By Lisa Bonnifield, KIPP Fisher Fellow, Newark, NJ
I’ve been thinking a lot about risk-taking. After all, I’m currently in the process of founding a KIPP Middle School, KIPP BOLD, which is definitely not risk-free. Especially as I’m visiting schools and talking to incredible KIPP principals, I cannot believe the enormity of the task I’m taking on and the size of the shoes I’ll fill. And I’m naming my school BOLD, so the ideas of boldness, fearlessness, and the character strength of grit are always on my mind. I was surprised then to receive an email from our CEO, Richard Barth, in which he, too, seemed to be thinking about risk-taking:
“It’s okay to not be accepted to every school one applies to – in fact, we need to embrace the fact that we are not doing our jobs if our KIPPsters are getting in to every school to which they apply. Additionally, this is a good opportunity to teach our students that failure is part of the process, and that only by taking smart risks will we be able to get the best possible outcome—in this case, getting into a reach school. This is a mindset shift that requires whole-school support!”
Richard’s email, which was also posted on this blog, prompted a thought of my own: I went to a high-performing public high school with outstanding college counseling where everyone applied to —and was rejected from—a few reach schools. I think kids were okay with those rejections for two reasons. First, it signaled that you’d “topped out” and the best school you got into represented the best you could get into. Second, kids at our high school put themselves up for opportunities and didn’t get them regularly, even the smartest kids. We tried out for AP classes, teams, ran for student government, applied for internships, were nominated for awards and oftentimes were not chosen. We were used to chasing after opportunities and understood we couldn’t get them all.
As I’m working on my school design plan for next year, I’m considering how to unlock this risk-taking, opportunity-chasing, grit-filled spirit in my future students. I want students to view “getting rejected” or “topping out” as a possible indicator of pushing oneself, not a source of shame. The question I keep asking myself is, “how will we do that?”
To start, I hope to explicitly value students who “stretch”—students who live in the zone of proximal development, the space where learners need guidance to succeed but can do it with help, and experience failure and rejection and keep on trying. I hope to develop in teachers the mindset that struggle and confusion are signs of learning and risk-taking is worth praising. I also hope to provide students with lots of opportunities to chase after like leading roles in plays, starting positions on teams, and meaningful student leadership opportunities.
I’m also thinking through questions like: What if students decided where our field lessons would be by balancing their desire for fun against a budget and instructional goals? What if students wrote our school values songs and chants? What if students decided how we choose students of the week? And what if their ideas were wonderful and helped their classmates learn? Or perhaps even better, what if their ideas were imperfect? What would students learn then?