Schools Must Foster Risk-Taking

When Giovanny, a high school senior, told me he was going to quit AP biology because he got a D on a test, I realized I had to write this poem. Giovanny represented all of the students to whom I have dedicated my career—specifically, to ensuring that all students have a chance to choose the college path. Giovanny was a former ELL student excelling in high school and on track to be the first in his family to attend college.

We had a long talk about mindsets, and Giovanny decided to stay in the class—but that moment he almost quit haunted me. It was the seed for this poem, an ache to help a student I cared about understand that growth always involves taking a risk to attempt something we think—but are not certain—we can do.

It’s easy to forget the dynamic of risk-taking in the world of K-12 education, where success is mapped in a staircase of standards and academic achievement is key to opening doors. I dedicate my life to helping teachers advance how they help kids learn literacy and academics, and yet, as I watched Giovanny almost walk away from opportunity, I realized there is something we must all do better: help kids be risk-takers.

Beyond Three Rs and Four Cs

Yes, reading, writing, and arithmetic—the traditional 3Rs—are important. As are the new 4Cs of twenty-first-century success: creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.   But stack all seven of these together and the foundation they build will only take students as far as their courage allows.

I know this as a writer who never used to dare create on the page. I speak this as an entrepreneur who never would have started a business without the courage to fail. The first time I spoke in front of 800 people, I didn’t know if I’d tremble or fall on my face—but I did it anyway.

Jump on Three

Every milestone in my life has hinged on my courage to do what I didn’t feel prepared to do. It’s how we learn. This poem is an example: it is my first attempt at spoken word. I didn’t know if I could do it, but my ache to express this message dared me to try.

Please click on the poem link at the top of this blog or here, and share it to inspire others to jump on three.

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What role has risk-taking had in your life? How do you find the courage?

How might we best empower students to dare to do what seems impossible?


I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.


  • Kulbir Sandhu

    February 23, 2015, 6:27 pm

    The courage to take risks stems from a pressing desire that gnaws your insides , haunts you (as you say) and you just have to throw caution to the winds and go for it.
    Students can become risk takers only if they are taught to stop fearing judgement . Of course, also a safe environment , an attentive peer , and a mentor to gently push you into the realm of risk-taking . That’s all it takes. And once you’ve done it , and felt the rush , it’s difficult to stop.

  • Tonya Singer

    August 17, 2016, 6:49 am

    Reflecting back on this blog post, I want to add very important information about the class and school. In a school that was majority hispanic, the AP Biology class was majority white. Giovanny was one of the only students of color in the classroom, and didn’t feel he belonged. That is a systemic problem of inequity that goes way beyond any individual student mindset or risk-taking.
    It is a serious equity issue when demographics of an AP course, or any advanced track of courses doesn’t even remotely represent the demographics of a school.
    I fear some may read this post to reinforce the colorblind meritocracy myth that has us attributing success or failure of any student to their efforts and mindsets alone. I do not believe in or promote that myth. We must change systemic racism in our schools by addressing the inequities in expectations, in teaching, in tracking in discipline.

    When any student fails, our school environment and personnel must communicate clearly how much we believe in that child growing and learning and excelling in new ways. Such treatment should not vary by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any factor. Sadly, in our world right now, it does.

    Believing that ALL students can excel, especially at the moments they struggle, is the work of teaching for equity. It requires educators be visionary in always seeing beyond the current status quo. It requires we ask tough questions, and dare to change habits and systems that get in our students’ way of success. Risk-taking is essential for OUR journey to change systemic racism and inequities in schools.

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