Monday, September 2, 2013

Building a Culture for Risk Taking

Warning:  Ridiculously long and wordy blog post ahead.  
Proceed with caution.

As I think about today--my last day of summer--I can't help stopping to think about my incoming students.  I have the "numeric" data on all of them . . . their test scores.  Their reading level.  Their behavior needs.  Of course,  I really know very little about them that matters--what kind of a learner are they?  What do they love?  What makes them nervous?  What I also think about on this last day of summer is WHERE do I want them to be when I send them on their way to fifth grade--and how will I get them there?

One thing I know to be true is that creating a culture for learning is SO important.  Students need to believe in themselves and believe in US--that we are on their team and are going to help them succeed.  That trust factor is huge, and we need to spend some quality time developing that in the first weeks of school so that we can maximize learning time!

To help, I really like to stress with my students is the idea of being a risk taker!  As our students navigate through these upper elementary grades, you know as well as I do that they become more and more self-aware and self-conscious.  For some students, concern over looking "stupid" or making mistakes is enough to completely shut them down as learners.  At this age students are fully aware of who learns quickly and who does not, who has the latest and greatest clothes and who does not, who can make a three point shot or run fast or jump far--and who cannot.  How can we level the playing field?  We need to encourage ALL students to be active participants--even when they aren't feeling their most confident.  What can we do?

How about these!

Model risk taking!
One thing that I think we can easily do is model risk taking.  Writing in front of students, solving tricky math problems together--all while saying, "I'm not sure how this is going to turn out, but let's give it a try!"  Ever since my trip to the Dominican Republic, I start the year off by modeling writing a story about a time I took a risk and how it was such a great decision.  

Show yourself making mistakes--and how you handle it!
Ever have a student point out a spelling error you have made?  A computation error?  Have you ever made a mistake while reading aloud?  Use this as a chance to show your students that mistakes happen to everyone and that it's ok!  At the end of this post is a quote from a pretty cool fourth grader.  I had asked her to help me "test" my latest product, and it was a little out of her comfort zone.  She made a mistake (she highlighted the wrong thing) and didn't know what to do.  Her mom (a teacher and dear friend of mine!) coached her to just find a way to fix it--and she did!  She was so concerned about how it LOOKED, that she almost missed the opportunity to finish successfully!

Find safe ways for students to take risks!
The Common Core is going to ask our students to do work at a higher level than ever!  We certainly want our students to be successful--but they are going to have to push themselves in order to do so!  Working to provide students with scaffolded activities where they can safely try new things without worrying about grades.  I consistently like to give my students math problems where we don't even find the answer--problems like "Find all the numbers less than 5,000 where the 10's place is double the hundreds place and the digits add to 12."  We work for 15 minutes, talk about strategies, what was difficult, hints for others, how we organized our work and so on.  The "right answer"?  Not relevant.  Remember, students feel pressure from US to get the right answer, from their PARENTS to do well, and from their PEERS.  We have to create a safe environment for them.

Encourage students to share times when they have taken risks--and share the results!
One of the coolest experiences I had last year was when every student in my class did a powerpoint presentation to the class--for most, their first "real" presentation.  The rules?  You had to talk about your topic when it was your turn and applaud for everyone else.  A parent of one of my most cautious and reserved students told me after that he was so afraid for her--that he didn't think she could do it.  Not only did she do it--but she ROCKED it!  She was willing to talk about the experience with the class and SO many students were able to validate for her that they felt THE SAME WAY she did!  Another student shared about how nervous he was for his first swim meet--and how he didn't do well in his first race but the coach encouraged him and he did better in the second one.  The class cheered for him!  

One of my favorite fourth graders in the world--who I WISH could be in my class this year--struggles with this feeling that she needs to be the best and that she can't make mistakes...not because she isn't capable (she is SUPER capable!) but because of the pressure she feels.  I asked her today "What can teachers do to help students feel better about taking risks in class?"  Her answer?

"Make it fun.  Don't grade things because if they get a bad grade they won't believe in themselves."

Food for thought.

To help you try to do a little more with risk taking, I have a few freebies for you!  I really love using quotations in my classroom to get students thinking and talking.  I have made a set of 5 posters with "risk taking" as a theme for you if you are interested!

I also do a little something to help my students learn to take risks without fear of being wrong or being graded.  Whether it's writing their opinion about a section of a read aloud, writing their best guess as to what might happen in a science lab, trying their best guess at what a new word means, or putting their answer for a tough math problem, I like to use these little "try it" slips.  Students know they aren't graded--for that matter, you could make them anonymous!  Get students used to putting their ideas out there knowing that they won't be judged or scored.  Here is a link to my "try it" slips if you want to give it a try yourself!

Thanks for stopping by--and hope everyone had a wonderful three day weekend!  Don't forget to watch for the upcoming "Real Life Math" linky on Wednesday! 
 We'd love to have you link up!


  1. An awesome long and wordy post :) Actually being a "risk taker" is part of our school philosophy so this was an affirming post for me to read. I love the posters too :)


    Fun in the Fours

    1. Thanks, Lynn. What a FANTASTIC thing to have declared as a part of your philosophy. We talk about it some, but it doesn't always permeate what we do. We need to address it more this year!

  2. This was a wonderful post to read! It wasn't wordy for me at all, rather it was very informative and educational! Thanks for putting it together for us. This year, our school would like us to ensure that our students are risk takers. Your post has turned the 'light bulb' on for me. Thanks!

    1. Awww...thanks! It's something I feel strongly about! I really want our students to leave us excited to learn and ready to tackle any challenge they face!

  3. Great post! I agree that it is very important to get students to take risks. Sometimes school rushes by, and we focus more on the product instead of the process. As a result, students develop that learned sense of helplessness. Great advice on cultivating a classroom where risk-taking feels safe.

    Eclectic Educating

    1. Agreed--it's easy to focus on the product and forgot the "creator" of the product! :)

  4. Wow! Did this ever give me food for thought! I found myself agreeing with every single word you wrote - both as an educator and as a mother as well. Thanks so much for the time and thought you "putting this on paper" (blog-style, that is)! ~Deb
    Crafting Connections

    1. Thanks, Deb! I appreciate your is just as true for us as parents, isn't it?!?!

  5. I love the posters & exit slips! As a special education teacher, I am always encouraging my students to take risks and try new things. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Missa! It is SO important for your kiddos, isn't it?!?

  6. Been so busy with start of the year stuff that I missed this post. Glad I stopped to come back to it! :)

    I love your signs; thanks for the freebie! I started using motivational signs last year and you have a few new ones I don't have yet that will be great lessons for my group. One thing I plan to work hard on this year is to EMPOWER my students. They seem to be a more cohesive, well behaved group than I've had in a few years so I feel like I'll be able to take the time I'd normally spend improving those areas and putting it towards building them up, teaching them how to build each other up and really fostering their sense of independence. :)


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