Common Misconceptions about Mindset, Rigor, and Grit

The text of my article for Middleweb: April 5, 2015

I am a full-time teacher with a passion for (and degree in) educational psychology. 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 both curiosity and a healthy dose of skepticism.

Among the educational ideas that have gained momentum in recent years are the concepts of Mindset, Rigor, and Grit. While all of these ideas may have merit, as with all shiny new objects that attract our attention we need to proceed with caution and think about whether and why these concepts 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: It doesn’t thrive in a hostile environment

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 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success given by one of the graduate students who worked on the book with her.

The growth mindset framework is wonderful, inspiring, and perfectly logical to anyone who has ever worked with children. The problem is that many schools have jumped on the Mindset bandwagon without changing the school policies 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.

flower-road-570

Growth mindset . . .

Is not summed up by a grade. We tell students that they should grow and learn from mistakes and 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, students 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?

Is not a now-or-never experience. In too many classrooms, something is taught and assessed once and if a student doesn’t get it, the teacher moves on anyway.

Is not a race to the finish. When we encourage speed and competition rather than thoughtfulness and collaboration, we tend to reward some students for “perfect” products and fail to encourage effort and growth over time.

Is not about intimidation. Students do not develop growth mindsets in emotionally unsafe classrooms where they do not feel free to take risks – where there is one “right” answer and only the teacher and certain students know it.

Is not encouraged by lazy assessment practices. 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 does nothing to promote growth. If we truly want kids to learn, we need to be providing regular, constructive feedback throughout and letting them demonstrate their mastery toward the end.

Reverse all of these behaviors, and we are really onto something!

RIGOR: It’s not a throwback to the “good old days”

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 a high level, and each is supported so he or she can learn at a high level, and each student demonstrates learning at a high level.  (Blackburn, 2008)

rigor-4-letter-2ndI know that this kind of rigor is good practice, and some teachers are getting it right. Sadly, however, many in education are still 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 difficult material with ease, and knew their place in the scheme of things.

According to some, rigor from back in the day is defined as the hard work that they used to do when theywere in school. They will post on social media that ridiculous test from the 1890s that has 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.

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. The idea of increasing rigor appeals to these stuck-in-time educators. Unfortunately, rigor is often misinterpreted as just meaning really, really hard.

Rigor does NOT mean:

  • a classroom that resembles a bootcamp
  • 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 if you’re doing that, stop it, okay? Thanks.

GRIT: Maybe we need to just drop this word

I have to say the current buzzword that most grinds on me is grit. Maybe it’s because so many of the grown-ups responsible for running the world have so eagerly embraced it. Human society, they are sure, will be much more likely to survive if we teach these “lazy, spoiled, whiny” children a thing or two.

pilgrims-first-winter-300They are remembering fondly our Puritan ancestors who worked hard and got ahead and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps while eating acorns and tree bark during those first freezing New England winters.

If these “kids today” would only put forth that kind of effort, they would be more successful adults. These are the people who say that children need to learn how to fail because it builds character. The trouble is that it often doesn’t.

Misinterpretations of 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 (through special talent or special circumstances). 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 and working within their zone of proximal development is more likely to yield positive results. It is destructive to tell children that if they only tried harder, they would be successful. Realistically, that may never happen for some.

► 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.

► Now, if what we mean by grit is the ability to stick with an assignment or pay attention in class, then we 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 nearly as much “grit.”

mind-numbing► 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 century. 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. Creating an environment where students do what the teacher asks just to achieve a high grade or get the work finished is a sure recipe to crush souls.

Head-first and eyes wide open

There are often good ideas embedded in the educational jargon we serially embrace. Just be careful that when you decide to try something new, you understand the research and the actions required to make the ideas work. Be sure you’re ready to make the changes in your own practice necessary to support the concept.

Keep your eyes (and heart) wide open and your students’ best interests front and center. Then dive in!

http://www.middleweb.com/21699/our-misconceptions-about-mindset-rigor-and-grit/

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Keeping Parents Connected

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Yesterday was Parent Visiting Day at my school. It was endearing to see the students excited to show their parents around the building, point out their projects on display, and introduce them to their teachers. What’s more, parents get a glimpse into the daily lives of their children as they go through their schedule. I’ll admit that it’s also gratifying when they hug me and say things like, “I don’t know how you do it. I’m exhausted!” or tell me that they had a lot of fun in my class. It would be wonderful if there were more opportunities for such positive interactions.

