Mindset, Rigor, and Grit: What We’re Getting Wrong

I am a full-time teacher as well as an educational psychologist. This means that I am a rabid consumer of research on teaching. However, after spending a couple of successful decades working with students, I am that teacher who greets each “new” idea that is spawned with excitement and a healthy dose of skepticism.

A few educational ideas that have gained momentum over the last several years are the concepts of Mindset, Rigor, and Grit. While all of these ideas have merit, as with all shiny objects that attract our attention, we need to proceed with caution and think about how and how these fit into our personal pedagogy. Being willing to implement the hot new thing is admirable, but not if it is done feet first with our eyes closed.

Mindset:

First, let me say that I believe in the Mindset theory. Several years ago, while teaching in San Jose, CA, I was lucky enough to see a presentation on Carol Dweck’s (at the time) new Mindset book given by one of the graduate students who worked on the book with her. It was wonderful, inspiring, and perfectly logical to anyone who had ever worked with children. The problem is that many schools have jumped on the Mindset bandwagon without changing the policies they have that work against the concept. Many teachers and schools who say they believe in fostering a growth mindset in their students still have an environment that encourages a fixed mindset.

Ways to encourage a fixed mindset:

  • Maintaining grading policies that don’t allow for any re-dos or re-takes on assessments. We tell students that they should grow and learn from mistakes, and that if they practice, they will improve. However, we grade using an “F” for failure when we should be using a “Not There Yet” and allowing them to keep trying. In fact, we should encourage re-dos and re-takes because, by trying again, they are more likely to learn the material. (See the writings of Rick Wormeli for more on this concept.) What is more important to us as teachers—that they learn the material or that they learn the material the first time?
  • Something is taught and assessed once and if a student doesn’t get it, the teacher moves on anyway.
  • Encouraging speed and competition rather than thoughtfulness and collaboration. Rewarding some students for “perfect” products and not acknowledging the effort of the individual.
  • An emotionally unsafe classroom where students do not feel free to take risks because their experience is that there is one “right” answer and the teacher and some of the students are the only ones who know it.
  • Grading or awarding points for every little thing a student does in class and then averaging them together at the end of the marking period. If we truly want kids to learn, we need to be providing regular, constructive feedback throughout the marking period and letting them demonstrate their mastery toward the end.

Now, reverse all of these behaviors, and you will be onto something!

Rigor:

I have read Rigor is Not a Four-Letter Word by Barbara Blackburn and I like her definition: Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, and each is supported so he or she can learn at high level, and each student demonstrates learning at high level.  (Blackburn, 2008). I know that this is true and some teachers are getting it right. Sadly, many in education are stuck longing for the good-old days (which have never existed in the ways they think) when kids worked hard, weren’t babied through life, learned harder material, and there was only one winner, etc. This would be worthy thinking if it were true, but it isn’t.

According to some, rigor from back in the day is defined as the hard work that they used to do when they were in school. They will post on social media that ridiculous test from the 1890s that made its way around the internet. If you look at that test closely, you will see that much of it is rote learning and also specific to time and place. Much of what is on the test is no longer relevant in today’s society. Furthermore, most adults would struggle to pass most tests given in the average high school after they have been out of school for 20 years or more. They are not currently mired in the material the way their teenage children are, so they would have difficulty recalling all of the necessary information.

But I digress. We need to get over the idea that somehow there were these miraculous, genius students that existed when “we” went to school, but now all young people are lazy, coddled, and addle-brained. I would bet that even the ancient Greeks whined this way about their own offspring. It’s simply not true. The solution to this thinking, in their minds, is to increase rigor. Unfortunately, rigor is often misinterpreted as just meaning really, really hard.

Rigor does NOT mean:

  • more and harder homework
  • a text or material several grade levels above the student’s current ability
  • high expectations, but no support to reach them

So stop doing that, okay? Thanks.

Grit:

I have to say the buzzword that most grinds me is grit. Somewhere along the line, the grown-ups responsible for running the world decided that they would teach these lazy, spoiled children a thing or two. They are remembering fondly our Puritan ancestors who worked hard and got ahead and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. If these “kids today” would only put forth the effort, they would be more successful adults. They say that children need to learn how to fail because it builds character. The trouble is that it often doesn’t.

