Museum of Awesomeness

Jessica Vasquez: Taking the Fail out of Failure


Jessica Vasquez is a teacher at Harding Middle School in Cedar Rapids, IA. She has graciously agreed to be a part of our series following real teachers as they try new methods and iterate on what works. Are you doing something awesome that you want teachers, parents, and admins to know about? Email me at:

When I met up with Jessica, I expected to be taken up to a classroom, instead Jessica took me outside to show off the creek she uses to teach environmental science. You know you’re in the presence of good teacher when “what’s your workflow?” results in, “well, let me take you outside.”

When I finally walked into Jessica Vasquez’s room, I instantly knew I was in a place where curiosity reigns. Her room was plastered with student work, in-progress experiments, and examples of students grappling with meaningful questions.

We sat down, and I asked Vasquez to explain the things she’s actively working on this semester, she responded with the following list:

  • She wants to run a classroom where behavior isn’t a part of students’ grades
  • She wants to extol the belief that everyone can learn anything.
  • Late work will  no longer count against students
  • She wants students to interact directly with the learning targets that the district has decided they need learn
  • Embracing failure as a part of successful learning
  • She wants students to understand that deadlines are much more complicated in real life than how they’re usually presented in school

I didn’t show my hand, but I’m sure my eyebrows said, “Oh, is that all, have you considered cancer research to fill your free time?”

Being only a few weeks into the semester, Vasquez’s classes are only beginning to form around these ideas.

I asked Jessica about her radical late work policy. At first, this might seem to engender some kind of irresponsibility in students, but Jessica assured me what happens is quite the opposite:

Students turn work in on time, but sometimes it isn’t up to par. She then returns it to them and helps them through the editing process. She argues that this editing process is much more useful than a simple score of 15/30. Students don’t often interpret the tacit message that those numbers send. We want students who crave feedback. We want students who see their work as just a small part of the process of learning, rather than as the traditional get-it-done-so-you-can-be-done.

Jessica went on to say that this policy means that she can’t frivolously assign anything. All of the work she gives to her students she expects them to engage with deeply, which means she’s working with students from the minute she gets to school until the minute she has to leave. She believes in every single moment that she scripts for her students, which is why she can’t stand to see shoddy work, even if that work is turned in on time.

I asked her the elephant-in-the-room question: Well, aren’t there deadlines in real life? Don’t these students need to know how to do good work the first time?

She’d obviously answered this about a thousand times before. Jessica put it simply: in real life, deadlines are about getting work done that helps the rest of the team. Sometimes that means getting a half finished product to a meeting so it can be conferenced, sometimes that means extending the deadline until something is almost perfect. Either way, you’re going way beyond the usual deadline system set up in most classrooms; students are either reworking, or they’re arguing for more time for the sake of quality.

I can get behind that.

Jessica showed us a food web her students had created. Some of them centered around the creek system she had showed me at the beginning of the visit. She talked about how her students thought about the assignment, how they really tinkered with what would happen if certain animals or plants were removed. There really never seemed to be a beginning or end to the project, which is a lot more like the real world I know, than the food web assignment I did in high school. One project carries over into the next ad infinitum. You could here it in Jessica’s voice, we did this food web because it helped us understand something larger, not because it was “time for the food-web unit.”

Later in the year, IowaTransformEd will be back to visit Jessica to see how she’s tweaked her implementation of her ambitious year. Hats off to her for being willing to analyze her own practices and look for solutions that will work for her and her students, we can’t wait to highlight (and I can’t wait to steal) the things she comes up with!

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