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.

How Can Kids Take Risks in a “Safe” Environment?

I’ve been guilty of telling parents of students in my class that we have a safe classroom environment where we encourage students to take risks. I’ve come to realize that risk and safety are are really oxymorons. What I mean to say when I use the word risk is that kids will try a lot of new things. They will get many of them wrong and fail, but when they succeed, the grit and resilience it took to get them there, will fuel them on to learn more.

In our traditional industrial age world, risk was not seen as something for the general public. Trying something new on an assembly line could mean getting fired. Many of these hierarchical structures exist, and schools are no exception. Because of this, teachers have to be fairly calculated when going out on a limb. Within our values statement at my school, we have the following:

Resourcefulness: We foster resilience and expect all to search and find, to fail and learn, to risk and succeed in a changing world.

It think it’s beautifully written, however, if we hold these values for our students, certainly we must hold these values for our teachers and other community members. Due to structures of schools (remnants of the 19th and 20th centuries), risks can be very costly.

Recently, Seattle teachers were suspended for boycotting a particular test. We teach our children to stand up, not to be bystanders, engage in politics and democracy, yet when teachers model these very things, the consequences can sometimes seem harsh. I guess it wouldn’t be that risky otherwise.

Before the NAIS conference, a colleague in California raised many questions about the NAIS’s boards decision on the new president-elect, John Chubb. While I am sure the board’s intentions are good, the announcement was a surprise. The letter, though written respectfully, asked hard and important questions. Yet, from what I heard at the conference, he was scolded for raising those questions.

Again I ask, don’t we want our students to be inquisitive, challenge the status quo, engage in the process (which can be amplified through social media), and think critically?

One of the reasons for academic tenure is so intellectuals can have debates and build support for those ideas publicly. They may end up being wrong, but at least they won’t be fired for it.

I’ve been known to ‘go rogue’  and ‘fight windmills’ but I’ve also been supported and guided as to how I might balance those things. Still, in a school with no tenure, challenging the status quo with a simple question, “why?” requires risk.

At the NAIS conference, there were calls to be revolutionaries, visionaries, rogues, vanguards, pioneers, mavericks, and change agents. Most of those kinds teachers were already at that conference. We were told to change paradigms and forge ahead.

Most other teachers, however, just want to love their kids and become excellent teachers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I met a first grade teacher who was only in her second year of teaching and was overwhelmed with the conference. “They’re asking me to be all those things, be culturally competent, employ project-based learning and design thinking, integrate sustainability in the classroom, use technology in ways I never thought possible, create a global teaching network, and that’s not even including just teaching 1st grade.

My advice to her, was that when I first started teaching almost two decades ago, all these things were foreign to me too. All she needed to do was think of her students first, know where to find support when she needed it, asked questions (lots of them), carry on when things don’t seem to be going well, and always be open to and willing to learn something. If she could do these things, she would find this career an incredibly rewarding one.

I’m not a big fan of words like revolutionary. They bring up different connotations depending on who you ask. George Washington was a revolutionary; so was Hugo Chavez.

How Do You Measure Success?

The London Olympic games are coming to a close, and I’ve noticed a few themes/issues throughout the games that seem to spill into the realm of education: 1) How do we measure success? 2) In 20 years, other sites may push twitter or Facebook aside, but I’m pretty confident social media is here to stay. How do we promote digital citizenry and prepare kids to use these tools productively and? 3) Privilege and equity – does every country have a fair shot at a sailing or equestrian medal? Does every child have access to a good education? 4) Standards: what are the standards for commentary on the Olympics? I know very little about gymnastics, but I don’t need someone to point out that a fall off an apparatus is not a good thing. Did the opening ceremony need a play-by-play? Can you imagine giving students the answers rather than providing opportunities to grapple with, discover, and construct their own knowledge? There are many more themes that have emerged from these games, but the first one I mentioned resonates with me the most. How do we measure our own success and the success of our students?

