The Language We Choose to Use with Students and Its Impact

Last week, as part of our parent speaker series, my school hosted Dr. McCurry. A clinical child psychologist, his talk was titled: The Anxiety Dance: A Parent’s Guide.  He spoke mainly about how we can either react or respond to behavior regardless of whether you were a parent or teacher. His talk provided us with several examples and strategies of how to help children who have anxiety whether or not it is clinically diagnosable.

A week before that, I attended part of Evergreen School’s speaker series’ presentation by Allison Master: Mindsets Revisited: Exploring the power of growth mindset and word choice in motivating children.

Every once in a while a book comes along that can be transformative. In terms of teaching, Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset was one of those for me. Master who has co-authored a few articles with Dweck, began with a quick introduction defining the two kinds of mindsets that have been researched, fixed and growth. The word “mindsets” is becoming overused and can describe a lot of things not related to Dweck’s theory, so if you’re unfamiliar with her work, search using the terms “fixed,” “growth,” and “mindset” and that should get you going in the right direction.

One of the most important things I’ve learned abo about helping students manage anxiety or fostering growth mindsets is the language we use with them. What we say as parents and educators can be so influential. The feedback we give can impact a child for years to come.

There’s a huge difference between saying to a child, “You’re a good drawer!” and “You put a lot of effort into that drawing.” The first places value on the ability. The latter places the value on the effort or process. Which one do you think privileges actual learning? The language we choose to use with our students influence mindsets profoundly. A healthy dose of anxiety is normal, but it too places value on the process rather than the event. You acknowledge the event and feelings with a timestamp, like, “I can right now that you’re frustrated…” Then give the child agency to make a decision to move away from a fixed idea of their frustration to one that will pass.

A great book our faculty is reading is called, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Minds by Peter Johnston. It cites Dweck’s work and goes on to show how powerful the language we use can affect the way children perceive themselves. He uses the terms “fixed” and “dynamic” to describe the way we think about ourselves. Basically, learning is something that we can change and knowing that our brains are plastic and adaptable is  important. When a child is having an, “I’m stupid,” moment, it’s imperative to help the child recognize that it’s just a moment, not a fixed idea. A child with a growth mindset is going to have less anxiety, learn throughout life, and develop resilience. As adults, it’s natural to want to rescue a child, but as an adult you have to know the difference between pushing a child out of the way of a speeding car and doing their homework for them.

Furthermore, both Master and Johnston show the evidence of how language influences social and moral agency. If we put a fixed label on ourselves, it becomes very different to find the value in others and develop the empathy needed to work with those with differing views.

This works for adults too. I can learn from my colleagues and they can learn from me, but only if we are willing to see that. The next time you’re giving feedback to a child (or a peer), instead of a simple, “Great Job!” be specific.  For example, “I really like the choice of words in this paragraph.” If you can’t think of anything specific right away, at least praise the effort. “Wow! I can see you put a lot of work into that!”

I haven’t read McCurry’s book yet, but I highly recommend the other two. They might just change a life.

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Are Tights for Girls or Boys?

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from AP images

Our fifth graders performed an excellent version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV today. It’s always impressive to see what students are capable of and how their teachers bring out the best in them.

When you think of Shakespeare, or at least look at the picture to the right, do you immediately conjure up images of masculinity? I don’t know if wearing tights, putting on make-up, or dressing in frills would be considered so today, but it certainly was a while ago. Even Marueen Dowd of the New York Times chimed in about masculinity in an opinion piece this past weekend.

Studies in gender differences, for many reasons can be quite controversial. These days, a lot is written and discussed about how best to teach boys or girls in schools. The more we learn about the brain, the more we are finding that there are measurable neurological differences between the genders. Many experts such as Dr. Larry Cahill who spoke to local teachers a few years ago have been working to understand these differences. Here’s a link to a 2005 Scientific American article Dr. Cahill wrote.

Some of the controversy lies in the potential to be sexist, to stereotype, and to forget that not all boys (nor their brains) are the same. Clearly, from looking at portraits of historical figures, the way we dress is influenced by society. What about the sports we enjoy or how we learn? I become wary when book titles generalize and make either/or statements or over-interpret results. As the information becomes more readily available, how it informs how we teach is incredibly important, however, we can’t just lump kids into one category or another. Each child is unique and the most important thing for an educator is to build a relationship with their student and learn how to serve each one best.

