Saturday, September 26, 2015

As A Matter of Artifact: A Daring Tale, Full of Risk(-Takers)

     Even now, I sit here and struggle.

     I struggle to put into words what it looks like, feels like, sounds like to take a risk in my classroom. Risk - it's a word fraught with negative connotations to most of us. A risk is something you HAVE to take.  You calculate a risk. You weigh the risk. You stay away from risky business ventures. But, visible learning is asking us to redefine our emotional connection to the word.

"JJL Visible Learners are comfortable taking risks."

     We have been asked to post an artifact that represents how we've encouraged risk in our classrooms. Guh.  An artifact. What should I try to dig up? I checked Websters for clarification.
an object made by a human being, typically an item of cultural or historical interest.
"gold and silver artifacts"

     An object. When I think of artifacts, I imagine ancient tombs, artwork, a dusty map, and Indiana Jones. Does this mean I need to show a shining example of risk-taking, or can I take a picture of kids with their hands in the air? None of that will mean anything if you don't know my students like I do. A picture with a bunch of students with their hands in the air doesn't tell you what we were talking about - it could be that I just asked them all who would like a check for a million dollars. An example of a student's writing or written work won't tell you a tale, too much is subjective in the beholder's eye. How is the beholder to know that risk was involved for that student to write what he or she did? Perhaps the child is already an open book, waiting to be praised for their depth and honesty in their writing. How is the person viewing the artifact to know that there was a risk taken, encouraged by me?
     Am I the only person who struggles with this? Did everyone else reach into their grading bag and pull out the perfect object or example that says it all? Am I a failure if I can't find the right object? Do I encourage my students to "be bold" or "take a risk and put yourself out there" or "try it out first, bravely go where you haven't gone before"?
     Since the day we were given this assignment, since feeling this confusion and failure, I've searched for how to relieve it. I've been more conscious in my wording to students during discussions, conferences, instruction, and conversation. I've added the intention to my feedback of making them feel the need to challenge themselves, to feel that trying something new or challenging, even if they made mistakes - even if they struggled, was the goal. Have I done this before in years past? Yes. Have I done it so regularly, so intentionally? No.
     So, as a now-focused observer, I'm starting to open my eyes to all the risks my students are taking. Everything from standing up and identifying that they believe they should be putting themselves out there more, to trying on the persona of a "smart kid", to choosing a book that is tougher than anything they've ever read before, to writing about something painful with honesty, to admitting guilt for something done wrong, to raising a hand for the first time to answer a question or give an opinion, to behaving in class because there is a real desire to engage in the work of reading and writing, Each risk seems monumental to the student taking it, and to me, their teacher - who is saying this is a place that is safe to do that.
     I don't have an object, man-made or otherwise, that represents all of that. Again, I felt let down by my own lack of creativity. A discussion with my colleagues revealed that many of them felt the same way. (Whew!) Our conversation also helped me discover that I was right now in the very same position many of my struggling students were, feeling like they feel on a daily basis. What was the cure? More research? Perhaps. Jump in and try something different? Definitely. Time to take a risk.
     I went back to Websters to start my research, and I'm pretty sure I needed to do what I urge most of my students to do when they look up a word and don't understand how to use that first definition: read on.

something observed in a scientific investigation or experiment that is not naturally present but occurs as a result of the preparative or investigative procedure.

     Yeah. I am changing my practice as I'm trying to observe and document this behavior of risk-taking, and it's having an effect. This reflection is my artifact, because I have to take risks as an educator, reflect, try something different, in order to get my students to want to do the same.
     This is my artifact.
     How about the story of "Tommy"?  He's a kid who struggles to focus on any academic endeavor. He's the kid who can't sit still. He's a kid who can discover a thousand ways to fake out a teacher, but secretly wants to be challenged enough to be engaged.
     He's a kid that struggles outside our school with his home life. He's a kid who struggles showing any weakness to anyone else, especially at school, because he lives his life knowing that any weakness will be exploited and lead to humiliation, penalty, or neglect. He's a kid who wants the attention of everyone, who wants to swagger through the world with all eyes turned to him in amusement or adoration. He's the kid who will, when he feels safe, sometimes use words or phrases that he knows will make things awkward because it feels a little like power. He's the kid who tests every boundary, because he needs to know he can still be welcomed after he has.
      He's a kid whose thoughtless words often spill from his mouth with no filter, the shrapnel of them injuring those around him who don't wear the armor of swagger - and those who do. He's a kid, who when this is brought to his attention, gets tears in his eyes for the shy kid who finally raised his hand to participate for the first time and he giggled and repeated that student's words because they were said with a childish rounding of a letter, rather than clearly - crushing that student's first brave offering. He's the kid who finds a way to silently apologize to that other kid and now protects him from everyone else, includes him where he wasn't before included.
     He's the kid that when he blurts out something during a discussion, I know he's not serious, but when he raises his hand - which he has begun to do more and more - he contributes something deep and thought-provoking and different than every other child. He's a kid who, when he is given the most challenging of the available tasks, engages with the "smart kids" who are doing the extension activity with him, debates the meaning of words in Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage..." speech from As You Like It with incredible fervor and impeccable logic.
     And it's only September.
     How far can I get "Tommy" to go this year, with the help of my colleagues who see the same emergence of an incredible learner, smart, motivated, and confident? How many risks will he attempt? How many other students will follow his lead?
     I'll take a risk and say, "All the way."