The author of Risk. Fail. Rise… A Teacher’s Guide to Learning from Mistakes, Colleen Cruz, describes why we want to create “a mistake welcoming school.” What mistakes do we frequently make when responding to learners’ mistakes? How can teachers reflect out loud on our mistakes as a model for students.
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PODCAST TRANSCRIPTSteve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley ponders out loud podcast. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding. And my curiosity is peaked. Whenever I explore with teachers, the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning this podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate coach and support their learners.
Steve: 00:31 Creating a classroom where students learn from mistakes. Our guest today is Colleen Cruz. She’s the director of innovation for the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing project and she’s the author of a book titled, Risk. Fail. Rise,” a teacher’s guide to learning from mistakes. Welcome, Colleen.
Colleen: 00:54 Thank you. I’m excited to be here.
Steve: 00:56 I’m wondering, for starters, if you’d share a little bit about your teaching background and the work that you do today with the reading and writing project.
Colleen: 01:07 I started out as a classroom teacher in public schools, elementary schools, for many years and then I joined the reading and writing project – goodness, a while ago. And there, I work with a bunch of brilliant educators where we support teachers and administrators serving students using reading and writing workshop methods of instruction. And we write curriculum and we talk books and we teach in classrooms. When it’s not the pandemic, we physically teach in classrooms with teachers. And so it’s a really – it’s an exciting thing to be part of such a great think tank of people.
Steve: 02:04 I’m interested in your focus on mistakes and is there a connection to the to the work in reading and writing and the connection to mistakes?
Colleen: 02:19 Well, yes. So, I have a bit of a reputation of being kind of a pessimist and I sort of revel in the muck of things. Like, I’m much more comfortable when things are messy and messy and miserable. And I have always been attracted to mistakes because I think that they’re the place where real teaching is, right? Like when we think about ourselves, like, we wouldn’t have jobs as educators, if children didn’t make mistakes, if they already knew everything. Part of our job is to be first responders to learning and we see kids doing whatever it is that they do, then we want to respond to it. And I think that in the writing process in particular mistakes are seen as just part- like one of the things that we do. We draft and we revise and we edit and all of those big, heavy lifting pieces of the writing process come from thinking about improving our writing to the best it can possibly be.
Colleen: 03:34 And in reading, I mean, you know, it was Marie Clay who talked about the point of error is what we get excited about as teachers of reading because until a child makes an error, we don’t know what their operating theory is. We don’t know what they’re using in order to read. And as soon as they make an error, we can see based on the kind of error it is, what they think. And so when I think about mistakes, I mean, I think mistakes are at the heart of all learning because it guides us as teachers to know what comes next and it also can inspire the learner to try to figure out how to move past them.
Steve: 04:20 It’s neat because another author that I interviewed on here had written a book titled, Rough Draft Math,” and she was actually taking that writing rough draft idea as the way you jump into a writing assignment as the way to jump into a math problem. It wasn’t jumping in and getting the right answer from the get-go, but getting the ideas to flow and getting a draft out there. And she talked about stopping kids before they get to the answer to have them talk about their draft, you know, where are they headed so far. And I see that as a teacher, getting kids to talk about their rough draft would shed a lot of lights for the teacher as to where the student thinking was.
Colleen: 05:14 Yeah. And, I’ve done some work with math instructors – I find it fascinating and doing math conferences and sitting one-on-one with a kid to talk about their process and focusing not on the problem, but on the thought process that they’re going through, I really wish I had been taught math that way. And I think that that is, you know, writing does that. We talk about the process because nobody writes just one thing, we know we’ll write many more. And that connection is a really strong one.
Steve: 05:50 In reading something that you had written, I came across a statement that you made: “a mistake-welcoming school culture.” And that caught my attention. I wonder if you’d describe that for me.
Colleen: 06:09 Well, so here’s the thing. I think that every school on earth, thinks they are a mistake welcoming culture, let me just say that. And I think that that’s what we all strive to be. And we all, at this point have all heard about things like growth mindset, and we know how important it is for kids to understand that our minds are not static. They’re dynamic and they’re plastic, and they’re constantly growing. And we know all of these important things. And yet we see kids frozen all over the world being afraid to take risks in learning and we often wonder why. And there’s sometimes, I see and I have certainly done a knee jerk response to like think it’s the kid’s fault that there’s something about the kid or the kids that is making them quiet or immobile in their learning.
