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Learning to Learn: On “Failing Better Next Time”

This is part of the Learning to Learn series, where I’ve been interviewing working mothers with school-age children to understand how their learning experiences as kids shaped who they are as working professionals and as mothers raising the next generation of learners and doers.

Hi Rebecca, good to see you. So let’s start. If you’d like to just introduce yourself. Who are you? What do you do? Who are your kids? How’s life? 

My name is Rebecca Cohen. I am a former educator and currently the co-founder and executive director of Brooklyn Book Bodega, which is a young non-profit working to make sure that all kids grow up in homes with books if they want to read. Our mission is to increase the number of 100+ book homes in Brooklyn. I have three kids. They are thirteen, ten, and two. We have an interesting spread, super fun, super dynamic, hardly a dull moment around here. 

Wonderful, beautiful. Let’s think about your thirteen and ten. Tell us who you were when you were a ten year old. What messages did you get about yourself as a learner, as a student? Were those two conflated, the learner and the student? 

Sure. I think, certainly in elementary school, I was good at school. I did school well. I sat and listened and did everything I was supposed to do. That sort of changed in 8th grade when I got some messages around gender and what you should be good at and what you’re not good at, and how much to try in certain aspects. But, I think that was very much a social layer.

From my home, I think one of the strongest influences was my grandmother. My father is and was dyslexic, my grandmother saw this with him as a young learner. This was the 1950’s there wasn’t a lot in terms of outside the box thinking. Either you did what you were supposed to do or you were off the track. So, he kept getting dead ended in his school and my grandmother researched and fought and said, “This is a smart kid, has potential, we’re not going to track him in this way, he’s going to go to college, he’s going to succeed.” And she made this her life’s work –founding a program for advancement of learning for folks with learning differences and really creating an alternate path to college for kids who grew up like my dad, not being able to read when the rest of their peers could read.

Anyways, for me growing up with her as an educator and thought leader, it was always like “What are your strengths? Let’s build on those strengths.” I always felt, “I’m good at these things, and now I’m going to build on those things.” Very positive, very wonderful. I was always a good reader, that was definitely part of my identity. I think I capitalized on that, I ended up in the honors and AP English classes, ended up majoring in English and American Literature. I think that was always just a positive, wonderful thing for me as a learner and a student.

It is interesting and I think this is your next question about unlearning. I think there is a double edged sword to this idea of building on your strengths, so I think that I probably had a fear of things I wasn’t good at. Sometimes facing those challenges that I was reluctant to face or reluctant to put in the energy to overcome that. I took piano as a first grader, I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t practice. It was hard so I was like, “I’m not good at this, I’m not gonna do it.” I think that the message of , “Just because you’re not good at something now, you won’t be good at it later with persistence, you won’t find joy in the learning of it.” 

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Yeah, it’s interesting that you say that, I hear that come up so much for people who did well in school. I would think I didn’t do well in school so a lot of kids who get good grades or are told, “You’re good at this.” When they’re not good at it, it starts to feel tricky. How does that come up for you as an adult? If we’re defining learning as going from not being able to do something to then learning how to do it, as you started a non-profit with your co-founder from nothing and just had to be an adult in the world. How was that shown up for you and what are some things that you’ve been able to learn or navigate around that. 

I think one thing that I have going for me is that I’m pretty curious and I do want to do things well, and I will persist if the goal is a goal that I am really interested in. I think with founding a non-profit, for me, everything about it was a learning opportunity.

I started off my career as a middle school teacher and certainly learned how to navigate many, many situations with children and teens. I think working with adults starting a non-profit is a very different way of thinking and interacting. I think the strategy work that we had to do was new.

I was certainly bought into our goal, and together we defined our goal. We didn’t even know what our goal was immediately. For me everything still is a learning opportunity and so I think looking back on this idea, “I’m building on my strengths and there are things that I won’t be naturally good at but I can figure that out. I will fail better next time.”

I’m not gonna be sad about something and wallow in it forever. I could have done that better, I wish I did that and I will do that type of thing better because there will be more opportunities to encounter something like that again with the non-profit. Tons of opportunities.

We’re working with partner organizations who have different missions, different beliefs and I think when we can figure out where we can make the most impact with those organizations, we’re going to accelerate opportunities for kids in Brooklyn and New York. I think it’s working with adults and other organizations, figuring out how you can create a stable scheming organization.

It’s all hard but it’s all worth it. Eyes on the prize, keep doing it, keep reflecting and moving forward at the same time. 

That’s great. That’s beautiful, I love that “Fail better next time.” Let’s switch gears for a moment and think about your kids. We can talk about either of the two in school. What do you see going on with them, with how they identify themselves as learners and as students? Are those similar or different?

For me, when I think about the difference between a learner and a student, a learner is this this individual that I am in control of, and a student is where I am in somebody else’s environment. I think it’s interesting. My kids play the violin. I ditched piano. My husband is very musical. I had started taking banjo lessons a number of years ago and six weeks in I was like, “ I don’t have the time for this. I can’t translate what was on that page and what you taught me.” And he’s like “It’s supposed to sound like this.” He doesn’t play the banjo, but he has a good ear and he plays stringed instruments. With that idea that you’re a learner you have to be taught that. Through my work I knew a wonderful violinist and teacher. We happened to have a hand me down violin so we got our oldest started on violin right before he turned five. Luckily, he’s had the same teacher his whole life. 

That’s cool. 

