When I first stepped foot on the campus of Graland Country Day School in 2019, I began the day as each student in the middle school begins the day, in an advisory meeting. The students greeted the temporary interloper into their space and then did their best to ignore me. After each of them checked in with how they were feeling, their advisor Mrs. Cooper explained that they were going to be doing some improv and showed them a brief video modeling the activity. Their reactions were everything you could imagine from adolescents informed that they were starting their day with an unscripted performance. Some eagerly anticipated their turn. Some were surreptitiously devising an exit strategy. Some were stoically awaiting their fate. But, in the end, all of them participated.
As we anticipate the myriad of possibilities that may be presented during a pandemic year, I continue to have Graland’s Guiding Principle of “Celebrate Perseverance” at the forefront of my mind. Already, our middle school students have navigated multiple schedules that entail various modes of instruction, and everyone involved has had to learn to adapt. No one has been perfect, which is in and of itself a valuable lesson. We aspire for “Graland students [to] learn through their own success, failure, and hard work.” It can be difficult to accept failure as an aspect of the process, but Graland “rewards dedication” and recognizes that failure is a necessary factor in learning.
In fact in “Most Likely to Succeed,” Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith assert that there can be “no real learning without trial and error.” They discuss how too often our education “is all about risk aversion.” That is why we emphasize the value of perseverance throughout Graland. You can find it as students build their Gates Innovation Skills practicing and learning about grit along with persevering through a project, in an English class that emphasizes edits and rewrites, during a science lab working through the scientific method with a hypothesis that may not be proven, or in a band class learning a new song. Students will make mistakes, and these missteps are embraced because the greater goal is always learning...even in an advisory plan.
In that improv activity, each student was tasked with acting out a “who, what, where” scenario that they individually created. The audience had to guess who the student was, what the person was doing, and where they were. For instance, the advisory guessed rather quickly that one student was a swimmer, doing the backstroke, in a pool. Several of the students had an easy time of it and had fun with their newly discovered improv skills, but one of the group was simply stumped when it was his turn. I soon recognized how special Graland was as he struggled. None of his peers mocked him, nor did he choose to give up though he was frustrated. Instead, they encouraged and offered advice, and he eventually figured it out. If I remember correctly, he was a track star, running, in a race.
This school year will continue to offer challenges, mountains to ascend, and there will be times when students fall short. I have no doubt, however, that we have built a culture that will face and learn from failures rather than seek to avoid them and a dedicated and talented faculty who will equip students not only with the necessary skills but the strength of character to persevere and ultimately succeed.
Erik Burrell is originally from Anaheim, California, and has a master’s in education and a bachelor’s degree in English, both from the University of Notre Dame. His independent school background includes roles as the director of diversity and outreach, English teacher, language arts teacher, and assistant principal.
Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.