10 Risks Every Teacher Should Take With Their Class

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As I work with students and teachers there is one common thread that the “stand-out” classrooms share: They take risks. Not only do these students and teachers take learning risks, but they also take them together. They are partners in the learning process, where the teacher is the guide on the ride (not just the guide on the side).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think there are good risks to take, and some not needed risks we can avoid. But, if we are on this learning journey together, the only way our students can become the hero of their story is to take some risks.

My job as a Director of Innovation lets me see hundreds of classrooms, where before I usually only saw my own classroom. I’ve also been lucky enough to travel and see classrooms around the country and different places around the world. It has inspired me to be a risk-taker in my own job, and to share the risks that my teachers are taking with the world. Here’s some of the favorite ways I see my teachers and students taking risks, and ways anyone can do the same with their class.

1. Give a Fresh Start

As teachers, we often get a ton of information about our students before they walk in the door. Past test scores. Socio-economic background. Behavior issues in other classes, etc, etc. Some of this information is very important (I’m thinking about IEPs) but none of this information should make us start our relationship with our students based on assumptions.

Each school year should begin with a fresh start. Each marking period should renew that fresh start. If we start our relationship with assumptions instead of hope, we’ve already made a mess of the learning experience.

2. Student Choice

I’m obviously a huge advocate for 20% time and Genius Hour in the classroom. I believe inquiry-driven learning experiences and projects allow students to “have a say” in their learning path. However, I’ve heard from many teachers who say they don’t have the time to run a full fledged 20% time project in their class. That’s OK.

Make sure you still give your students choice in what they learn and how they learn it. I know it can be risky at first. You’ll feel like maybe you’ve abandoned the curriculum (is that such a bad thing). You’ll feel like you’ve given up some control (is that such a bad thing). However, what you’ve really done is allowed the students to motivate their own learning. It’s a risk for sure, but it is one worth taking.

3. Looking at Data Together

There will be data. Lots of it. And if we keep all the data to ourselves, then we are doing the students a huge disservice. If we truly believe that our tests are valid and important learning measures, then we should meet with students 1-on-1 to show the previous results and areas where they struggle.

I did this as an 11th-grade teacher and it opened up some great conversations about testing and data. It also pointed out some areas that helped me to help my students. For instance, most of my students struggled with vocabulary. Maybe the “old me” would have taken this upon myself to ramp up vocab units and quizzes. But after talking with my students it was apparent that they didn’t understand vocabulary “context clues”. Now I could teach them context clues and they would be able to read books, stories, and non-fiction that they actually enjoyed.

Don’t make data the enemy. Instead, try to use it for what it’s worth and make it a collaborative learning experience.

4. Let Them Teach

Have you ever thought about giving your students the reigns on a class assignment? I know that my personal experience shows that when I teach something, I learn much more about it. The same goes for our students. I’m sure you already have projects and assignments in class where students are put into “expert groups”. Maybe you do a jigsaw activity where students then present to other students about what they know. Why not take it a step further and let them create a mini-lesson on their expert content. They’ll have to create an activity, build handouts, and present to the class as a lead learner. Students find this challenging but also rewarding. And when you have them share their learning with a bigger audience, they’ll be prepared!

5. Go on a Mission and Skip Class

Field trips can sometimes sound boring. Or they don’t have much to do with actual learning. Instead, go on a mission with your class. Present a guiding question, and then go on a hunt for answers! The 9th graders at my school don’t just learn about pH values, they go on a mission. We take them to the local watershed where they spend an entire day taking measurements and figuring out why a particular area of our community floods and the type of damage that happens when waste and toxins are mixed with our water supply. They leave knowing more about “science” than any lesson could ever teach them.

6. Learn Something New Together

If you are a teacher chances are you know your curriculum and content inside-and-out. Yet, there has to be something that you want to learn more about. When you learn something “new” with your class they get to see you as a “lead learner” and not just the teacher who has all the answers. They see how you ask questions, experiment with options, and use your curiosity to guide a learning path.

Plus, they get to help out along the way and show you a different perspective on the learning experience. Learning something new together is a great community builder but also an amazing way to model life-long learning.

7. Read for Reading’s Sake

Aren’t you tired of all the “reasons” we have to “read” in school? I know I am. Sometimes I want our students to understand that reading can be a pleasurable activity with no other outcome other than being entertained. We tend to do some of this type of reading in the younger grades, but as students get older, our view on reading gets colder (like that rhyme?!).

