“Beautiful Oops”: Another Lesson in Making the Best of Mistakes

I thought I was so clever. I thought I had saved myself some time. Survey says…I was wrong! Join me today as I learn from my mistakes and try to make a “beautiful oops.”

The Inspiration:

Earlier this semester, I noticed that my seniors seemed to struggle with on-demand literary analysis. They are perceptive readers who share complex ideas about literature during class discussion, but their analytical writing was convoluted, tortured, and, often, nonsensical. How could I help them express themselves clearly? How could I weave more writing instruction into an advanced literature course (at a new school with a new rotational schedule that I’m still figuring out) without sacrificing the curriculum hours required by the course?

The Solution:

I thought that one remedy for what ailed my writers was a steadier diet of real-world analysis. The #mentortext Twitter thread is full of rich, fresh, contemporary analytical writing to share with students. I found some favorites and shared a collection of links to “Analysis in the Real World” on my class website: welcome to Vulture, NPR’s “Monkey See,” LitHub.com, ALDaily and other fun corners of the internet, kids!   

After posting that list, I created a Google form, a place for students to share what they read and perform some self-guided sentence studies. The form asks students to record the author, title, and thesis of the analysis and then identify a sentence they would like to use in their own writing. Then, students write about literature we’ve studied in a sentence that mimics the moves of their mentor sentence. Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 4.20.05 PM

I felt pretty brilliant as I rolled out this assignment. Look at me using my web design skills! Think of how easy it will be to check for students’ understanding! I can keep using class time for literature study! I’ve given students so many choices for what to read and study independently! How progressive am I? In class, I showed students how to find the form and the mentor text collection, shared a sample sentence study from a recent Slate analysis of Tom Petty’s first lines, and then I left students to complete the work on their own. I planned to check  the spreadsheet of results near each deadline, showcase great sentences when I found them, and help students make small adjustments as needed. Mission accomplished.

Not so much…

The Results:

Though students’ first responses aren’t due until a bit later this week, a few conscientious folks have already turned in one or more of their monthly reports, and…the results are not good. Some students have written about the mentor sentence rather than trying to write like it; some students have selected terrible mentor sentences; and students who have written sentences about our literature haven’t mimicked their mentors at all. Yikes.

What Went Wrong?:

Not all responses have been posted, and students’ answers could improve, but there are enough misfires here to warrant some re-examination. How did my “brilliant” plan go awry? It’s time for some analysis of my own.

Mistake #1: Too Few Examples, Too Fast

I introduced the Google form and assignment quickly, not wanting to take up students’ work time for a separate project. Though I know my students have experience with sentence studies,  we haven’t done many together, nor did I take a long time to discuss or practice with the Tom Petty example. It’s clear from some students’ responses that I didn’t explain the assignment clearly or thoroughly enough. I also didn’t post my model anywhere students could access it. #Fail.

Mistake #2: Too Many Tasks at Once

When I shared what had happened with a colleague, she noted that the form might ask students to do too much at once. Should I really ask students to identify a thesis when the original goal was to study writing style? Probably not. Again, I’d thought I could use the form to efficiently address another problem I had observed–students’ struggle to identify the heart of an argument–but that’s really a skill that warrants a separate study and practice. 

Mistake #3: Not Enough Focus on Craft

When students wrote pastiches of George Orwell’s essays, they had to identify their mentor’s moves and explain how or why they worked. When students analyze the work of our writers, they have to explain how and why the texts “work.” Why shouldn’t they take a moment or two to examine the craft of their mentor sentences and explain why they chose them? As I mentioned earlier, some students actually used the space meant for a “write-alike” sentence to do just that. Maybe I ought to lean into their impulse so I can recognize why the mentor sentences I’ve deemed “terrible” are sentences that students selected. I could learn a lot more about my students’ understanding of analytical writing if I added a question about why they selected their mentor sentences.

What Happens Now?

When I started reading the early survey results, I recognized some of my errors right away and grew frustrated. This year, I haven’t been as innovative nor felt as prepared and put-together as I would like, and the students’ confused responses to this flawed assignment were clear evidence that I’m not on top of my game. But then I took stock of why I’m feeling flustered.

In August, I moved from the midwest to the east coast. After a decade of teaching at the school where I started my career, I’m the “new kid” on a new campus. I’m attempting to swing the pendulum of work-life balance back to center after years of being stuck in the work zone. Mistakes are always bound to happen, and in all honesty, I was due for a big one.

Before I made my big move, a great friend and wonderful mentor gave me a parting gift, Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg, a book that’s all about taking mistakes and turning them into art. My friend knew I’d have plenty of moments this year when I felt like a brand new teacher all over again. Beautiful Opps

I’m not sure what kind of art this Google form sentence study “oops” can turn into, but I know I can start the transformation by admitting my mistakes to students and talking with them about what went awry. We will look at the sentences they tried to write, and we will spend more time in class working with sentence studies and reading mentor texts together. I might revised my form and try again in November, or perhaps I’ll tuck it away and put it back in the think-tank to “marinate” a little longer.

It’s almost the end of the first quarter for some of us; the newness of the year has worn off, and perhaps some weariness has set in. If you’ve faced some setbacks recently, as I have, take this column as permission to forgive yourself, forgive your students, and look for the beauty–the new opportunity–in the “oops.”

Have you turned an “oops” into art? Any favorite mistakes you’d like to share? Please respond in the comments below or on Twitter @msjochman.

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