Tag Archives: Alina Tugend

Why We Should Cry for Change in Education, Part 5

15 Sep

Even though my day-to-day teaching duties are over, I’m enjoying the website Edutopia, founded by George Lucas and others. It seems to be a teacher-supportive mix of practical advice and progressive thinking, with thoughtful bloggers and helpful videos.

This blog headline caught my attention the other day: “The Role of Mistakes in the Classroom,” by Alina Tugend, a New York Times columnist and author of “Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong.” Tugend’s premise is that it’s OK for school kids to make mistakes in math, reading comprehension and other subjects because it’s all in the name of learning. With effort, kids might arrive at the right answers, and even if they don’t, they should be praised for embarking on that road to learning and not just shirking off an assignment because their mindset is that they can’t do it. The concept makes so much sense; the trouble is that it butts heads with our test-scores-are-everything goals right now.

I liked how Tugend called the idea “resilient learning,” and it helped me recall the times I had to coax freshmen and sophomores into writing an essay, any essay, because — I assured them — their efforts would be reflected in their grade. So many of the kids assumed that a poorly written essay would be an automatic F; thus, why put in the effort? So, sure, I graded some pretty rough patches of writing in my time — full of sentence fragments, wandering ideas, cliched openings and conclusions and, yeesh, the spelling errors. But, hey, they were writing.

I could contrast my approach to grading essays to some of my colleagues’ methods and their superciliousness when it came to catching mistakes — an attitude of “aha! I knew I’d find a noun-pronoun disagreement in there!” Should teachers fill students’ papers with critical comments in the hopes of teaching them something? That’s a whole ‘nother topic there.

I saw Francisco the other day when I was subbing. “Look, Ms. Ross, I’m still here!” The odds were so heavy against Francisco when he was in my sophomore English class. He had moved here from LA to escape the gang life, where he had survived a stabbing, only to get lured into the wannabe-gangsta life at our school. Still, he worked with all of his teachers and a magnificent ESL aide to keep up his grades. When the narrative essay assignment came up, he admitted he’d never written more than a sentence at a time. With a little encouragement, though, he handed in a long, heartfelt essay about the mistakes in his life and the quest to become a better man. Full of errors? Yes. Sophomore-level writing? No, but a triumph in narrative voice.

And in just a few months, Francisco will have a diploma.

Here’s a cogent point from the comments section of the blog, said by instructional coach and writer David Ginsburg: “You can’t win if you don’t play–and the way to get kids to ‘play’ is to stress effort more so than accuracy.”

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