What makes a difference?

I have been amiss at writing this last two weeks as I have had some time off and have not been in the habit. But that changes today. I have been cleaning and purging our house because we have some new furniture coming in. I have also been thinking a ton about my new job and making an attempt to be ready for it, if that is even possible.

I have been listening to Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success about the growth vs. the fixed mindset. It has me thinking a lot about my colleagues and the students I teach. I would venture to say that many of my Writing Lab students fall under the fixed mindset, that they don’t feel they will ever improve, that their struggles with writing are a manifestation of their intellect and therefore they won’t improve. I wonder, though, if many of my AP students hold the growth mindset. Those who come in for help definitely do, but there are a lot of students who simply give up and hope for the best.

Here’s what’s interesting, those students who give up more often than not are students who have been told since they were small that they have some kind of underlying talent. It is this very notion that their ability to write well is some kind of innate talent that kills these students’ motivation in the end. If they have to work at it, something must be wrong.

This then got me thinking about my own daughter’s experiences in organized sports. She does not have an innate talent towards any sports. She works hard and tries hard and always has. Her last soccer coach saw no talent in her, and therefore, bullied her, made her feel less than worthy to be on the team, and did not even work with her to make improvements. These actions based in the fixed mindset killed any kind of love for soccer that Maya was forming. She gave up midseason because this person clearly did not believe Maya could grow into a decent player.

Those coaches who do believe in the growth mindset are willing to work with their students, to help them improve. This has me wondering how many teachers I work with believe in the growth mindset.

When I was a kid, I did very poorly in school. I didn’t believe I was a student much less some kind of academic. I had no one in my life to coach me otherwise. Granted, I was a mess for a lot of different reasons at this point in my life, but I believe that if someone had reached out to help me grow, I may have done better as a student. It was my boss with the National Ski Patrol who first taught me about the growth mindset. In order to make it on the patrol, I had to improve my skiing on steeps and bumps that season. It is this person who believed that I could make improvement and worked with me until I got it who first taught me the power of the growth mindset.

  • What kind of world could we have if those of us who work with kids hold this mindset?
  • How might our students’ beliefs about themselves change?
  • What would it take to show students you believe they can grow into whatever they want to be?

Reach Out and Touch Someone

I have been extremely lucky in my career in that I have  had people who have worked with me to develop my craft and to help me expand my career. It is so easy for teachers to hole up and “silo” themselves in their classrooms. It is easier to simply teach and go home at the end of the day than it is for us to take risks and network with other teachers to improve our craft. If we simply teach in the four walls of our classroom, though, it does not do our students any kind of service to their learning.

When I network and collaborate with other teachers, I learn how to be a better advocate for learning. When I learn, my students learn.

This is why, ten years ago, I decided to try the Denver Writing Project, an affiliate of the National Writing Project. I knew the experience would be good for me, but I had no idea how good. A mentor of mine, Mark Overmeyer, recommended and encouraged me to apply for this experience. It was an awesome summer of learning with other teachers how to become a better teacher of writing. But I had no idea what it would lead to…

…and for a long time it didn’t lead to anything. But six years later I saw a friend of mine who was a co-director of the Denver Writing Project and told her that I would like to be more involved, but I wasn’t sure how. She told me there was this new thing the project was about to be involved in and that I might be interested. A couple weeks later I had an email from her inviting me to work with other teachers from all over the country on the Literacy Design Collaborative work to help teachers better understand the Common Core State Standards.

This work helped me understand the power of collaborative thinking partners and their importance in doing the hard work of teaching. Out of this work, I was asked to be a part of the Leadership Team for a group called Assignments Matter, a group working to help teachers from across the country design relevant Tasks that are aligned with the Common Core. This experience has been awesome in that I have witness from a leadership standpoint what happens when smart teachers are placed in a room together. Amazing things happen.

I am realizing that this experience is all about creating spaces for teachers to talk and collaborate. Teachers need time, there is no doubt about it.When we are given time, we can make great things happen. It is my turn to begin passing the torch. I have invited some teachers from my building to come to a training the writing project is doing in May to try to bring some other people into the conversation. Two summers ago a science teacher I really admire did the writing project, and she and I have been working on book studies and presenting at conferences together ever since. Keeping her involved and mentoring her around literacy issues has been a goal of mine.

When we reach out and touch a teacher to help them build relationships with her teachers, we are helping them build their craft. Relationships are not only key in our bonds with students and our ability to help them learn, but with other teachers as well. When we have relationships with other teacher, WE learn.