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How to Teach Teens About the Importance of Failure

By
Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: It's hard to accept, but failure might actually be good for you. Choices teacher-advisor Amy Lauren Smith--a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--explains how she helped her students understand this important lesson.

 

Failure and grit are buzzwords in education right now, and for good reason. While kids are terrified of failing, it's truly the only way they'll grow. Getting middle school students to accept this fact is especially challenging though, as they'd often rather not try at all than risk looking like they tried too hard.

 

My school has a pretty robust advisory program, which means that in addition to teaching health, I have a homebase of twelve students who I see three times a week for social and emotional learning. Seventh grade in particular is a year when pressure can really start to mount, so I'm always looking for ways to address failure with them. Luckily, this month's issue of Choices features The League of Extraordinary Losers, a piece about failure that highlights some of the world's most creative and successful people and the failures they experienced on their way to the top. When I shared it with my fellow seventh grade advisors, we agreed it would be a great jumping off point for discussion with our groups.

 

It's important when doing this type of activity with younger teens to stress that failure isn't just about academics and sports. Social "fails" are also a key part of the adolescent experience, but it can often take years to get over the sting of embarrassment and rejection that can come along with them. That's why it was great for the students to read about people they admired embracing their failures, as it helped them open up about theirs without fear of being judged.

 

After reading the article, we had the students reflect on a time when they've experienced failure, and what good came out of it. They were given the following prompts, and then if they felt comfortable, they shared as much or as little as they wanted to with the class.

 

My Big Fail

 

1. What was your initial goal?

 

2. What was the 'fail'?

 

3. How did you take it at the time?

 

4. What good came out of the experience instead?

 

5. What was the big take-away? What did you learn from the experience that you would like to share with others?

 

Once the kids started sharing and realizing how much they had in common, they began opening up more. Some of them were able to laugh at themselves and it brought up one of life's great lessons: the things that feel like a mortifying disaster at the time often end up being a funny story later on. (They especially enjoyed my tale of trying to perform a rap for my seventh grade election speech. Needless to say, someone else was voted vice president that year!)

 

Touching base after the lesson with my fellow advisors, we all felt that the activity had led to great conversations with their students, and they too had shared examples from their own middle school years. It was a great lesson for the kids about failure, resilience and grit, and a bonding experience for us all as well.  

 

Want to try this lesson in your classroom? Here are the tools you need:

1. Download the Choices FAILURE REFLECTION WORKSHEET to try the REFLECTION ACTIVITY. It'll get your students thinking critically on how to apply the fail up method to a past setback. 

 

2. Forget about resumes of accomplishments--our fascinating Failure Resumes Slideshow highlights even more famous figures and the roadblocks they've encountered throughout their careers. 

 

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