Friday, October 25, 2013

Failure: 20% Time, James Cameron, Nasa, and my first PG-13 movie by myself.

It was 1995, I was 13 years old, which meant one thing: PG-13 movies by myself. Having just moved to a fairly conservative Utah community, this right of passage could not be overstated. I had seen my fair share of PG-13 movies, but never by myself. I had planned this out down to the minute. On my birthday, which happened to fall in the summer, would include a small family gathering with cake and Mr. Pibb, following which my friends and I were going to go to a movie. This was what I told my parents. What I didn’t tell them was that we were meeting up with some girls, something completely forbidden by our parents. This was a pretty risky move on my part and required careful planning. We were to be dropped off by our parents at the theater at 6:30 for the 6:50 film. The girls were to be dropped off 10 minutes later to avoid overlap. The movie was Apollo 13, it was either that or Batman Forever. As a huge Batman fan, there are two things that fell incredibly short in my book, the recent announcement of Ben Affleck as the Caped Crusader and the entire Batman Forever Film (I refuse to acknowledge that Batman and Robin even exists, just as I refuse to acknowledge Rocky V). It was the right choice, and the plan was perfect.
We arrived at the exact time as planned. We went in, got popcorn, saved seats (boy/girl/boy/girl of course) and waited. 6:40 came and the girls didn’t. 6:50 and still nothing. Seeing as it was before cell phones, we played Paper/Rock/Sicissors (The correct form as it is in alphabetical order) to see who would go call and see if they had gotten lost. My lifelong buddy Zach, lost and headed out to the phone booth. He returned a few minutes later, midway through a trailer for Waterworld, shaking his head. The girls had chickened out. The fact that this could be a foreshadowing for my dating life is another topic for another post. However I remember sitting there being very disappointed, watching one of the greatest movies of the year. Each moment seemed to detail my early teenage angst.

