This Week: Emerging From The [Metaphor for 'work']

Ok, so want to hear something weird about this school year.  I’ve been going to school for every day that wasn’t a holiday since the week I got back from my honeymoon (August 15th).  That means I’ve been working for a month when half of that was supposed to be vacation.  For many of the past two weeks of the school year, I haven’t even gotten home before 7, some days I’ve gotten home at 10, and one day after helping my wife’s school we got home at 12:30.  The weirdest thing about that?  I’ve only taught two (two!) classes so far this year.   I have developed an acumen of sorts for putting spreadsheets together, and using those spreadsheets to upload schedules.  Our school has wildly unique schedules for each student, so I have been helping out a lot with that.  Since our school is also running a rolling admissions situation, they are going to let in a group on October 1st, and I am going to pick up my teaching load with that group.

Since this year started, it’s been pretty dark and lonely for me and my spreadsheets, and I don’t think I should wait for it to end so that I can get back to my passions.  For the next two weeks I decided to pick up one class, to help with some of the school overflow so now I can talk about teaching and learning!

What I’m teaching this week

This week I am teaching problem solving for my “Mathematical Thinking” class.  I aim to work on the curriculum that I did last fall.  One thing I am surely going to do is work in more estimation. One question I had today was “How many flourescent light bulbs are there in the school?”  Last friday I asked “If I turned 33 on Sept 1st, when will I be 1/3 of century old?”  I like doing the big problems, but I think I am going to work on having a big discussion as a group about them.

What I’m blogging this week

Something.  I’m going to try to emerge from my excel tabs and write something.  Baby steps.

What I’m thinking this week

This week I’m wondering what is the thing I’m missing.  I always watch basketball players and think “If you just get a 3-point shot” or “If you just get a left-handed layup”, as if a couple hours in the gym would make them an all-star.  Assuming that it’s more or less true, what’s the thing that I’m missing?  I think it’s having productive, amazing, Magdalene-Lampert-esque classroom discussions, but I don’t know exactly how to get into the “gym” and work on that.

Read books?  Moderate other people’s subway conversations?  Do Squats?


With issues of race arise I always wonder, “should I talk about it?”.  Typically, my willingness to talk about it is less than other people’s willingness to talk, and is rarely matched by people’s ability to objectively listen.

When I arrived back from honeymoon to the images of life in #Ferguson after the murder of Mike Brown I was so unaware of American Politics that I needed to get caught up, and the highly polarized media reports and shifting stories made that task difficult.  As the facebook/twitter/etc. conversation steered away from this one incident and towards the larger topic of race in America, and people began connecting what happened to incidents in their life.  Somewhere between reading this post about privilege and watching John Stewart’s coverage of Fox news’s coverage it got stuck in my head that I need to write something about this incident, and what it means for our country.    But it was hard to figure it out, one, because of the confusing nature of the incident, but mostly because of the role of race in America.

Race is to defined as differing sub-species of people, but in America, race usually refers to our social system.  From before the country there was a need to associate citizenship, with race, with being White specifically.  Owning land, and wealth was important, as was being male, but being white was always really important for early Americans.  More important, were our national ideals of freedom and liberty, and so the flawed ideas about race led to a number of social movements to direct our country out of this flawed way of thinking.   Fast forward to the legal mandates that followed the civil rights movement, and you’ll notice a country rapidly distancing itself from it’s past.

Then something happened.  I’m not sure what it was, but the achievement gap stopped shrinking, the number of high school graduates flattened out, and a lot of the progress stopped progressing. Perhaps it is related, but a great deal of young black males began getting incarcerated perhaps having to do with overly aggressive sentencing rules.  It appeared, and still does, that the nation has started regressing towards the pre-civil-rights-era social norms. The story of the black person on the rise, living the Cosby-esque middle class family life, never really disappeared.  But, it does have to compete in the nation’s eye with the black person as a threat.  The fact that these two story lines are competing at all conjures up a short-sighted America, wrestling between the promise of social change promised half a century ago, and the troubling, deep-seated, racial beliefs impressed on the country from the early colonial days.

