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Heidi Crumrine: When failure to launch is a good thing

  • Heidi Crumrine takes part in a Space Camp for Educators in Huntsville, Alabama. Courtesy Heidi Crumrine takes part in a Space Camp for Educators in Huntsville, Alabama. Courtesy
  • Heidi Crumrine took part in a teachers workshop in Huntsville, Alabama. — Heidi Crumrine took part in a teachers workshop in Huntsville, Alabama. —


Monitor columnist
Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Just a few days ago, I found myself building a rocket. This may sound bizarre, but it makes more sense when I tell you that I was at Space Camp for Educators at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with my fellow state teachers of the year.

When I talked to a previous teacher of the year about this opportunity, she told me it was an experience that would forever changed the way I teach. As an English teacher, I will admit to being a bit skeptical. I knew it would be fun, but was curious what would happen that would be so transformative for me.

Throughout the course of the week, I found myself in one situation after another that was entirely out of my comfort zone. In addition to rocket building, I was tasked with designing a heat shield to project an egg; creating a solar sail that would independently deploy; building a device that would protect an egg and a rover from a 25-foot drop; programming a robot; and piloting a simulated mission to Lower Earth Orbit. I also went in a Multi-Axis Trainer, a spinning chair that mimicked what it’s like to free fall through space; simulated walking on the moon in a one-sixth gravity chair; participated in a drowning simulation (this was not as scary as it sounds); and ziplined backwards into water, similar to a parachute landing. If this sounds out of this world, it was. Apologies for the inevitable pun.

As I worked to build my rocket, I  was excited and motivated. We had a clear goal and purpose, a teacher to guide us and a set of illustrated directions. How hard could this be? As it turned out, very hard. By step two, I was lost and beginning to feel frustrated. I couldn’t follow the verbal instructions, the illustrated directions didn’t make sense to me, and there wasn’t a model for me to follow. I quickly began to feel ashamed at my confusion and started to compare my progress to those around me. The longer it took to get help, the farther behind I fell, and the more ashamed and frustrated I felt. A vicious cycle.

Eventually, I sought out the help of my friends around me. Some were better at this style of learning, or had previous experiences building rockets. I let go of the embarrassment and embraced what I didn’t know. But I’m nearly 40 years old; expecting a child in a similar situation to do just that is unreasonable.

I soon became overcome with the realization that this is what it feels like when my students are struggling in my class, and immediately felt deep compassion for them in those moments. I wondered, how do I make them feel when that is happening? Do I show my own frustration? Do they retreat in shame? I completely understood why some would disengage. I kept wondering, how can we create safe environments in our classrooms where students are willing to ask for help, take risks, and be willing to accept failure? Further, how can we be sure that we are doing just that? Most thoughtful and well-intentioned teachers think they are. What if we aren’t? How do we know?

I firmly believe that the majority of teachers want what is best for their students and never want them to feel shame when they struggle. Unfortunately, we sometimes lose sight of those feelings because it’s been so long since we there. As we hone our craft as educators, we invariably get better at what we are doing. We develop a style for presenting material that makes sense for us and works for most. Admittedly, it can feel frustrating when a student just doesn’t get it. I never intend to make a student feel badly when that is happening, but I would be arrogant to think that has never happened. I am human, after all.

On the day of the launch, I imagined my rocket majestically soaring through the air and then gracefully returning to Earth. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. It did launch, however, the parachute did not deploy and it came spectacularly crashing down to Earth. My disappointment didn’t last long, however, because of the crowd of teachers behind me, counting down, cheering at the moment of launch, and laughing as it fell apart. In this case, my failure was fun because it was a safe environment where I felt support and knew that I had tried my best. The lesson here wasn’t about the success of my rocket, it was about my success as a learner in such a vulnerable environment, and the power of what that would mean for my students.

Again, I found myself thinking of my students, who don’t always launch as planned, but for whom the process to help them try new things, ask questions, help others, and be willing to fail, is arguably the most important part of what it means to be a learner.

That teacher I talked to so many months ago about Space Camp was right, the experience was going to change me, it just wasn’t in the ways I had expected. When I went to retrieve my ill-fated rocket, the four tail wings were still intact and splayed across the green grass. I gathered them up and put them into my bag so that I could bring them home. I plan to attach them to the bulletin board next to my desk as a daily, visual reminder of those feelings of vulnerability, in the hopes that they will help to refill my well of compassion for my students when they struggle. And to remind me to tell them that it’s not always about how high you fly, but about the risks you must take to try, and the support you will have behind you when you do.

Need an out-of-this-world book to read? Here are a few suggestions:

Older readers:Rocket Boys by, Homer Hickam; Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly; Ask An Astronaut: My Guide to Life in Space by Tim Peake.

Middle grade readers:Hidden Figures, Young Readers Edition by Margot Lee Shetterly; I Love You Michael Collins by Lauren Baratz-Logstead; See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng; Chasing Space by Lelan Melvin.

Young readers: Magic Tree House #8: Midnight on the Moon; Space: A Nonfiction Companion to Midnight on the Moon by Mary Pope Osborne; Margaret and the Moon by Dean Robbins; How Do You Burp in Space? And Other Tips Every Space Tourist Needs to Know by Susan E. Goodman.

Little readers:The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System by Joanna Cole & Bruce Degen; I Want to Be An Astronaut by Byron Barton; Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers.

(Heidi Crumrine, the 2018 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, teaches English at Concord High School.)