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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 4, March 2004

Persistence trumps failure

by Wendy Tarasoff

"Education is as necessary as light. It should be as common as water and as free as the air."
– Egerton Ryerson, 1847

My greatest learning has always followed on the heels of a failure—when I struggle, decide not to give up, and forge ahead.

I came to see other points of view. Before me was a Grade 9 student trying to translate from his mother tongue into English, in a foreign country with a different set of beliefs, customs, and unfamiliar sounds.

"Sam" says to me, "What you say?" over and over as if trying to get me to understand. I make eye contact and do my best to acknowledge; I draw word pictures. His vocabulary starts to increase, but he grunts when he gets something.

It takes a lot of patience to understand him, and a willingness on my part to present a concept several different ways without making him wrong. He gets the idea he says—metaphor—a cat is a dog when it growls and howls. I take the wins as they come, try to build on them.

Sam can now make a sentence with a subject and a verb. I remember a time when I too struggled with that, and I watch step by step as he writes words he knows that he can’t spell. Sam’s frustration level is very high, and like any other student, he is struggling on essays. He looks to me for help. I make no comment on the essay assignment: discuss several characters in a story or a movie you have seen. Explain in your essay, why it is important for a character not to give up. The central motif suggests that the decisions we make determine the outcome.

I worked with Sam, mapping his ideas on paper about Peter Pan, the protagonist, and Captain Hook, the antagonist. Sam describes some of the things Peter is up against, how he bests them, and how he learns to fly. Then, there was the Lord of the Rings and Frodo Baggins. Frodo carried a heavy burden. At times, it looked as if he would not make it. Sometimes he needed the help of a friend.

Sam grunted and came to a conclusion, "...giving up may not be the best idea even if it is hard...maybe okay to fail but what we do with it, decide, matters."

The assignment may have helped Sam recognize what failure is, brought him to a new decision, even changed him into a hero. I thought so, because the next time I saw Sam, there was light in his eyes. We worked together on more sentences, definitions of words, pictures, and examples. Sam took sentences home to do on his own for the first time.

A teacher has to take into account the individual and find ways to help each "Sam" access education. I root for each student (including Sam) to have that voyage of self-discovery and gain both confidence and ability.

With Sam, the learning outcome of the assignment was met despite the numerous errors. They could be corrected on a gradient. What is important is that Sam is willing to be his own hero in learning. I learned from Sam that failure is failure only when nothing is done about it. What about Tom and Suzy? How can we help them to become hero and heroine too? I will look for opportunities to change failure into success.

Wendy Tarasoff, an English tutor has just applied to SFU PDP and hopes to become a teacher in B.C.

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