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Learning from failure

By Tim Douglas
July 1, 2016
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Nicholas Provenzano has a message for students. It’s OK to make mistakes. In fact, he encourages it. You might even say that helping students fail forward is the foundation of his teaching philosophy. 

“I want students to do one big, gigantic failure at one point or another,” says the English teacher and technology curriculum specialist for Grosse Pointe Public Schools in Michigan. “I grew up with video games — Nintendo, Atari — and we failed at those games all the time, and then you start over. Failure isn’t a problem until kids get to school. They need to know it’s all right to take risks [there] … and then learn from the falls.”

This wasn’t Provenzano’s philosophy in the beginning of his teaching career, but it would become his foundation.

“It took me a while to find my way,” he explains. “It wasn’t an easy journey to discover that failure can lead to far greater successes.”

But once he found his way, he never looked back. In addition to being an award-winning teacher — he was ISTE’s Outstanding Teacher in 2013 — and someone who has been featured on CNN and in the New York Times, he is learning computer code, assembled his own hand-held gaming system, is a sought-after keynote speaker and writes a popular blog, The Nerdy Teacher, which Provenzano started in January 2010 to explore the world of educational technology. On top of all this, he is also the author of Classroom in the Cloud: Innovative Ideas for Higher Level Learning, and The Car Keys and Other Stories. Both of these books portray his two teaching pillars, literature and technology, with the latter opening up more and more doors.

“I’ve been a teacher for 13 years and I’ve seen the value of technology in the classroom,” he says. “I obtained a master’s degree in educational technology from Central Michigan University to not only help students in the classroom, but to also move to an administrative role to help teachers. I want to help them all become 21st century learners and leaders.”

But there is one project that really stands out and ties all of his passions together – learning, teaching, technology… and failing.

“A few years ago, I built a koi pond,” he says with a hint of a laugh. “I got up one morning and decided I wanted a pond. I went to YouTube, watched videos online, grabbed a shovel and went to work. There were some struggles along the way, like protecting [the koi] from a heron who thought he had a buffet in my backyard. But now, it is my relaxation spot. It is my favorite example of ‘I can do it. I figured it out and I did it.’”

Provenzano also realizes he’s lucky to be surrounded by people who encourage his style, be it a supportive wife (see the koi pond) or a strong school administration, reflected in the fact his principal endorses the failure philosophy by handing out special business cards with a message that gives recipients permission to fail. Now Provenzano gives them out as well, and students take pride in showing off their cards.

And when students take the risks, he’s more than happy to go the extra mile for them to earn rewards. Provenzano has done everything from advocating for a makerspace that allows students to tinker with 3d printers in his library — “I begged for money from everyone to make that happen” — to continuing to lead a project-based lesson that gets rave reviews year after year from his students.

The project is putting Mark Twain on trial for being a racist, due to the language and other images he uses in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. After the students read Twain’s classic, Provenzano divides his class into two main groups — prosecution and defense — and allows the trial to play out.

“I need to create lessons that are memorable for my students,” he says. “The highest compliment I can get is when a kid comes back and asks if I still teach the Twain mock trial.”

When Provenzano first tried out this lesson many years ago, he didn’t know how it would go. It was one of his original so-what-if-I fail plans.

Now, he will always be grateful to Huck Finn, which is not only one of his favorite books but is arguably the foundation of his philosophy.
“In college, we’re programmed,” he says. “They tell you that you need to teach a certain way. That’s not me, and if I can’t be me, then I can’t teach. Kids can spot a phony. I tell them, ‘I have no problem failing in front of you. It could go horribly wrong, but let’s be fearless together. I can’t ask you to do something that I wouldn’t do.’”

You know Provenzano means it. Just read his card.

Tim Douglas is a former television news producer who also served as a senior media consultant for several speakers of the california state assembly. today, douglas is a freelance writer who covers a wide range of topics.

Photo by Christine Brinker, 2016 graduate of Grosse Pointe South High School.