What’s wrong with grit:

  • If perseverance were all it took to be successful, we would all have the capacity to be Olympic athletes if we just put our minds to it. Not true. Yes, it is always possible to improve, but it is a lot easier to hit a home run if you begin life on third base. For the rest of us starting at home plate, we may need a little more support and encouragement to round those bases.
  • Sometimes the students are working at their peak capacity; the task is just beyond their realm. Meeting the individual where he/she is at and working within their zone of proximal development is more likely to yield positive results. It is a destructive belief that if children only tried harder, they would be successful.
  • Generally, repeated failure does not motivate one to work harder. Usually, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the child believes himself/herself to be a failure. “That’ll teach ‘em to study harder next time” doesn’t work.
  • If what we mean by grit is the ability to stick with an assignment or pay attention in class, we, as educators, must be darn sure we are asking students to do work worth doing and making class engaging. Students who have creative, challenging work to do in a positive classroom environment do not need “grit.”
  • The need for grit is primarily useful when the task involves drudgery. Not every task is worth doing and we need to be able to let go of the mind-numbing assignments of the past and move into the 21st Not that we still can’t teach the required material, we just need to do it in ways that we know engage their brains and work within a modern construct. The kids are already there and if you are not with them, you are against them.
  • What teachers think is grit is often merely compliance. Doing what the teacher asks just to achieve a high grade or get the work finished is a sure recipe to crush souls.

I want teachers to try something new and embrace change, but I want them to do it with their eyes (and hearts) wide open. Don’t make change for change’s sake. Make change for the students’ sake.

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Teacher

This time of year, teachers all over the country are meeting the parents of this year’s students. Without fail, when a teacher meets a parent of a child who has stood out in some way (usually negatively) he or she will say something about the apple not falling far from the tree. It does seem to hold true that many mannerisms, behaviors, or beliefs can be explained when one meets a child’s parents. However, I never hear these teachers say the same thing when a child is having a negative experience in their class. If parents entrust us with the care of their children for several hours per day, it stands to reason that we, as educators, must bear some responsibility for the results of that education. Like it or not, the apple also doesn’t fall far from the teacher.

I have gone on record saying that when a child performs poorly in my classroom, I bear some of the responsibility. True, I can lead the child to the knowledge, but I can’t dunk their head in the trough and force them to drink. That being said, there are numerous reasons as to why a child fails and in my experience as a special education teacher consultant for children with behavior or learning difficulties, I can tell you that they are generally not failing deliberately. Failure does not feel good and it is human nature to avoid it whenever possible. As a teacher, I need to put in the time and effort to determine WHY a child is not performing up to par in my class.

Some of the reasons why students fail a class have nothing to do with school. Unfortunately, there is often very little a teacher can do about harmful home or social issues, but we can try to help lessen their detrimental effects. Regardless of (or despite) outside issues, there are steps a teacher can take to have a shiny, happy classroom full of successful, engaged learners.

Motivation is the key to a child’s learning. Motivation leads to engagement, and engagement leads to success. So let’s begin at the beginning.

Much has been written about what truly leads to intrinsic motivation. Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards, Daniel Pink in Drive, and my edu-hero, Rick Wormeli, are great reads on the topic. One thing we know for sure—carrots and sticks don’t work. The will to undertake a task and reach for success must be organic. Sadly, for many chronically failing students, they have never experienced much academic success and have just come to accept that they never will. We want students to actively participate in their literacy development and must help put students on the path to success.

It is not as if students do not have literate lives. They text, direct message, and Facetime with friends. They play video games or read beauty books where they have to read directions. They write song lyrics or stories for fun. The success of teen novels has led to numerous movie franchises. Many adolescents just don’t want to participate in the literacy activities that teachers design. Sadly, most of these activities are not particularly motivating or engaging. Therefore, reading and writing in school become something that students must “get through” in order to pass, but they never really care about the material.

How You Can Help Motivate A Struggling Student:

The assignment may be something students do not see as relevant to their lives. A good teacher can bring all texts (even “boring” classics) to life if they show the universal connections and themes that exist. (I’m working on this for my next series of posts.)