Because I began my career as a special education teacher, I was accustomed to having a great deal of communication with parents. My philosophy was that the parents and I were on the same team. When I transitioned to teaching English, I knew I wanted to keep the same level of interaction. I wanted to do more than merely keep parents informed. I wanted them to be engaged and to realize their important role in their child’s education beyond elementary school.

When children are young, it is simpler for parents to become a part of their child’s class, but this proves more difficult once students enter middle school. Children begin striving for independence and establishing their adolescent identity without the interference of their parents. Parents are caught off guard when their child suddenly begins pushing them away. Because middle schoolers are walking contradictions, they are pushing parents away with one hand, while wanting their other hand to be held. Therefore, I try to incorporate ways for my students to remain connected to their parents as they navigate adolescence.

The very first homework assignment I give every year is for parents (to the delight of my students). I send home a simple writing prompt: In a Million Words or Less, Tell Me About Your Child. Their responses are varied and valuable. I have had parents write poems, include childhood photos, or insert relevant song lyrics. Often, the parents tell me they were moved to share their assignment with their child, bringing both of them to tears. More often than not, I receive emails like this: “I really appreciate your interest in helping Jade and the other students. How wonderful to have such a caring educator.” I know my request is appreciated.

As the year goes on, I give many assignments where adult interaction is an essential component. Students conduct interviews about family traditions and stories. They write poems about their heritage and family traditions. I ask parents to take reading “selfies” to display in class. I encourage them to discuss the novel we are reading in class with their child (and many even end up reading the book). Pupils write persuasive letters to their parents. I often receive unsolicited feedback from these projects, and it is heartwarming. Last week, I received this email response about poems students wrote modeled on the “Where I’m From” poem by George Ella Lyon: “When I was at Parent Visiting Day, I saw [my child’s] poem on the wall, I was in a hurry so I took a picture and forgot to read it until today. It brought tears to my eyes. Every single word in it is related to something deep and special.”

Beyond family assignments, I email parents at the beginning of every new unit and invite them to participate by sharing their special skillset. In addition, I request parent feedback on each of the projects we do. One parent said, “What you have taught these students has gone far beyond the classroom and [my student] is a better person for having you in her life. I cannot thank you enough.” In this small way, parents are seamlessly integrated into their child’s class.

I know many teachers feel that parents are a necessary evil that comes with the territory of our chosen professions. At times, this can be true. However, I’ve found tremendous success by being as transparent and inclusive as possible. I open the door to the classroom and invite them in. In doing so, we become teammates instead of adversaries. After all, we are all on the same side—that of their child.

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Tips to Ease Test Anxiety

ID-100104405My SmartBlog on Education article for 03.06.15

I distinctly remember one terrible part of my unremarkable years of playing softball. During practice, I could hit the ball far enough for at least a base hit. Then — the game. As soon as I was up to bat, I would freeze up and choke, barely hitting the ball to the pitcher. I would have been a surefire out if it weren’t for the fact that I was so short that I had a very narrow strike zone and got walked a lot. I now know that I suffered from performance anxiety, but at the time I was devastated until I finally convinced my father that I should quit playing. I can still recall the relief at never having to bat in a game again.
Now that I teach, I recognize the signs of performance anxiety in my middle-school students in one specific area — text anxiety. While it’s true that a certain amount of trepidation and doubt are normal before any high-stakes event, their anxiety borders on debilitating. They experience the same feelings I had while standing in the batter’s box: sweaty hands, rapid heartbeat, nervous fidgeting, light-headedness and a suddenly blank mind.
When students are anxious during tests, they are less likely to perform up to their academic potential. They often end up doing poorly, which starts a cycle of self-doubt and disappointment. Fortunately, there are many ways that classroom teachers can help ease text anxiety by addressing the needs of the whole child.
Optimizing the physical environment on test day will go a long way in helping students be able to focus on the task at hand.

  • This is not the day to try out a completely new seating arrangement or change out posters on the wall. The more that the classroom looks like the conditions in which the material was taught, the better.
  • Try to minimize distractions and keep the classroom as calm and quiet as possible. When a child is already anxious, they are more likely to be distracted by the slightest noise or movement.
  • Allow the students to spread out the seats, if possible, so that they may concentrate on what’s on their desk and not their neighbor’s.