Recently, at edcampis, Rosetta Lee from the Seattle Girls’ School shared a great web tool called ‘gender remixer‘ that takes commercials of ‘boy’ toys and ‘girl’ toys and lets you mix the audio with the video. It’s actually quite fun (and disturbing).

Below is an example of one of the mash-ups. The question remains about gender differences: how much is neurological, and how much is environmental? 

How do You Learn Best?

I often like to think about how my students learn best, and I don’t believe there is one correct way. I personally learn a lot from the stand-and-deliver lecture format, from reading, from small group discussions, from doing, from writing, reflecting, and through collaboration. This was true for me this past week when I attended the National Association of Independent School’s Annual Conference and participated in edcampis. I learned many things in a wide variety of formats.

Some liken what we know about the brain and learning to what Galileo and his contemporaries knew about our solar system: significant, but in its infancy. Most experts claim that our brains are all wired differently.

My goal isn’t then to find the one best practice to teach students, but to learn and provide them with a variety of best practices, so that they can be empowered to learn about anything, anytime, anywhere, and in any format.

TED talks are a format that fascinate me. Some have argued that they are simply a modern secular version of a 20 minute sermon (delivered to most over the internet). While independent school folk were gathering in Seattle for the annual conference, this year’s annual TED talks were taking place in Long Beach, CA. The first two talks released were polar opposites of each other. One talk warned us about of our excess waste and the economic, environmental, and democratic catastrophes that are happening right now (the secular version of fire and brimstone). The other talk was full of optimism, hope, and abundance. I enjoy thinking about and grappling with this kind of discourse. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle and we all have biases that lean one way or the other. My bias in this case is towards optimism. As an educator, I believe it’s not only us, but our students that will have to solve many of these complex problems.

Boolean choices are often thrust in front of us:

  • You’re either with us or against us.
  • The best ideas happen in isolation or they happen through collaboration.
  • Phonics vs. Whole Language (if you’re old enough to remember that)
  • Boys play with guns. Girls play with dolls.
  • VHS or Beta
  • Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

The TED talk below explores and celebrates introversion, but acknowledges that there is a spectrum between introversion and extroversion. People that lie somewhere in the middle of this spectrum are called ambiverts (a term I had never heard before). Where on this spectrum do our students lie, and are we supporting both their current needs and providing opportunities for them to stretch and grow outside their comfort zone?

Doodling Improves Comprehension

I haven’t posted a TED talk in a while, but this one is great short one.

“Studies show that sketching and doodling improve our comprehension — and our creative thinking. So why do we still feel embarrassed when we’re caught doodling in a meeting? Sunni Brown says: Doodlers, unite! She makes the case for unlocking your brain via pad and pen.”

 

Great Article on Homework in the NYTimes

I almost missed this great article about homework in the NYTimes Sunday Review, but thanks to a parent who forwarded me this story, I had a chance to read it yesterday. I’ve always struggled on finding that balance in working within my school’s homework policy and making homework as meaningful as possible. My teaching partner and I are also looking at ways to have homework be more flexible (for those whose kids are suddenly inundated with extra-curricular activities depending on the season), and we want homework to encourage time together with families rather than a battle with some to get it done.

The article in the times stresses three main findings in looking at neuroscience, psychology, and education.

1. Spaced repetition

2. Retrieval practice

3. Interleaving (the article describes this really well)

Along with recent studies on motivation, we are going to try and incorporate these practices into our students’ home learning assignments. I’ll keep you posted on how things go.

Is Cursive Obsolete?

In the news this week, Indiana’s Department of Education announced that schools would no longer need to teach cursive penmanship in schools. They would, however, let schools decide for themselves. It’s part of the common-core curriculum to phase out cursive in favor of digital skills. I disagree.

According to the WSJ, which has a good piece on writing in cursive, it’s still an important and relevant skill. It’s even good for aging adults and helps with learning, memory, and ideation. Ironically, the article cites a study in favor of cursive writing from Indiana University.

There are several debates going on.

One is that teachers who do believe in cursive, have certain preferences as to what ‘style’ of cursive is being taught. Now that, to me, is simply a debate about aesthetic preferences. We do no write in the same script Thomas Jefferson did when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

The second debate is whether or not cursive writing itself is irrelevant. Some educators believe it should go the way of the dodo bird. Others, like me, believe it should be taught. I have no problems with children reverting back to printing later on.

