Failing… Together

The last third or so of Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure takes readers to a place even more intimidating than the dishes in the kitchen sink or the youth soccer pitch; it’s in this meaty final stage of the book that she brings us to …school.

As a principal, and particularly as the principal of a school with sixth through twelfth grade students, I appreciated that while Lahey found some universality in the school experience, she divided her discussion in half, spending time with both middle school and high school (and beyond). While they’re distinctions we minimize here at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy (where we’re a seven year program, like Hogwarts) the reality of the differences between eleven and twelve year olds and seventeen and eighteen year old students is real, and speaking to these differences allows for a clarity that I think will serve us well when we gather for our ACMA Book Club on December 4th to talk about Lahey’s book.


One of these ideas that I’m likely to read verbatim when we meet comes from Lahey’s perspective as a middle school teacher. She writes:

Here’s the ugly and wonderful truth about middle school: it’s a setup. Middle school teachers ask students to succeed at tasks that their half-cooked, adolescent brains are not yet able to master, and therefore, failure is not an if proposition, it’s a matter of when.”

Lahey breaks down this contention with the more reassuring perspective that while the challenges and responsibilities students face in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade push them to their limits (and beyond), eventually they do get it and the result of this newfound control over their own lives can be amazing. “So fear not,” she writes. “Failure is a fact of life in middle school, so embrace it. Everyone is doing it, even the cool kids. Even the kids who look as though they have it all figured out. …jump in and take advantage of all those learning experiences in the guise of everyday failures, littering the middle school landscape.”

Beyond acknowledging the “landscape” of positive failure, Lahey offers suggestions for both parents and educators on how best to support students through these years of challenge and change. From organization to time management, from schedules to a sense of humor, she lays out practical and possible supports for anyone living and working with these baby giraffes.

Lahey also acknowledges that things shift around ninth grade, speeding up as students make a running start to break out of their parents’ orbit.

That Lahey calls high school students “emerging adults” helps to underscore the message of the book and the importance of supporting our students as they move beyond high school and into adult lives of their own. These are the years students have more safety and support in which to make mistakes. So often as a principal I’ve had conversations with kids and parents about the difference between the choice they made as a sophomore or junior and what that same choice would look like if they were over eighteen. Our society is more forgiving of minors and our school system, at its best, is a place where support and education is the priority over punishment.

Lahey takes this farther, discussing the importance of parents shifting into a new role for their high school aged students. Quoting a high school teacher and administrator, she writes:

When parents take the supporting role, but balance it with the ability (and it is a learned skill for parents) to step aside and watch and welcome and expect the student to choose his/her way, students seem to make the better choices relatively quickly  if not automatically. Students want to do well. They want to make the right choice … but they also want to have the ability to choose.”

What struck me, in addition to the truth I see in the statement, is the parenthetical reality that is so seldom explicitly stated: the ability to step aside and watch “is a learned skill.” How, the principal I am asks, do we do this? If we see this patient parental support as learned behavior, what are we doing to help parents (and students) learn and value it?

It’s a point I look forward to asking the parents and students at our book club about.

One of the parts of The Gift of Failure that I could see being tough to talk about is Lahey’s systematic dissection of grade levels nine through twelve. In this section she takes on the sacrosanct idea of an achievement laden college resume. Quoting a college president she writes:

…the expensive trips to far-flung poverty? Fifty-two activities scattered across the seven days of the week? Honestly. It doesn’t help. Give me a kid with a passion for learning, a kid who has demonstrated some measure of autonomy and motivation. Give me a kid who knows his or her mind. But these things are harder to come by if the child has been tutored and handheld from birth.”


But true to form, Lahey doesn’t abandon her readers at the revelation; she spends time unpacking opportunities for students to build their independence and demonstrate the “autonomy and motivation” that college president was talking about.

…and she throws in a marvelous checklist for parents of new college students.

But that checklist wouldn’t feel significant if it wasn’t so necessary. Backing up a step, Lahey ends the book with a section devoted to “succeeding at school.” Wisely beginning the section with a brief history lesson about home and school relationships from the Colonial era through the choppy waters of the seventies and eighties, and the introduction of new measurements and standards of the current day, Lahey educates before moving into an informed discussion of positive and proactive steps parents might take to promote parent-teacher partnerships that benefit students. A partial list directed toward parents includes:


For each of these, as well as the others on the list, I see corollaries for teachers, counselors and administrators like me. For all of us, the last item on the list holds a special truth we’re wise not to ignore: SUPPORT THE STUDENT-TEACHER PARTNERSHIP, EVEN WHEN IT’S CHALLENGING.

As a principal I’d add: especially when it’s challenging.

Lahey ends the book with frank and honest discussions of homework and grades, the twin bugbears of education, and topics I’m sure will support rich discussions on Monday night. In her final pages she turns back to the tough but true message of The Gift of Failure:

If the unpredictability of our own journey is frustrating, the suspense that parents experience as we watch our children’s stories unfold is downright unbearable. Because we can’t possibly know how their stories will end, their failures are the more acute, immediate, and treacherous; more Shakespearean tragedy than quaint anecdote.”

