A week ago, one of my 7th grade classes sent me into a rant about mistakes. First, TS interrupted his classmate, CM, who was providing a fairly accurate comment about the impact of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin on the demand for slaves, and thus its impact on the growing sectional debate over enclosing or expanding the institution’s hold on the US political, economic and social future. TS shouted, “CM, that is so wrong, duh; the cotton gin never seemed like it might hinder slavery’s spread.” CM has often been on the receiving end of critiques by his classmates, and I’ve been struggling with how to support him in the often unwarranted criticism. I reprimanded TS, and supported CM’s claim, then reminded TS to listen carefully before he passes judgment about a classmate’s idea.
A few moments later, another student, NE, was explaining Lincoln’s idea that slavery should not be abolished quickly, but that it should gradually be allowed to die a natural death. MN jumped on her and sneered, “Ugh, that means Lincoln was a gradualist — don’t you know that?” During group work, I had planted the seed of gradualism in MN’s mind, so the condescending tone certainly came as a surprise.
I also reprimanded MN, and noted that it wasn’t the term that was so important, but rather NE’s appropriate explanation, as she understood it in her own words, that was on target and helpful to the class. MN expressed genuine shock that I would suggest that her tone to her classmate was dismissive and mean.
A few moments later, TT noted, “Ms. D, you spelled assault wrong on the board.” He was right; indeed, I’d left out a letter, as I often do when writing quickly on the board as I record the important ideas that students are generating. I apologized and corrected the mistake.
Finally, when once again, another student sneered and objected to the sincere comment of his classmate, I lost my temper and embarked upon a mini-lecture on really listening to others. I talked with the class about the importance of the struggle that all of them engage in when reaching for the right words and explanations for the ideas that are germinating in their minds. I reminded them that all of us make many mistakes and that the only way to reach new conclusions, insights or knowledge is to make mistakes, take risks, fail, and then figure out how to move on. I pointed out that I make many mistakes in any given day.
Some students listened, but I know some eyes glazed over. Yet, I feel compelled to remind them that putting another person’s ideas down does not enhance one’s own knowledge or understanding. Students who are willing to take risks to understand are often on the receiving end of such criticism. Of course, students who wield social power also use it with the precision of a scalpel to make those without social power feel their lack of status even more keenly.
During my rant/lecture on mistakes, TT got up from his chair and wrote on the board while I was speaking. My back was to the chalkboard, so I didn’t see what he was doing, and when I asked him, after I took a breath, he said, “I was just fixing another spelling mistake.”
Thankfully, it was the last minute of class. But, I did tell TT that he had perfectly illustrated my point. His desire to point out my error was not only poorly timed, but an attempt to undermine my message on acceptance and forgiveness of mistakes. When I confronted him about his decision, he seemed genuinely confused.
This specific incident in class illustrates a more profound reality in my experience of teaching at a private and academically rigorous middle school — my students seem incredibly afraid of failure. When they arrive in 7th grade, many of them have been told, and have experienced, that they are smart, and that they can easily achieve “good grades” without much effort. When the questions, content and structure of learning become more challenging, some of them expect it to come just as easily, and they expect themselves to earn As without much effort. When that does not happen, some students are crushed, others have to build new coping (study) habits, and some rise to the challenge. Acceptance of one’s own failures and mistakes builds resilience — and for students who have never “failed” or made mistakes, even in the smallest ways, the threat of mistakes, or the awareness of imperfection, can trouble their psyches.
My colleague speculated about the drive for perfection and its beginnings. We suspect that high-powered parents have something to do with the expectations of perfection. I wonder if when we are not truthful about early small mistakes, we do quite a disservice to children who have tremendous potential to grow and learn from the little ones, and who might build a sense of self-worth despite the imperfections, failings, and mistakes we all make. For 7th graders, coming to terms with who they are is often a preoccupation, so liking themselves for who they are, even in the moments of mistakes, builds a foundation for accepting and facing with resilience the tears and faults that are certainly ahead.