SOL: Focus

After eight weeks of trying it on for size, I’ve decided “focus” is the right OLW for me in 2018. We develop our own understanding of words throughout our life, so I was curious about what the dictionary had to say about my word. The first definition listed in my old Merriam Webster states that focus is “the point where rays of light, heat, etc, or waves of sound come together, or from which they spread.” Although my original thinking had more to do with “to concentrate, as to focus one’s attention,” I love the image of rays of light coming together or spreading out as I pour my energy into two projects, one personal, the other work-related, that are the real impetus for me choosing this word.

In a recent blog post, Vicki Vinton, author of Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading, invited her readers to become “protagonists in their own learning” by adopting an inquiry based approach to a problem or question. Over the past few months, my colleagues and I have been focused on cultivating a growth mindset in our students. This is challenging, ongoing work that easily lends itself the kind of action-research Vicki advocates.

Following Vicki’s model, we have our question: How can we cultivate a growth mindset in our students? We have done research, although this is really ongoing process, and have a hypothesis: Modeling growth mindset behavior and embedding growth mindset stance vocabulary into our daily interactions with children will cultivate their own growth mindset.

Our research began by reading Carol Dweck’s foundational book on the subject, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House: 2006). Two books are guiding us as we move forward. Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success, (ASCD, 2008) edited by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick is an incredible resource, filled with suggestions for creating “thought-full” environments, assessing students’ (and our own!) attitudes and ideas about mindset, as well as lists of additional resources. Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz’s A Mindset for Learning: Teaching the Traits of Joyful, Independent Growth (Heinemann, 2015) has guided our K-3 teachers in making the stances of mindset accessible to our youngest learners.

Through surveys, we gathered information regarding how students perceive their current mindset. To encourage reflective thinking about these stances, we asked them to include specific examples of when they engage in a particular behavior. The results were a mixture of brutal honesty (I am not persistent when my math homework is hard.) and responses that need a bit more reflection. (I am always persistent.)

Read-alouds are one way we are embedding the vocabulary of growth mindset into our day. Children’s literature is filled with determined, resilient, flexible characters who overcome incredible odds to achieve their goals. My personal favorite is Brave Irene by William Steig, which has been my go-to book for teaching character traits since it was published, but there are hundreds of worthy titles to choose from. Nonfiction is also full of inspiring stories of people who didn’t give up on their dreams. (This post from 2013 has a short list of a few of my favorites.)

We are still in the process of testing our hypothesis, and will be for months to come. As Costa and Kallick point out, “we never fully master the Habits of Mind…we continue to develop and improve them throughout our lives.”

I’ll let you know how well I’m doing staying focused and share any glimmers of light spreading out from our work.

Thank you also to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

A Mindset for Learning

I first read Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Ballantine Books, 2006) four years ago, but had heard of her work before that. (Watch Dweck’s TED Talk here.) The book resonated with me on many levels, including how it could help my son, who had recently injured his knee and could no longer pursue his dream of being a firefighter. The implications for the classroom were obvious, especially for older students.

But I work with younger students. How to frame this idea for them? I had no idea, and really no time to think about it. Fortunately, there are superwomen like Kristi Mraz and Christine Hertz in the world who make time for these important questions. In their must-read new book, A Mindset for Learning: Teaching Traits of Joyful, Independent Growth (Heinemann, 2015), they break down the elements of a growth mindset into five essential components, or stances. These are empathy, flexibility, persistence, resilience, and optimism. Kristi and Christine explain in detail how these habits of mind can help students see themselves as “ever-evolving and powerful agents of change, both for themselves and for their world.” 

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Kristi and Christine also provide a step-by-step routine to introduce the stances using guided inquiry of a shared text. An appendix lists two dozen picture books that celebrate a growth mindset as a starting point for this inquiry. Once the stances have been introduced, Christine and Kristi provide strategies for fostering these habits and helping children use them as problem-solving tools. These include self-talk, storytelling, goal setting, and conferring, among others.

The research base for this work is included in every chapter, and there is an extensive list of works cited and books for further reading. Charts, forms, and examples of student work help busy teachers envision how they can integrate “a mindset for learning” into their classrooms. It’s important to note that this book isn’t “one more thing” to add to an already bursting curriculum. Creating a classroom that supports “an energized and engaged learning community” is the bedrock on which our students’ learning rests.

Listen to Kristi and Chrsitine talk about A Mindset for Learning during The Educator Collaborative’s Fall 2015 Online Gathering here.

I created this bulletin board at school to promote Kristi and Christine’s wonderful book to my colleagues:

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Some of the books in this photo are on Christine and Kristi’s list of books promoting a growth mindset, but others are not. I’ll be sharing my thoughts about these books and more in the next few weeks.

Thank you, Kristi and Christine, for writing this important book, and for all you do to help teachers become stronger advocates for children!