Colleen: 07:08 But if I step back, I have to look and see have I created a classroom or a school culture that mistakes are not only expected, but truly welcomed? And I think about the incredible educator, Maxine Greene, who used to say, “we can’t promise kids safe schools, but we can promise them the ability to take risks that we can make our classrooms risk welcoming places,” because we can’t promise what’s going to happen in the school yard or anywhere really. But we can say that this is a place to take risks. And if we look at it, we have to ask ourselves if any of the barriers to mistakes are systematic. Like, just all the way through the way we respond to student work, the way we grade our discipline system, you know, do we welcome some kinds of mistakes? Like a lot of teachers report that they are much more comfortable with academic mistakes than they are behavioral mistakes. And so they punish behavioral mistakes and they correct academic mistakes. And yet we know that there’s ways to correct behavioral mistakes, like say using restorative justice methods. And so, you know, I do think it’s really hard in a school system that uses rubrics and grades to tell kids that mistakes are welcome when we know well that the kid who makes the least mistakes gets the highest grade.
Steve: 09:06 [laughter] Yeah. I don’t remember that spot on the rubric.
Colleen: 09:10 [laughter] It’s not there. I mean my own kids, I have two kids who are in elementary school and they will say that. They’ll say the person who – and my kids’ school is not actually a big grading school, but they’re aware that the person who makes the less mistakes gets the most cookies. And so as long as we continue to have a system that rewards less errors, we’re going to have people unwilling to take risks.
Steve: 09:42 I frequently share this example. I’m working to learn German on Duolingo and on the Duolingo app. And one of the cool things that they have in there is when I make three mistakes in a row, this little character jumps out and throws its arms up in the air and announces, “making mistakes is a wonderful way to learn.” And the first time that that came up, I thought, oh man, there’s one I missed as a teacher. As a classroom teacher, I was always real big letting kids know that mistakes were okay, but I never reached the point of celebrating with kids that making that mistake was a great learning process. That’s powerful.
Colleen: 10:31 I mean, it really is a window. Like it’s very hard for us to know what our operating theories are until we make a mistake. Like at the simplest level, like, let’s just say a misspelled word. You know, you misspell friend and you know, you look at that and you can be like, oh, the i,e,i thing has been flipped here and you can look at that and go, oh, that’s a mess up, but you could also say, oh, but this child’s operating theory is blank. So now this is an opportunity to teach them blank. And I just think it’s a really – to me it’s very exciting to see a mistake because if the child spelled friend in the standard way, I would never know their operating theory of how to spell that sound.
Steve: 11:28 Yep. Yep. Colleen, I’m wondering if you’d tell listeners a little bit as to what areas of your book might be of particular interest to teachers.
Colleen: 11:46 Well, I can tell you what teachers have been telling me so far. I will say one, one big thing, to prepare people is that this is not your mother’s professional development book. It is a deeply personal book. People have commented on, I share a lot of my stories and other people’s stories. So one thing that you should know is “Welcome” is going to feel like you’re with friends at a coffee shop or at a bar and that we’re all just letting our hair down together. But the second thing I would say is that it’s very practical, so it’s not – and this is because of my own pet peeves about reading professional books. I hate when I read a book and I’m like, yes, that’s a hundred percent, right.
Colleen: 12:38 I totally want to do that. And the book closes and it never tells you how so it. It takes you through – it’s seven different essays and each essay addresses a different aspect about mistake making, whether it’s our mindset or whether it’s our response to students’ mistakes or whether it’s our response to our own mistakes. And then it tells you what research tells us is good practice for how to do that, which I think is very helpful or at least it was helpful for me writing the book to put that all down. There are also very specific lessons that you can teach to students about mistakes. So while a good chunk of the book is about how we can respond to mistakes as educators and how we can set up this mistake welcoming culture, the back half of the book is about how we can teach kids to be more aware in their mistake making and how they can respond to their own and other’s mistakes. So it’s it’s a combination of coffee shop and lessons.
Steve: 13:50 Thank you. Thank you. Please, before we close, let listeners know the easiest way to connect with you to follow up with thoughts or questions that they might have,
Colleen: 14:03 I’m on all the social media platforms, but probably the one I’m most active on is Twitter. So @colleen_cruz and if you go there and you go to my profile, it links to things like my website, which is colleencruz.co, and you’ll find information about if I’m doing any events or blog posts. I have a tendency to post all of the things that are going on first through Twitter. And then of course you can go to the publisher of the book, heinemann.com and they have – not only can you get the book there, but you can also get the audio book, blog posts, video clips, lots of free stuff there. So those are probably the best places.
Steve: 14:52 Great. Well, we’ll put the link to your book and your website in the lead-in to the blog. Thank you so much.
Colleen: 14:57 Thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 15:00 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.