It was fall of 2012. I had been a teacher for seven years, several of those at High Tech High in San Diego, California.
The previous school year was extraordinary. We opened High Tech Middle Chula Vista and built a very strong culture with our team of students who were completely new to project-based learning. Our projects were meaningful, authentic and academically rigorous. We won the support of some tough parents and our students finished 8th grade feeling extremely proud of their work and happy with the year.
Without a doubt, the next year was also going to be amazing. I decided to "loop" up with several of my students to 9th grade to carry on the work of the last year and because I was ready to try teaching high school.
This is the tricky thing about projects...
I thought projects worked something like this:
But reality has shown it's more like this:
I don't mean to suggest that we can't be reflective teachers and that our projects don't improve with time... they do. But it is overconfident to think that a few successful projects means that they all will be to the same high-quality and calibre for the rest of time.
That was where I was wrong. Very wrong.
The theme of our year as a school in 2012 was "Dream Big" and we were encouraged to plan projects that pushed our thinking around what students were capable of accomplishing. It was in this year my colleagues designed and brilliantly facilitated Beyond The Crossfire, a full-length documentary about gun violence in the United States.
My "Dream Big" project was to take my students to walk the last 100 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. We would spend five months training, studying pilgrimage, learning about spirituality, religion and who we were. We would read and discuss books like Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. And perhaps the most ambitious part of the project: we would fundraise all of the money necessary for travel and gear. For a team of 50 students, we were looking at raising close to $125,000. Ourselves.
Yes. It was time to dream big.
We started the project in August and my students were relatively enthusiastic. They could understand my obsession with the Camino de Santiago and were excited to travel to Spain. Students who were not on my team in 9th grade were slightly jealous of the project. Why do they get to do that? Some of them said. My colleagues gave me mixed feedback. Most were supportive, encouraging and impressed that I would have that high level of ambition. A few were openly critical, suggesting it was going to be impossible to do. I tried to ignore the doubts. But secretly I did wonder... was this too big?
The first few months of the project flew by. My students were engaged in our exploration of pilgrimage, Spanish culture, travel gear and the Camino. They had planned fundraising activities and we slowly started to see money go into our travel-fund. But it wasn't enough. We were not even close to reaching our targets. My students could see this.
They started to ask questions.
What happens if we can't raise enough money?
Is the project failing?
Can we even do this?
With a brave face, I tried to mitigate their concerns. We brainstormed together alternative ways of raising money. We tried to make a Kickstarter. We reached out to businesses for donations. As our second fundraising deadline loomed closer, it was becoming more and more apparent that we would not be successful. I started to have parents reach out to me asking what we would do... it was clear I couldn't ignore that we would not be going to Spain.
I felt like a failure. Like a fraud. I couldn't sleep at night. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was letting down my students and their families. I was supposed to be an expert teacher by now. I came into a new school like a wrecking-ball with big ideas and a lot of confidence only to find myself with a frustrated team of students and an impossible project.
After several days of avoiding reality, I decided to reach out for help. I invited my school director and three colleagues that I (really) trusted to join me after school for a Dilemma Consultancy. We used a protocol where I outlined what the major challenge was (the project was an absolute failure) and the participants helped me to understand more about what was happening and some things I could do to improve it. Although the conversation reinforced my feeling that the project would not work the way I had intended, I felt a lot better. I had people on my side to help me. I wasn't alone anymore.
There were a few possible ways to go after the Consultancy discussion. I could:
Have individual families pay the way for their kids (This was not an option for me. It was essential that all my students, regardless of their financial status, were able to go.)
Take the money in the account and have the students decide what to do with it.
Pivot the project and take a pilgrimage somewhere else that was less costly.
End the project as it is. Learn and move on.
All options required I have an open and honest conversation with my students... something I was really dreading. We had to admit to each other that the project wasn't working and that we would not see it through to Spain. I expected my students to be angry with me. Frustrated that their teacher had carelessly given them such an enormous task with little support. Disappointed that they would not reach the Camino after all.
There were a few comments like these but overall my students already knew the project wasn't going to work. They could see the account balance, our deadlines and the calendar. They were just waiting for me to be honest with myself. And to have the courage to be honest with them. Ultimately, my students weren't frustrated that the project had failed. They were frustrated that I waited such a long time to deal with it. It was true and I had to take responsibility for that.
We decided to pivot the project. Instead of Spain, we would do a 3-day walking pilgrimage from one end of San Diego to the other. It would require us to cover about 60 kilometers. We made accommodations to sleep in a high school and a local community center. Parents would pitch-in and do bag deliveries for our students so we didn't have to buy lightweight camping gear. We researched the history and unique cultures of the neighborhoods that geographically made up San Diego but it became clear that most were places my students had never been to. It turned out this pilgrimage was extremely "foreign" even though we didn't leave California.
The walk was unforgettable. We bonded as a team over meals and extreme fatigue. We talked while walking about break-ups, divorce and college plans. Hopes for the future. Fears. A handful of my colleagues volunteered their time to walk with us for some stretches. We told each other to keep going when someone wanted to stop. We became a community of cheerleaders, annoying little brothers, helpers, leaders and friends. We became something more than when we started.
When we returned to school and reflected on the project, there was a lot to talk about in terms of subject-knowledge the students had learned. But they also spoke about the skill of handling disappointment. Of being resilient. Of connecting with their classmates and developing empathy. Of forgiving me. Of learning to move on. The students renamed their team "Team Journey" and without a doubt, it was a well-earned title.
It took me several years to really "recover" from this experience; to own my role in the design of the project and to see the beautiful things that came from it's failure. I didn't feel like a very good teacher. I had gone full-steam ahead with a project idea that my students were only mildly into. I waited to reach out to other people for help. I felt like my colleagues thought less of me, or were validated if they didn't believe the project could work in the first place. Honestly, it was probably my own projections but I didn't regain my teaching mojo for a while. The following year I ended up doing the San Diego Pilgrimage Project with my new team. It could have been considered very successful. We completed the project as it was written on paper, no major hiccups, no hard conversations about failure. My students really enjoyed it. But there was something lacking about it's authenticity. It didn't mean as much to my new students as it did to a team that was broken. It didn't transform them in the same way.
In 2016, I flew back to San Diego from Denmark (where I live now) because my students in the original Team Journey were graduating from high school. I talked with many of them after the ceremony and they all remembered our walk, and considered it one of the most impactful experiences of high school.
Now, I work with teachers who are using project-based learning with their students. I often hear concerns about planning too ambitious projects... a fear that the project will fail. I understand the fear. I've lived the fear. And I've also lived the opportunity.
Failure was the greatest gift given to me as a teacher.
And I'm pretty sure my students would say the same.
(Team Journey, High Tech High Chula Vista, 2012/2013)