Optimism and The I Can’t Funeral

In Wow! Adding Pizzazz to Teaching and Learning , I shared the story of Jacquelyn Sweetner Caffey, a remedial reading teacher who conducts last rites for the Late Mr. I Can’t. Her funeral service is designed to get students to reframe their thinking and focus on learning.

Recently, I was working with Cluster VII administrators in Fairfax County Schools, VA examining optimism and student effort. Adam Erbrecht, assistant principal at Colin Powell Elementary School shared how his 5th grade team implements an I Can’t Funeral.

Colin Powell Elementary School is a large school with around 950 students that began in 2003 with great cultural diversity from Korea, India, and many countries around the world. So, building our own culture and common beliefs is important. Our 5th grade team specifically was in the trailers (or should I say Learning Oasis) that year and was looking to set a positive tone to make other grade levels jealous that they did not get to be out there. We found the biggest obstacle to student achievement lay with in the student and wanted to empower them to try their best.

Kelly Yang, a former 5th grade teacher, began the idea for the funeral 3 years ago along with Amy Patterson, myself (formerly a 5th grade teacher here), and 2 other teachers. The day before the funeral at the beginning of the year, we asked the students to wear all black not telling them the reason and that it was simply homework. The following morning for morning work, they were assigned to write down on a note card 3 specific things they couldn’t do well at school and as many things as they liked from outside of school. At this point, the students would be given an explanation for the activity.

A teacher would have dug a hole in the school yard earlier in the morning and prepared a construction paper headstone on a yardstick for Mr. I Can’t (born around the time of our students’ birthdays and deceased effective that day). The teachers all dressed in black would then lead a funeral procession outside with much dramatic weeping for Mr. I Can’t. I would lead us in a memorial service describing how sad it is that we can no longer make excuses and give up on things we aren’t good at, but how we can celebrate that we now have the opportunity to take responsibility for believing we can improve through our own effort. This would take on the feel of a Baptist preacher. We would turn to the school and look at it with fresh eyes as a place where we are no longer allowed to say “I Can’t, but rather “I Can’t…Yet or I need to learn to…”. Finally, we would end by singing a silly random song or some sort of dramatic dirge.

Kids really get into playing along with the fake sadness and all year long can be heard correcting anyone saying “I Can’t”. This week, I began as assistant principal at this school, and one of my former students from 2 years ago who had been retained the when he was a third or fourth grader came in to my office to congratulate me. He is now a rising 7th grader and sad that he wasn’t good at the lockers there. When I quickly reminded him that he wasn’t good “yet”, he sad, “Oh yeah, the funeral!”

Students are not given an unrealistic motto of ‘you can do anything you put your mind to’ because the reality is that you can’t fly or jump over buildings in a single bound. We teach them that they can experience growth toward their goals only when they put their best effort and confidence into it. We teach them that “I don’t care” is a cover up for “I’m afraid to fail,” and that failing forward is another step towards their goal if they learn from their mistake.

Readers can contact me at adam.erbrecht@fcps.edu , and I’d be happy to get them in contact with any of our current 5th grade team.

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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