Lessons from the Fall: Restart and Rebuild

Greetings and welcome back! 

I hope you enjoyed the time with your family and were able to use the holidays to reflect on an amazing 2013. With a couple of school weeks under our belt this semester, I am ecstatic to see how well students have re-engaged in their classes. We have hit the ground running in the middle school, and all systems are a “go.”

I’d like to take the time to visit a very important topic: failure. Always a sticky conversation in a high performance environment such as St. Thomas’, we have traditional ways of measuring failure in the middle school, such as grades, making the ‘A’ team, winning a competition, etc. But failure cannot be determined based on place; failure is not absolute. Failing to achieve one’s goals occurs all of the time, and serves as one component of our learning journey. In fact, I’d argue that failure is fundamental to success, especially during the middle school years. Initially, there are two common approaches to failure that I witness in the middle school: First, students work very hard to avoid failure rather than confront it. This may result in underachieving, “skating by,” or “flying under the radar.”  Students often think that not failing is equal to succeeding; we recognize and strive to teach that the effort is a success in and of itself. A second method aligns to our true goal for learning while in middle school. This method focuses on confronting failure to analyze it and prevent it from occurring in the future. Unfortunately, the modeling our students receive from contemporary media demonstrates the former method more often than the latter. As adults, we understand that the best way to prevent failure in the future is to learn from our past mistakes. However, teaching this to a young person who has come to believe in the black-and-white finality of an ‘A’ vs. ‘not an A’ proves most difficult. It is our job as parents and educators to help students see the long term impact of learning from mistakes and rebuilding based on what they have learned through trial.

This is the perfect time to have a conversation with your child about what to do with first semester teachings…not classroom content, per se, but lessons learned throughout the academic effort. So where does the conversation begin?

Dr. Vicki Zakrzewski, education director of the Greater Good Science Center, describes this conversation in her article “How to Help Kids Overcome Fear of Failure” (greatergood.com). She expands on the two basic methods I described earlier by creating four distinct groups of students based on they handle failure. Here they are:

  1. Success-Oriented Students: These are the kids who love learning for the sake of learning and see failure as a way to improve their ability rather than a slight on their value as a human being. Research has also found that these students tend to have parents who praise success and rarely, if ever, reprimand failure.

  2. Overstrivers: These students are what Covington calls the “closet-achievers.” They avoid failure by succeeding—but only with herculean effort motivated solely by the fear that even one failure will confirm their greatest fear: that they’re not perfect.

    Because the fear of failure is so overpowering and because they doubt their abilities, Overstrivers will, on occasion, tell everyone that they have very little time to prepare for an upcoming test—and then spend the entire night studying. When they pass the test with flying colors, this “shows” everyone that they are brilliant because their “ability” trumped the need to extend any effort.

  3. Failure-avoiding: These students don’t expect to succeed—they just want to avoid failing. They believe that if they extend a lot of effort but still fail, then this implies low ability and hence, low worth. But if they don’t try and still fail, this will not reflect negatively on their ability and their worth remains intact.

    In order to avoid failure that might be due to lack of ability, they do things such as make excuses (the dog ate my homework), procrastinate, don’t participate, and choose near-impossible tasks. However, this can put them into a tricky position when they encounter a teacher who rewards effort and punishes for what appears to be lack of effort or worse. Ultimately, there’s no way out for these students—either they try and fail or they’re punished.

  4. Failure-accepting: These are the hardest students to motivate because they’ve internalized failure—they believe their repeated failures are due to lack of ability and have given up on trying to succeed and thus maintain their self-worth. Any success they might experience they ascribe to circumstances outside their control such as the teacher giving them the easiest task in a group project.

(taken from www.greatergood.com)

Dr. Zakrzewski adds that the way we respond to student failure plays a pivotal role in how a child measures personal success, aka “living in fear” of failure vs. embracing failure as a tool for learning. This response applies to parent and teacher alike. As stated earlier, your child’s teachers at St. Thomas’ strive to help the child learn from his/her mistakes. From test corrections which identify errors for the purpose of preventing them in the future to general conversations focusing on “what to do next” (and not focusing on how bad things might be), our teachers work hard to develop learners who use grit and determination to reach their goals. Should a roadblock appear, we find a way around it together.

I invite you to reflect on these categories and how they may apply to your students. Using the links provided, you can read the entire article online to gather more tools on how to manage this conversation as the semester rolls ahead.

Lastly, please read the notes below on upcoming events and a change to our future curriculum.

1. Homework Goals:

As students and teachers readjust to the school year and as more after-school activities begin to creep into the afternoon schedule, time management is crucial with regard to completing homework. However, as much as time management plays a part, so does rational thought. We all recognize the value of sleep, and we know that homework time should be an average of 2.5 hours a night according to the handbook. Should a student spend more than 25 minutes on one subject, I advise that student to move forward and change to a different subject. I know that this may leave an activity unfinished; however, the 25-minute rule will allow for time spent on all subjects. Should there be enough time after all assignments have been visited, then a student can circle back to the incomplete work and finish it. Assignments are expected to be complete at the time they are due in class. But turning in a complete assignment late will prove more beneficial over time than sacrificing one subject to complete another. Balance is key; I am happy to speak more on this subject as you see fit.

2. Changes to the Middle School Spanish Program:

We are continuously analyzing our curriculum for ways to improve the delivery of concepts while maintaining adequate rigor. Reflecting on the presentation of material in Spanish during grades 6-8, the language department has met to determine a more efficient program for middle school Spanish. While we all agree that our current middle school program sufficiently prepares students for Spanish II placement at St. Thomas’, the new format will increase student capability upon entering the high school language program and allows for placement into Spanish in any grade level.

  • Course Design:

    • 6th Grade – Introduction to Middle School Spanish I: Vocabulary & Communication

      • This course meets every other day

    • 7th Grade – Introduction to Middle School Spanish II: Grammar

      • This course meets every other day

    • 8th Grade – Spanish I

      • New: This course meets every day

  • Notes on Changes:

    • Students taking the new Spanish format in 6th and 7th grade will matriculate into the 8th grade program; however,

    • Students not taking either 6th or 7th grade Spanish at STE will need to take a placement test to show readiness for our 8th grade program.

  • Students will continue to have the option to take Spanish I in 9th grade.

Note that this program will be effective for the current 6th grade class and all classes moving forward.

3. TX History/Washington, D.C. Trips:

Our 7th and 8th grade trips will occur over the 23rd-26th of April. Though the Washington, DC trip (exclusive for 8th graders) will last a little bit longer, it is expected that every 7th and 8th grade student attend one of those two trips. At this point in time, registration for the DC trip is still open. Please inquire with Mr. Tim Russell and plan on attending the informational session (date and time TBD)

  • Note that ALL medical forms need to be with Mrs. Anne Sexton prior to leaving on the trip.

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