The power of a mistake maker

Last fall my family took the mini-cruise from Copenhagen to Oslo and back.  This trip was all about our then seven year old twins and we basically spent the entire trip in the children’s section and on the childrens’ activities schedule.  The cruise line cleverly had created a story  with four main characters that guided all of the activities.  You could also purchase merchandise of these characters.  (Yes, we were those kind of parents who did buy the character stuffed animals.) One of the characters was a wizard who could never get his spells right.  His magical attempts always backfired with hilarious results.  I watched as my shy kids after hearing one of the wizard’s stories decided that they could try to make a balloon sword because they thought they could do better than the wizard had.  I later saw them running all over the ship as part of the kids’ scavenger hunt and reading difficult clues, even though they weren’t very confident readers yet.  My son told me, “I can try to read it because if I mess up, I’ll only be like the wizard and I like him.”

Boom.  I had an epiphany.  They were more willing to try things that were new or hard for them because somebody had already made a mistake and made mistake making ok.  Hmmm.  How to translate this into the classroom? I always tell my students that mistakes are welcome but as humans we have an innate need to succeed and do things in a way that we can be proud of.  How can I translate that pride not into the outcome but instead a pride in the journey of learning that might involve mistakes?

power-of-mistakesI always focus on praising the process and not the outcome but I decided to introduce a mistake maker into my classroom.  I bought an extra wizard stuffed toy on the cruise and brought him to my class.  I introduced him to the class and told him that this wizard was there to help our class but that he might make some mistakes.  We had a class discussion about welcoming him to the group and what we would do if he or anyone made a mistake in learning.  I then let him (the wizard)  try to sound out and spell some of our target words for the day.  Wouldn’t you know it; he made a few mistakes but he kept trying.  I made sure to make his responses to his mistakes humorous.  The kids were laughing and shouting out encouragement for him to try again.

I kept the same format up for a week and quickly saw my students in the subjects I had modelled mistakes in … willing to make mistakes.  If they realized that they had made a mistake they generally laughed about it and tried again immediately.  They often wanted to share their mistakes with the whole class at the end of the day.


Here he is counting Danish coins as a challenge for my kids.

I use the wizard all of the time now.  Any character you create will work.  I suggest letting them model common mistakes your students make or will make and then letting them work through those mistakes.  I eventually let the wizard model behavioral mistakes or friendship mistakes to aid my students in their social learning.  It is also nice that they feel they can educate the character about the right thing to do.  This makes every student in your class an expert and that may be a new role for some kids.  They love finally getting to take that role on.

Give your students the chance to as Ms. Frizzle would say, “Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy.” They may be more willing to do it if a kind but hapless stuffed toy models mistake making for them.

Little Vikings




Anytime Games for Rote Facts

I find helping kids memorize math facts, sight words (we call them tricky words), or even the basic phonics sounds in English is a long boring journey.  I have lots of games to help them practice and I invent stories to give a context but at the end of the day it often becomes a drill and kill flashcard run either at home or school.  I couldn’t really accept this so I went on the hunt for more whole class time filler games.

I’m ok with ‘Around the World’ but I hate that some kids never feel successful with it.  I started playing ‘Doggie, Doggie’ to help kids learn sounds and sight words and my wildest dreams came true … they memorized!  I used my sound or tricky words cards and asked the class to sit in a circle.  One kid would be the doggie (use name sticks to make sure you evenly spread this privilege out) and would pretend to be a sleeping dog in the middle of the circle.  While they were hiding their eyes, I would show the rest of the class the word/sound/math fact and then place on the child’s back.  I would then point to a student to take the card of their friend’s back.  My classes like to have everyone make little noises on the carpet to make it harder for the doggie.  When the card is safely hidden behind the new child’s back the whole class chants. “Doggie, doggie where’s your bone? Somebody stole it from your home.”  This is the doggie’s cue to look up and guess who has taken their card.  We give them 3 guesses and then show them the card.  Whether they guess who took it correctly or they are told, they get to take as long as they need to tell everyone else what is on the card.  If they want help from the class they can ask for it.memorize sight words

Kids love this.  My colleague, Mrs. Zahra, took this idea and also played it with “Heads Up, Seven Up”.  Her variation was that instead of pushing down thumbs, students would give out letter cards.  When everyone was able to look up the students had to first say what sound their letter was and then guess who had given them the card.  The kids love this as well.

Both of these games are perfect fillers for odd chunks of time that come up in the school day.  I use them as an incentive at the end of the day or sessions.  Both games get kids excited about memorizing which in turn makes me excited that we’ve found an effective way to kick some of the boring bits out of school.free math facts game

At home, we play a lot of War or Top It with math facts. The best part of this is that the games are easily differentiated for the differing abilities of my son and daughter.  He plays with multiplication; she plays with addition.  He has the adult wait 5 seconds before calling out the answer of the two cards that have been laid down; my daughter has the adult wait 10 seconds.  It works wonders and the kids forget that they are learning – a win.Little Vikings