Each year at the semester break students in grades 4-12 participate in an all-school read,and meet in cross-divisional discussions groups when schedules permit. This year students read “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination,” the Harvard Commencement Address given by author J.K. Rowling (of Harry Potter fame) in 2008. In the address, Rowling speaks of the wisdom gained through setbacks, and the importance of being able to imagine yourself in the lives of others and to “imagine better.”
“We thought this speech would be engaging for our students while also providing a framework for them to talk about their own ideas of failure,” said Jessica Bremmer, English Department chair. “Rowling encourages us to change how we think about failure, and reading and listening to her speech created a moment of deliberate reflection and discussion about a concept we think is vital to our students' learning.
Each teacher handles the read and its follow-up activities differently to fit the needs of their classes. Some 6th and 9th grade classes met for small group discussions, as did a 5th and 12th grade class. Many Lower School classes read excerpts rather than the entire speech. Some classes read the speech and then watched a video of the address to analyze differences in their understanding of written and verbal works. Ms. Stevenson’s junior and senior classes paired the speech with Joan Didion’s essay "On Self-Respect." Some Upper School classes wrote letters to their Lower School selves, reframing a “failure” from that time and reflecting on how they grew from the experience.
“The students’ responses were great,” said Bremmer. “They noticed how they were kind to themselves in their writing for this project, while in practice they aren’t. They also had great suggestions about more we can do as a school and ways in class to allow for more failure without high stakes for students. And the Upper School students loved getting to know more Lower School students–they thought they were quite astute.”
This was the third annual all-school read. In the first two years students read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Malala Yousafzai’s children’s book “Malala’s Magic Pencil” and her United Nation’s speech.
We invite you to read or view the speech here and extend the conversation at home.