Let’s change that and take the time (and risk) to read for reading’s sake. Reader’s workshops are a perfect opportunity to give students time (and permission) to read for pleasure. Also, how about we make summer reading about actually enjoying a book and not forcing a text on all of our students. Just a thought.

8. Build/Make Something Useful Together

I was not the most “hands-on” learner. I was awful in shop class and even got stitches in my thumb from a saw in high school! But there is a rush I get from trying to make something. I also learn something new every time I build, fix, or make. Most of my “making” has been done on a computer and online (which is fine). Yet, this is a risk that many teachers think they are doing by handing out a project.

The problem with many projects is the lack of use (and purpose). Why make something that is either going to end up in the trash can, or on the fridge for a week before the trash-can? And digital projects are the same. Are you spending time creating “digital fridge art” with your students?

Instead, take the risk to create/build/make something useful together with your students. Something that is going to last. Something that will help your school, your community, or even the world. Then your students will understand that real “pride” in your work isn’t limited to what you make, but instead the reason you made it.

10 Risks Every Teacher

9. Tell Them Your Story – Listen to Their Stories

It’s the first day of school. You tell your students a little bit about yourself and your background. Then they tell you, and each other, about their story. Maybe you even have them create a little project about themselves. Flash forward to March. You haven’t spent much time at all talking about your story, and when is the last time you heard about their stories?

I’ve fallen into this trap before, and then when I ask myself where the connection is with my students, I realize…we haven’t shared our stories.

When we write about our stories, talk about our stories, and help each other out…that’s when the real connection happens and learning becomes a communal experience instead of an individual experience. Don’t be afraid to share your story and ask your students to share their stories.

10. Blog Together

This is risky I know. Putting your thoughts and ideas out to the world, and letting your students share their thoughts and ideas out to the world. But it’s totally worth it.

When you blog with your students you take the interaction from class and put it into a forum where anyone can participate. If you use platforms like Kidblogs and Edublogs it is easy to create a safe blogging experience for your students (take that risk off the table). Too often we want to keep what happens in our classes hidden, like it is some secret learning laboratory. Yet, most of the great teachers I know spend time sharing with the world what their students are doing. Blogging is the easiest way to do that.

These risks aren’t really risks at all. Instead, they are choices. 

I’m getting ready to take a big risk. I’m scared to share my work with the world. But, I’m still going to do it. My book, EMPOWER, is almost ready to be released into the world. It’s different. It has pictures all throughout it. It is quirky and creative and fun. It doesn’t look like any other education book I’ve ever seen or read.

But, this is what it is all about.

The world is ready for our ideas to be shared. It is ready for us to take risks and do things differently. That is where innovation can happen.

I’d love to hear about the risks you’ve taken as a teacher, school leader, and/or learner in the comments below. And I can’t wait to share my next risk with you!

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Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • Rose Warrell says:

    As I was reading your email and post it made me think to ask you this question. It may have nothing to do with it, but I would really love your expert opinion and thoughts on this. I am teaching ELA for summer school to 6th-8th grade. Mind you that they are students who either don’t do well during the school year, don’t like school, therefore they don’t care and don’t do well, or they really do struggle. I get a mix of grades and of course each student is different in their needs. They also come from different backgrounds with different issues.

    I have taught summer school for 14 years now. In the beginning they had a curriculum for us to use. However, it became outdated and was not beneficial to all students of different levels and abilities. That was for the first two years. After that, I used what I could find online or from other teachers. The last couple of years I have been using MobyMax because it is leveled, self-paced, and gives students variety. It has everything that I need: Reading (Literature, Informational, Stories, Science, Social Studies), Language, Spelling, Vocabulary, and Writing. I have them work on 4-6 subjects everyday (depends on how focused they are) for 25 minutes each. They have to get a minimum of 84 minutes with a goal of 120 minutes. I take the time focused (as long as it isn’t lower than their score on the subject) plus their score on the subject and average their grade. MobyMax grades everything for me except for the writing. It gives the students feedback and lets me know when they need assistance. I can reward them with virtual stickers, vibes, and game time that MobyMax provides. At least for the summer months it saves my sanity and time.

    I only have three weeks with each session (2 sessions), 2 periods, each period is approximately 2 hours. I have an average of 20-30 students per period.

