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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.

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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

 

 

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What do your students need? Back to School Management Tip

 

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I adore pinterest for classroom arrangements and decorations.  One year, I diligently searched and figured out how to make an enormous Chicka Chicka Boom Boom Tree.  Another year I decorated in Truffula trees and Dr. Suess themes.  My fellow teachers and parents raved about the room but I eventually began to ask the question of what the students actually thought of their classroom.  Their answers surprised me and changed the way I both set up my classroom and ran it for the rest of the year.

If I just asked, “Do you like this room?” They answered, ” Yes” until one brave soul said, “It is really pretty but we didn’t make it so it doesn’t feel like our classroom.”  That is a huge statement.  I realized that even though I had strived to have a student centered classroom, I had made a beautiful-to-the-adult-eye classroom and not necessarily what my students needed.

To change the classroom, I started asking lots of questions.  “Do you like it when the walls have lots of colors?  How do you like the lights in the classroom; should we use the light from the windows only or the overhead lights? What kind of areas should we have in our classroom?”  This opened up a whole new world of information to me.  My students didn’t all have the same opinions so we would survey them and then talk about the results.  How can we make these preferences work for everyone?

Getting to know me learning edition (2)

Examples of questions to survey your students on.

What ended up happening was that the class as a whole began to develop empathy and understanding for the different preferences or needs that were in the classroom.  We also began to mix up our day, using the light from the windows for writer’s workshop and listening to background music while we did math.  It also made the discussion of how to make our classroom community the best that it could be a regular part of our classroom culture.  Kids felt free to talk about things that bothered them and then the other students would work on solutions for them.

My room may not look as pinterest ready now, though sometimes the students hit on an idea that we can go all out for, but I’ve gained a caring, peaceful class culture that I would never change.  Parents often tell me that their students feel safe and cared for by both me and their peers.  I couldn’t ask for a better learning environment than that.

You can ask your students a question a day or you can take some class sessions and let them survey their peers.  This is a freebie that lets kids tell you about their learning preferences.  It also includes some follow up activities to let them tally the results of the class as a whole and then form class agreements based on that information.  Just click on the picture below.

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Little Vikings

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Fair vs. Equal

If there are any words I’ve come to dread as a parent or a teacher, “It’s not fair!” is the phrase I dread the most.  It is an extremely hard phrase to reason with.  My husband tells me that when he was a child, he and his brother used to put their drinks side by side every night so they could guarantee that they both had gotten the exact same amount of juice as the other.  My kids try to do the same with popcorn and my students try it with seemingly everything.

The funny thing about these two words is that even though kids (and sometimes school systems) treat them like synonyms; they are not.

What is equal? 

As humans we want to make sure that we are getting everything that we are entitled to.  This sometimes means that if we see someone getting “more” than us, we want to remedy that situation by either getting more ourselves or bringing them down to our level.  In the classroom this pops up with kids when you differentiate work, give small group teacher time, or basically any time that kids can see a discrepancy between their experience and another’s experience.  No classroom functions well if every student gets exactly the same everything.  It doesn’t work because their needs are more varied than making everything equal can account for.

What is fair? 

When I talk to kids, I often make an analogy about a giraffe and a caterpillar.  In this scenario both the giraffe and the caterpillar live in the same place and they both eat leaves.  The ruler of the town decided that there should be a set number of leaves for each animal, so that the town doesn’t run out of leaves.  The ruler decides to divide the leaves equally and gives the caterpillar and the giraffe the same amount of leaves.  I then stop and ask, “Is this fair?”

The kids invariably shout, “NO!” They recognize the innately different needs in terms of amount of leaves between a giraffe and a caterpillar.  I then set them brainstorming how else the leaves could be divided if dividing them equally isn’t fair.  There are usually lots of discussions about this and quite often I’ve had kids decide to get paper or whiteboards to make diagrams  In the end we always come to a solution that takes into account that a giraffe needs more leaves than a caterpillar does to survive.  Also if a caterpillar has too many leaves they could get sick or go to waste.  We then try to sum up our ideas about fair and equal.  Sometimes we’ve said that fair doesn’t mean equal and other times we’ve said that fair is giving each person what they need.  

fair vs equal

When we’ve made our own definition of fair, we bring it back to the classroom.  So is it a good idea to make sure that we always do exactly the same thing for every person?  They now quickly point out some of the different needs they may have or others may have.  I then remind them of the definition that “fair is giving each person what they need”.  I then give them opportunity to think of times in the classroom that things might be different for different people but, everyone is getting what they need.

I have this discussion early in the year, every year and it works.  Since I’ve started using it, I’ve noticed that my students are more aware of their own needs and the needs of others.  I also display a poster that either uses their definition of fair that year or my standard definition.  I’ve included three posters that you can use with your class.  Just click on the image and it will send you to my tpt store.

Fair is not equal

Click on the picture to download.

Little Vikings