Tag Archives: growth mindset

What Happened When We Asked Students to Think: Conclusions

Reading student reflections is always my favorite part of anything I plan. There, if we’ve done it at all well, they will reveal what they really think, what they learned (or didn’t), and offer any suggestions for future instruction. This process of asking for feedback and reflection is amazingly useful and quite humbling. It’s also thrilling. Thus, when I sat down to read through the student reflections of what they’d learned through the messy process of growth mindset (part one is described here and part two is described here) and design thinking, here are some snippets of what they said:

Question: Why do you think this assignment asked you to think of a problem and design a solution?

They said: “Maybe because people want to know what kind of ideas we might have.” “To tell people nothing is impossible, there’s a solution for every problem.” “…there are always problems in this world and to design a solution can help us learn to think of a problem then solve it.” “…because Dr. Parker wanted to know/see what we’re capable of.” “Because we as students might want a change in the high school.”

Question: What risks did you take to move your project forward? What did you try that you weren’t certain about at first? What were the results?

They said:”We repealed our skit in order to move forward”…”We took a risk when we started designing our prototype. We weren’t certain about the drawing of the brain. The result of the drawing turned out to be good.” “The biggest risk was changing of topics because if we did that we’d have to start back at square one again with the very little time we had left. But it turned out all right in the end.” “I wasn’t sure that this idea will work because it seems a bit too far fetched. Like not many teachers and staff in the school may agree with the idea of naptime.” “We tried to use a soft poster, like a thin one and it got destroyed and it resulted to us having a really good poster board.” [Note: ALL students remarked that their results were satisfactory because they made changes. That’s a big deal!]

Question: What did you learn about yourself through this activity?

They said: “I learned that I need to have a positive growth mindset at all time and not everything that’s impossible unless you actually try.” “I can be creative if I want to be and I want to be able to use my creativity through everything I do.” “I like solving problems.” “I can have a lot of potential if I focus more.” “I learned how to manage my time.”

As I look at these responses a few months after the project, I’m gently reminded that, while I felt this project was disorganized and I was one step ahead of my students, they learned a tremendous amount. Specifically, they learned how to collaborate, how to think of something that mattered to them and try to change it, how to take pride in their work, how to present their ideas to an authentic audience.

Since that project, we’ve moved on to other pursuits, but we keep the throughlines of the growth mindset work with us. [Note: it’s important, too, to consider what Carol Dweck has said about how the growth mindset understandings can be used incorrectly with young people. She’s right. We are all combinations of growth and fixed mindsets. It’s situation-dependent. We are all works in progress, and that is not a bad thing.] Students will occasionally challenge each other to “GROW!” which I find hilarious, especially as those words come when we are doing something hard. Kids want more of this type of work, work that matters, work that is real, work that encourages them to push against their own boundaries and, indeed, to grow. 

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What Happened When We Asked Students to Think: Part II

After we took the leap of faith into the two-week inquiry unit, there were certainly moments of uncertainty (mine and theirs), frustration (same, though I think theirs might have surpassed mine at some moments), and lots of encouragement. There was also one distinctive moment where I turned to my co-teacher and said something along the lines of “Oh my goodness. This is a disaster.” Said moment of perceived disaster came after we had students think of what they thought our current school needed. Their ideas ranged from later school start times, to longer passing times, to daily nap times, to all-school snack machines. Right?! These are the issues that matter to them. I’m here for it.

Then, though, they had to spend some time finding research to help situate their issue within a larger milieu. That was the day I wanted to poke my eyes out because my kids were overwhelmed. And, since I was one step ahead of them, I wasn’t proficient in all the ways to help them, hadn’t trouble shot the issue enough. I kept telling myself: be a model. Grow with them. I told them why they had to do the research, and we guided them through, but it was difficult to help them see the why of the project. Oh, and they had to find out who in the school was an expert and draft a letter with some questions to that person. What I now understand is that hesitation, that annoyance, was really growth mindset in action. That step in the process was hard, and they could either get frustrated and give up, or attempt to work through that frustration to get to the other side.