After Michael Phelp’s fourth place finish at his first event, the USA Today had a story titled: “Sluggish Michael Phelps is not swimmer we expected in London.” Since his first event, Phelps has become the most decorated Olympian in history, but I guess if you look just at the one fourth place finish, sluggish it must have been.

Why is it that some athletes cry for joy after winning a silver and other athletes are visibly disappointment, often with tears in their eyes for winning a silver medal.

The most emailed article in the New York Times over the past three days has been one titled: Raising Successful Children. It’s a parenting article about the importance of not over-parenting and allowing children to make mistakes and build resiliency on their way to success and confidence.

I’m not a parent, but I completely agree with the statement, “HANGING back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting.” It’s a challenge of teaching as well. Not all failures are equal. They need to be ones that lead to growth. So what kind of mistakes should parents and teachers let kids make?

“In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.”

Perhaps being called ‘sluggish’ and then coming back to win 4 gold and 2 silver medals can qualify as a good measure of success.

I just came back from a great three day summer planning inservice with my colleagues where we spent a lot of time looking at and practicing how we assess and give feedback to our students and to each other. I wish us all a successful school year that can be measured by the risks we take ourselves in that gray area just beyond the comfortable and by the resilience we develop in our students. 

 

Are Disruptive Questions Necessary for Innovation?

“I don’t really see any innovative teaching around here.” That was something a parent said four years ago during a meeting regarding our school’s mission. Given that our school’s mission statement begins with, “Through innovative teaching…,” the comment made by that parent stuck with me, and innovation in education has been one of the areas that has become an interest of mine. I keep reading and hearing about the necessity of schools to change. Not just in terms big reform movements that we’re seeing across the nation, but in terms of fundamentally changing the way we teach to adapt to the way children learn today. Yet, the culture of schools is so deep – from the expectations of parents to the way we teach; from the way policies are set to the way schools are run – there is so much resistance to change. So often books are read and conferences are attended by teachers and school leaders, they come back excited and say, “…yeah I got some great nuggets out of that. I can’t wait to share them.” The new ideas are usually shared briefly if at all, and then everyone returns to the way things used to be done.

I just finished reading  The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators by Dyer, Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen (author of Disrupting Class). 

The book’s introduction claims that “a recent IBM poll of fifteen hundred CEOs identified creativity as the number-one ‘leadership competency’ of the future.”

The book emphasizes that to innovate, it requires courage. First, courage to challenge the status quo, and second, courage to take risks. It also states that innovators “have a passion for inquiry.” They are always asking questions. Asking why once isn’t enough. Continuing to probe until a novel (usually efficient and well-designed) solution emerges is what innovators do. Asking insightful ‘what if’ questions is just as important.

This book’s main claim is that innovation is not genetic. It can be developed. If so, how do we develop these in our students (challenging every child to be courageous and curious are part of my school’s mission). If most of the stakeholders in a child’s education aren’t developing these innovation skills themselves, then what chance do our students have? Without going into too much detail, the 5 skills according to this book are:

  1. Associating
  2. Questioning
  3. Observing
  4. Networking
  5. Experimenting

I’ve heard from educational leaders and teachers from schools of all shapes and sizes that school culture is deep, and those who have challenge the status quo continue face an uphill climb. Most prefer to do what they’ve always done. I’m glad I work with colleagues that continue to ask good questions and have the courage to ask why. In the end it’s best for our students.

My favorite quote comes from the chapter on experimenting.

” I haven’t failed…I’ve just found 10,000 ways that do not work.”

— Thomas Edison

I asked earlier in this post about how to develop these skills in students. In a couple of week’s, Tony Wagner has a new book that comes out: Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. I can’t wait.


Continuing to Learn

“When it feels like your brain hurts, you know you’re learning,” is something I say to my students from time to time.

I want to reflect and immediately share more on NAISAC12 and EdCampIS, but honestly, my brain is hurting a little bit. I have learned an immense amount and met so many incredibly passionate educators that I think I simply need some time to take it all in and process what I’ve learned.