Consider supplying some sort of fidget toy. Many soft, quiet “touchable” toys can be found at a dollar store or even homemade. Displacing some of that physical energy can help ease some psychological discomfort.

Because adolescents are social beings and greatly affected by the opinion of their peers, teachers need to make all efforts to protect their fragile sense of self.

  • Share their grades with them privately. Grades should never be a competition. Posting grades (even if you don’t use student names) is a destructive practice. Even if you don’t think they will figure out whose grade is whose, they will. And it can be hurtful.
  • It is not necessary to share the grade breakdown either for the same reasons as above. It does nothing but rub it in to the student who scored poorly.
  • One practice I have used in all my years of teaching that has made the most difference is to not allow any student to get up to hand in their tests when finished. Seeing their peers get up to turn in a paper early only increases their sense of urgency if they are already petrified of failing. Instead, I tell every student to turn their paper over at their desk and read silently (I teach English and they all have a choice reading book). When I’ve taught other subjects, I have put some sort of puzzle or activity on the back for them to do while others finish. This practice has received more thanks from students and parents than almost any other thing I do.

A few simple ideas can help lessen the cognitive load that is distracting them from the material they are trying to recall or formulate.

  • My school places a large calendar for each grade in the staff lounge. An electronic calendar works great too. All the teachers in that grade record tests, project due dates, and quizzes on it so that they can monitor the schedule for overload. This way, a student will never experience the nightmare of three tests in one day or the like.
  • As a regular practice, on non-test days, teachers can give students practical test-taking tips as well as sample questions so that they feel more comfortable with the format on test day.
  • Consider flexible time limits or breaking the test into parts so that students who are already anxious don’t feel rushed and tempted to guess.
  • A pet peeve of mine is teachers who put unfair or trick questions on a test to “separate the As from the Bs” or test over material not covered in class. A test is supposed to assess their understanding of the material they learned, not some sort of magical thinking.
  • Most importantly, make all attempts to help kids deal with the intense, possibly debilitating, emotions causing their minds to go blank. Blowing the significance of the test out of proportion causes text anxiety for some. Very few classroom tests are do-or-die. At least they shouldn’t be. Helping the students gain some perspective about this one test’s place in the overall scheme allows them to regain some logical thinking.
  • Give as much notice as possible before the test. Even though not all of your students will need this courtesy, it is invaluable to those who do. Many students have incredibly busy lives outside of school and need to by hyper organized to succeed. Last-second notice is unfair.
  • Teach them a simple deep breathing or meditating technique and have all students begin each test with this practice.
  • Discuss test anxiety as a real entity and have students share strategies they have used on their own to help cope. They may have ideas you never thought of and it also helps normalize their emotions by realizing they are not alone.
  • It doesn’t hurt for you to be their cheerleader before the test. Let them know that you have confidence in them and that they have studied the material. They trust your guidance and a little confidence boost may be all some of them need.

I am sure many teachers have their own experiences with performance anxiety such as I had with softball. The difference is that this source of student anxiety is not an extracurricular activity — it is not going away. The reality is that we live in a data and test-driven society. Since the ultimate goal of testing is to measure student understanding of the material, reducing anxiety will result in a more reliable assessment. Furthermore, teachers will be doing a great service in helping students deal with this issue now before the tests become high-stakes. None of the techniques suggested above are overly complicated, but if they can alleviate even a little bit of test stress, it will be time well spent.

http://smartblogs.com/education/2015/03/06/tips-to-ease-students-test-anxiety/

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I Am My Words

ID-10094137My SmartBlog on Education article for 12.04.14

As a child, any report to an adult of another child saying mean things to me was met with the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Those adults were so wrong. Words in the hands of the right person can be weapons of mass destruction.
As a teacher, I am acutely aware that my words have the power to uplift or destroy. An entire year of progress can be undone in an instant. This was reinforced for me recently when I attended the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. I saw many of my students’ favorite authors speak and a common thread emerged. In their early school careers, many of these authors were in the classroom of a teacher whose words and actions left them deflated and hopeless. They began to believe that they had no worth as a student, or more importantly, as a person.
So what changed the trajectory of failure for these authors and prevented these damaging words from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? One teacher. Each of them could point to the one teacher who saw them as a person with individual gifts and talents and did not penalize them for not fitting a preconceived mold. That one teacher got the message across that they were worthy and this gave them the will to become their authentic selves.