    My question?? Is this the right way to go? Is there a better way? For the most part, it seems to be working; however, I do not know how it is affecting these students long term. Is it beneficial for them? Any ideas or suggestions? I also have an ELA curriculum from Amanda Werner from Amanda Write Now and was thinking of using it. Any assistance or advice that you could give me would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

    Sincerely,

    Rose Warrell

  • Laurie Mullin says:

    I did 20% time with my students last year, and it was absolutely fantastic and terrifying. The terror was all mine…letting go of control was scary. My students loved it! I was amazed at the wide variety of interests they had! On presentation days, kids who would typically struggle giving a 2 minute presentation waxed poetic for half an hour! I hadn’t put any time limitations in place because I’d never needed them before! I had presentations on model trains, magic, game coding, tap dancing, etc. What was most surprising was the parents’ reactions. I got emails thanking me for bringing everyone together at the dinner table to discuss projects. Families became involved in the process. I had volunteers come in to help me check in with students because all of them wanted to be able to share with an adult. It was the pinnacle of my career. That being said, it isn’t something I could continue to do in isolation. I tried to get my middle school team involved. I tried sharing within my department. I shared all the information and the parent emails with my administration. I could not get anyone to buy in. I’m going to continue doing this in my Social Studies classes, but I can’t sustain it in Language Arts due to all the testing and time constraints.

    • Glenn Wagner says:

      Personally, I have found ‘letting go’ easier and easier the more I do it. We have in front of us these 20 to 30 bright minds, curious about the world, question it and picking it apart to learn about it. Giving choice and encouraging relevance is when the ‘magic’ happens (or perhaps the way learning *should* be. No magic!). Don’t stop Laurie. In my world, it took me 3 to 4 years before a few teachers jumped in to try. My ‘secret sauce’ was to constantly show the kids in action. This is the best ‘sell’ that you can do. The teachers will come around once they see it several times.

  • Pam says:

    I had the chance to take these risks this past school year. I was the intervention teacher for the the 2nd grade students who were high level and needed enrichment. I really didn’t have a plan so I took the chance and gave the kids the choice to study and research anything they wanted or was interested or wondered about. They could choose their own product or proof of learning.

    It was amazing. I basically facilitated by printing out the information they wanted to use, gave them ideas on how to show their learning. The students used search engines and books and interviews to ask questions and find what they wanted to learn and present. I had products that were videos, oral reports, and google slides. I learned so much from them it was incredible.

    I just had to let go and let them take the lead and control their learning.

    • Carin says:

      I love your story! Thank you for sharing this. It is scary to let go, especially when you don’t have a particular plan in mind. Or maybe it’s better if you don’t have a particular plan because then the students truly do have ownership. I try to do this within my own second grade learning support classroom and the results are similar: I learn a ton from them and enjoy watching their engagement and enthusiasm. It’s nice to know there are teachers like you willing to take risks. It encourages me to take more as well!

  • Bonnie says:

    Thanks to Alice Keeler I took the risk of giving NO homework this past year! It was liberating! It gave valuable time back to my students and their families. It gave time back to me. It gave my students choices afterschool. It forced me to be efficient, in tune and there for my stiddnts during class.
    It got me thinking about why we do certain things as teachers. WHY do we do it? Is it truly effective? Could it be done more effectively or differently? What if we didn’t do it?

  • Dianne Cooney says:

    A few years ago, I simultaneously learned and taught Lego Robotics to my fourth grade science classes. We leaned on one another heavily, and the experience was terrific for all of us. It was liberating AND the students truly owned their robotics projects. In subsequent years, I knew to allow the students to explore and learn on their own and as peers, only coaching and troubleshooting as needed.

  • Karan Sinha says:

    teacher’s job is to motivate the students and bring the best out of them. a teacher should encourage them.
    thanks for providing such a valuable information.

  • Lynn Cashell says:

    One thing I love about your blog posts, and most things in the Academy, is that I learn new things, but also gain affirmations for what I am already doing. For the things I am already doing, I pause and think about how I can tweak them to enhance the learning, increase the innovation, and have more fun. My brain is lit up like a pinball machine, without the bouncing all over the place since I have a goal and actions to get there. This blog, in addition to all of the amazing comments from others, are keeping me on the right path. Thank you!!!
    #ITA17 @CashellLynn

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