6 Tips For Getting Your Students To Try Something New

Whether you want them to try poetry writing or activities to adopt a growth mindset or even a new way of signing out the bathroom pass, it is not always easy to get students to try something new.  I’ve tried some crazy ideas on my students—some that flopped, and some that I have stayed with for years.  But it isn't enough to just have an inspired idea.  You’ll have a little work to do if you want to get students to change the status quo, but innovation is worth the risk. 

Here are my tips for getting your students on board with your next idea.

Be willing to make a fool of yourself early and often. If I want my students to draw an image from a poem in their notebooks, I’m going to draw one first to show them just how effective a stick-figure picture can be.  If I expect them to stand up in front of the class to give a persuasive speech, then I’ll do the same so that they see that a red face and a missed line don’t ruin a well-prepared speech.  I want my students to see that I am willing and happy to be the first one to make a fool of myself, and that getting up in front of a group or trying something that I will likely mess up royally is okay and a great way to learn.

Teach students that learning is the ultimate goal—not getting it right from the beginning. Starting off the year, or any new transition, with a unit on growth mindset helps students to be more comfortable with challenges or stretch activities in general.  If they know that the pain they feel is actually the feeling of growth, they will be a little less likely to resist. It’s all about learning and improving, and that means making many mistakes along the way.

Give more than one option and the possibility to try a few. Not everyone wants to appear in a video that will be posted online.  Some kids might be more comfortable writing the script for that piece, or doing the required research.  The more creative the project, the more roles there will be for different types of learners.  And let them scrap their original idea or project if it doesn't work—maybe they can transfer the research that they had planned to apply to a video to a children’s book instead.  Giving students choice on a new initiative will give them the possibility to lessen the risk factor.

Scaffold and scaffold and scaffold some more. Except with the most motivated and prepared kids, telling students to “go out and make a creative representation of this idea” will rarely end well.  In order to get students to make a big leap, you’ll have to build to the end product with lots of little steps.  Starting off by reviewing any new vocabulary, models to show them where they’re going, questions to get students to notice details, organizers to help them with different sources of material, and specific suggestions for reflecting on the product will all help students get where you want them to go. For more on scaffolding, you can read this informative article.

Make sure that you are totally sold on the benefits of the change. Your reasons for trying something new might be to streamline the class transitions, they might be to try to get students to think more independently, or they might be to figure out a way to organize paperwork.   It’s fine to tell students “We’re going to try something new and I don't know if it will turn out” but tell them why they should take this leap with you. In fact, telling students that you want to try something new because you feel that the way you have been doing things isn't working is great. Admitting that you aren't perfect and that you too mess up at times also goes a long way towards getting students to take a risk.

Don’t solely reward students who follow the rules and do what they are told. If your classroom is one where adherence to rules is the biggest priority, you likely won’t encourage students to take risks or try something unknown.  Let students that some rules are absolute, but sometimes it’s okay to push boundaries for the sake of learning.  

I’ve asked my students to take some crazy leaps with me—starting interactive notebooks with only a few months left in the school year, writing an original poem based on primary source research, writing an essay about their most vulnerable moment—and they have usually gone along for the ride.  But first, I had to do a lot of work up front, both on my planning and on my willingness to flop if need be.  

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids, meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village, or writing in her blog, Gil Teach.

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