Embracing Productive Risk-Taking

thWe’ve noticed a change in the school climate this year as we strive to incorporate the new national literacy standards, the Common Core, into our classrooms.  Joan’s observed over 150 classrooms in her school district since September and reports the following trends in practice:

  • Evidence-based thinking, writing, and discussions–this is a huge shift from Joan’s learning walks three years ago. Everywhere, from K-12 classrooms, we’re seeing students dig into to their sources to discuss why they think what they think, cite the evidence that supports their thinking, and explain why that evidence is valid or invalid. We’ve seen teachers who encourage student voices, and then turn to the class, asking, “Do you agree or disagree with X’s thinking and use of evidence?” It’s the norm to see students turn and talk to each other, and then take the floor in discussing their agreement or disagreement in academic language.
  • Argumentation–three years ago, the only teacher in Joan’s district who took on argument in formal study was the speech and debate coach. Most of us weren’t sure how to begin, what a warrant was, and how often we needed to practice claims, evidence, and counter claims. Now, third graders articulate stances on whether or not a main character in a narrative text is a hero, cite evidence, and acknowledge and answer counter claims. Not only do we know and practice the differences between persuasion and argument, teachers, such as Trost Elementary’s Abbie Perrin, feature arguments that students eagerly linger over and share. The idea of teaching argument was overwhelming three years ago; now teachers make it look easy.  Three cheers for that!

But let’s step back a bit.  Our learning curve was stressful, and the continual learning that educators face is, well, an ongoing process that unfolds with or without funding.  Considering Oregon’s public school funding crisis during the last five years, how did we persevere through that rough transition of new, rigorous standards and almost no professional development?  We believe most teachers triumphed because of the only two consistent magic solutions we know of:

  • teacher collaboration in worthy risk-taking
  • courageous embracing of imperfection

We’re still in our learning curve with Common Core, still trying new things, still forging into uncharted territory, still understanding ourselves as colleagues and as learners, which is akin to Salman Khan’s claim that “the most important skill that anyone can learn is how to learn.”  Even so, it’s hard to embrace imperfection. Some teachers are more zen-ish and graceful at it than others.

Teachers Kate and Maggie Roberts write:

We are in the age of teacher evaluations and multi-faceted performance assessments. While these new initiatives offer insight into what makes good teaching, it is equally true that our current climate does not lend itself to a spirit of  “hey you guys, let’s mess up a lot!” But without this spirit, we will be in a choke hold. We will hang back. And if we hang back, it often means our students’ needs are not met. Hanging back means we don’t get better; we stay scared longer. Hanging back means we plague ourselves with doubt or guilt.

The Roberts offers the following suggestions for embracing productive imperfection in their blog Indent:

1. Pick a unit/topic/issue/text you have always wanted to teach but aren’t sure how:

Do you love graphic novels? Teach your kids how to write them! Frustrated by the lack of poetry in the CCSS? Teach the heck out of poetry, knowing that the skills found there will certainly be used elsewhere. Dive in and try to do it right, knowing that even if you are clumsy now, you will teach it better next time.

2. Try out a new “thing”

Maybe it’s a new device, like using your iPad to track student conferences (try Evernote App for your notes), or maybe you’d like to start a class blog. Or you were at a workshop where someone shared how their students made movies to go along with the stories they wrote and you thought, “my class would love that!” Take this year to play with something new.

3. Take on an impossible challenge

Do a full court press this year on a challenge you believe in and see what happens. Educator Lucy Calkins suggests that teachers choose one child and decide to change that child’s life this year. Yes, more would be better, but if we do everything we can for one of our students, while still doing a great job with the rest, we can make a huge difference.

4. Invite people to watch you teach (and vice versa)

Of course, the ultimate test of our desire to find areas of imperfection in our work is to work publicly. Teaching in front of colleagues is the heart of our work, learning from each other, seeing what works, brainstorming solutions to tricky bits, leaning on each others’ expertise. Set up some classroom visits this year with people you like (or are intimidated by). Practice with each other with light, brave hearts.

5. Learn how to frame your failures

a8bd23271230e954140eafa41ae691b4To tackle productive risk-taking, you must make a choice. Do you treat the chaos around you as something to be ashamed of and apologize in nervous tones? Do you smile and say, “Welcome! We are working on our debate skills. Today we focused on being sure to debate with passion and a sense of the counter argument. Clearly, we need to work on a structure for our conversation. Any tips?” Framing imperfection against the goals you are aiming for allows you to name what your focus is, while allowing room for growth.

With any challenge, self-selected or not, it’s important to have appropriate support. Find trusted colleagues in your building to talk to and to learn from.  Support each other with gentle humor and honesty.  Finally, recognize wins as they happen and celebrate them.


Pattie and Joan


About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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