This summer began with a hold-over goal from last summer: my daughter wanted to jump off the diving board. The previous summer had ended with her standing on the board, toes curled over the edge, but no jump. As soon as the pool opened this season, her mind was set. She would jump.
And yet, when we got down to the pool, nerves had reappeared. Georgia demurred. Day after day, she talked about the diving board. She looked at the diving board. She even touched the board from the safety of the deck.
But one day as Georgia watched the other children fling themselves from the board, she looked at me, resolute, and asked, “Mom, what’s the worst that could happen? There is a life guard right there. I know I can swim. You’re watching me. I just need to jump.” And so she did.
This is the way I want to teach.
I believe in the transformation that happens in our minds and in our classrooms when we take a leap and launch into an experiment, into the unknown. It’s a shot in the arm — a wake up call. Medicine for weary teachers and complacent students.
Recently, on the Talks With Teachers podcast, Allison and I shared that experimentation isn’t always borne of courage and conviction. In my experience, it has most often come out of desperation — of seeing something that isn’t working, hypothesizing about a solution, and then saying to myself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
This is a question I come back to a lot. And it’s a question I also pose to my student writers. Because I want our classroom and their writing to be filled with the kind of wonder, discovery, and risk-taking that happens when we try. When we experiment.
Risks make better teachers, and risks make better writers.
Experiments — large and small — innovate our pedagogy.
Six years ago, I knew my writing instruction wasn’t working. I was scared to really teach writing — scared my writers would fail — so I resorted to no-fail solutions: formulas, fill-in-the-blank essays, giving them arguments. Of course, these measures also killed their writers’ souls. Not knowing if it would work or if I could pull it off, I wiped my plan book clean, read Write Beside Them, asked “What’s The Worst The Could Happen?”, and started a full-fledged writing workshop.
This is the same way I eliminated traditional grades in my senior English classes last year.
On a smaller scale, this is how I approach daily instruction. While our fundamentals remain constant — choice, target instruction, time to read, time to write, time to talk — I keep my teacher heart engaged by experimenting with the variables.
In the last few weeks, Allison told me that she has been getting her 9th grade writers to share their writing process and receive feedback under the document camera. In her class, students clamor to share; whole class periods are filled with sharing. I didn’t think this would work for me. What if I asked the students to volunteer to share, and no one did? What if they came forward, but they didn’t know what to say? And I didn’t know what to say? And it was painful and awkward for everyone? But, I know my students need more opportunities to talk about their writing, so I tried it. And it worked — students shared and enjoyed peeking into one another’s notebooks.
Angela’s post on making writing using a grid intrigued me as I was looking for tangible ways for my students to revise their free verse poems. But I worried: would students understand what to do? What if they couldn’t apply the poetry strategies that I taught…? And I was suddenly confronted with that reality … in the last days of our writing study? Still, I was curious. What would happen? And I didn’t want to wait until our next writing study. What was the worst that could happen?
So, we tried it last Tuesday. It was fun and fresh — a new way of looking at our writing. It transformed some students’ poetry. A few confirmed their faith in their original lines and gained confidence to stop tinkering. A couple truly struggled- – they quickly realized that this is not a revision strategy for them. At least not now. But what was lost? Nothing. Writers learned something about their process.
I want this ethos — that we will try anything to become better — to pour over into my students’ writing.
How can we get our students to try new things in their writing? How do we get them to ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
The good news is that their sweet and strange teenage brains are already wired for this – we just have to tap into it:
Show Them The Moves of Real Writers
Students can’t take risks if they don’t know what they look like. When we immerse them in the work of real writers, we improve the chances of them trying the (risky) techniques of real writers.
Because they saw real writers use these techniques, Federico tried his hand at using a Tweet as evidence in his sports analysis, Lauren wove personal anecdotes into her film analysis, and Claire tried out a strange and surreal metaphor in her poem about snorkeling.
Give Students Opportunities for Revision
Some experiments succeed and others fail wildly. We need to allow our students to take risks in their writing along with the opportunity to fix it if it doesn’t work. In real life, writing is not one-and-done. It shouldn’t be one-and-done for our students either, especially if we are asking them to try new techniques in their writing.
Provide Opportunities for No-Stakes Writing Play
Big, polished, published pieces can’t be the only time students take risks and experiment in their writing. Daily notebook time gives students a chance to try new techniques with the safety that comes from knowing that no one else will see it, no one will judge it, no one will give it a grade.
We encourage students to take risks in their writing when we reward it. Allison’s notebook spotlight under the document camera is a wonderful way to highlight times that students have moved beyond their comfort zone in their writing. I have even awarded students bonus points for telling me how they have taken risks in their writing.
Confer About It
Asking students “what risks have you taken in this piece so far?” brings the concept to the forefront of the student’s mind and the conversation about writing. Asking this question nudges students in the direction of experimentation and lets them know that it is not only permissible but encouraged.
“What’s the worst that could happen” is one of the most powerful questions in my toolbox — right up there with “How’s it going?” and “What do you notice”? Here’s the thing: when our risky experiments are rooted in best practices and the best interest of our students, they might fall flat, but they will never fail. We will be learning about our own pedagogy, reinvigorating our practice, helping our students discover what does and doesn’t work for them. This is true learning.
So, here’s a challenge: in this next month, try an experiment, take a risk to find a solution for something that isn’t working. Big or small, find a way to ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and make a shift. Then, come back here or on Twitter (@RebekahOdell1) or Facebook and tell us about it.
Let’s celebrate the leap itself.
I needed this read today! I am trying something new in readers workshop this year and de-leveled my classroom library. It’s hard, it’s time consuming and sometimes I feel isolated in my changes in the classroom. But you are right, the change is so much better for my students!
Caroline, thanks for reading! I definitely understand the isolation of experimentation — that was me in my former school! Thank goodness for online community these days. It makes teaching a much more communal vocation!
This is such a moving, thoughtful expression of teaching. I work with a district’s ELA teachers and I’m going to send them to this piece. Thank you.
Thank you so much for reading & taking the time to leave this note!
Thank you, Rebekah! You are always so inspiring! I’m taking a risk in my classroom tomorrow. I now feel better about it because of your words: what’s the worst that can happen? After all, even if it doesn’t work, it will certainly give me something to write about! Thanks again for always pushing me to try new ideas!
Kelly, what are you doing?! I’d love to hear about it!