Posted in Education, STEM, Teaching, Trying Something New

Be a Risk Taker and Try New Things in the Classroom

In college, I was definitely a risk taker.  I did things back then that I wouldn’t even dream of doing now.  One time my buddy and I went driving around late at night in the summer and thought it would be a good idea to light firecrackers and throw them out the window.  Sure, it sounds like fun, as long as the window is open when you go to throw them out.  The sound of a firecracker going off between your legs inside of a car is not an experience or memory you will ever be able to forget.  While most people would call experiences like this one pure stupidity, I call it risk taking.  No, it wasn’t smart, but it was risky.  I blame it on neuroscience.  I was still myelinating when I was in college and therefore didn’t have strong enough neurological connections to be able to make careful and rational decisions.

As an adult, I am much more cautious.  You might say that I’ve eaten the apple and see the world for what it truly is, a scary place.  I don’t take risks like I once did.  I have a family that I need to protect and take care of.  If I die doing something risky, who will teach my son how to drive or take care of my wife if she gets sick?  Therefore, I now take calculated risks in my personal life.  However, as an educator, when it comes to trying new things, I say, bring on the risks.  More than 75% of the new things I’ve tried in the classroom have worked out for the best and elicited positive results.  Trying new things as a teacher is the right thing to do.  While I can be careful in my personal life, the more risks I take in the classroom, the better.

Earlier this week, when I taught a mini-lesson on the stock market, I felt as though I didn’t do it justice.  I felt like I was just going through the motions.  The students weren’t super engaged in the discussions and they seemed to just complete the worksheet to get it done.  I feel as though I failed them as their teacher.  That afternoon, several students came to me for help because they were confused by the directions on the worksheet packet I had assigned for homework.  Had I better explained the worksheet packet in my mini-lesson, the students would have been better prepared for the homework assignment.  I was a bit disappointed by the whole experience.  So, I vowed that today’s mini-lesson on the stock market would kick butt and leave my students excited and engaged.

Today in STEM class, I taught a lesson on diversified risk as it pertains to investments and the stock market.  I began the lesson with a guiding question: What is the difference between risk and diversification?  We then viewed a short video that nicely explained what each term meant and the importance of having a diversified investment portfolio.  I debriefed the video by reviewing the guiding question.  They all seemed to understand the big differences.  We then discussed the three types of risks related to companies traded on the stock market.  This lead into a partner activity in which they had to decide which company had the most risk and which was the most reliable one to invest in.  We wrapped up this conversation with a full group discussion.  The students seemed engaged and interested in what we were doing.  They asked insightful questions and worked diligently.  The boys then completed another partner activity before moving into a full group discussion.  I tried to vary the types of instructional methods used so that the students would be focused and engaged.  This seemed to work out well for me.

My favorite part of the lesson, was when I deviated from my original plan.  After the students finished the final partner project, in which they had to document the companies they had invested in to examine how diversified their portfolio is, I had intended on having them move into independent work on the remainder of the worksheet packet that they needed to finish for homework.  I had done that during the last mini-lesson with poor results.  So, as the students finished working on the partner activity, I met with each group and gave them another task to complete based on my discussions.  One group felt as though their investment portfolio was not diversified at all and they wanted to fix it.  So, rather than have them move onto the worksheet packet, I had them update their stock portfolio.  They seemed excited to have the opportunity to do so.  They were super engaged and got right to work.  Another group felt good about their portfolio and so I had them work together on the worksheet packet so that they could assist and support one another.  They did a great job working together to examine how diversified or risky certain stock portfolios were.  I assigned the other groups similar assignments based on the conversations I had with them.  Rather than just move onto a different activity, I wanted to take the pulse of each partnership first.  This seemed to make a huge difference.  The students felt heard and respected.  They spent the final part of class working very well with their partner because of it.

Being flexible and open to trying new things and taking risks in the classroom allows for student engagement, choice, care, and respect.  Fostering strong relationships with the students in the classroom allows for genuine learning to happen on a daily basis.  I want my students to feel as though I amend my lessons and activities according to their level of engagement and excitement.  What do my students need to be challenged and appropriately supported?  Do they need more work, more practice, new activities, or something else entirely?  Assessing the atmosphere and environment in the classroom on a daily basis allows for the important choices to be made.  Do I repeat the same yucky lesson I did on Tuesday or do I take a risk and try something different?  Taking professional risks in the classroom helps foster a culture of caring, engagement, and excitement.  I want my students to enjoy coming to school and trying new things that will better engage the students makes this happen.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

3 thoughts on “Be a Risk Taker and Try New Things in the Classroom

  1. I really enjoyed your thoughts and reflections on taking risks in the classroom. As teachers, it is so important that we think back on what we did, what worked, and what didn’t. I think my favorite part of teaching is kind of winging it based on what is happening right now in class. I know some admins and the education powers that be would prefer a scripted, minutely planned lesson plan that is never deviated from, but I think that this doesn’t meet our kids where they are. What do you think?

    1. I think most educational professionals would support your favorite part of teaching as well as my philosophy on teaching that is we need to find the most effective way to support, engage, and challenge our students. If this means completing a fun, hands-on activity or allowing a discussion to meander down a side road because that’s what our students need, then that’s what great teachers should do. I recently read an interview with Sir Ken Robinson in Independent School Magazine where he made an analogy on teaching. It’s like gardening or organic farming. You have to cultivate the students through any means necessary, but not every idea or strategy will work for every student, much like how not every pesticide or watering technique will work for all different kinds of plants. I love it. I always wanted to be a farmer and now I am, only my students are my crops and animals. What do you think of Robinson’s analogy?

      1. I totally agree! I think it goes along with my fav: fair doesn’t mean everyone gets the same, rather everyone gets what they need to succeed.
        I think it’s sometimes harder for people looking into a classroom to understand why different kids get different things than it is for the children to accept the different learning needs of their peers.

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