A Year of Failure (and What I Plan to Do About It)

Craig Gastauer

Craig Gastauer is a Biology Teacher in San Diego County. He is working to understand how he can improve the student experience for all students at his high school. Follow him on Twitter at @CG_Bioteach


enhancing student learningThe 70th Annual ASCD Conference held in Houston truly inspired me (as it does each year I am able to attend). Ideas about personalizing learning and incorporating student voice, developing student inquiry, and creating a risk-taking environment continue to inform the visions of enhancing student learning in my classrooms.

I was most in awe of the ability of presenters and participants alike to admit their mistakes and share how they grew from those failures. Unfortunately, my time at the conference also pointed out that, throughout the year, I lost out on a powerful way to enhance my teaching and student learning: the power of soliciting specific feedback to help me improve.

During the Monday morning session focused on Real Student Engagement with Robyn Jackson and Allison Zmuda, I had the distinct pleasure of being on their “hot seat.” Prior to the session, teachers could report their need for assistance with the potential of receiving feedback from the session participants as well as the presenters.

I shared my failure to successfully engage my ELL and LTEL students in deep learning.  A vast number of these students put forth lots of energy to learn and many have responded positively to my efforts; however, I have struggled to:

  • Engage all students in deep learning rather than only memorizing or developing surface level recall
  • Decrease students’ fear of getting a right answer rather than working to build and refine understanding of larger, more important concepts and ideas
  • Increase productive class discussions rather than observe students only use sentence frames to report what they think I want to hear
  • Inspire students to share their learning rather than only wait to be called upon within class

After learning of my selection to the “hot seat,” the session attendees were able to ask me additional questions to better understand strategies attempted, class size, and additional factors that could influence the learning environment.

Then the magic happened!

Participants shared ideas both orally and via twitter.  Some examples include:

  • Do Ss have a choice in how they communicate their learning?  Do they know how to question themselves and each other’s learning? (@jessiebmiller)
  • @Robyn_Mindsteps reminds us to continually drill deeper by asking 5 why questions.
  • Don’t use strategies as gimmicks! Build relationships and focus on design (@amyharp327)
  • Clarity? Exemplars- do they know what depth and excellence looks like for the task? Culture of excellence (@emarquissee)

Many more ideas came out of the experience and I am now crafting potential ways to co-create learning experiences with my students, developing activities and environments that will help students better understand how to question, and, additionally, using students’ thoughts and ideas to develop exemplars for improved communication about expectations of quality and depth.

So what are my next steps?

  1. Record everything to reflect upon. Rather than only recording a lesson plan and what went well, so-so, or failed, I also need to include perspectives of when I observed real student engagement, what led to their engagement and motivation, as well as students’ voices through their reflections.
  1. Stop being afraid to ask for specific and authentic feedback from my PLN and educator colleagues. Discussions with Allison Zmuda helped me to realize that I could have learned so much this year from my challenges and failures while trying to implement a personalized learning environment in my classrooms. By hiding rather than reporting the experiences, I have lost the emotions and experiences in many of my failures. I have lost the opportunities to ask for suggestions and ideas outside my insights, strategies and current abilities. A growth mindset is only fully opened with the input of others on how to refine and continually improve the learning environment for my students.

So here is my first opportunity to genuinely ask for your input. What else would you suggest I do in order to receive meaningful suggestions focused around learning from my mistakes? Please leave your comments and suggestions below.

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