I sat this morning, stirring, sipping my coffee in one of my favorite Starbucks, wasting time staring at my computer screen.  My mind felt overfilled with ideas, bubbling over the edge, not only from this seemingly reflective time of the school year, but also from some incredible conversations last night with my colleagues.  As a result, nothing cohesive seemed to come out, even though the thoughts in my mind, still waiting to coagulate, were all there in some way, shape, or form.


And so all I decided to write was this:

I don’t know how to write this first sentence.

And then I added:

I don’t know how to write this first sentence, so I’ll write it once.

Until finally I wrote:

I don’t know how to write this first sentence, so I’ll write it once and add on to it.


And then I did it again:

I don’t know how to do anything.

And again:

I don’t know how to do anything, so I’ll try it once.

And again:

I don’t know how to do anything, so I’ll try it once and add on to it.


A seemingly mundane and monotonous task at first, it actually helped, and the result of this simple exercise knocked something loose in my brain, sending me spiraling into thoughts of process and product, and the delicate balance between the two.

I gave a presentation last week, and in the middle of it, a question stopped me in my tracks… but just for a second.  I was presenting with my co-teacher on methods for blending an emergent and standards-based curriculum.  We highlighted some myths behind this false dichotomy and then shared some concrete examples from our classroom.

And then a hand was raised.

“How do these kids learn to fail if they’re doing what they want all the time?”

It was a great question — one that our presentation did not answer, and one worth answering.  How do kids learn to fail in an emergent environment?  How do children find struggle when they’re simply “doing what they want?”

First and foremost, a classroom that values emergent curriculum does not necessarily mean that students are simply participating in choice activities all the time.  Instead, it means that teachers are placing intentionally rigorous provocations in front of students, in an effort to provoke thought, inquiry, and synthesis.  However, when they do participate in choice activities, our role transforms into a facilitator for learning, where we are slowly scaffolding new pieces of activities to help funnel foundational skills into an interest-based task.

And while I could describe, in detail, the puppet shows our students have done this year — or the projects on nanotechnology, drones, the emergent and student-driven lessons on designing our classroom, or solving our fruit fly problems through data collection — the one salient point that comes as a result of all of those examples is this:

Rigorous learning doesn’t have to be horribly painful, and failure does not necessarily mean frustration.

In fact, when we push a child to an unhealthy level of frustration, the exact opposite of what we might intend happens: children shut down, withdraw, and do not interact with material in a manner that’s constructive.  And looking at best educational practices in reading, math, and assessment (among other disciplines) tells us this.  Reading at a frustrational level yields far less gains than consistent reading at a just-right level; likewise, pushing students to advanced math concepts before providing the foundation might yield a strong procedural knowledge, but in the end, it leaves our students in a drought of conceptual knowledge.

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This student was exploring the commutative property for the first time at the age of 7. Clearly, there’s a misconception, but after 10 minutes of re-explaining and trying different angles, it was clear that we’d reached a frustrational level. That’s my cue to scale it back for the next lesson and make it more reachable.

This morning, when I sat down to write, I failed.  I failed almost immediately, simply because I didn’t know what to write.  And instead of shaming myself, dangling an unachievable goal above my head, and trying to jump towards it, I wrote down the truth that existed in my mind at that moment: I wrote down my just-right level. After that, I built upon it, piece by piece.

649 words later, I’m glad I didn’t push myself to unrealistic expectations.

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