Fostering Risk-Taking During the Revision Process

Image via Michał Parzuchowski @mparzuchowski on unsplash.com

We all take risks when we need to. In essence, risks allow us to squash the “what ifs,” to feed our curiosity, to discover what’s possible. And of course, they offer us the chance – through trial and error – to strike gold.

While there is a time to play it safe and trust what has already worked in the past, in our classrooms, there are many opportunities to teach our students the power of taking risks – especially in the revision process.

What do we mean when we consider risk-taking as reflective writers? It might look like…

  • Inverting sentence order or trying new syntax schemes
  • Splitting sentences up, making them separate ideas or broken up into purposeful fragments
  • Combining sentences to see the effect
  • Rearranging sections and experimenting with new organizational patterns
  • Using punctuation to reimagine sentence style and playing with writer’s voice: dashes to stress moments of urgency, parentheses that add another layer of expression, etc.
  • Practicing newly learned words in context
  • Refining word choice in an effort to make writing emotive
  • Warming up to sharing vulnerable or personal moments in writing

To help students to embrace this thinking, we must be intentional about how our instructional practices reflect and foster this value of taking risks in our revisions.

Communicating the Importance of Risk-Taking to Students

One of the first steps in fostering an environment for risk-taking can be clearly communicating to students that it is something we value in the classroom. While risk taking is crucial for all of the courses that I teach, one class in particular that thrives on risk taking is Creative Writing. In a class where students are learning a variety of new creative genres, we are constantly and daringly revisiting and re-evaluating writing. To make it clear to my students that the course is rooted in risk taking, I discuss this belief from the very beginning of the course:

The Core Tenets of Creative Writing (from my course syllabus).

In making “Experimenting and Risk Taking” a “Core Tenet” of the class, I hope to empower students with the knowledge and awareness that risk taking is encouraged; it is part of the culture of the classroom.

Beyond directly telling students that it is worth our attention, I strive to reflect that in the structure and routines of my classroom. To reflect this sentiment, I ask myself: Am I setting aside enough time to allow students the chance to experiment with their drafts? Do the exercises and activities I plan for my students support trying new things when revising?

My hope is to help students become comfortable with embracing the unconventional and the unknown when revisiting their work. For students to truly understand that taking risks is a part of what we do as writers, we must first set a foundation that proudly and clearly sends that message.  

Modeling Our Own Risk-Taking

We wouldn’t be fully embracing risk-taking if we didn’t model it ourselves, right? Consider ways that you demonstrate to students the vulnerability and the critical thinking that come with taking risks.

When modeling writing live in front of students, I make a conscious effort to walk them through my thinking when revising my writing – to think out loud, essentially.

I’ll revise a sentence, actively and intentionally trying something new. I’ll rephrase, talking through how something sounds and the effect it might have on my reader. I’ll reverse a sentence structure, considering how this one change might impact a whole section of writing.

We generally associate risk taking with spontaneity and impulsivity (true), but when narrating my decisions, I explain how sometimes those great “light bulb moments” can be spurred by some structure and routine – that we can strategically plan for risk-taking. How do we look at our writing and consciously try to experiment with it? We can show students there can be a method to the madness.

First, we take a risk and try something out. Next, we reflect on how the choice changed our writing…for better or for worse. Then, we either keep changes, pivot, try something new, or start over.

Here are a few examples of how I “narrate” my risk-taking decisions as I revise in front of students

I notice that my sentence here is ____________ and _____________. I like that _____ and _____, but I am not sure about how  _____________.
Now considering ______, I wish that this part ________.
I wonder what would happen if ___________________.
Actually, I’m not sure if that worked. I thought that change would have __________, but it helped me see that ____________.
I like this better than what I had before because ______________. However, I still wonder if _________________.

I really focus on using phrases like “I notice, I like, I wish, and I wonder” to help students a.) easily follow my thoughts about my own writing and b.) begin to demonstrate the same type of approach when they write. This allows students to see how it is completely okay if things don’t work out and that there is still a reward to those risks. That their curiosity is only going to serve them well in the end. That it takes some vulnerability and honesty and reflection to see what works and what doesn’t.

Making Risk-Taking the Norm in Revision

To truly make risk-taking a norm, it must be threaded in all that we do. Again, students must see that risk-taking is an ongoing practice throughout revision.  

The challenge to making this “ongoing” and “regular” is the fact that the vulnerability asked of students to try something new is rivaled with a lack of comfort or confidence. While students will eventually see that taking risks can result in favorable outcomes, they still need to (the earlier the better!) practice in an environment that is low-stakes. When teaching a mini-lesson during the revision stage, which usually entails guided or independent practice (“now you try!”), I will invite student volunteers to share what they tried, what revision they made, or a sampling of their thoughts through that process.

Admittedly, this can be daunting for students, so I remind my writers that through this communal practice, we might see things that work, we might see things that don’t work, but the importance is that we are studying how that mode of thinking aids us in the long-run. It helps students see other students taking risks and helps reinforce the “thinking out loud” reflection that follows. To engage more students to share their writing, I will sometimes remind them of the benefit of on-the-spot workshopping: “if it needs work, then great, see it as a perk…we are using a group effort to focus on your writing – isn’t that wonderful?”

In the end, I notice that the continual encouragement of why we share (and how it benefits all of us) results in more students stepping into the spotlight – regardless of the outcome of the creative risk they took. And from there, I see those risks being taken in multiple writing settings: in whole class revision exercises, in workshops, in conferences, and in individual revision time.  

It is in all of these moments that I see the payoff of cultivating not just a community of writers, but a group of reflective thinkers who champion creative risks enough to make that a part of their craft and revision practice. The payoff is witnessing writers in the act of challenging norms, taking chances, and striking gold.

-Kenny

What are ways you foster risk-taking in your writing classroom? You can connect with me on Twitter @kenbuiCBSD.

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