“What if I sat backward like this?” “What if I fell over this railing?” “What if I dropped my coat down there?” “What if I could jump really high and bounce off the floor, then touch the ceiling?” “What if I could fly but I didn’t know it, so I jumped down but right before I hit the bottom I swooped up?””What if I went to the moon?”
I could go on and on. This was just a tiny bit of what I overheard as I sat with my kiddos at the mall today. It’s a question I hear every day since I spend so much time with little ones, both at school and at home. The questions are different depending on the kid or the venue, but the beginning of the inquiry is the same: what if?
Usually I just roll my eyes or quickly answer or just ask why everyone is always asking that question; it seems like it’s the first thing someone says when I give a deadline or a requirement on an assignment. “What if it’s not that long?” “What if I don’t finish?” The questions at home seem to be more “out there” and are usually related to outer space or super powers (remember I live with a 5- and 8- year-old. LOL).
But for some reason I was less annoyed and more inspired by the question today. Instead, it got me thinking. In a new way. I had a question of my own: “What if teachers asked ‘what if’ more often? What if our go-to question was ‘why not?’ instead of always ‘why?'”
In my classroom, I try to build a culture of trying new things, of creating a place where possibilities are endless and of where kiddos see things in new and-dare I say-innovative ways. I try to make Rm. 202 a place where thinking happens, risks are taken and norms are challenged (in an appropriate way, of course–I don’t mean I want or let all of my students run wild and not follow directions!). I want to encourage my students to think for themselves and feel safe and free to tell me (and their peers) if they see things differently, or if they have an idea that they think might work better. I want my students to be willing to ask “what if we…” and then have the rest of us thoughtfully consider their suggestion. Whether that be a way to solve a problem (like during a class meeting), a way to show our thinking (like when I’m crafting an assignment or project), or when they think they have a passion or interest worthy of all of us investigating it together, I want to provide a venue where students can feel free to express their ideas and have ownership over their learning.
But even further than just providing a place for my students to ask that “what if?” I want to model it for them, as well. I want my 2nd graders (or 4th graders or 5th graders, my own kids, whomever), to see that I am a learner and a risk-taker, as well. I want them to know that I see what others are doing and ask myself “What if we do that, too?” I want them to hear my process as I work through the idea, deciding that it is worth it to try even if we don’t know what the outcome will be. Sometimes I want them to see that my “what if” doesn’t always end the way I thought it would (or wanted it to), and that’s okay. I want my kiddos to feel safe to say “What if I fail? What if I don’t know the answer? What if I have to try again? What if it’s hard?” and be okay with not knowing. Not doing it right. Not “getting it” the first time. Not knowing what will happen and trying anyway. We are always talking about making mistakes and how that’s the key to learning new things and I think “what if” goes hand-in-hand with that philosophy. “What if?” without an answer can be really frightening; I want my students to know that I am often unsure when I try new things, too.
I haven’t always been willing to take risks and think outside the box. Unfortunately, it was for all the wrong reasons. I “had” to do it right, but more for myself, the parents in my room and my colleagues than for my students. I was far too worried about someone asking something about it or having me justify my thinking or even worse what would happen if somebody didn’t like my ideas. Eventually–through much soul-searching, encouragement, many years of growth and LOTS of mistakes–I have gotten to the point where I’m more concerned with my students’ growth and development and what THEY think about what we’re doing than what others think or what the outcomes will be. At this point I am much more willing to do something new or ask–and then answer!–“what if?” than I ever have been.
The concern I have is that there are so many teachers (and therefore students) who are not willing to find out what happens when they ask “what if?” They are too concerned with pretenses or perceptions, or even worse looking like they have it all together. They are scared of failing, scared of falling, of not knowing the answer, of not knowing more than their students, of not living up to someone’s expectations, of not being enough.
What happens when that’s where teachers stay, however, is that they miss out on many great opportunities–great learning situations, watching their students (and themselves!) do things they never thought possible. It’s amazing to see what occurs when we step off that ledge and leap even if we don’t know what will happen! I know from experience that it’s almost never as bad as we thought, and usually is even better than we could have imagined. 🙂
“What if” can be a really scary question, but it can also be really exciting!
So I ask you….”what if” you took a leap of faith? “What if” you took a risk and tried something you weren’t sure about? “What if” you did it for yourself? “What if” you did it for your students? “What if” you asked “what if?” I’d love to hear what happens! Share your story, will you? 🙂