Fail Better

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
-Samuel Beckett

If a student writes a paper that earns a failing grade, should that student get another chance?  What about two more chances?  What about twelve more? What if they ultimately pass, after twelve chances?  Should they still get full credit?

If you had asked me those questions ten – or even five – years ago, I would have said no.  No way.  Give a student multiple chances to pass?  Let them write their papers again and again, as many times as they want?  And give them full credit for it – are you insane?  Students should buckle down and get it right the first time. After all, if a student earns a failing grade, shouldn’t they have to live with it?

That approach ignores an important fact: Many students work hard and still fail, because they just don’t get it yet.  They haven’t mastered whatever the skill is that they’re supposed to be demonstrating.  Work ethic and skill are two very different things.  Work ethic leads to skill – but only if it’s given a chance.

I have made an enormous shift in my thinking and in my teaching, mostly over the course of the past few years, and in great part because of my own experiences with writing.  Today, my philosophy about student work looks like this:

1. Work hard. Listen. Build your skills.
2. Submit a product that is meant to demonstrate your skills.
3. Accept critical feedback on said product.
4. Work hard again.  Revise.  Resubmit.
5. Accept critical feedback on resubmission.
6. Work hard again. Revise. Resubmit.

And so on. Until you get it.  Until it is right.  Until it is the best it can be.

Writers will recognize that little list as the exact same one that got them published.  I’m in the middle of the revision process myself, and boy does it inform my teaching.

Before I handed back my students’ essays yesterday, I tried to prepare them.  They’re honors kids who have spent many years being told how smart they are, and their 7th-grade egos are fragile.  “This isn’t going to be easy,” I told them.  “Reading criticism of your work is difficult and personal. You have two choices: curl up and cry, or try again.”

Then I showed them my revision letter.  I didn’t let them read it, but I told them what it was, and I laid it down page by page in front of them, all 18 single-spaced pages.  They were shocked by how much feedback there was.  I told them that receiving critical feedback and using it to improve work and gain skill is not a negative thing at all.  It’s a wonderful, important thing – and grown ups do it too.  On purpose, even.

Of course, learning to accept criticism and bounce back is another skill altogether, and my students will need some time (most of them, anyway) to develop that one.  They were still hurt and defeated when they saw that they were going to need to revise their papers. That’s fine. They’ll build resilience. Especially when they see that, through revision, they do improve.



  1. I was thinking about you a lot this week as I made my way back out to Omaha. Realizing that I was not following your blog, like a ninny, I hunted you down. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    During my time here I do not have my own classroom, I float around from school to school and have hundreds of students come to the theater for classes. While there is a weight off the shoulders and the mind, not managing your own class, I have found it challenging to sit back and see how some teachers are managing their students. This topic, about giving students chances really hits home. One of the most difficult things is watching an elementary student be a part of the class but because they are a little rowdy they are not given the chance to participate.

    I truly miss our morning chats and getting to teach with you! I am now following your blog and look forward to following the progress you are making on your bookS! :] CONGRATS and I miss you! – Kathryn Stahl

    • Kathryn! It’s wonderful to hear from you. I miss having you in the classroom, and can’t believe how lucky I was to get such an amazing student teacher. The students you’re working with now are lucky to have you, and even if they’re not “your own” class, your presence will matter to them. Keep me posted about your next moves!

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