Mike Brown’s few remaining moments tell the story of this struggle for America.  Mike Brown was a recent high school graduate, headed to college, and perhaps a successful life as his family expected of him down the road.  Certainly America wants this story to happen.  This is the kind of story that I want to help play out, as we all would.  At the same time, there is the competing story about Mike Brown, the 18 year old who, to the officer’s knowledge, was walking in the middle of the street in defiance of the town’s laws.  The idea here is that young black teens could head down a road towards crime, perhaps violent, and need to be punished immediately and severly.  This is a story that I also see as an educator and that troubles me.  The “avoiding crime” story of telling a student what not to do, and punishing them accordingly doesn’t coincide with any kind of education model for people.  People get motivated about where they are headed, not where they shouldn’t go. Surely both stories need to get taken into consideration when talking to students, but we seem to be emphasizing the latter and are thus putting the former in jeopardy.

We’re conflicted about whether our nation wants to nurture our young black males in our schools, or punish them in our prisons.  Our politicians who emphasize the allure of lower crime rates but not school equity are perhaps why so many black students in certain neighborhoods get stopped by the cops, but not nearly enough of them graduate high school.  This problem, then, is not just for people in these neighborhoods to consider, but for every member of the country who is voting.  When we vote on our anti-crime bills, or our state’s prison-building bond initiatives, we’re deciding what we as a country should emphasize.  Perhaps, if Ferguson didn’t have so much money to spent on surplus army equipment, they would have had to put more effort into maintaining better community relations.  Perhaps if that money was spent on programs to engage teenagers, Mike Brown would have had something better to do.  If we don’t like what our public institutions are doing, it is up to us to change them.

The emphasis on cracking down on teen crime also implies that such harsh treatment will be effective.  When we impose a consequence on a kid before we have a conversation with them, especially when that consequence is meant to “teach them a lesson”, what are we really teaching them?  As an educator, I put a lot of work into planning lessons, and the best ones usually don’t result in kids learning stuff.  When people choose to impose harsh punishments on kids to “teach them a lesson” it is quite an insult to the word lesson.  Swerving your police car and waving a gun at someone might not teach them a lesson, or at least not whatever lesson that you are intending to teach.  If they are supposed to be thinking about how they need to respect traffic rules, that might not be what is understood, what might be understood is that you don’t value them as a person, and they should react out of fear and anger.  I was at a school once where a 6th grader was getting arrested.  Parading middle-schoolers through their class and their school in handcuffs might not be teaching them to avoid crime, it might just be teaching them to not trust their teachers and that they can’t feel safe at school.

Ultimately, it is up to us to choose which narrative of young black males we want to emphasize.  If officer Wilson chose to emphasize how important and valuable it would be to have a 6’4″ black male attending college in a couple months he may have thought that it isn’t worth shooting all 6 of those bullets, maybe he could have not used any weapon at all, and perhaps have talked to him about why he was in street.  If Brown was the starting left end of the local football team, would he be approached the same way?  Would he have a different emphasis if he was stopping a police officer’s son?  Mike Brown could have been example to the community of what happens if you do everything right, but instead the officer decided that the best example to make of him would be that of a corpse, perhaps so his friends could “learn the lesson.”

The sad part of this incident to me isn’t necessarily the treatment of the protestors (which is a whole other conversation), but the fact that the Mike Brown, the potential criminal, was deemed more important Mike Brown, the potential college student.  We’re setting dangerous precedent by saying the value of a young Black person’s life is measured by how threatened they make another person feel, and a Mike Brown court case seems like it will offer more support for this idea.  This makes a statement about the worth of Black people that seems to echo the “punishment without trial“, or even the 3/5ths clause in the constitution, and is evidence of a continuing slide backwards. It might be a scary time for U.S. race relations.  Let’s hope it’s scary enough that we all decide to move forward.  Deciding what to emphasize, and what not to emphasize, is an easy first step.

