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  • Laura Sarsten and Pam Koutrakos

Becoming Risk Seekers: How Can We Start Exploring Possibilities?

This post was written by consultants Laura Sarsten and Pam Koutrakos.

Have you ever wished you could bottle up that initial start-of-the-year energy we all feel? Many of us instinctively know that some of the most memorable classroom moments are witnessing students beginning to discover who they are as learners: this is tremendously powerful! Although we can’t keep recreating the first day of school for 180 days straight, we can create a powerful learning buzz right from the start and keep it going all year long. As we discussed in the first part of this blog series, taking learning risks is like a rush of adrenaline: the energy, excitement, and expectation of a new risk helps us become motivated and stay engaged.

If risk taking is contagious, which it is said to be, than we must find opportunities to take and talk about risks in front of our students everyday.

How can we as teachers take risks knowing that if we do, the students will too?

How can we start exploring risk-taking possibilities with our students?

Here’s a few ideas to help you get started:

Initiate a conversation about risk-taking:

  • Share thoughts about what risk means and connotations associated with the word “risk”

  • Discuss times we have taken a risk in our own lives: what it was, how it felt, what happened

  • Read aloud a book or show a video clip that emphasizes importance and benefits of risk

  • Connect risk-taking to the important work of setting goals and creating action plans

  • Create a “class risk” and discuss (as a community of learners) the specific steps that will help support everyone along the way

At the beginning of the year, we often model this process by creating class goals around reading or writing stamina. We facilitate class discussions about why it is important to be invested in our daily work, what may be getting in the way, how to overcome these obstacles, and what could be a reasonable reach goal. As a class, we take a risk in creating this “reach goal” and check in each day to discuss progress towards our goal. It can be helpful to visually show progress. Don’t forget to celebrate along the way!

Another start of the year possibility could be to discuss and model taking kindness “risks” as a class. Although students often know the right thing to do in tricky social situations, many feel nervous to actually intervene and take action. Pam has worked with her class to create “kindness risks.” Celebration was never so sweet!

Inspire learners to co-create risks with their reading/writing partnerships:

  • Discuss risks students would be willing to take with their reading, writing, or math partners based on their individual goals

  • Design a supportive plan with a reading/writing partner to launch work that takes on a challenge together

Partner & individual intentions for risk taking:

Last year, one partnership in Pam’s class was playing it safe with their discussions. They were “compliant” and brought materials to partner time, took turns talking, asked one another simple questions, and used respectful language. However, they were getting very little out of these discussions because they were scared to take a chance in saying something that could be incorrect or sound funny. After seeing a strong partnership discussion modeled in a fishbowl, the girls decided to take a risk and set a goal together:

“We will be brave and share our theories…”

A student in Laura’s class noticed that they were always jotting in the same way in their reading notebook. Although the student felt comfortable in doing this work and felt their daily jots were worthwhile, he decided to take a risk and push himself to try thinking in new and different ways that seemed scary and challenging:

“Today I am going to try something new…”

Invite ongoing reflection on risk-taking:

  • Collectively share thoughts about first risks taken: this can be through discussion or a journaling experience

  • Encourage class members to open up about what grew from taking these risks, what positive influence does risk-taking have on a partnership?

  • Emphasize cycle of risk taking and plan “what’s next?”

Student thoughts/ reflections on initial round of risk taking:

As teachers, we can make the intentional choice to share more of the risks (and subsequent discoveries) that are awakening our own learning lives. Classroom community is created upon the foundation of an authentic two-way relationship: We need the students’ support just as much as they may need us. This supportive relationship is best achieved when the students and teachers are willing to take risks alongside each other and support one another along the way. How will you start to create a “culture of risk-taking” in your classroom?

Laura & Pam’s last blog post in this series will include suggestions for keeping risk seeking and risk taking front and center throughout the entire school year. Until then, please share how you and your students are taking risks in your learning spaces. Your ideas will provide inspiration for others.

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