Making Failure Part of the Plan

Spring 2020

By Marco Morrone

If I have learned anything in my 25 years of classroom teaching, it is this: No matter your discipline, no matter how ambitious your plan or how thorough your preparation, always try to anticipate what might go wrong. The projector doesn’t work, the students stare at you in silence rather than engaging in the spirited discussion you had envisioned, or your entire school shifts to an online learning model overnight as a result of a global pandemic. Then, in addition to guarding against unanticipated disasters (be sure to give that new projector a test run during your free period, ask a teacher friend if your directions make sense before trying them out on a live audience of hard-to-please adolescents, spend your entire Spring Break learning how to use Zoom breakout rooms), try to remain open to how you might make this failure part of your overall plan. It has become commonplace to celebrate both failure and struggle in the classroom as evidence that students are working at their limits, developing grit and resilience, and learning that success does not happen in a straight line.1 What I am suggesting is that, as teachers, we have a lot to learn by challenging ourselves in the same way—particularly when it comes to lesson plans about the political process.
 
My most successful implementation of this failure-based philosophy was in the fall of 2004 in the run-up to the presidential election. Then, as now, it was a tense time politically in the country as well as in our little corner of Sonoma County, California. We were also a new school (founded in 2001) with only about 100 students, grades 9-12. At the time, our administrators asked me, as the only American Studies teacher on the faculty, to design a schoolwide lesson plan to educate our students about the upcoming election, the important issues that were being debated nationally, and how all of this might be of interest to them.

First, based on an informal survey of students and faculty, I generated a list of the major issues that people cared about the most. As I looked back at my notes from that time, I was struck by both the continuity and urgency of some topics. It was enough to make me question, with all due respect to political scientist Francis Fukuyama, whether we had been dragged back into history once again—or perhaps never emerged from it at all.2 Other issues, like stem cell research, seemed like artifacts from a simpler time. Foreign policy predominated, with the “War on Terror” at the forefront, closely followed by domestic concerns about health care, job growth in what was an otherwise relatively healthy economy, and a host of “culture war” skirmishes over abortion and same-sex marriage. Each faculty member who felt comfortable facilitating took an issue and a self-selecting group of students and retreated to a nearby classroom with the following directions: The students had to write and agree on, by consensus, a short position statement on their chosen issue. I instructed the faculty participants to intervene only in order to keep the process moving and not to provide any compromise language or other steering. Because of the small size of our community, the groups included a range of students from freshmen to seniors, some (regardless of age) confident and vocal in expressing their views and others less so.

I was anticipating that this would be difficult. The goal of the assignment, if it worked, was to show the students how hard it was—even in our relatively homogeneous, politically liberal community—to find common ground. I also wondered whether some students would find it unexpectedly easy, once they broke free of the talking points that had been circulating ad nauseam on cable television. Both of these things happened. Students who were on opposite sides of the “War on Terror” nonetheless agreed on the roles of the executive and legislative branches when it came to foreign policy; students with different ideas about health care policies came to agreements about the relationship between citizens and government.

But some groups came back with nothing, and this is where things really got interesting. I asked them, “You couldn’t come up with anything you agreed on? Not one thing?” “No,” they said. But this was not because they could not agree but because every agreement felt like a compromise, and those were not the instructions. At this, the other groups got very quiet for a moment. I waited, and it did not take 10 seconds before the dam burst. “We didn’t get consensus either!” some of them shouted. In the end, about half the groups admitted that their final position statements were more about compromise than consensus, at which point we had a very spirited discussion about how to find common ground without bargaining or compelling people to compromise.3

At the end of the exercise, I asked the students what they had learned. I was not fishing; I was curious. After all, it was my first time doing this also. Their response was that actually listening to other people is hard and that having respect for someone else’s view, no matter how irrational or ill-founded you might believe it to be, requires not only open-mindedness but open-heartedness.

