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AFL, Art Class, and Failure Management

Sometimes you pick up little nuggets of wisdom when you least expect it...


I'm sitting in a hotel room in Williamsburg, VA.  Tomorrow is the start of the annual VASSP conference.  I ate dinner at Sal's Ristorante (lasagna - not bad, but not great) and decided to read a little before going to bed.  I picked up one of the books that I've been reading lately, John Ortberg's If You Want to Walk On Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat - long title, but excellent book.


While Ortberg's book is not specifically about education or the classroom, it deals a lot with fear and failure - 2 topics that do play a major roll in education.  On page 148, Ortberg writes the following:


...another important part of failure management - taking the time and having the courage to learn from failure.


A book called Art and Fear shows how indispensably failure is tied to learning.  A ceramics teacher divided his class into 2 groups.  One group would be graded solely on quantity of work - fifty pounds of pottery would be an "A", forty would be a "B", and so on.  The other group would be graded on quality.  Students in that group had to produce only one pot - but it had better be good.


Amazingly, all the highest quality pots were turned out by the quantity group.  It seems that while the quantity group kept churning out pots, they were continually learning from their disasters and growing as artists.  The quality group sat around theorizing about perfection and worrying about it - but they never actually got any better.  Apparently - at least when it comes to pottery - trying and failing, learning from failure, and trying again works a lot better than waiting for perfection.  No pot, no matter how misshapen, is really a failure.  Each is just another step on the road to an "A".  It is a road littered with imperfect pots.  But there is no other road.


The AFL principles just jumped off the page at me.  This story obviously applied to an art class - or any other class in which something is produced - but I really think it applies to every single classroom in our schools.  Failure is a tool for success.


This story brought the following questions to mind:

  1. Do you give your students enough practice?
  2. Do you give your students enough opportunities to fail?
  3. How could failure (from trying) help your students?
  4. Do you ever try to prevent your students from experiences failure (from trying)?
  5. How could you better explain to your students the importance of failure (from trying)?
  6. How could you better explain to your students' parents the importance of failure (from trying)?
  7. Does your grading system allow for students to learn from failure?
  8. Does your grading system penalize students for failure?
  9. How could you help your students learn from their failures?
  10. Along with opportunities to practice, do you also provide appropriate feedback students know if they are failing? 
  11. What could you do to create a culture of failure - (risk-taking and trying) - in your classroom? 


I want to encourage you to consider how, in the spirit of AFL, you can embrace appropriate failure in your classroom.


Any thoughts? 

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AFL Presentation at VASSP Conference

If any members of this Ning are going to be attending the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals annual conference this week in Williamsburg, I would invite you to attend my presentation on The Heart of AFL.  It will be on Tuesday, June 28 from 1:30-2:30 and will repeat from 2:45-3:45.  Here is a link to the handout for that presentation.


Hope to see some of you there!

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Don't forget the power of SPIN!

Sometimes - or maybe all the time - perception is everything.


We have all realized this at some point or another in our lives.  We have said something, written something, or done something with a positive purpose in mind only to see it have the completely opposite effect due to the way it was perceived.  Perhaps no where is this more true than in the classroom.  Students watch what we do through various colored lenses.  As a result, our actions are often not perceived the way we would like.


This is why SPIN is so important. I know that typically SPIN has a negative connotation.  However, it's a powerful concept in communication.  SPIN doesn't have to mean lying or telling half-truths, as it often does in the political sense.  Instead, think of SPIN as preemptively and proactively making sure that our students hear us the way we intend to be heard.


The concept of SPIN applies to almost any topic, but in this case we'll apply it to AFL.  Assessing students more frequently could be viewed negatively by both students and parents.  Assessment tends to be viewed through the lens that believes students are tested and/or assessed too much.  However, as AFL-savvy educators, we realize that we need to assess more frequently so that both students and teacher receive the feedback needed to make important educational decisions.  This doesn't necessarily mean more grading or more grades, but AFL does mean more assessment.


So how do students react when you start assessing them daily or testing them on a very regular basis?  The answer probably depends on how well you SPIN.  AFL can mean more testing.  Or AFL can mean that the teacher is going to ensure that the students know what they need to know to succeed.  AFL can mean more work.  Or AFL can mean that students will feel more confident in their learning because they have had more practice and more feedback.


Below is what I find to be a great example of proactive AFL SPIN.  Jamie Garst, a Science teacher at Salem High School, has a summer assignment for his IB Biology 2 students.  This summer assignment will require them to come to school during the summer.  Did you hear that?  Students will have a summer assignment AND they will have to come to school during the summer.  I don't know about your students, but ours tend to NOT get excited about assignments and visits to the high school over the summer!


To pull this off, Jamie needs to SPIN.  He needs to make sure his students understand that that his AFL strategies will benefit them.  Read his letter to students (posted below) and assess how he did:


Greetings from Salem High School!

I hope this letter finds your summer break off to a relaxing start. I want to touch base with you to let you know how excited I am to be teaching IB Biology 2 next year. I truly look forward to meeting and working with each of you in the fall.

As part of your summer assignment, I am requesting that you attend a brief workshop on internal assessment laboratories that will be a major part of our year next year. At the workshop, we will learn about the general structure and format of internal assessments, design a simple experiment and obtain data, as well as evaluate labs of previous students. I anticipate the workshops lasting approximately 4 hours. I am offering a variety of dates to accommodate everyone’s busy schedule. 

Workshops will begin at 9:00 AM and will be held in my classroom (RM 266). Please let me know via email at your convenience which date you would like to attend ( If none of the above dates work, additional times can be available.

Following the workshop, you will be required to submit a complete lab write up based on the data we acquire during the workshop. This will be due the first day of school. I realize that the first attempt at an internal assessment is a learning process. The labs will be marked and returned for you to fix and re-submit for an actual grade during the first 6 weeks.

I look forward to hearing from each of you. Please let me know if I can be of any assistance at any time. Sincerely,

James F. Garst


So what do you think?  How was the SPIN?  If I was a student recipient here's how I think I would perceive this teacher's message:

  • Mr. Garst is going to be a very positive person and he seems to like me before meeting me - "truly look forward to meeting and working with each of you"
  • Mr. Garst likes the content and maybe won't be boring - "how excited I am to be teaching IB Biology 2 next year"
  • While I do not want to do summer work, completing this assignment will help me because it will give me valuable practice.
  • I don't need to stress over this assignment because the feedback will be used as practice.  I'll be able to re-submit it for an actual grade after it has been marked.

Of course, SPIN will only get you so far and must be backed up with action and results.  However, the way students perceive the teacher and the assignments either makes the teacher's job easier or harder.  If you're using solid AFL strategies - such as Jamie's summer PRACTICE lab - then you have a genuine source of positive SPIN.  When properly explained to students and parents, it's easy to see how AFL strategies are all about helping students learn.  But it's imperative that we control the SPIN to guide the perception.


Any thoughts? 

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