At one point, as Ed Harris, playing Gene Kranz, is in a brainstorming room with other NASA members. They are trying to bring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon home. As they come up with a temporary plan, Kranz says “We have never lost an American in space and we sure aren’t going to lose one on my watch. FALURE IS NOT AN OPTION.”  I remember thinking at the time about how we had everything planned out perfectly with those girls, and if I had just planned it out better, I could have said to my buddies, the same exact thing.
This became a big phrase for me. I could have tattooed “Failure is Not an Option” on my forehead and it wouldn’t have been less on my mind than it was. I used it as I played sports in high school. I used it  as I dated my soon to be wife (thank goodness for that) and used it as I was in college and entered into the job field as a teacher. I even, to a certain degree, used it with the kids I taught and coached.
The problem came my first year of teaching.
I had some great experiences my first year. I met some fantastic kids, taught some fantastic lessons, and felt like I had made an impact albeit small, on the lives of most of my students. As I reflected on the year, however, I realized that there were a few parts of my curriculum that I wasn’t particularly strong at and it reflected on my students end of the year tests. Though most of my students did fairly well, and all passed, I felt like I had failed them at least a little bit.
If failure wasn’t an option, then I was essentially a failure. That summer I came across a Ted Talk by James Cameron. Yes, James Cameron of the Avatar and Titanic fame. Yes, James Cameron, who was sung to in one of the greatest moments of Youtube history by Julian Smith. If you have 15 or so minutes, please check it out. It’s amazing. He essentially took most of what I had thought and had learned from in Apollo 13 and threw it in the garbage. James Cameron, one of the most creative film minds in history, said “Failure is an option.”
Now we have all heard the quotes from Edison about failure and Michael Jordan’s quote about failure was on a poster in my bedroom. However, do we really think this way? Do we really believe that failure can lead to success? If you were to look at our culture, I would argue that it is hard to see that being true. If you were to look at our schools and how we set up education, I would argue that absolutely does not foster this mindset.
Now, as I mentioned before, Daniel Pink’s book Drive has been very influential for me recently, however I want to somewhat eliminate the idea of algorithmic learning. Yes, it is important, and yes I do teach it and yes I do assess it. However, this is essentially easy to motivate and even easier to assess. For that reason, I feel that we as an educational entity lean more towards these styles of teaching and learning because they are a little easier to deal with.  On the other side of things, as Pink has detailed, our world is made up of some serious problems that can’t be solved using algorithms, but require creativity and problem solving beyond the set of currently constructed parameters.
I found myself in this crossroads. Not only did I want to show that it is okay to fail and get better, in my own situation, but I felt like it would be important for me to foster the same thing with my students. This is a huge question. How can you foster a level of creativity, where students can become lifelong learners, where they can have the freedom to try things out, in a system that is inherently “Failure is Not an Option” driven?
This year we have started working on 20% time. I have detailed this out in prior posts, however I just want to make sure that I state something in the process that I think cannot be overstated. James Cameron says “Curiosity is the most powerful thing you own. No important innovation was ever done without risk. Failure is an option, but fear is not.”  We have taken this on as somewhat of a motto for my kids and their projects.
   Let me explain. The students are to pick a project that they plan on working on all year long. There are some amazing things that they are all doing. Next week I will be posting some of these ideas. Suffice it to say, these kids are really blowing me away with their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and excitement to be and do something important. That being said, I have one student who has told me that he plans to build an engine, from scratch, that runs on natural gas. This is an amazing endeavor. We have looked on the surface about what this might require financially. Parts alone will cost at least $1500 not to mention the equipment needed to compress things and pressurize different parts of the engine. This is more than I can handle, and I would surmise on the surface that it is probably more than he can handle. My brain wants to tell him to not do this. I refuse to. I refuse to tell him no, because it is what he is passionate about and the work (writing, research, reading) that I anticipate getting out of him is more than I would ever get out of him in a traditional setting. He is already 100 pages into a book about how to do this. I guarantee that is 100 pages more than he has read in the last 2 years. For me, as long as he does that part, it is not a failure.
What I expressed to him is my confidence in his ability to figure things out. What I am preparing him for is the possibility that what he wants to do cannot be done. Rather than presenting to the class that he has failed, this particular student will present to the class the steps he took to realizing that this was more than he could do or handle. There is no failure here, there is merely detailing the steps of the process. I am actually more excited about seeing his presentation than some of the other ones. I am excited to see how far he is able to go.  I am excited to see what he does accomplish. I also look forward to the idea of him maybe trying again next year, or in five years or ten and finally figuring it out.
So here is my plan with my students and how I will assess their projects:
1. Each week they will post a blog post describing what they did in their project, what they are currently doing, and what they will be doing in the future.
2. These blogposts will be 200 words long and include at least one visual. I am allowing one vlog per month, however the script needs to be written before the post.
3. I will read/view each blog on Sunday night. I will comment and give ideas but I will not grade for content. It will be a “if you did it you get credit, if you don’t, then you don’t” type of an assignment.
4. I will be reading to find out if they are still having a good time with project and if they are still motivated to work on it. This will not have a grade value, but merely for my own personal assessment.
5. They will be asked to read and comment on 5 blogs per month. This will be graded on the same criteria.
I will help facilitate their projects by helping them get whatever resources they need to be successful. I will provide reading materials and help them create their own PLN and a Mentor for the process. Twitter will be key in creating this.  Learning from mistakes is paramount, however as we all know, if we can have somebody who can let us know about the road block before hand, it definitely makes the journey a little more smooth.
Below are some of the apps and programs that we will be using to power our 20% projects.

In hindsight, I learned a lot from that night at the theater. I learned that girls are generally smarter than guys, and these particular girls probably protected me from getting into trouble with my parents. I learned that NASA was actually pretty cool (I hadn’t thought that before that night). More importantly, however, was that I learned that sometimes even the best laid plans fall apart and that Michael Jordan and Thomas Edison were right. And of course, James Cameron is right when he said in his 2010 Ted Talk in Long Beach, California, “Curiosity – it’s the most powerful thing you own. Imagination is a force that can actually manifest a reality. NASA has this phrase that they like “failure is not an option,” but failure HAS to be an option, in art and in exploration. Because it’s a leap of faith. And no important endeavor that required innovation was done without risk. You have to be willing to take those risks. In whatever you’re doing, failure is an option, but fear is not.”

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