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Tammy Dunbar: Let’s Resolve to Get Messy!

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by Tammy Dunbar
Expert Educator Columnist, USA

teachergeekToo often our New Year’s Resolutions involve perfection: we want to look better, weigh less, and have whiter teeth (but not whiter hair). We want our students to score higher on those standardized tests, our lesson plans to work efficiently and effectively the first time, and our technology to work exactly the way it’s supposed to every time.

This New Year, let’s instead resolve to be more like my animated hero, Ms. Frizzle.

Let’s take chances. Let’s make mistakes. Let’s get messy.

If we want our students to become problem-solvers, we need to let them practice it without worrying about grades or assessments. We need to be comfortable with them discussing ideas and trying them out. We need to embrace this attitude, both in ourselves and in our students. Our students are terrified of being wrong; we need to guide them toward the idea that failure is valuable. Henry Ford once pointed out, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”

If we want to create meaningful, challenging lessons, we need to craft them, try them out, adjust them and try them out again. We have to become comfortable with failure because we don’t learn until we make mistakes. That’s how problem-solving skills are built, and our students won’t understand this 21st Century Skill if they don’t see us modeling it. We must embrace the fact that the same lesson plan doesn’t work from year to year. Sir Ken Robinson observes that “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

If we want to lead others into becoming comfortable with educational technology, we must invite them into our classroom to see both how it can work and how we handle it when it doesn’t work. We must model the teacher’s shift from a center stage position to a backstage position. If we want our peers to take a breath when mistakes inevitably happen, we need to do the same ourselves. As President Robert F. Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

About eight years ago, I was leading a PowerPoint training session for a group of twelve teachers in our first Enhancing Education Through Technology Grant pull-out day.  I had prepared what I thought was a great talk about all the amazing things PowerPoint could do. I had been told I needed to discuss all the tabs and drop-down items. But about 20 minutes into the presentation, it was obvious I was losing their attention. What could I do? That’s when I realized that teachable moments also happen for teachers! I quickly changed my lesson plan and invited the teachers to open PowerPoint, showed them how to create a new PPT and invited them to choose what kind of presentation they wanted to create.  Instead of showing them every single item in PowerPoint, we focused on just a few that enabled them to create something they could use right away! Everyone was excited about the new technology, and I learned a great lesson about the importance of making mistakes and learning from them.

When things don’t go the way we expect them to, remember that it’s all right.  Take a little time to reflect on what happened and remember the words from the fictional yet wise Ms. Frizzle: “If you don’t look, you don’t see, and what you don’t see can be very hard to find!”

Sometimes it’s easier to see your lessons aren’t working – your mistakes – than to see when they are. That’s an opportunity. So don’t ever fear making mistakes, taking chances or getting messy.


tammytechinjectionPowerPoint can also be used to create amazing mini-posters for the classroom. Common Core calls for students to self-assess, so I created these “What’s Your Number?” posters for my classroom. Using clip art from the online assortment available in PowerPoint, each poster is one slide. When printing, select the option to print one slide per page. With this colorful reminder up on our wall, my students are very comfortable holding up their fingers to show me their “number,” and new students have a resource to use when I ask. Please feel free to recreate as you see fit!


tammy2Tammy Brecht Dunbar, M.Ed., S.T.E.M. teaches 5th grade in Manteca Unified School District and Pre-Service Technology at Teachers College of San Joaquin (Stockton, CA). She will be presenting at ISTE 2015, CUE 2015 and CTA Good Teaching North 2015. Tammy has presented for CTA Good Teaching North (2014), Cap CUE (2014), all three California Subject Matters Project Conferences, Capitol Area Science Education Leaders, and several San Joaquin County Office of Education events as well as others. She won the 2010 eInstruction $75,000 Classroom Makeover Video Contest, wrote a successful Enhancing Education Through Technology grant for Manteca Unified School District in 2008, and was Teacher of the Year in MUSD in 2006. She is on the MUSD Superintendent’s Technology Committee as the district embarks on their “Going Digital 2015” project.

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