachers, and which students they can deny enrollment. They are exempt from evaluation and monitoring requirements of public schools, many are rife with financial corruption, and many significantly underperform academically compared to their public school counterparts.

This is the woman set to lead public education in this country.

As Diane Ravitch, Department of Education appointee for both Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, said “If confirmed by the Senate—DeVos will become the most radical, anti-public-school education secretary since the Office of Education was established in 1867.” 

This is the woman set to lead public education in this country.  

DeVos has never attended a public school, nor have her children. She has zero experience in public education as a student, teacher, or an administrator. She has no background or experience in curriculum or pedagogy.

This is the woman set lead public education in this country.

Imagine having a new boss at work. Now imagine that this new boss has no experience in your field whatsoever and this new boss has a track record of defunding and destroying companies she leads.   Now imagine that this workplace is every public school in the country. 

This is what we’re dealing with.

So…

1. Educate yourself about Betsy DeVos:

2. Act, email, and call your Senators accordingly.

*The confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos is set to begin January 11, 2017.


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