Thursday, March 28, 2019

Learning from Failure

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In a recent episode of Sons of Technology: The Podcast, one of two podcasts that I help to create, my colleagues, Joe Marquez, Jesus Huerta, and I decided to talk about something that many people are not comfortable or willing to discuss: failure.  In our world, failure is often frowned upon and not seen as an opportunity to reflect, learn, and prepare to be better in the future.  And while we always prepare talking points for Sons of Technology, we don't necessarily prepare statements and detailed and refined sound bites because we want the conversation to flow and sound natural.  In our conversation, we talked a little bit about some times in our careers in which we failed and what we learned from the experience.  Shameless plug: you can listen to Sons of Technology: The Podcast on Anchor, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts and please tell a friend or colleague, give us a rating on your podcast app, and share your thoughts with us on Twitter by tagging @SonsofTechEDU.

The episode got me thinking a little bit more about times of failure in my 13+ years as an educator. There are so many that I could probably write an entire book just on failures.  However, I don't necessarily remember the circumstances surrounding every failure, and while we should always learn something from failure, that hasn't always been the case. 

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While not an educational failure, there is a level in Super Mario World for the Super Nintendo that I struggled with mightily.  In fact, I even watched a video on YouTube that listed the 10 hardest levels in the Super Mario universe and this level made the list, number two to be exact.  The level is in the Star World's Special Zone, the second level named Tubular.  I tried the same approach to beating the level on numerous occasions, with the same result: death! I would spend nearly an hour on the level before my frustration set in and either moved on to another level or quit entirely.  I wasn't learning from my mistakes and trying to do something new.  It took me finding a YouTube video on how to beat the Tubular level before I finally was able to beat it with consistency.  I certainly won't say that the level is easy now, but now that I know how to attack it, I can beat it with a lot less Marios and stress! 

However, many of the failures in our lives and careers don't have a definitive solution or a YouTube video tutorial.  There are a lot of factors that go into failure at times, so not only am I trying to open myself up and admit failure, I am trying to start some dialogue to include others in a conversation to share ideas in solving said failures. 

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Unless you have just landed on Earth from Tatooine, Hoth, Dagobah, or Jakku, you are most likely very well aware of Flipgrid.  I love Flipgrid!  I love how it's an alternative to more traditional forms of assessment, it's great for students that struggle to express themselves through writing, it allows for dialogue between teachers and students and between students, and it's an educators favorite four letter F word: FREE!  You know who doesn't love Flipgrid though?  My students!   Just the mere mention of Flipgrid with my students will raise a very audible groan from many of the students.  I see that celebration stories all over social media with Flipgrid, and while I am trying, I am STRUGGLING to get students to embrace it. 

In the beginning of the school year, I introduced Flipgrid to my classes with a quick tutorial and had them introduce themselves, well, the very few that completed the activity.  After asking a handful of students why they didn't complete it, many of them stated that they weren't comfortable on camera.  So to address this concern, I gave students the choice to complete a video with the camera covered or turned off so that it was an audio only recording.  I still could not get students to complete Flipgrid activities!  And I still cannot!  I have given students the option to complete from home, complete in the hallway, a variety of topics and I am at a loss at how to harness the power of this tool in my classes.  Most of my students have resorted to completing activities like writing or typing responses rather than using Flipgrid.  At this point in the school year, I am relatively content with giving them a few choices for assignments and getting something rather than nothing. 

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Another very popular lesson and activity that gets a lot of buzz on the socials is the hyperdoc.  It took me a while to fully grasp the idea behind the design and use of a hyperdoc, but after a little help from The Hyperdoc Handbook and numerous sessions and conversations, I finally felt that I was ready to build and use my first hyperdoc with my class.  I spent some time building what I thought was an amazing lesson on the Industrial Revolution, providing a background activity, some activities to build knowledge and skills surrounding the Industrial Revolution, then a reflection piece at the end for students to demonstrate what they had learned.  I even built in time over the course of a handful of class periods to work with the document, as the students had never seen a hyperdoc before.  And while many students completed the activities, the quality of work was not up to my expectations, nor was the completion rate, as my students skipped some of the activities in the document. 

Full disclosure, I felt so terrible about how it went, I have not created and used another hyperdoc since, and this was over four months ago as of the time of this writing.  I wracked my brain over and over again as to what went wrong and why it did not go as planned.  I had grand plans to incorporate hyperdocs on a regular basis and my co-teacher loved it.  But after reflection and a great conversation with Kelly Hilton, one of the creators of the hyperdoc idea and co-author of The Hyperdoc Handbook with Lisa Highfill and Sarah Landis, I realized that it was a great hyperdoc, for down the road after students have been eased in and understand the process.  I put way too many activities into the document, used way too many different strategies and tools (a modified question formulation techinique, or QFT, a Flipgrid response, and a set of vocabulary in Quizlet were all part of it) and completely overwhelmed my students.  I'm not going to lie, I'm still a little hesitant to build and use another one, but soon I am going to sit down, build one, take the risk and use it with my students because it's not true learning from failure unless you try something new! 

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Vocabulary was something that I always dreaded in school.  It was always the same: teacher gives a list of vocabulary, you copy the definitions from the glossary in the back of the book, or the teacher tells you to write the definitions in your own words, turn them in, have a quiz or test on the vocabulary later on.  And in the spirit of openness to admitting failure, I was that teacher for a long time.  But now with all of the various digital tools at our disposal, we can make vocabulary much more engaging and interest.  I like to use a trio of tools for vocabulary in my class: Pear Deck's Flashcard Factory, Quizlet, and Quizizz.  Borrowing from Jon Corippo and Marlena Hebern and their Eduprotocol Field Guide, I like to begin a unit with a vocabulary "quiz" that does not count for a grade to demonstrate students' prior knowledge.  As the unit progresses, the "quiz" is administered a few more times to improve students' retention of vocabulary and to show their growth.  I use Quizizz for the quiz, students are given the terms and definitions in Flashcard Factory to create digital flashcards that either rewrite the definition, use the term in a sentence, or provide examples of the term, as well as a visual depiction of the term.  Once students have created their cards, we work together to create a set of flashcards from the best ones which are then exported to Quizlet where students can practice the terms through a variety of activities that incorporate the flashcards.  We even play Quizlet Live as a class every now and then to have a fun competition while practicing the terms. 

Sounds like a success, right?  Why am I addressing this as a failure?  Much like how my students cringe when they hear Flipgrid, it's very similar when they know that these activities are coming as well.  Many students especially dislike Flashcard Factory, stating that they would rather be given a list of terms and have them define them.  Many especially dislike the drawing part of the slides, which I can understand a little bit if you are not artistic.  But what is most frustrating is how well students have done throughout the year using this system for vocabulary.  Many times, students will score, on average, about 30-40% on the first quiz, then score about 55-65%, before averaging over 80% as a class on the final quiz of the unit.  I emphasize this each time we use these activities and it's so disheartening at times when students don't seem to care about it.  While I feel like a failure, I know that it's working, so I will continue to use it and make tweaks as I go, when needed. 

As we discussed on our episode of Sons of Technology, embrace failure, share failure, learn from failure, start a conversation about failure.  We will all be #BetterTogether if we can have these conversations.  And advertise these failures on social media, it's not always rainbows and unicorns out there, we are not the perfect world that social media makes our profession out to be sometimes.

Until next time... 

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