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.
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 first set of PBL Units are almost ready to be released into the world. They are different. They have choice and voice options built in throughout. It doesn’t look like any other PBL units 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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