Friday Tip: Allow Failure

Last summer, in the interests of becoming more of a locavore (eater of local foods), I persuaded myself that this meant learning to make pickles and to can food. I attended a few workshops on pickle-making and canning, bought myself some equipment, and set out to do some canning and pickling.

From this endeavor I learned three things:

1) I have the wrong kind of stove for doing canning or pickling;
2) incorrect canning and pickling turns perfectly good vegetables into slimy, disgusting things that no one in their right mind would eat;
3) freezing is almost as effective a way of preserving food as pickling or canning, and pesto from the freezer makes my mouth much happier than brine pickles.

Now, if this had been a class, I would have failed.  My equipment was wrong, first of all, so I would have failed the laboratory grade.  My final project was a disaster, since merely opening one of the twelve pickle jars would have violated several principles of the Geneva Conventions. We’re just lucky that American torturers interrogators at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib didn’t have access to my pickles. Since the goal was to create food, and not a biohazard, I think it’s safe to say I failed the final project, too.

But! My freezer storage techniques did work.  I’ve wound up enjoying frozen strawberries in my yogurt and oatmeal several times this past year, and I’ve got some new batches in my freezer for this coming autumn and winter.

So, two failures and one success.  A 33% grade, or failure.  Were this a standardized test, no college in the country would take me: “wrong household appliance” the comments would say. “pickles toxic to human life.”  Yet all that fails to notice that I did succeed in feeding myself with local produce.  No, it wasn’t canned by me.  No, I didn’t pickle it.  But I did have food, and I did share it with others.  Those testers would have only seen those twelve sad jars of brine pickles, and not the beautiful yogurt and oatmeal topped with local berries and local honey.

What’s the real goal in our teaching? Are we out to prove how inadequate our students can be? Or how resourceful, creative and talented they really are?  I think it’s the latter, but increasingly it feels like we’ve designed a school system that only finds problems.

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