Empower Them: Concrete Ways to Encourage Risk Taking and Agency in Your Classroom

One thing that’s been on my heart this last year is the topic of fear. 

Not the obvious, quiver-in-your-boots, run-for-cover type of fear, but a much more insidious kind. The kind that creeps up when nobody’s watching, that manifests as a quiet doubt or belief that you’ll never be good enough and that stepping out of your comfort zone is for other people and never you. It’s the fear that lurks in the periphery of your mind, yet controls everything you do.

And, in my own experience as both a teacher and student, I’ve noticed fear not only holds a prominent place in my life, but in the lives of my students as well. 

The Manifestation of Fear

When I was in high school, I was extremely quiet. I was a “good” kid, but you’d never see me stay late to ask a teacher for help or volunteer for a leadership role. I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. I didn’t want to give myself the chance to let anyone else down. I was quiet and meek and almost afraid of my own voice and, because of that, I let my dreams go by.

It wasn’t until college that I felt comfortable. Not until a series of events led to me applying to be an orientation leader and Freshmen Seminar TA and Writing Center Tutor that I found my voice. I student taught. I became a teacher. In the walls of my own classroom, I was safe.

Yet I still see so much of my own fear in my students.

I came to this realization after a series of observations. One such came about in an informal post-socratic seminar discussion with an incredibly brilliant student of mine.

I asked her what she thought of “A Rose for Emily” and if the socratic method was working for her. She replied that she liked it, but that she had already realized the North vs. South symbolism inherent in the text on her first read, something I had paused the seminar to talk about at the end of class.

“That’s great! I’m glad you got it!” I exclaimed, “Why didn’t you bring that up in class? A lot of other students could have benefitted from that insight.”

“Well,” She shrugged, “I just figured that I’d rather be quiet than wrong.”

I thought about this statement for a while. My brilliant student had a profound lack of trust in her own insight. She didn’t trust her own voice.

The root problem wasn’t a lack of trust in her classmates or a lack of classroom. She was good friends with everyone in her class and had been since she was very young. It wasn’t that every student in that class had shared brilliant insights (in fact, one student in her class had even introduced a far-out conspiracy theory somehow involving aliens). It was a fear to take up space, to be visible, to share her own voice.

Year after year, students are easily intimidated for various reasons. Whether that fear originates from the way they were raised, a language barrier, a disability, or past failures, it’s crippling. It prevents them for seeking out the help they need and taking control of their own future.

Below are a few suggestions to help your students step out on the ice.

Ideas and Solutions:

1. Build confidence through practice

Confidence takes time and comes from a sense of accomplishment. Oftentimes, I’ve observed the best way to help my students take risks is by slowly easing them into challenging situations and providing multiple scaffolds for their skills.

For example, I assign my freshmen a presentation at the beginning of each year as a get-to-know-you activity, and students are always terrified. The idea of presenting their thoughts and ideas to their peers is utterly terrifying to them. I assure them by the time they present they’ll be prepared, but it’s still scary.

This all changes though when my students are offered a low-stress, low-stakes way to practice their presentation skills. We play something called the “press conference game” (a wonderful game I borrowed from a former colleague of mine) where weird, humorous pictures are displayed on the screen behind the presenter and the presenter has to improvise answers to questions about a picture he can’t see.

By the end of the game, students are begging for more and much of the edge of presenting has worn off.

2. Provide “think time” and opportunities to prepare

As a teacher, I speak for a living, but I still need time to gather my thoughts and prepare. For many of our students (especially our quieter ones), they need this preparation time, as well.

Even in socratic seminars, processing time is important and providing opportunities and guidance on how to plan for discussions is important. One of my favorite blogs about socratic seminars is The Readiness is All’s post on BRAWL Socratic Seminars. What’s a BRAWL Seminar? It stands for Battle Royale: All Will Learn, and it provides a structure for ALL students to craft detailed and insightful discussion questions and prepare for discussions. Many of our students need that structure to be bold.

3. Encourage a Growth Mindset and give them opportunities to revise and hone their craft

Very few people are born being persuasive, confident, and cohesive speakers. They have to grow and they have to practice. No one learns to read by revisiting the alphabet once a year and the same goes for public speaking. If we expect students to trust their voice, we must give them opportunities to use it.

Last year, I gave my ninth grade honors students a daunting task. I told them I wanted them to prepare their own TED Talks that would be 5-7 minutes long, have minimal text on their slides, be completely memorized, and be presented in front of 100 of their peers from other classes. It was a big ask and my students were nervous, but with that big ask I provided a lot of support.

We spent five weeks researching, planning, and prepping those speeches. Students mapped out their speeches and then presented to a partner; then they presented to a group and filmed themselves; then they received peer critiques, revised, and then presented again in order to receive further feedback. The average TED Talk speaker practices her speech hundreds of times before presenting; high school students need opportunities to practice too.

4. Don’t shy away from the challenge

As great as low-stakes public speaking and practice are, they are not sufficient in fully preparing students to take the risks that lie ahead. In order to gain true confidence, students must be required to do work worth doing and step out of their comfort zone. Achievement builds confidence, which sparks further growth.

Students may fail or initially struggle, but they must learn that this is okay and is part of the learning process in order to become the resilient leaders they are meant to be.

Before my TED Talk project, I had a student come to me, terrified and crying, sure that her speech wouldn’t be good enough. I talked to her, let her know that the fear was okay and that we could adapt the assignment, but that I thought she needed to do the speech because I knew she was capable. Shaking, she stepped up to the podium and gave a truly moving speech.

She later told me she was glad I had forced her to do that speech because it let her know she could do it.

Conclusion

In conclusion, true confidence only comes from doing work that is worth doing with excellence. Achievement leads to a desire to do more, but students often need a push to get there.

Challenges are part of students finding their voice and we must be sure that we are providing these opportunities to our students.

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