This Week: Unpacking, Orientation, and Ice Breakers

This is the week before school starts.  For our school, that means we run a large new student orientation to welcome our school’s crop of 150 or so fall admits.  Running sessions for students a few days before school is actually a nice, low-pressure, way to kickstart the school part of my brain.  Before I worked here, this time of year would usually be spent wondering things like, why I am missing one of the boxes I packed last august, and whether or not I should keep looking for my numberline poster or make a new one.  Any thought about actually teaching would usually be as preced with, and followed by, and interreupted periodically throughout with small moments of curling into a fetal position on the ground along with some light sobbing.  Hopefully not this week.  Once I go through 3 days of welcome activities and role playing school policies, I’ll have shaken the rust off from a summer without being in front of kids, and all that’s left will be to plan out my actual teaching.

What I’m teaching this week

This week I am teaching students about the basics of our school.  These are kids who have been accepted to our school and are goign to be in either my advisory, or the advisory of two other teachers in the school.  This group is not going to be together in it’s entirety for more than just this advisory group, so it is a good chance to try out some new ice breakers.  This week I think I will try to do a “Think, Pair, Share” writing activity about why they are leaving their old school and coming here, but I am open to suggestions.  Have you heard of any good and unique ice breakers?

What I’m blogging this week

This week I want to wrap up talking about the book Mindset.  So far I have talked about what Mindset is about, and strategies for student feedback.  What I haven’t talked about yet is what Mindset means for teachers, as they approach their own teaching.  Given how difficult teaching can be, perhaps a growth mindset can help teachers remain positive about their practice.

This week I will also talk about what one more of my goals for the year, and what I plan on teaching this year (the blogging about these topics may happen whilst in the fetal position).

What I’m thinking this week

Nothing.  It’s probably the last week I can say that, so I’m going to enjoy it.

Goal for 2014: Being A Totally Different Teacher

It’s August 21st, which means that there are only 12 days until the big day where everything starts all over.  That’s right, it’s my Birthday!  But one day after turning 33, I report to school for the 2014-2015 school year.  As the day quickly approaches, I am starting to think through what my big goals will be for the school year.  Most years I have one or two big projects outside of the classroom, such as basketball coaching, or developing new curriculum, and this year will be certainly no exception.  But inside the classroom, one of my big projects will be becoming a totally different teacher (every 2 weeks or so).

The Case For Change

For the first 9 years of my teaching career I was pretty much focused on getting students through the material in as reflective of a way I could.  When I found something that worked, I stuck with it.  Now I have a series of worksheets, chained together into units that reflect not only what content I’ve taught, but who I am as a teacher.  As I approach another year teaching the same material I kind of want to turn my back on my old standards and start something new.

There are so many great resources and lessons on the internet, I want to try actually using those in my classroom.  This of course means eschewing the parts of me that live inside of the lessons I created years ago, and trying to crawl inside the minds of Dan Meyer, Andrew Stadel, Robert Kaplinsky, Mathalicious, Illustrative Mathematics, (am I missing anyone? add it in the comments) and the other educators whose lessons I could use.  I think it will force me to try new ways and approaches to teaching, and ultimately make me a different, and better, teacher.

Using outside lessons could quickly provide little to no benefit.  I could easily take a lesson, re-type into my regular microsoft word format, and implement it in the way I implement my boilerplate stuff.  I’m wondering if I miss out on the potential gains I might see if I try to teach each of these as true the materials’ style, and as differently from my own.  I really like modifying textbook and other tasks, but I think sticking to the plan will actually be a new and interesting challenge.  Doing this 4 times each quarter, or roughly every 2 weeks, will provide enough to selectively choose and reflect on each item.

The S.M.A.R.T. Goal

For this year, in each of my classes I plan to substitute my regular curriculum with quality tasks from the web or otherwise..  When doing this I’m going to try to do it as faithfully to the lesson plan as possible, and only try to modify it when there is clear evidence that it needs modification.  Each Quarter I plan to incorporate an outside task with my students at least 4 days (two-day lessons count as one task), and keep track of it here.

Mindset In The Classroom, Sending Messages And Giving Feedback

Discussion of growth mindset has been really popular lately. Both my school and my wife’s school each gave us a copy of Carol Dweck’s book as summer reading. In the downtime between my honeymoon trip to South East I read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset as part of the Coast2Coast reading project. In my previous post, Carol Dweck’s Mindset and My Teaching, I summarized the fixed and the growth mindsets, and what they are.

