Risk Aversion

I showed Morgan Spurlock’s TED talk to my Pop Culture Studies classes last week. Toward the end, he flashes this quote on the screen behind him:

“When you train your employees to be risk averse, then you’re preparing your whole company to be reward challenged.”

I chewed on that quote throughout the rest of the week, as my colleagues and I are forging new territories in our classrooms. Specifically, we are introducing our students to the concept of Challenge-Based Learning. And yes, the conversation about its grounding in Apple products is one for another day, but if you strip away the product placement throughout the resources provided, Challenge-Based Learning (or I’ve also seen it presented at Project-Based Learning), all that remains is a curriculum designed on teaching students how to think, work collaboratively, and create a product of impact.

The trouble for me is taking the risk. 

It’s a huge risk to try and guide juniors in high school through a research process that is so different from what they are used to. It’s a huge risk to relenquish some of the control I typically have in my classroom. It’s also a risk to trust that my students will follow me into the void, that they will take risks themselves and that we all will possibly fail.

But if we don’t take the risk…well, according to Spurlock’s quote, we’ll be reward challenged. If we don’t take the risk, my students will research meaningless topics about which they do not care, then write papers that I will not want to grade because they were not written with any kind of passion whatsoever, and I will have no one to blame but myself for not taking the risk.

So tomorrow, we begin a whole-class mini-research endeavor. All of us–myself included–figuring out the steps and elements of completing research that could actually change a life. I’ve been telling my students for the past week that even if what we do only affects one person, then it’s worth it.

I need to remember that sentiment throughout this process–maybe this year, only one student will find this risk to be worthwhile. But I will find better ways to teach this process and next year, maybe two students will love the risk. And perhaps it will grow exponentially from there.

And speaking of not falling prey to risk aversion:

First Year: Week Two from AE Stueve on Vimeo.

Why Write?

This morning I opened the paper and this was the front page story.

I’m calmer now than I was at 8:30 AM when I read it. And because I didn’t write anything in that moment, the passion I felt about the complete farce of a story the World-Herald published is gone.

Which is really part of the point the article makes: assessing writing the way we do is artificial. Giving students a prompt scrubbed of racial, gender, or social class bias on a random Tuesday and asking them to write for 90 minutes does not provide them with a real-world opportunity to practice writing. As I read the article this morning, I simultaneously composed a letter to the editor and a blog post. I crafted arguments and analyzed those arguments…and then I went to church and all my ideas faded.

I’m sure I could reconstruct the arguments and indignation I felt this morning, but it wouldn’t have the same impact because my “voice” would be a bit muted.

So what are “real-world opportunities” for writing? For me, that becomes one of the exciting questions I will explore this summer as I tweak my lesson plans. But I need ideas, starting points.

Why do you write? Even if you don’t identify as a writer, I’m sure you’ve written something since high school or college. Please share!

Write It Out.

If you asked my dear friends Mike and Matt to define me in three words, I suspect they would say “Piano. Sports. Writing.”

And it’s true–I feel most like myself when those three passions rotate seamlessly in my day-to-day operations. This time of year, piano is front and center–I typically accompany a few pieces for District Music Contest. So every day, I sit at my piano for at least 15 minutes to practice, and then I usually pull out music I haven’t played in years and play around for another 15 minutes.

I’ve been keeping sports at bay in recent years for reasons I’ve tried to articulate, but cannot. And in 25 years of following sports, I’ve always been able to keep perspective. It’s just a game. It means nothing in the long run. And I’m never directly affected by any win or loss.

But I have been an absolute freak show during the Mountain West Conference tournament. Despondency follows elation; nausea follows joy.

And it bothers me. A lot.

Why was I getting so wrapped up in games that ultimately mean nothing? Something else had to be bothering me, but my brain has been so scrambled lately, that thinking brought no answers. So today, I wrote.

I have two blogs that I try to update with some regularity, but knowing that tens of people will read my words, I censor myself quite a bit. Today, I wrote–by hand, the old-fashioned way–with a smooth-flowing Sharpie pen on crisp paper in a spiral-bound journal. I wrote five pages. I stopped, I reflected.I wrote more.