These authors put into words what I wanted as a child and what I want for my students. This is my idea of the perfect classroom — a place where every student feels acknowledged, validated and cherished. They need to know that they have value solely for who they are.
My classroom climate is based on this ideal. I want every child to know that I see them. I hear them. They matter to me. I am extremely careful with my words and actions and I am quick to apologize and try to make it right if I ever do realize that I have hurt a child. My words have power, and I must use that power for good.
A few years ago I received one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given by a student. She told a peer that the best part about my class was, “Every student is Mrs. Mizerny’s teacher’s pet.” I am proud of the fact that all of my students feel like my favorite, because they are. They and their parents have trusted me with their minds and hearts, and my main duty is to protect that like the precious gift that it is. Hiam Ginott, who pioneered the idea of supportive conversations with children, said, “If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

http://smartblogs.com/education/2014/12/04/i-am-my-words/

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.com

Finding the Gift in Every Student

ID-100281002My SmartBlog on Education article from 02.19.15

While scrolling through my Twitter feed, I saw a Rick Wormeli slide someone shared about “What Doesn’t Motivate?” posted from his presentation at the 2013 National Conference on Differentiated Instruction. The last bullet point on the slide struck a chord with me: “Students spending the majority of their day working on their weak areas, being reminded of their deficiencies.” As a former special education teacher, this is a practice I have fought against my entire career. Sadly, with the added emphasis on standardized testing, this soul-crushing practice has become even more common. Is it any wonder that many students are disenfranchised? There has to be a better way. I believe one large piece of the motivation puzzle lies in emphasizing children’s strengths — not dwelling on deficits.
Educational researchers have extensively studied how students learn best. Many of the best techniques we know of are now primarily used with students identified as gifted. Herein lies my frustration. If these are our best teaching practices, why are they not used with all of our students?
I am known to say that I teach all of my students as they are gifted with learning differences. While this is meant to be facetious, it is somewhat based in my truth. I believe that all students can be successful in a classroom designed with them in mind. I saw how students who were all but written off by their general education teachers because they could not memorize basic multiplication tables could perform incredibly well on complex problem-solving tasks in algebra with some basic scaffolding. We do our most challenged learners a great disservice when we leave them mired in the depths of repeatedly failing at rote learning tasks. They may never be able to memorize those facts, but they are more than capable of rising to the challenge with proper support. By not providing critical thinking and problem solving opportunities for all students, we are holding them back and we may never discover their unique intellectual gifts.
In Carol Ann Tomlinson’s 1997 article, What it Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well, she states,
“What it takes to teach gifted learners well is actually a little common sense. It begins with the premise that each child should come to school to stretch and grow daily. It includes the expectation that the measure of progress and growth is competition with oneself rather than competition against others. It resides in the notion that educators understand key concepts, principles and skills of subject domains, and present those in ways that cause highly able students to wonder and grasp, and extend their reach. And it envisions schooling as an escalator on which students continually progress, rather than a series of stairs, with landings on which advanced learners consistently wait.”
In short, this is a student-centered classroom that addresses individual needs. Although this article is nearly 20 years old, its core premise still rings true. My philosophy of teaching encompasses all of the above criteria, but I believe it is common sense to get all of my students onto that escalator instead of leaving any waiting on the landing.There are no easy solutions to providing needed support to struggling students while not simultaneously killing their love of learning, but there are better ones. My educational goal is lofty. I want to develop the “just right” Goldilocks class for my students and myself. I want to reach every student where they are and take them to new heights. I constantly strive to uncover the giftedness in all my students, regardless of labels. Providing rigorous, engaging instruction to all students, I believe I can achieve this goal.

http://smartblogs.com/education/2015/02/19/finding-the-gift-in-every-student/

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Low-Tech Learning as a Novel Concept

Today’s students have never known a time when computers didn’t exist. What’s more, they have the ability to carry a ridiculously powerful computer in their jeans pocket. Funny enough, even while having an electronic appendage with instant access to the world, I am noticing more and more that students appreciate being exposed to low-tech experiences.

I introduced the concept of Genius Hour (which I call Passion Projects) to my sixth grade students last month. They were given the option to learn a skill, create something new, or find a way to help others. I was quite surprised that, when given completely free reign, less than 15% of my students chose anything that involved technology. Instead, they wanted to learn how to do handicrafts such as knitting, cooking, cake decorating, and sewing. Also popular were model building, designing, and creative writing. Over a quarter of them are designing fundraisers to help charities close to their hearts. I did not expect that they would eschew technology. When I thought about this a little more, I realized it is because technology isn’t new for them. It is completely integrated into their daily lives so when given the task of choosing something new to learn, they opted to stray from their beloved technology.