How can we help our kids, and each other, navigate these uncertain and stressful times? Together.

For those interested in being a part of that “together” here at ACMA, our Arts & Communication Magnet Academy Book Club will meet on Monday, December 4th from 6:30 to 8:00 pm in ACMA’s library.


Dishes, Friendships, and Failure

Jessica Lahey drops more than a little wisdom in her infinitely readable The Gift of Failure, the subject of our upcoming ACMA Book Club. In the first part of the book she describes the power of failure as a parenting tool, and in the second section she shifts into particular and poignant examples of “teaching kids to turn mistakes into success.”

Building on her initial argument, Part Two of The Gift of Failure begins with the assertion that kids want to feel capable, and that as the adults in their lives we have the responsibility to give them opportunities to attempt difficult tasks, learn from mistakes, and grow as a result of their experiences.

They’re ideas I look forward to talking about with the parents, students, and ACMA staff who join me for the book club on December 4th. Hearing the points of view of both the adults and the students means the possibility of helping each other, broadening our perspective, and realizing we’re not alone in what can be a challenging time.


Presented as clearly as it is, the advice Lahey offers is a challenge that I feel up to more often as an educator than I do as a dad. As she notes, often teachers see in their students a greater capability than is seen by their parents. I get this. As a dad.

I felt this particularly when I read Lahey’s question about chores, or as she wisely calls them, “family contributions.” Discussing the importance of kids helping at home, she asked:

What’s more important -that the dishes are immaculate, or that your child develops a sense of purpose and pride because he’s finally contributing in a real and valuable way to the family?”

At the risk of sounding confessional, there are times in this mixed up world that I feel like I need a clean and picked up kitchen.

I suppose the clever reader (or Jessica Lahey, or a parent, or a student, or a staff member) will say: deal with it. Either accept a little messier or come up with a new set of chores. I know that’s sensible; it’s just that after a busy day, after I’ve hurried home from my kids’ soccer practice, there are some days I’m too tired to be the best parent I could be.

…and I want those dishes to end up clean, the kids’ homework to get done, and bedtime to happen before 10:30.

Lahey writes about her own son’s adventures in putting away dishes, noting “since that first day, he has broken dishes in the process of learning how best to carry, stack, and load them, but who cares? I’d trade ten broken plates for his smiles of competence and pride.” I am not yet that parent. Ye gads, I am not.

Maybe the group will have ideas about what works for them in this regard. The students who fill ACMA’s hallways are a responsible, well adjusted bunch. Their parents have done something right. I’m hungry to hear the stories of what that something might be.

Lahey provides the descriptions of more than a few “something rights” as well as touchstones for parents (and principals) like me. One that stuck with me came after the description of a scenario of a student packing her own lunch only to be disappointed by yogurt squashed by an ice pack. “She needs,” Lahey writes, “to be disappointed in her own choices once and a while.” What a beautifully phrased dollop of truth.

In addition to disappointment, Lahey promotes family contributions as a vehicle for learning self competence. Her chapter on “Laundry as an Opportunity” provides a host of rich examples for our discussion, and I look forward to listening to the experiences folks, both student and adult, are willing to share.

As rich may be the discussion of how students navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of friendship. In addition to that potentially polarizing question of “is it okay for parents to snoop into kids’ rooms and social media?” the topic of how much parents should be involved in the “constantly evolving” social lives of their kids promises fodder for interesting conversation.

Yes,” Lahey writes, “kids will make bad choices in friends, and some friendships will fail, but those missteps are what we look back on in order to recognize the traits of a healthy relationship versus a toxic one.”

The truth of that statement gives me pause. As a human I believe it is true; as a dad I wish it wasn’t. At least I think I do. I know that I don’t want my kids, or the hundreds of students I get to work with at my school, to have to make bad choices to learn about toxic relationships …and …and I do want them to grow, to learn, and to be strong. This is a topic I’m excited to talk with the students about. I have a feeling that their perspective will help not just me, but the other adults in the room.

That’s really the point of the whole enterprise of our ACMA Book Club, taking the time to talk together with fellow travelers on this journey of life. Listening, contributing our voices, and connecting with each other, I believe we create the opportunity to help each other and help ourselves.



The ACMA Book Club meets on December 4th from 6:30-8:00 pm in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy library to discuss The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey.

Homework on the Table; Music in the Air

My daughter taught herself how to play the Stone Temple Pilots tune “Truce” on the piano, finding the sheet music online, listening with a musician’s ear to the song on her iPod, and practicing in the quiet of her own time to produce a haunting tune so heavy with emotion that hearing it float from our family room makes me want to cry.