Yeah, she’s wonderful, witty, warm and strict. It’s fun to watch your kids develop relationships with other adults that hopefully they will have forever and they can turn to. I think with an instrument, you’re always pushing against your own ability, your own hearing, your own musicality, I guess. I think that was a really wonderful thing that we happened on. I knew music was important, I knew I wanted it for my kids and I knew you had to work at it.

For them that has been a real stabilizing force in their lives as learners, because they will never be perfect at violin. There will always be something challenging. More challenging music, you can go with a trio or an orchestra, there’s gonna be so many challenges in it. Whatever you encounter, there’s so much music to work through and I think that’s been really great for them.

Regardless of what school is, you have a great teacher, you have peers that are wonderful or distracting, or you have a not so good teacher. They have this thing that they come back to. My ten year old, he’s been playing since three. It’s not always, “Oh yes, we love to play our instruments.” We kind of forced it, we’re like “You practice everyday and you have this lesson every week, and you’re gonna be ready and if you’re not ready, that’s on you.” So there’s this parental pressure, but there’s also this individual thing where they’ve seen the rewards of when they put work in, they get praised, they get harder pieces, they get to perform.

It’s been very stabilizing for them as learners, so when they go into that environment, they can bring that independent self. When I bring my best self to the classroom regardless of what the classroom is doing, I will learn from that. I just think in music there’s a ton of math, and repetition and practice. There’s so many life skills that they’re developing. I think they’re strong independent learners, which makes their school experience stronger. 

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I bet it’s really nice to have something that’s outside of school to measure yourself against, as opposed to the whim of whatever your situation is that year. Sounds like the violin has been  so consistent over so many years. 

Yeah, absolutely and I think with school there’s so much about your learning identity, and then school sometimes says, “ Here is this point in time and we’ve assessed you and you’re THIS.” 

Totally. 

“But I’m so many things.” You are an 8.5×11 sheet of paper, and this is what you are. I think it’s great being a good student and being able to do what someone is telling you to and follow that path of learning is great, but I think this consistency will be a valuable life opportunity for them and I’m glad that we’ve been able to provide it for them. 

What messages in violin or in school do one of the boys kind of come across and say “I can’t do this or this is not something that I’m good at. I suck at this subject.” You know the kind of thinking that you encountered as a kid. What are some messages that you and your husband insert into that line of self dialogue when that comes up?

I think there are a number of things. It’s mirroring back what we’re hearing, sort of asking them questions like, “Why are you feeling this way, what’s going on with you?” For my kids, a lot of that is “Are you hungry?” 

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Yeah.

Wait a second, where in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are we? Don’t start a new violin piece at 7pm at night.

Practice earlier in the day. With me, I’ve done this thing in the past where I put on my running clothes in the morning and if I look like a runner then I’m going to go running. Those are the days when it’s 5 o’clock, I’m still in my running clothes, but I never went running. Sometimes do the hard things first when you’re wide awake. For us, it’s this check in of what are the things that are creating those barriers?, “Yup, you’re trying to do this thing and there’s a gap in your knowledge, how do we figure it out? How do we research this, can we look in a book?”

The idea that there’s knowledge to be gained outside of just “Let’s try this homework again.” “Let’s go somewhere else to see if there’s another explanation.” That sounds huge. Great, Thank you. As we’re winding down, for others reading this, is there anything that you have tried with your kids in helping themselves as totally independent human beings kind of shape their internal dialogue or their self perception that you’ve tried that has really not worked, that you don’t recommend. Or, anything that you’ve tried in terms of looking elsewhere for answers that you can say, “This really helped my kids when I did this?” Any last parting words of advice?

I do think that it is so important to both play into this idea of “What are your strengths, let’s build on those strengths.” But not ignore what the challenges are.

I’ve seen when some of my kids write, their verbal acuity is here but when you look at their writing there is a real gap, so I’m not going to applaud and say “You’re a great talker” rather “Okay, let’s figure this out.” That’s where as a parent I say, “What is happening here? What is the school offering that can help us solve this problem? What can I research on my own? Is this developmental and there’s a spread that’s totally normal or is it something to be concerned about?”

I don’t want my kids to have pressure about things that are really out of their control. If one of my kid’s writing is not where I think it should be in whatever grade or age they are in, I don’t want that to then be something that’s a weight on them.

As a parent what is my role? How do I help? How do I address the reality and also not break down the kid? All the things going in the household as a parent sometimes you’re like, “It’s 7:30 or 8:30, just do your homework.” You’re always the adult in this situation. I’m sure you know this quote, “You create the weather in your classroom.”

You have the capacity to create a storm or to create a sunny day. I take that to heart as a parent. What am I doing. How am I controlling the weather here to make sure this is an environment where my child can thrive. We try that to the best of our ability. It’s not perfect. 

What a beautiful quote to end on, I love that quote. I used to obviously have that hanging up in my classroom just like many other teachers and I think applying it at home is beautiful. I’ll try to find it. Great, thanks so much for talking to me today. 

Of course, my pleasure. Thank you. 

Rebecca Cohen is a lifelong educator focused on increasing opportunity for students. As an educator and mother, she has seen the difference that access to the knowledge found in books and the joy in choosing what to read can do for a child. She believes (and research shows!) that kids who have access to books have better life outcomes. However, because books are expensive not everyone is able to have books at home. She co-founded the Brooklyn Book Bodega to foster literacy among children and adolescents through book ownership, choice, and access. As of December 2021, Brooklyn Book Bodega has given out 140,000 books to 30,000 people. Rebecca lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three children.

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