Falling on our Faces

Posted by Patti Saraniero On September - 24 - 2009

Occasionally at some parent/teacher coffee or at the end of the school day I can trap some poor parent and make them listen to me about how great and important the arts are for their kid.  Usually, they try to agree with me very quickly and get away from my increasingly zealous preaching.

Here’s a tune I’ve been whistling recently.  The arts provide an important thing for our kids.  They give them a safe place to fail.  We fail a lot in the art-making process.  It sort of comes with the territory.  No one artist gets it right every time.  Some get it right a lot but there is still plenty of “oops” in the background.  If you are a collaborative artist – dancer, musician, actor – you have plenty of opportunity to fail in front of other people.  Rehearsals are full of large and small failures, nearly all of them public.  

The hardest coursework in my doctoral program focused almost exclusively on our failures.  Honestly, that was an intense and rich learning experience.  It highlights the best part of failure.  Failure isn’t all bad – we learn from it in a way we do not and cannot learn from success.  This is incredibly painful as a parent to think about my kids failing.  Oy!

Sometimes I wonder what mother in her right mind would want her kids to fail.  But I do, really.  I want them to really blow it in a safe place.  It will be so so hard and so so good for them.  I would much rather they failed in music class or art class where they can and should bounce back.  Because another brilliant part about the arts is that you fail and you go back for more.  You try again.  You take what you learned and you try again.

The thing that kills me about this in our historical moment is that under NCLB it is not ok for a child, a school, a teacher, a district, an administrator to fail.  Because failure has become a punishable offense in American public education today.  We are seeing a system that is short-changing children to avoid failure. And, of course, when we avoid failure we avoid risk.  And when we avoid risk, well, all creativity and imagination gets flushed down the toilet.

So here is to the value of falling on our faces.  Thank goodness we have arts teachers and artists and arts lovers and arts smart parents to pick us back up again.



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One Response to “Falling on our Faces”

  1. Kim Willey says:

    Patti,

    I always used to be afraid of failing, until I looked at failure more as an opportunity to learn about the mistakes I made. One of my blogs had to do with making mistakes and how the learning in the arts provides student with a safe environment to fail in. In art there is not one answer and this is what I enjoy about it. 2+2 will always equal 4, but in art there is always a different outcome.

    By failing we learn how to foresee problems on projects we are working on and goals we are working towards. We are able to catch those problems and work around them, leading us to our successes and stories of accomplishment.

    While I was in college, I taught a ceramics class to elementary school children with two other classmates. I was helping one student with a project when one of my co-teachers/classmates came up and said “that isn’t going to work, it’s going to fall apart in the kiln.” The student I was working with lost all hope on completing her project right then. As soon as my classmate walked away I tried to remedy her despair by telling her that we were going to make this work, even if it did fall apart, we would find a way to fix it (personally, I find it more rewarding to work through an obstacle than for someone to up front tell me that it’s not going to work). She was determined to finish her project and we found a way to complete it. Although when it did come out of the kiln broken, we fixed it. I could tell she was happy that it had survived as much as it did but was even more happy that she didn’t give up on completing her project. The project took place during the middle of the semester and from then on I noticed her taking more risks and thinking through the construction of her projects better than before. Because her project had fallen apart she learned how to fix it. If that never would have happened she wouldn’t have experienced learning how to fix these certain types of art making accidents. I often think of this moment when I myself am working on a project arts based or not. We need these experiences in failure and mistakes in art making to learn how to anticipate and resolve mistakes or happy accidents when they do happen.

    I hate to say that now I am addicted to failure, but sometimes I secretly hope things don’t work out the way I initially wanted them to. Failure (sounds like such an awful word!) inspires me, and allows me to make to take risks and have adventures!

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Alec Baldwin and Nigel Lythgoe talk about the state of the arts in America at Arts Advocacy Day 2012. The acclaimed actor and famed producer discuss arts education and what inspires them.