Many students have too many things diverting their attention from the task at hand. If their home life is difficult, perhaps speaking to a trained school professional may help. If it is a social relationship issue, time is a teacher’s best friend as many of these resolve themselves. If they don’t, this could become a teachable moment to recommend reading material, have a general class discussion, or suggest a writing assignment on the topic to allow a child to process his or her thoughts. If the problem is that a child is legitimately overscheduled, then assistance with how best to prioritize his or her time may be in order. I have been in meetings with parents where I’ve addressed this topic and asked for the parents to work with me to develop a plan so the child can pursue passions and still find time for schoolwork.

For some children, reading is arduous, not enjoyable. Asking them to read material that they must slog through causes them to give up. A good teacher can assist the child in understanding by facilitating lively class discussion, allowing for audio texts (which I love), or encouraging them to read with others. Additionally, there should be safe, low-stakes activities designed for all students to practice and make mistakes without severe academic consequences. Practice without meaningful, targeted feedback and support can lead to poor learning. Meeting with the student often, or scaffolding the reading activities to build confidence, is crucial.

If a child has never developed language skills to the point where he or she can comfortably participate in class, this must be addressed. There are numerous avenues available and no stone should be left unturned. This problem will only get worse and intervention is of paramount importance. With individual coaching and explicit instruction, the student will make progress. Once a child experiences some sort of growth, they will want to continue on this path. Nothing breeds success like success and baby steps can be cause for private or public celebration.

As always, choice and opportunities for collaboration motivate students. The more they can be involved in and direct their education, the more invested they will be to produce their best work. The use of technology can also be motivating as long as it is not a substitute for or replication of weak pedagogy. If technology is more than bells and whistles or rote practice, it can assist students with self-expression and understanding.

Positive, supportive relationships between the teacher and the student are the key to classroom management and student learning. The classroom environment can support or undermine a child’s success. I wrote about this previously in How to Create a Shiny, Happy Classroom and The Class Where Everyone Knows Your Name. As Rita Pierson says in her TED talk, “Students will not learn from a teacher that they don’t like.” They also will not learn from a teacher who does not like them. Research proves that a positive classroom climate creates the conditions necessary for true student engagement.

A classroom full of successful learners does not happen by accident. The teacher has more influence over this than many acknowledge. Taking even small steps toward motivating students can have a profound effect on breaking the cycle of failure. All great teachers want to lead students on the path from motivation to engagement to success. Make sure the apples in your classroom don’t fall far from the talented, caring teacher tree.

 

Just Because It’s Fun, Doesn’t Mean It’s Easy

I’ll admit it—I enjoy being known as one of the “fun” teachers in school. It gives me great satisfaction to know that my students enjoy coming to class and that they often share what we do with their parents when they get home. I work tirelessly to present material in ways that are not only effective, but also enjoyable. It gives me pleasure to hear their giggles in the middle of an activity. It’s one of the reasons I continue to love my job even after all of these years.

Unfortunately, there are many colleagues who are not so enamored of my fun class. They are under the misperception that students enjoy my class because it is fun and therefore easy. Some have even said as much. They don’t believe the students could possibly be engaged in rigorous educational endeavors. This is absolutely not the case.

To these other teachers, rigor (by the way, I hate that word when applied to education) usually just means hard. It means more worksheets or problems assigned every night. It means the teacher drones on and on while requiring students to take copious amounts of notes. It means rote learning and very little critical thinking. It means they are not allowed to “help” each other learn. It means the child’s interest in or connection to the material is irrelevant. It means assignments that might be beyond the reach of their students. It means that many students fail their tests. It means many students dislike their class.

I strongly believe in what two of my edu-heroes say about rigor. Both Kylene Beers and Harvey Daniels say that there can be rigor without rigor mortis. This first time I heard each of them say that, I wrote it down in my notebook with a huge exclamation point next to it. It truly speaks to my philosophy of teaching.

Below, I will give an example of how I teach a fairly boring required skill (comma usage) in a way that challenges and engages my students. These are some of the activities my students do in class. I don’t use all of them every time and there are a few more not listed here. They are in no particular order.