The next step beyond the research was to design a solution. If I were charting their energy on a graph, this moment would correspond with a trend upward. In the meantime, students also had to interview their peers for insight as they continued to create their solution. We had two design days. During that time, students created a prototype of some aspect of their solution in preparation for presenting their idea to members of the administration.

All it takes is one: one student or group of students to create something that is beyond what his/her peers think is possible, to set them all off, and that’s exactly what happened. For students who wanted to change the schedule, they created an entirely new schedule, basing their decisions off interviews with peers, the principal and their research about adolescent needs. For another group, they went on a scavenger hunt and found cardboard boxes, which they used to create their idea of a classroom snack dispenser. From that moment, the other students took the project much more seriously. Also true to fashion, the kids who won’t work until they’re up against a hard deadline began to pull together their projects, too.

The presentations were definitely works in progress. Some groups didn’t even get around to explaining their solutions, while others had time to spare, while still others were somewhere in between. It was messy, messy, messy, but the panelists who gave their time to watch the presentations asked probing, thoughtful questions. The students responded equally as thoughtfully. They took it seriously, indicating their in-depth knowledge of their ideas. They owned it, demonstrating that the inquiry process is powerful and vital.

Finally, in the next post, I’ll offer some reflections on this process, what I learned, what the kids learned and why students in ELA classes need the opportunity to become makers (while we are also opening the conversation to diversify #makered).

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What Happened That Time We Asked Students to Think: Part I

The greatest reason I’m having an intellectually stimulating year is because of my colleague, Ms. L. We tend to have similar big picture ways of thinking: we like to dwell in the so what, I’d say. What makes this collaboration work, most importantly, is that Ms. L is concerned with the details. I love big ideas but tend to be less interested in the day-to-day, which is why sometimes, for me, planning on the daily can be draining. Ms. L, though, LOVES the details. I mean, loves them so much that when she says she’ll spend some time working on a project, I know that when she’s done, it will include so many aspects of that plan that she’ll have accounted for contingencies B-Z, and they’ll all be amazing.

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How lucky am I? Her desire to work together and her endless ability to step out of the present moment to remember the WHY of what we’re doing has made a year that I was dreading actually into one that excites me to work with kids and with teachers who want to do hard things. I also appreciate her honesty to tell me when I’m way off base, or her willingness to make suggestions. I’ve found that in the best working relationships I have, my collaborators speak honestly and are less concerned with hurting my feelings. I’m tough. I can take it. And oftentimes I’m so caught up in my own ideas that I need someone to give me different ways of thinking and doing something.

We launched two successful projects. The first was from this incredible website, Moving Writers that used a photo book of essays called It’s Complicated: The American Teenager. Daily, we shared what was happening in her Honors classroom and my College Prep one. We modified the Moving Writers’ work and kept everything in a folder on Google Drive. To say that the final portraits exceeded our expectations was an understatement.

Buoyed by that success, we then decided that we’d revise my earlier work I’ve done in years past based on Carol Dweck’s work with growth and fixed mindsets. This is where Ms. L is even more amazing: she suggested we have students experience learning through principles of design theory. Design theory was all new to me. What I realized, though, was what better way was there to learn and model the processes of learning than to do something that might, indeed, not be as successful as I’d hoped? Wasn’t that the beauty of a growth mindset? If it bombed (and it didn’t, but you’ll have to read the next post for the nitty gritty–you should, too; spoiler: it’s amazing!), that would be okay, because I would have learned something about practice during the process. And while I was most concerned that I’d be failing the kids, what I’ve come to realize is that the failure would be in if I just kept teaching the GM unit like I’d done in the past. If I wasn’t willing to challenge myself and to grow, then, seriously, how could I expect my students to do the same?

Coming next: what happened when we asked students to get comfortable with failure…

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And So It Begins: This HAS to Work

Summer officially ends on Monday, when I return to school for a grade-level PD meeting, followed by a few more days of all-school PD. The kids turn up after Labor Day.

I’ve been thinking about this new group of kids quite a bit as I prepare to launch a new initiative, now called Honors Prep. 21 students (with the potential of reaching 23 by the time we are rolling along) have made the commitment to take my class this fall with the goal that it will prepare them to enter–AND STAY–in Honors English classes for the rest of the time in high school. Thus, by the time they finish a semester of the prep class, they enter my Honors English class, prepared to be awesome.