In this post I want to try and summarize the most significant parts of the book that relate to the classroom.  Mindset talks about learning, but the whole book isn’t exactly relevant to classroom teachers.  Rather than spending the last week’s of August trying to rip through the whole book before your school’s book club, why not read this blog post about how to help your students this year?

How Does A Growth Mindset Affect Students?

After even a minimal look into Mindset it becomes clear that having a classroom full of students with growth mindsets would be ideal. Listen to this vignette from p. 61 where Dweck studied a group of College freshman taking their first chemistry class. She used a survey to determine their mindset, fixed or growth, and asked them about their approach to learning in the class.

Once again we found that he students with the growth mindset earned better grades in the course.  Even when they did poorly on a particular test, they bounced back on the next ones.  When students with the fixed mindset did poorly, they often didn’t make a comeback.

In this course everybody studied.  But there are different ways to study.  … [fixed mindset students] read the textbook and their class notes.  If the material is really hard they read them again.  Or they might try to memorize everything they can like a vacuum cleaner. … If they did poorly on the test they concluded that Chemistry was not their subject.  After all “I did everything possible, didn’t I?”

… The students with growth mindset completely took charge of their learning and motivation.  Instead of plunging into unthinking memorization of the course material, they said “I looked for themes and underlying principles across lectures,” and “I went over mistakes until I was certain I understood them.”  They were studying to learn not just to ace the test. [Emphasis Added]

Instead of losing their motivation when the course got dry or difficult, they said: “I maintained my interest in the material.” “I stayed positive about taking chemistry.” “I kept myself motivated to study.” Even if they thought the textbook was boring or the instructor was a stiff, they didn’t let their motivation evaporate. That just made it all the more important to motivate themselves.

The students who arrived at college with the growth mindset in this study had more than just better study habits than the fixed mindset students.  They had a belief in their own ability to learn that the other students lacked. Teachers have a great opportunity to challenge or support their students’ beliefs, and if those beliefs can sustain the students in their future challenges it would be worth our while to work towards shaping those beliefs appropriately. How likely is it that some of these students who decided that chemistry was “not their subject” were the kinds of people who were told, or told others, that they were or weren’t “good at math” at some point in their life.

Can Teacher’s Comments Really Make A Big Difference?

Another study described on page 71 of the book describes in more detail how students are affected by the things we adults around a learning task.  In this study students were given a set of questions from a standard IQ test. When they finished one group was told “That’s a really good score, you must be smart at this!”,  while another group heard “That’s a really good score.  You must have worked really hard!” One group’s ability was praised, while the other group’s effort was praised.  Mindset repeatedly makes the connection between making judgements on a person’s ability, and the fixed mindset as opposed to talking about someone’s effort.  What happened next?  The experimenter offered students the opportunity to try sets of harder problems.  The first group was less likely to try more problems, as they probably didn’t want to change their perception of themselves and their ability.  The second group was more likely to take more problems, looking forward to the chance to keep challenging themselves.  The feedback students received about their performance turned the task into an assessment of their ability, of who they are, instead of an assessment of their effort, of what they did that one time, and it changed the way students thought about doing more of the tasks in the future.

There was a stark difference that the groups of students in this experiment had towards the task they were learning. This experiment was done with hundreds of students in a clinical setting, where experimenters took care to treat students in both groups in a virtually identical manner.  The only consistent difference was whether students were told they were smart, or they had worked hard.   What is even crazier about this study, is that the differences extended beyond just whether they wanted to try more problems.  Of the students who took the more difficult problems, the first group was more likely to see their performance drop, to report that the problems weren’t fun, and to lie about their scores to other students afterwards.

OK, It’s Bad.  We Get It.  What Do We Do About It?

To avoid the negative effects of the fixed mindset, teachers can focus on the messages being sent to their class.  What messages are you sending your class. the same time, using the language of ‘ability’ instead of the language of ‘effort’ sends messages to all of your students about what it means to learn in your class and in your subject area.  It can be daunting just to think about how to create the right set of messages to keep kids from thinking in this way.