Our instincts—and in some cases our academic training—compel us to convince, argue, prove, disprove, and persuade. But what about understanding and acceptance? What about empathy? Most people love the idea of common ground as long as they get to define the borders of the space in question; and majority rule, especially in the funky mathematical universe of the Electoral College, is not about listening or respect. It is about winning and losing. You get one more vote than the other folks and your whole state turns red or blue on the big TV map. At its best, it is a high-stakes popularity contest. At its worst, it is a blood sport that threatens to overturn the constitutional system itself. The consensus-building activity worked as a presidential election lesson because it was weird, because it wasn’t really about what elections are like, and because it was built to fail.

We attempted some version of this same activity in both 2008 and 2012, and I am determined to bring it back this year. Sonoma Academy has over 340 students now, so 2020 will present even more challenges. As before, I am hoping to find a way to make our failures part of the lesson itself. My current plan is to break the exercise down by grade levels. Perhaps without the seniors, things will fall apart during the consensus-building phase. Or perhaps without the older kids in the room, the younger students will take on more of a leadership role. As with any effort to bring politics into the classroom, you are bound to learn more about the nature of your community than the issues themselves.

The primary downside of the consensus-building activity is that it does not have much to do with how elections actually work. Studies of voter behavior dating back to 2009 have repeatedly demonstrated that “political issues are not important to most people most of the time."4 My second and third lesson plans are therefore based on the following notable presidential election trends: the compelling influence of identity politics at all levels, up to and including the race, class, gender, and sexual orientation of the nominees; the changing demographics of the electorate; advancements and limitations in the use of big data and polling in predicting voting behavior in swing states; and the increasingly obvious role of emotional and psychological factors in determining voter behavior.

I designed the second presidential election-year activity specifically for my Economics class next fall, but it would really work in any humanities setting and could be readily modified for a variety of grade levels. I have noticed that my Econ students love both game theory and the concept of trade-offs. They are capable of valuing every choice they make in terms of its opportunity cost, and there is almost nothing they cannot make into a game of chance. In contrast to the consensus-building assignment, which was designed to separate out the issues from the candidates, my Economics course game-project will highlight the sporting nature of the contest itself in the hopes of revealing the winner-take-all philosophy of presidential politics for what it really is. At the start, I will give each student an imaginary $538 (derived from the total number of electoral votes) for the sole purpose of betting with each other on the outcome of each state’s presidential election ballot. Obviously, it will be difficult to get someone to bet against, say, Alabama voting Republican, so there will be some states where it will be hard to find any “action,” no matter the odds. But how sure are you that Virginia will stay blue? Or that Texas will stay red? What kind of odds would it take for you to put down an imaginary $50? Three-to-one? Four-to-one?

The students will be free to do as much research as they want about the up-to-the-minute polling data regarding each state’s electoral prospects, and they can spend their imaginary cash however they would like.5 In order to ensure a fair gaming environment, a group of student volunteers with some spreadsheet skills will serve as the “bookies,” recording the specifics of each transaction, although unlike a traditional casino, there will be no “vig,” and the house will derive no profit from these wagers—unless you count the teacherly reward of what I am hoping will be a high level of engagement from my political “sharps."6

As with my consensus-building activity, I can’t wait to see what kind of unexpected problems emerge once things get going. If there was ever an assignment destined to go off the rails, it’s this one. Will they run out of money? Should students be allowed to “borrow” from other students—at interest—and repay their debts if they win? If they don’t have the money to pay, does Luca Brasi from The Godfather come and break a student’s imaginary legs? How does this unpaid debt affect the final overall standings? I have no idea. But I have faith that if I keep my mind open to how failure is part of the process, the students and I will all learn more from the experience as a result. Games don’t work without rules. Perhaps the larger lesson will have something to do with how reality sometimes produces outcomes that the rules did not anticipate.7 What are we supposed to do then?

I intend to try out my final election-year lesson plan in American Studies—it is the required core Humanities class for all juniors, an interdisciplinary combination of US History and American Literature, with a heavy emphasis on primary sources, written analysis, and revision. My plan is to address the presidential election as a ritual phenomenon, one of only a few such ceremonies we have that bind us together as a country. Rather than analyzing the issues themselves or the competitive landscape of the Electoral College, this lesson offers students an opportunity to analyze the social, cultural, and personal meaning of the election for each of them. After all, elections are not only about the issues. They are not only about who wins and who loses. They are about who we are and how we think of ourselves.