  1. I show funny examples of comma misuse (such as this one) so they can see how commas avoid confusion.
  2. I show funny examples (such as this one) of how commas placed in different locations change the meaning of the sentence.
  3. We discuss the ongoing debate about the use of the Oxford comma.
  4. I give them a set of mentor text passages using all of the different types of comma usage. I have them work in partners or groups to see if they can determine the rule being exemplified in each passage. We share these together to make a master list. They are so excited when they get them right.
  5. They do scavenger hunts in their choice reading books for interesting sentences with commas to share and determine the rule being used. The more advanced version is to have them work together to find examples of every comma rule.
  6. They become human commas to punctuate sentences. I have a group of students write a sentence a couple of words at a time on individual white boards. I have them line up in order and the human commas must stand in the correct positions.
  7. I give them a passage using all of the different comma rules but with the commas missing. I tell them there are exactly X number of commas in the passage and challenge them to find every one. They generally work on this in pairs, but it could also be an informal assessment.
  8. I show them a video such as Flocabulary’s Comma Camp. There are other songs about commas online, but I have not yet used any of them.
  9. If they want to practice more at home, they can play online games. NOTE: these change often and I preview them every year, so I did not provide a link.

Over the years my students have enjoyed all of these activities. At no time was there a lecture with me requiring them to take notes and there was a lot of collaboration involved. Many of these activities require strong critical thinking skills as well. Most importantly, they remembered what they had learned because they were active participants. One of them even bought me this plaque because she saw it while on vacation and determined that I had to have it.

There’s no reason that the serious business of education needs to be serious. So the next time you hear laughter coming from the classroom of the teacher next door, please don’t assume the students are goofing around. My students aren’t.

 

The Shiny, Happy Classroom

One of my favorite bands is R.E.M. They wrote this fluffy little song called “Shiny, Happy People” and hearing it always makes me smile. I want my students to have this same experience when they think of my classroom. I want thoughts of life in Room 132 to bring a smile. These are some of the steps I take to try to make that happen.

As teachers begin this school year, their thoughts undoubtedly turn to the classroom climate they want to establish and maintain. One question that I am often asked (especially by newer teachers) is what kind of classroom management program I use. My answer is that I don’t. What I prefer instead is to develop a classroom that does not call for a system to handle misbehavior because it so rarely occurs. No checkmarks on the board, no list of consequences, no rewards. Just engaged, productive, friendly students.

I won’t go into the many well-known programs for establishing a positive classroom climate, but all it takes is one quick Google search to retrieve millions of hits. There are dozens of books on the subject already written and more arriving every day. I feel much of developing a positive classroom climate is common sense about all how to treat people. After all, our students are people and should be afforded the same graces many of us save for our significant others, friends, and families.

In my experience, there are three things that need to happen for a shiny, happy classroom to exist.

1) Students must feel safe,
2) Students must feel valued, and
3) Students must feel successful.

Safe:

In order for a classroom to be safe, it must be under control. This does not mean that a teacher needs to be authoritarian dominating every aspect of its function. It means that a teacher needs to be authoritative and implement policies and procedures that encourage physical, social, and emotional security. A safe classroom is not that difficult to achieve by following a few basic tenets.

1. Hold high expectations of all students.

This does not mean the same expectations of all students, but rather a high, but achievable standard for each child.

Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they will do the right thing the majority of the time.

Believe that they can all reach their potential. For that matter, believe that they all HAVE potential.

2. Be firm but fair.

Firm does not mean overly strict or outright mean. It means choosing your battles and determining what is most important to you and having a legitimate reason for that policy.

Students remember nit-picky things like failing a paper because they forgot to put their name on top and it will only damage the relationship in the long run. Is their name in the upper, right-hand corner REALLY the most important thing to you?

3. Model the behavior you wish to see from students.

You cannot be overly emotional or dramatic on a regular basis in front of the students. There is nothing scarier to some students than a teacher who randomly flies off the handle and explodes at unexpected times. On the other hand, I have seen students make it a game to be the one to send a “yeller” over the edge. Mood swings of any kind generally make others uncomfortable and they will begin to block you out.