Here is one example from page 176 from one of Dweck’s students who was reflecting on his history in school:

I remember often being praised for my intelligence rather than my efforts, and slowly but surely I developed an aversion to difficult challenges.  Most surprisingly, this extended beyond academic and even athletic challenges to emotional challenges.  This was my greatest learning disability–this tendency to see performance as a reflection of character and, if I could not accomplish something right away, to avoid that task or treat it with contempt.

Sending messages about ability and intelligence is setting kids up for trouble.  If their successes come from their ability, their intelligence, and their character, what happens to all those things when they fail?

Instead, send messages about effort and hard work.  There may be some struggle from people, as a big part of the fixed mindset is believing that hard work is only for people who don’t have ability or lack intelligence.  This type of thinking sets up an “either-or” belief around work.  As Dweck describes on page 40: “…this is part of the fixed mindset.  Effort is for those who don’t have the ability… ‘If you have to work at something you must not be good at it.'”  I often argue a major purpose of math in all students’ course of study is so they can learn to expend effort on solving difficult problems. It follows that the fixed mindset might be behind all of those people who believe the message that they are “not good at math” when really they are doing work that is inherent to the field.

What Kinds Of Feedback Foster Growth Mindsets

In order to change the types of messages that students receive in the math classroom, there needs to be a change in the types of language that teachers use when giving students feedback.  There are a host of examples of positive student feedback on page 177 and on her website, and it is all centered around process and growth.  Praise them for “what they accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and good strategies.”  Here are some of her examples:

  • “That homework was so long and involved.  I really admire the way you concentrated and finished it.”
  • “You really studied for your test and your improvement shows it.  You read the material over several times, you outlined it, and you tested yourself on it.  It really worked!”
  • “I liked the effort you put in, but let’s work together some more and figure out what it is you don’t understand.”
  • “We all have different learning curve.  It may take more time for you to catch on to this and be comfortable with this material, but if you keep at it like this you will.”

What get’s tricky with the growth mindset is trying to pick a student up who is defeated.  If a student really falls short of expectations, it is hard to boost that students’ self esteem, but avoid giving them a growth mindset.  In an example from the book they talk about a girl who failed at her gymnastics meets, and five different ways parents could respond. Most approaches are angled at repairing the girl’s self esteem, but the fifth one focuses on giving the chlid the tools to grow from this experience.  Instead of saying something like “You’re still special, but the judges are stupid” the parent said this:

Elizabeth, I know how you feel.  It’s so disappointing to have your hopes up and to perform your best but not to win.  But you know, you haven’t really earned it yet.  There were many girls there who’ve been in gymnastics longer than you and who’ve worked a lot harder than you.  If this is something you really want, then it’s something you’ll really have to work for.

Perhaps a similar line of reasoning could be given to students struggle in math, but also students who think they are “good at math,” but struggle when it comes time to more difficult abstract topics like operations on fractions, working with variables, or trigonometric functions.  It would be good to communicate to students, and really the rest of the world, that “being ‘good at math’ means ‘consistently put forth your best effort towards new problems, not that things are always easy for you by innate ability.”  From this it would follow that if you are having you consistent troubles with the subject, you need to spend more time thinking through challenging problems.

Additional Resources

Educating students directly about growth mindset would be a great thing to try based on reading the book.  Dweck mentions materials for an online course called Brainology.  It’s certainly not free, but since you can get a class of 25 access to this website for $500, it could be had with a DonorsChoose grant.  There is also a $60 Educators kit, which is a bit pricey, but perhaps your school would want to add it to their educator’s library.  There is a ‘free resources‘ section that asks you to register with an email.  There are a bunch of mindset related online assessments you can use, and a bunch of useful documents (like this one).

What might be most helpful to figure out how to start would be to pick one thing and try it, and then share it with other educators who can learn from your approach.  Are you planning on implementing any of these Mindset ideas in your classroom this year?  What do you plan on doing?  Share your ideas in the comments.