She’s taken piano lessons for years because she likes playing the piano, and the songs she comes back to, “Misty” and “Georgia” and a handful of pieces whose composers I’m not sure of (but with melodies now familiar) are the ones she enjoys hearing. For the most part they’re songs from the piano books her teacher gave her, but “Truce,” that’s hers.

gift of failureI thought about my daughter’s piano playing when I read Jessica Lahey’s book The Gift of Failure, the subject of our first ACMA Book Club on December 4th. Leading up to that gathering, It’s my hope to share some articles and interviews about Lahey’s ideas and offer a short post for each of the three sections that make up her book. Here’s the first…

As a dad and an educator I picked up The Gift of Failure looking for ideas that might help me help the kids in my life. From the title and a handful of reviews I’d read, I supposed this would mean finding ways to get them to see that failure was a natural part of learning and that hard work and a growth mindset could go a long way in supporting eventual success.

Part one begins with a nod to two iconic parents: Ma and Pa from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, two stalwarts in the tradition of serious and steady parenting. So glowing with nostalgia as to be almost parables, Wilder’s stories of Ma and Pa show parents in traditional and familiar roles raising kids to be resilient, (mostly) obedient, and ready for the 19th century world they would be living in. She juxtaposes this with the pressure on today’s parents, for whom the role of “ma” or “pa” feels very different.

Those differences felt very real to me, and while Lahey certainly didn’t have me longing for any “good old days” (of starvation and hardship), her perspective on the changes to what is expected of parents (and what we expect of ourselves) was rich with wisdom.

Next, Lahey offers a parenting history lesson from Locke to Spock, making meaningful connections to her own parenting and the contemporary examples she chooses to include. The immediacy of her own journey helped me connect with what she was saying, even as she spent considerable time on self esteem and narcissism and I found myself uncertain of her strongest criticism of the “self-esteem movement.” That said, the concept of making decisions as a parent, and an educator, with a focus on “long term learning” resonated with me as did the idea of “parenting for tomorrow.”

To do so Lahey lays out a compelling argument against the control we sometimes grasp for in both parenting and education. “Just about anything humans perceive as controlling,” she writes, “is detrimental to long term motivation, and therefore to learning.”

That line is one I’m excited to talk more about with parents, teachers, and especially students when we get together in December.

Lahey goes on to discuss the benefits of “desirable difficulties” and the addictive nature of success (when that success is the student’s own). “Truce,” I thought. Or my son’s adventures in Minecraft. Or the hundred works of art I’ve seen in studios and classrooms at ACMA.

Part one of The Gift of Failure continues with a practical example of controlling versus autonomy supporting parenting that reads like the example from a textbook on ethics.

The scenario: kid forgets to take completed homework to school and parent spots it on the kitchen table with enough time to drive it in before class.

Lahey fleshes out the example in ways both philosophical and personal. Her honesty and empathy, coupled with her dedication to “parenting for tomorrow,” shine through in this section of the text. She challenges readers to put themselves in the situation, something she makes as easy to picture as it is difficult to process.

One joy of reading Lahey’s book as a part of a greater school community will be listening to the diverse perspectives of our teachers, parents, and students. This homework on the table question is one we’ll be sure to discuss.

A shout out to Carol Dweck and her book Mindset ends the first section of The Gift of Failure. Cautioning us not to sacrifice credibility on “the flimsy altar of acclaim,” Lahey provides a succession of short lessons applicable to any of us who work with kids.

Being an educator, like being a parent, brings equal parts anxiety and angst. At best, however, it those emotions pale in comparison to the hope and anticipation our kids inspire.

The Gift of Failure, while acknowledging our challenges, suggests that there is much we can do, and allow our students to do, to support that hope.

One of those steps, I’d suggest, is connecting with each other, parents, educators, and students too, to support one another. We’ll connect at 6:30 pm on December 4th in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy library. See you there!

The Gift of Conversation

In the wild rumpus of modern day life one of the things educators, parents, and students do too little of is talking with one another about ideas. Sure we pull together to discuss particular crises, talk grades when the topic comes up, and address immediate challenges, but more seldom do we take a step back and talk about how we got to those situations, or how best we can work together to meet our greater collective goal of helping each of our students learn.

One modest way to confront this challenge of building collective perspective is to carve out time to gather and discuss a topic, inviting diverse points of view to speak, listen, and connect. Bookish as I am, I see a great catalyst for this kind of conversation as books.

To that end, we’re going to try something here at ACMA that I hope might get people talking with one another about how we best support each other and our students. On December 4th we’ll host our first ACMA Book Club.

IMG_4513In the couple of months between now and then, I invite students, parents, guardians, teachers, counselors, staff members, grandmas and grandpas, to read The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. It’s an immensely readable book, with much to agree (and maybe even disagree) with, lots of real examples, and a spirit of hope that I think helps the very serious messages resonate.

As a principal and as a dad I found in Lahey’s book ideas to challenge my practice, inform my decisions, and get me to think about how I was supporting (or maybe even hindering) the kids in my life.

Does everyone need to agree with everything Lahey says? Heck, no, but I honestly believe that The Gift of Failure has the potential to spark some amazing conversations, and what better gift can we give each other in this busy world than an opportunity to talk with each other about how we might make a difference?


The ACMA Book Club will meet in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy library on Tuesday, December 4th from 6:30-8:00 pm.