For struggling writers, cursive allows them to be more fluent and thus lets their ideas flow on the page more readily. If you integrate penmanship with other literacy activities, the formation of letters really does make a difference in the way kids retain information. Even in a one-to-one laptop school, teachers ask children to write a lot by hand (journals, responses to prompts, note taking, etc.). My school is not a one-to-one school, and I don’t think it needs to be. Pre-K students do not need their own devices. The ‘worry’ about kids not being able to type is a silly one. I didn’t learn how to type until I was in college (yes, I know I didn’t need it in the era I grew up), but with a simple software tool, I taught myself and was typing about 90 words a minute in two weeks.

Sure, I barely use cursive now. Emails, these blog posts, report cards, texting, etc. are all part of today’s reality. And it depends on the situation. On my laptop, I’ll type. But even on my Ipad, I prefer using a stylus and taking notes by hand, even though my cursive (once beautiful) is barely legible.

Kids will drop cursive writing if they see its need go away , but that’s not the point. It’s what they’re learning simultaneously when engaged in learning cursive. Purposeful formation of letters has to have some intrinsic value, let alone stimulate all kinds of connections in the brain. When, for example, do we stop teaching kids how to tell time on an analog clock? Even though I haven’t worn a watch in the past 6 to 7 years, I hope the answer is never. If nothing else, reading dials is an important skill.

Will a simple handwritten note look like hieroglyphics to the next generation?

Play

 

Last week, I posted a TED talk about the importance of play. If you watched the talk, the speaker said we have an education “that values rote learning, memorization and standardization, and devalues self-expression, self-exploration,questioning, creativity and play.” Play is universal, promotes creativity, mastery, and purpose. Current research in neuroscience supports this. The New York Times reported last week that principals are finally re-evaluating homework. At work, play includes going out with coworkers for lunch, doing something you love, being autonomous, and not being a prisoner to a schedule. Some of those things are beyond most teachers’ control. Ask a teacher when was the last time she went out for lunch with a coworker (even on professional days, the trend seems to be that most teachers are working through lunch). I’m lucky, since I love my job (lunches and schedules aside). It allows for some autonomy and creativity, gives me a sense of purpose, and I get to laugh with the kids a lot.

Of course, teaching has the perk of summer break. So what I have done these first three days of summer break? Spent it at work. Something I’ve been meaning to do for the past 10 years is organize materials better and purge old stuff (belonging to previous teachers) that could be better used somewhere else. Well, I almost did it, but I feel good enough that I can leave the room alone until August. Now, I can go play. Before the ISTE conference that begins Sunday night in Philly, I will get to spend some time in NYC and do some of the other things I love: seeing a couple of shows, trying new places to eat, discovering new neighborhoods, and some art.

In the meantime, the ISTE conference is shaping up to be overwhelming. I’m trying to narrow down my choices and just to give you an example, here are my already pared down choices for the concurrent session number 5 on Monday (there are twelve – some are two hours long). Yes, I managed to narrow that one down to seven. Maybe since it’s a tech conference, I’ll use a randomizer app on my phone. I wish I were more decisive.

4:15-5:15pm

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Assessing Students Using Web 2.0 Tools [Concurrent Session; Lecture]
Location: PACC 107B
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4:15-5:15pm

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Integrating Digital Citizenship in a Web 2.0 World [Concurrent Session; Lecture]
Location: PACC 126A
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4:15-5:15pm

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A Leadership Framework and Instrument for Technology Innovation in Schools [Research Paper; Roundtable]
Location: PACC 105B, Table 3
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4:15-5:15pm

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Separating Truth from Fiction: Information Literacy for Elementary Students [Concurrent Session; Model Lesson]
Location: PACC 119A
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4:15-5:15pm

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Beyond Literacy to Information Fluency in the Age of InfoWhelm [Concurrent Session; Spotlight]
Location: PACC Grand Ballroom B
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4:15-5:15pm

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The Information Fluency Classroom in Action [Concurrent Session; Model Lesson]
Location: PACC 119B
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4:15-5:15pm

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Plan for Integrating 21st Century Skills in the Elementary Classroom [Research Paper; Roundtable]
Location: PACC 105B, Table 1

There are of course all kinds of other meetings in between, 3 keynotes, exhibits, demonstrations, people to meet, and for a fee, there are even evening workshops. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in a historical sight or two like Independence Hall, and write about some of the resources and learning I’m doing. As overwhelming as this conference appears, I’m very excited and can’t wait.