Don’t tell them they need to pay attention when you are talking and then be a bad listener when they speak.

Don’t tell them they need to be respectful of others and then “tease” some of the students. If you expect them to be kind to one another, then you must also be kind.

Valued:

I wrote about this more extensively in a previous post (The Classroom Where Everyone Knows Your Name), so I will only briefly reiterate those ideas.

1. Get to know students as individuals.

A positive rapport with your students is the secret weapon when it comes to having a happy classroom. If this does not exist, nothing else you try will ever work.

If you know a little bit about the children beyond the classroom, it will go along way. Integrate their interests into the classroom.

2. Always maintain their dignity.

Sometimes it is necessary to have a discussion with a child about his/her behavior, but it should not be done in front of other students and should never humiliate a student.

Whenever possible, determine a solution to a problem WITH a student rather than imposing your will on them. Giving them the tools to manage their own behavior is much more effective than you deciding how to control them.

3. Choose your words carefully

You are your words—so choose wisely. Always bear in mind that your words have the power to uplift or crush a child. Use your power for good, not evil.

Successful:

If a student is not doing well in my classroom, I bear some responsibility. As a teacher, I must do everything in my power to find an avenue for that child to succeed academically. Yes, this is a lot of work and often involves circumstances beyond my control, but if I expect their best effort, I must give mine as well.

1. Provide engaging instruction

Make sure you know what you are doing before you step in front of the students. Nothing undermines you more than not appearing as if you had a plan.

Incorporate novelty, technology, collaboration, etc. when appropriate to the content. (I find Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate to have brilliant ideas for getting students’ attention.)

2. Whenever possible, allow for choice and student directed learning.

A student-centered classroom is crucial for all students to succeed.

3. Clearly communicate your expectations for the assignment.

Students can’t hit a target that they can’t see.

Don’t make them guess what you were looking for. Let students know what a quality assignment looks like in advance.

4. Provide regular, constructive feedback.

There is no place for a “gotcha” grade at the end of an assignment. Students should know their strengths and weaknesses and work on improving BEFORE it “counts.”

5. Nurture and celebrate their successes.

6. It’s okay to have fun. “Don’t smile until Christmas” is ridiculous and was bad advice even when it was new.

Practicing What I Preach

I just participated in an invigorating NCTE twitter chat http://www.ncte.org/community/nctechat about the Teacher as Writer. It was very thought provoking and I wanted to get my feelings down on paper while they were still fresh.

I believe in the power of the right mindset in achieving one’s goals. I encourage my students to take risks and I don’t penalize them for mistakes. I want them to practice in a fun, low-stakes environment in order to improve their reading and writing skills. I have designed the class so that they share their work with others often. I often tell them to “write what you know.” I remind them that they all have a story to share that others want to hear. Why, then, it is so difficult for me to internalize my own advice? Why do I find the act of writing for others so intimidating when I expect my students to do so on a daily basis?

I have had a varied and rewarding teaching career and have always shared what I have learned with others and learned from them in return. I took on leadership roles at school and have taught teacher candidates at Eastern Michigan University. I’ve enjoyed these experiences, but always had a desire to write a book on student motivation and engagement. However, I’ve never been able to follow through on this and put the ideas on paper. A large part of this is my own insecurity about sharing my ideas with a larger audience. I am very sensitive and am afraid I would respond badly to real or perceived negative criticism. I guarantee several of my students can relate and I have empathy for them.

I met several members of the Nerdy Book Club http://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com at the Michigan Reading Association conference in March of this year. After experiencing their passion and enthusiasm for literacy, I was inspired to start blogging my own ideas about teaching and learning, but was still a bit terrified of taking the leap. But I knew I must be that role model for my students, so I started writing.

On the day my first blog post went live, I was petrified. I was opening up my heart and soul in addition to my ideas and I didn’t know how I would be received. I was writing what I knew and wanted to tell my story. I truly didn’t care if anyone read the posts, but I wanted them to be kind in their feedback if they did. I have now posted several entries and can’t believe that people have actually read them and even commented. The response has been more than I expected and very positive. Even though it is a little bit scary, it is a bit of a thrill to know that something I have written may be meaningful or helpful to a fellow educator. Plus, I truly enjoy the forced reflection of the entire process. This is the feeling I want for my students so I must keep this in mind as I conference with them about their writing.

