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Show that it’s OK to take risks, make mistakes

New York Teacher

“Oops! I made a mistake,” I announce to my 4th-grade students, who are all looking at me with wide eyes and tilted heads. They giggle, some out of nervousness, others out of fascination. I have a choice: I can scold myself for not getting it right or I can turn this awkward moment into a real-life lesson about responsibility and reflection. “Well, this stuff happens in life,” I say. “Even teachers are human — we can make mistakes, too.”

In my classroom, the unpolished realities of classroom life often come up against the finesse of a calm and collected expert teacher. What I value most about my classroom is that it is a place to learn academic skills, learn about life and learn about ourselves. Positioning myself as both a teacher and a learner creates a climate of respect and risk-taking, where my students and I can all feel free to take that extra leap and not be afraid to fall.

When a student announces to the class, “I didn’t think I could write that essay, but I persevered and did the best I could,” I know there is so much pride, effort and knowledge within her, in part because of the environment I create and the learning I instill.

Too often teachers are expected to get it right the first time — or worse, every time — and this sets up an unrealistic standard for our profession and an unrealistic model of success for our students. We are challenged by the students we serve and their ever-changing needs, interests, styles and perspectives. What was just right one year can change dramatically the next. We must adapt and take risks in developing and updating lesson plans and trying out new teaching methods, not all of which will be successful.

Just this year I was preparing for one of my favorite topics to teach — theme. The previous school year, I encouraged the students to dress in theme and prepared exploration stations with iPods and lyrics to three popular songs, a short animation film and reader’s theater scripts. As I looked over my plan to have students rotate through similar centers again this year, I realized it could be better.

The results had been awesome last year as the students made connection after connection across texts and to their own lives. But what if this year they closely read artwork? What if they used images on a digital writing platform to try their hand at their own stories with common themes of literature? I excitedly revised my plan and adjusted logistics.

We want our students to navigate unknown territory and problem-solve in new situations. So it’s great for them to see their teacher modeling that same mindset.

Consider creating opportunities to prod your students to take risks and confront a problem that appears daunting. Have your students try to solve a brainteaser or build a structure out of paper that seems nearly impossible. Ask them to draw a somewhat complicated picture without ever letting their pencils leave the paper.

As you observe your students tackle these exercises, jot down what they say, such as “I can’t do this” or “This is impossible.” You’ll see some students continue to work through it and others who decide they’ll never get it and give up. When time is up, bring students back together and share some of the phrases you heard and ask how it felt to be challenged. The discussion may extend to other classroom work and perhaps even life beyond school.

We want our students to take risks and see the mistakes they make as the steppingstones to learning.

Lauren Bakian Aaker is a 4th-grade teacher and a peer collaborative teacher at PS 110 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

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