My contention is that they simply need a bit more time: to learn the skills required to write well, to spend some more time sharpening their critical thinking, to improve their reading skills. They also need a bit more time developing their grit: what to do when things get difficult. Rather than quitting, they need to learn strategies for surviving and thriving. Traditionally, underserved kids (insert all of understanding of kids who aren’t in Honors classes: kids of color, kids who are from low SES, some boys, etc.) show up for their Honors class, get the first assignment or two and then drop the class. Nearly all of them do not take an Honors English class again in their high school experience.

Not acceptable.

They need to learn that they have the power to be intellectuals if they 1) believe they can and 2) learn the requisite skills.

So while I’m developing a new class, the only big differences will be in the content and in the amount of scaffolding they receive. I’ll still be my warm-demander self, but I anticipate loving them up a bit more as they get used to being pushed. It’s going to be uncomfortable for them at first, true, but I believe in them more than they will believe in themselves at first. It’s fine. I’ve been in this position before.

It’s a parallel skills class: they’ll learn to cite evidence, close read, write arguments, conduct rhetorical analysis, ask their own questions (it’s an inquiry-based class anyway), lead discussions, the same things the Honors classes do, but they’ll have a semester to “practice” and “master” those skills before being thrown into the deep end. Now, I’m not necessarily reducing the amount of text complexity, but I am starting a bit slower.

My Honors classes tend to study: The Odyssey, Things Fall Apart, Macbeth, Huck Finn and Frankenstein, with some particular attention to smaller units that deal with women, postcolonial lit theory, rhetorical analysis, etc. They also write a good amount as they tackle the argument (it’s own challenge because we struggle with disabusing them of writing with formulas…it’s fun and eventually we find peace, but it takes us nearly all semester).

The Prepsters (as I call them unofficially; I’m thinking we should get some t-shirts!) will be practicing the same skills that the Honors kids are working on, but will use different texts. Their texts include Purple Hibiscus, Merchant of Venice, Malcolm X and smaller units on the short story, tracking a columnist for rhetorical analysis and, yes, lots of writing.

Both groups will get some early work on growth mindset. All students will be part of a smaller writing/review group. Honors Prep kids will have the support of some graduate students who will be responsible for monitoring the progress of the writing groups.

I’m moving to the writing groups (and I think that they’ll have a broader function of supporting the students within them as they collaborate) because I’ve been thinking about a comment a parent made to me last year. He wondered why American students tended to be so isolated when they studied. He, as Argentinian, was much more accustomed to working with a group, of being part of a regular community that shared ideas, helped each other out, became stronger because of a shared experience.

He’s right: I do a LOT of community building in the early months of school, then move into community maintenance for the remainder of our time because my students tend to be ridiculously competitive. I have to teach them–intentionally–how to work together, how to collaborate (which, by the way is one of the skills lacking in young people, the ability to collaborate and one which employers wished students were more adept at doing). Thus, if I set my mind to doing it from the beginning, then it will be something I can give due diligence rather than treat it as an add-on.

I’m grateful that so many people are behind this idea for the prep class. I’ve just decided that it has to work because these kids–the ones who rarely make it in an Honors class because of lack of preparation, the kids, I would argue, that we NEED in Honors classes–deserve it. They deserve to be in an environment where they know they have a shot to make it, and they need to know that they are prepared to answer the difficult questions, take the tough risks, write the hard papers because they’ve been prepared.

And because I am an eternal optimist, my hope is that next year, I teach a few more of these classes, get a few more kids ready to move up into the Honors track, and those kids become part of a support network of the kids that came before, and they look back and pull others up. Then, in five years, I hope to not be teaching these classes at all because–while I don’t believe in panaceas–at least this class will have become enough of a model that other folks realize that if we simply buckle down and do the hard work of believing first that ALL kids deserve this preparation and that it should be happening up and down the grade levels, others take up the challenge and…I can’t quite even finish that thought because if that were to happen, we might have a revolution.

I’m down for that.

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