Once again, I am reminded that teaching affords me immense power and I must use this power to uplift and not destroy. I am sure many of my students are also frightened of having an outsider (even if it is just the teacher and classmates) read their writing. They may not feel they have a valuable story to tell. They may be afraid that it is not worth writing if it is not perfect. I understand how that feels and can relate. My role as their instructor is to be their coach as well as their cheerleader. I need to be mindful of the words I choose when giving feedback. If I do it right, they may experience the same joy in writing as I do now.

I guess my next challenge is to actually write that book.

 

Short Stories to use with Notice and Note Signposts: Part 3

Because I had many twitter friends ask for this, I am posting a portion of a transcript I sent to a friend about the short stories I used to practice finding the Signposts in Notice and Note as promised.

I teach at an all-girls school so many of the stories have a female protagonist. Because of this, I am giving you lists of short stories that I found on other websites as well. I used many of them when I taught at a co-ed public school.

I love stories by O’Henry, Saki, and Guy de Maupassant. I also enjoy using sci-fi short stories with middle schoolers.

Even though I only teach girls now, I could see the signposts being a huge benefit to teaching boys as well because they are so much more concrete. Also, any short story has signposts in it, so find the stories you like the best to use in class.

Here is how I organized the first several weeks of school:

  • I reviewed the literary elements of Setting, Plot, Characterization, Conflict, and Theme.
  • We applied these literary elements to our study of the summer reading novel, Surviving the Applewhites.
  • Then, I introduced the signposts one at a time using a story that we walked through together. I read it aloud and they identified signposts as I read then we discussed. I used Beers and Probt’s lesson for Thank You Ma’am as my guide. For your reference, I have listed this story as the first one underneath the signpost.
  • Then, I gave them a story in which to identify signposts independently. You will see that the same story is listed in a couple of different categories. In that case, it is because I had them identity both of those signposts in the story.
  • We also reviewed all of the literary elements in the short stories.
  • You will also see that there are less stories under each category as we progressed. This is because the girls were understanding the signposts so well that they said it felt redundant to do the identification twice so I bumped it down.
  • Finally, I showed the Pixar shorts and they found signposts, plus we focused on the literary elements I specified in each one. I did this for a parent visiting day lesson and it was a big hit.
  • Now, we are reading a novel and as they read they are identifying the signposts. I printed up bookmarks for them with the signposts on them that I found on Teachers Pay Teachers. They actually cheered when I handed them out and they say it really helps.

 

The stories I used:

(NOTE: we have copies of a book by Jamestown Publishers called Best Short Stories: Introductory Level that included many of these stories. I have put an asterisk next to those titles. Many of them are available online as well.)

Contrast and Contradictions:

Thank You Ma’am by Langston Hughes

* Catch the Moon by Judith Ortiz Cofer

All-American Slurp by Lensey Namioka

A-Ha Moment:

*The Richer, The Poorer by Dorothy West

All-American Slurp by Lensey Namioka

Charles by Shirley Jackson

The Landlady by Roald Dahl (we read later for Halloween, but they found signposts)

Tough Questions:

*President Cleveland, Where Are You? by Robert Cormier

Words From the Wiser:

*Tuesday of the Other June by Norma Fox Mazer

 Again and Again:

Charles by Shirley Jackson

Eleven by Sandra Cisneros

 

All Signposts and Literary Elements: (I used this as a assessment of the signposts. I might not do that again next year. I will probably make it a group activity because the story confused a few of them.)

*Lob’s Girl by Joan Aiken

Great Short Stories recommended by other websites:

http://www.weareteachers.com/community/blogs/weareteachersbookclub/book-club/2013/05/15/24-short-stories-for-middle-schoolers

http://www.pinterest.com/glanceatnance/teach-short-stories/

http://edhelper.com/short_stories/short_stories.htm

I would LOVE it if any of you would add your titles to this list in the comments. Thanks so much.