Taking Risks

Post date: Mar 13, 2016 12:34:07 AM

Last week at the California Council for the Social Studies conference I had the honor of meeting many of my website users. One of them said something that has stuck with me since.

"What I really appreciate is that he makes you feel like you can actually do this stuff even if you really can't."

Lots of people have said lots of really nice things to me but this comment, I think, is the most meaningful I've received. This is the feeling I strive to give my students every day because I know they can even whey they think otherwise. If I can do the same with teachers - all the better!

I've never felt that what I do in my classroom is really all that unique or special. Pretty much every idea I've had has A) been inspired by what someone else is doing and B) a terrific failure in some way. Notice, I didn't say or. It's both of those things. I'm quite sure everyone is capable of borrowing and failing! I'm exceeding glad whenever someone uses what they've found here on the site in their own classroom because it validates my failures.

I bring this up because I also recently had a site user come visit my classroom. When she left she said something along the lines of "I'm glad I got to see that your classroom is real and you face many of the same challenges I do." It is not (and never has been) my intent to pretend that my classroom is a Wonderland! I face discipline problems, apathetic kids, constantly changing expectations, random deadlines and the realities of grading just like all of you. Many of the lessons I spend days, and even weeks, designing end up failing miserably and ALL of them require adjustments to actually work. Planning and implementing are two very different things.

So, it was with a mixture of excitement and fear that I gave my Latin America assessment last week. I spent quite a long time creating this. I started back in early December and worked off an on since.

Starting with my first class I started making notes on my script. I found mistakes almost immediately. The next period I found even more. By the 3rd period I just started noting all the areas that could be improved (not necessarily mistakes, just could be better) in a second color. This was not by design, I simply lost my pen at lunch - real classroom you see? Here's what one of the pages looked like by the end of the day:

This was all stuff I probably should have caught in the design phase but I'm not a lesson designer - I'm a teacher. I have classes to teach which take priority over everything. Sometimes that means I get caught up in the flow and just hope I did well enough in the design phase. I definitely did well enough here but I wanted you to see that it is a messy process. I'm not going to pretend I have all the answers. I'm not trying to sell anything anyway. I don't have a "brand" that I have to keep up by pretending that if you use my lessons your classroom will be Heaven on Earth. It won't be. Mine isn't. It is, however, better than many others because I'm willing to take risks.

My kids appreciate that I'm trying something new. I asked them to note whether they liked this test more than our others and why. Every single kid said they liked it better or equally. I don't think they stopped to really think about the question. Almost every student wrote a full page front and back over the course of the test. Many went on to a second page. They worked and worked on this thing. It really was just a DBQ. Still, they enjoyed it because I took the time to spice it up and take a risk.

It could have failed miserably. My main fear was that I wouldn't be able to really assess student learning from it. I feared it might be too easy. It wasn't. If anything, it was far easier to see which kids understood the topic than with my usual tests - essay or otherwise. Those who really understood the material were able to make very astute observations and explain how they related to what we've been learning. That's more than I usually can get out of a short answer response and certainly more than multiple choice. The risk paid off.

So, back to the first comment. You can do this stuff. It almost certainly won't be perfect the first time, or hundred times, you try but be willing to give it a go nonetheless. You'll keep perfecting it until you're happy enough with it to focus on the next idea!

And of course I couldn't leave without a parting shot at Teacherspayteachers... Part of what bugs me about the site is the lie that so many of the sellers live on. They are trying to convince you that if you spend x dollars then that lesson is going to make your class perfect. It won't. If you are using anyone else's lessons untouched - no matter what you paid for them - you're going to run into problems. I will be extremely impressed when I see a seller on there say something like "Hey, this worked pretty well with my kids. It isn't perfect but you may find some use from it." Of course, they won't, because it isn't about collaboration and improving life for students, it's about profit.