I’m not sure I arrived at any concrete conclusions as to why BYU’s loss to San Diego State saddened me so. But with every word that transferred from my brain to my hand to my journal, I felt a little lighter.

That’s what I wish I could ultimately teach to my students: that writing is a tool to help us make sense of the world. We teach modes of writing, masked as purposes: inform, persuade, entertain, describe. With my AP students, they’ve written me definition essays, process essays, cause and effect essays. But really, why write if not to try and make sense of both joy and pain?

Today I wrote to figure out what is bothering me. I didn’t have an introduction or a conclusion. But the writing mattered. Today’s writing probably mattered more to me than my Master’s thesis or any blog post.

Writing is a tool–how do you use it?

Writing Tests

I like to write. But lately, I can’t. I have two blogs–one personal, one professional–and even though I’ve had plenty of down time this past week, I haven’t written a single sentence. 

Today I went to my personal blog to write something, anything, and I couldn’t. Nothing came to me, even though I’m in the middle of a series of posts about the students who’ve affected my life the most. And as I sat there, staring at a blank screen, I suddenly became terrified for my students.

In three weeks, they will be given a bland prompt and 90 minutes. They must brainstorm ideas and craft a five-paragraph essay and revise it and hit submit so it can be graded and the results of their writing can be printed in the paper.

I’m not terrified that their scores will be poor–I’m terrified that they won’t be able to write, just like I’ve been unable to write this week. 

I read part of Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird to a class this week–the chapter about writer’s block. She says to just write, even if it’s bad. And I could do that in a random document. Just write garbage until I find something valuable. But my kids don’t have that luxury. In three weeks, regardless of how they are feeling, they will have to write. And Vegas odds say they’ll have to write on a topic that isn’t remotely engaging.

Here’s what I realized, as a product of my own writer’s block this morning: state writing tests don’t really test writing the writing process. When I write, I wrestle, I ponder, I stop, I revisit, I polish, and if I’m feeling inspired and confident that at least one person might enjoy what I’ve written, I eventually hit that “publish” button and make my writing available for tens of people to read. 

I’m not sure what the state writing test measures. But this morning, I’m less convinced that it accurately measures a true writing process. In my world, we’d start in September and invite students to write about something that inspires them. We’d look at the writing again in October, and maybe by Thanksgiving break we’d have a true sample of each student’s writing ability.

90 minutes simply isn’t enough time for them if sometimes, a week isn’t enough time for me.


It’s been quite the hiatus.

I frantically finished grading the end of 1st semester’s work and headed to Florida for the break, where I spent most of my time at my sister’s quite ill.  I had such grand plans for the break, including tending to this blog, but my body revolted and forced me to rest. 

Today was our first day back to school, and I wanted to try and give my students purpose and direction for the new year.  In one of my clearer moments over the break, I read this tweet from @danpink: “What’s your sentence?: The video.”  This was what I wanted my students to do on the first day back.  Write a 3rd-person sentence, in the past tense, describing a big picture kind of New Year’s goal. 

Today we watched the video, brainstormed ideas, and I shared with them my sentence: She may not have finished first, but she never gave up. 

While the denotative meaning of my sentence refers to my conflicted desire to run a 5K this year, it also applies to my writing, my hobbies, my life.  I don’t take risks.  I don’t fail because I don’t try anything that I might fail at doing.  And if I see myself starting to fail (*cough* crochet *cough*), I quit. 

I shared all this with my students, because I thought that if I show them this tiny blemish in my character, it might inspire them to craft a more powerful sentence.  And my students did not disappoint.  I promised them I would not tweet or blog specific sentences, so I won’t, but many of my students wrote inspiring, motivating sentences. 

Tomorrow, we’ll hang them like wallpaper on the cinder block, and I hope that as they drift in and out of what I’m teaching them, that their eyes will fall on a sentence or two and they’ll think about how they are living their lives, and remember how much I want them to keep at least one eye toward their futures.