Then it happened again. The middle school where I teach has an advisory period and a couple of days a month, this time is devoted to teacher-led clubs from which the students may choose. As each of the teachers introduced his or her club, the ear-splitting cheers were for clubs such as board games, knitting, eco-art, brainteasers, and the like. Although there were several clubs involving technology that will no doubt be equally as popular, I was again struck that students were also excited to learn hands-on skills or participate is low or no-tech activities.

The following week, at an assembly on the history of our school, the presenter showed pictures of girls in home economics classes cooking and sewing. This led to a classroom discussion about the “olden days” when students were required to take either home economic or shop classes. As I described these classes to students (because I took them), they were full of questions as to why we don’t still offer this kind of education because it sounded so “cool.” They were clamoring for the opportunity to cook and sew. Who knew this old-fashioned class would sound so interested to today’s students?

As a PD junkie, I come across dozens of articles each month lauding the use of technology in the classroom and detailing the myriad ways that technology can replace the old-fashioned classroom assignments. Don’t get me wrong—I am in no way anti-technology. I am as addicted to my devices as the next girl. However, I don’t find that students are nearly as engaged in most educational uses of technology as adults would hope. I’ve even heard students complain about too much screen time in school. Perhaps this is because some of the crafty, not necessarily pedagogically sound, projects that teachers are enamored of have merely been replaced by digital versions of equally dubious merit.

I think that perhaps one of the reasons so many teachers of all ages have jumped on the digital bandwagon is that we feel it is something that defines us as current or means we are teaching 21st Century Skills. It could also be that the use of technology in school is exciting for the teachers themselves because many weren’t exposed to much when they were in school. I know that I am often excited when I see the classroom possibilities of a new app or program. My point is not that technology doesn’t belong in the classroom, it does. It is that we may be overestimating the amount of engagement bang for our buck that tech provides. Not everything in our classrooms needs to be digitized and our students will appreciate the chance to experience the excitement of analog learning in a digital world. Excuse me while I go read my book (on paper, of course.)

Toward a Culture of Collaboration, Not Competition

The following is the text of an article that I recently wrote for SmartBlogs on Education.

As I read education blogs, news editorials, and twitter, I am struck by the “us vs. them” mentality I see between veteran and newer teachers. The purpose of this article is not to demonize or laud either one of these groups, but rather to promote the idea that teachers should support one another instead of tearing each other down. We all got into this profession for the same reason and I suspect we will find that we are more alike than we realize. What’s more, both veteran (which I am using to describe those in the profession for 10 years or more) and newer (those with 5 or fewer years’ experience) teachers have valuable, unique skills and perspectives and could learn a lot from each other. In the end, we all want to do the right thing for our students.

Veteran teachers can offer wisdom and assistance based on their years of experience. They have already developed curricular materials for their subject area and should be willing to share these with teachers entering the profession. The first couple years are tough enough without having to reinvent the wheel. Those who have been in the classroom for a long time also have the benefit of knowing how best to deal with the nuances of parental communication which can be one of the most difficult parts of the job. Another area of concern for many rookie teachers is classroom management and this is generally an area where an experienced teacher can provide valuable tips. Finally, veteran teachers can share the “need-to-knows” with those new to the district. They know who to contact about special classroom needs, the building climate and norms, the political history, and who makes the best coffee. Newer teachers will appreciate this kindness and it will go a long way in easing their stress.

Newer teachers offer enthusiasm, energy, and ideas. Because they have recently been in school, they tend to have read the most current professional development materials and are aware of innovative teaching methods. Teachers fresh from college can be more familiar with the seemingly endless variety of technology applications and how they can supplement more traditional lessons. Finally, they have the benefit of their idealism because they have not been demoralized by the media who seem content to place the blame for school “failure” squarely on the shoulders on the veterans.

None of this is to say that veteran teachers cannot be well-versed in technology or that rookie teachers are unable to control classroom behavior. I am speaking in generalizations and know this is not the case. Rather, this is a call for us not to be threatened by, but to reflect on our own best practices and collaborate with one another. We will all be stronger teachers for it and our students will reap the rewards.