The Art of Creating Counter-Narratives: Redefining the Role of Failure in the Classroom

By Aliyah N.C. Teaching artist and arts writer

Book Arts Fall 2016 © Aliyah N.C.

A homegrown artist entering university, I thought I had it all figured out. I had known from the age of two or three, before I could properly write my name, that I would be an artist and so it was written. Over the course of years, with some help from my mother, I taught myself how to draw and took every art elective I could in middle school and high school. Throughout a series of never-ending moves and interests picked up along the way, this singular truth never wavered. A true Sagittarian at heart, I knew what I wanted and made the most of the resources available at my disposal in going after it. Little did I know, I was only taking the first step.

In our schools, a huge part of life—failure, trial and error—are made taboo. “Art is one of those last frontiers in the classroom where children can explore and think,” says MaryAnn Kohl, an American early childhood art specialist, author and publisher. Unlike school, life is a lot like an art, too. There are no tests or study guides that will prepare you for failure or exploration, and a lot of the time there are many different answers. As for my case, I had arrived at an answer—what I wanted didn’t change—but what I wasn’t prepared for was that what I wanted could really look like many different things… I had many more choices still to make. But how do you make a decision when there isn’t a “right” answer?

Book Arts Fall 2016 © Aliyah N.C.

Believe it or not, failure, too, is an art form of sorts. Dutch trainer and life coach Saakje Bakker says on the subject, “Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable: this is what we have to learn to be able to fail ‘properly’. It’s only by acknowledging our mistakes and seeing what we can do about it that we can eventually move on.” I never planned on being a teaching artist and up until recently had never even heard of the term. Yet, much to my surprise, my own experience put me in a unique position to help my students not only get comfortable with choice but also the inevitable accountability that comes with making mistakes. For the first time, I was both student and teacher, and it was a learning experience for us all.

According to a recent study, learning about the failures of historical figures such as Albert Einstein may help students perform better in school, and, perhaps, fair better off in life. This is especially thought to be true for students from underrepresented groups and “disadvantaged backgrounds” who are almost exclusively only ever talked about in the context of misfortune. An added downside to what I’d encounter in the face of (what should have been) several wins in my own journey, was always the lurking jealousy of racism that couldn’t quite afford me the smallest of victories. (Or, as an uncomfortable history tells us, even when we are victorious, it can never quite be our own.)

All this to say, there’s still a lot to be said for accountability in dealing with systemic failures.


  1. Austin, Liddie. “How to Fail.” Flow Magazine. Issue 38. 2020, p.119
  2. Fattal, Isabel. “The Value of Failing.” The Atlantic. April 25, 2018.
  3. “For ESPN and The Atlantic, TC’s Xiaodong Lin-Siegler Makes a Case for Failure as the Key to Success.” Teacher College. University of Columbia. Jan. 20, 2022.
  4. Goodall, Jasper. “The Tutor Approach.” Creative Lives in Progress. Insight Report. May 2020, p.44
  5. Kohl, MaryAnn F. “Embrace the Mess: Five Skills Developed Through Art Exploration.” Gryphon House Publishing.
  6. Kohl, MaryAnn F. “February Guest Speaker: MaryAnn Kohl (Art).” Early Childhood and Youth Development. Dakota County Technical College Program Blog. Feb. 2, 2013.
  7. Pedrosa, Adriano. “History, Histórias.” Afro-Atlantic Histories. 2021, p.21–22
  8. Silwa, Jim. “Learning About Struggles of Famous Scientists May Help Students Succeed in Science.” American Psychological Association. 2016.

About the Author

Aliyah N.C. is a budding teaching artist, illustrator, writer and former military brat lost between the Mediterranean coast and the Caribbean Sea. In a world that isn’t always inclusive, she believes it is important to create work that celebrates the “other.”



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