In this lesson, students will work in groups of three, with each group answering the same question: What does the 2020 election say about who we are, where we have been, and where we are going? Students will be free to be as issue-oriented or as personal as they choose in their approach. Their research can include news sources and statistics but also face-to-face and email interviews. However, each group of three needs to link its answers together under a common unifying theme.8 In the end, students will have nine minutes to make their presentation to the class. They can read a polished piece of writing, lecture from a series of slides, play a video they filmed and edited, show memes—or anything else they want to do. The goal will be to answer the question in a way that feels authentic to them in their experience as members of American society.

Of course, I am already wondering about all of the ways this might fail. What if my students, like the rest of us, have become so disillusioned by the current political climate that they find it difficult to forge any authentic connection to the election experience? What if they simply parrot some of the platitudes they have absorbed in all the media they consume? What if some of them are too afraid to be honest or use their nine minutes as a platform to attack people who disagree with them—both of which have lately become measurable phenomena on college campuses?9 How can I make these challenging moments part of the plan? I’m not sure yet. Helping the students name what is happening might lead to a larger discussion about their relationship to American society. Where do they feel authentically engaged, if not around elections? Are mutual attacks inevitable in political discourse? Perhaps we might also ask: What can we do as a class to establish a safe space where everyone feels comfortable being honest? Students love to solve problems, and they thrive when we place them in positions of authentic leadership. Sometimes if you fail in the right way as a teacher, what you’re really doing is creating an opportunity for the students to step in and do something unexpectedly great.

My hope is that by treating the presidential election as a cultural event rather than a strictly political outcome, we can reach beyond some of the divisive rhetoric that dominates the national debate and refocus our attention where it belongs: on the body politic itself. We are a more diverse and complex group than ever before, and the ongoing struggle to redefine what it means to be American has grown right along with us. By their very nature, elections are rare moments of finality in the otherwise fluid political life of the country. But they are also opportunities to take an honest look at ourselves and wonder how we can do better.

Endnotes

  • 1 Valerie Strauss, “Teacher: In My Class, Failure Is Not an Option. It Is a Requirement,” The Washington Post, May 20, 2015; online at www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/05/20/teacher-in-my-class-failure-is-not-an-option-it-is-a-requirement/.
  • 2 Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest 16 (Summer 1989), pp. 3-18.
  • 3 All of which seems oddly prescient in light of how things went down in the Iowa caucuses this year.  
  • 4 Paul Goren, Book Review (How Voters Decide: Information Processing During Election Campaigns; The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Presidential Campaigns; The American Voter Revisited), The Journal of Politics 71, no. 2 (April 2009), p. 748.
  • 5 The website FiveThirtyEight (fivethirtyeight.com) has almost too much information in this regard, and both The New York Times and RealClear Politics (realclearpolitics.com) have polls that have been even more accurate predictors in recent election cycles.
  • 6 In a casino, the “vig” (short for vigorish) is the price a bettor pays directly to the house on every bet for the privilege of gambling. It is also slang for the usurious interest rates charged by illegal lenders on their illegal loans. “Sharps” are gamblers known for placing smart bets, particularly in cases where they may have access to some information the public does not. “Bookies” are the people who take the money from gamblers and wait until the outcome of an event before paying the appropriate party. In a casino, they work for the house and get paid out of the “vig.”
  • 7 The 2000 presidential election comes to mind.
  • 8 A few sample themes: Self and Society; Identity; Blue vs. Red; Power; Race; Civility.
  • 9 Conor Friedersdorf, “Evidence That Conservative Students Really Do Self-Censor,” The Atlantic, February 16, 2020; online at www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/02/evidence-conservative-students-really-do-self-censor/606559/.
     
Marco Morrone

Marco Morrone (marco.morrone@sonomaacademy.org) teaches humanities at Sonoma Academy, Santa Rosa, California.