For now, I couldn’t be happier with the success and energy of EdCampIS which wouldn’t have been possible with all of the participants, many of whom spent an extra day in Seattle to make this happen.

Thanks to one of my colleagues who helped organize the event, Jac de Haan, you can get a quick summary of the day through photos and quotes by checking out the main page of the edcampis website.

What is a Tweet-Up?

I just got back from a ‘tweet-up’ tonight at the Pike Pub & Brewery. It was an interesting concept of gathering folks who use twitter to share and learn from each other. Many thanks to Greg Bamford for organizing this event tonight. I still consider myself a neophyte when it comes to twitter, but in the year that I started, I’ve met incredible people, had new opportunities, and learned a lot.


When I say that I’ve met people – I mean physically. And tonight was another opportunity to turn my virtual learning network into a more personal one. Using twitter, you often see a small thumbnail of someone’s face, but meeting them in person is so much better.

The only downside is that they live in Illinois, Arizona, North Carolina, and other states.

Where is the school with educators that are this engaged in leading the change efforts? I couldn’t help but think, wouldn’t it be great to have a school with all these educators working in the same place? I’m not ready to start my own school, but I’m ready to dream.

And if you think twitter is for the young, you are completely wrong. Twitter is for all ages and is simply a mindset. Sign up and try it for 21 days. I promise you, you will learn something.

Who Chooses What We Teach?

Another good ‘Room for Debate’ page in the NYTimes appeared again this week. This time the question is: Should Parents Control What Kids Learn at School?

My initial response would be that parents should know their child, how they learn best, what their strengths and challenges are, and work with the teachers in the development of the curriculum. Whatever it is that kids learn in school, there are basic fundamentals that children should learn like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Teachers and parents can certainly agree on those. What it is they read, however, may be up for debate. Social/emotional learning is very important too. I wonder, for example, if the social/emotional learning of the Italian captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia had more to with the tragedy than the engineering and ship operational training he received.

I think the most important part in this debate is that all stakeholders start first by agreeing on what fundamentals ought to be taught in schools. For early primary, the academics are obvious, but the delivery and pedagogical methods may not be. Minor philosophies on homework, etc. will always exist, but the overall goals are similar. For example, regardless when people think the correct age may be, they can all agree that kids should be able to read.

Customizing the curriculum has always been how I’ve worked (public, parochial, or private). Every year the range of abilities changes with a new set of students, so why wouldn’t you adapt your curriculum to those different needs. With the new law in New Hampshire (which I haven’t read), it seems like what bothers most is that parents can make any demands on the content. I’ve never had any issues with any parents. Even with ideological or religious differences. I can think of one family years ago, who for their own religious reasons, did not want to participate in Halloween activities at school. While the school respected that family’s ideas and suggested alternatives and modifications, Halloween would still be celebrated at school.

I think it becomes a problem when parents have a different mindset than you about what is age-appropriate content, or if the content seems too ideologically radical for some. In elementary school, it’s possible to see how a simple biography project might go awry if a parent disagreed with the teacher on whether a child’s choice were appropriate. Is a biography about Anne Frank is suitable for an eight-year old? While the biography may be, some of the events surrounding it may be considered too much for a second grader. This actually happened with a student of mine last year. She chose Anne Frank after perusing the biography section in the school library. I was just as tentative as her mother in her choice, but we both agreed that she was a child who was ready to read about those horrific events. Both me and her parents just wanted what was best for her. It would have been different if it were a different child which is why knowing your students (and their families) is so important.  If we are supposed to welcome diversity and embrace its benefits, than we cannot just go with the status quo, and we have to listen to everyone.

Will some abuse a law like New Hampshire’s? I’m sure some will try. Every once in a while, there will be a battle between the over-entitled parent and the extremely inflexible and obdurate teacher, and that is unfortunate. Like so many other things, there is often so much we have in common. A lot that we can come together and work with. If we start where our ideas and values overlap and recognize our differences as strengths to enhance those ideas and values, there is so much we can achieve.

Can an atheist enjoy Christmas carols and Islamic art?

Can someone who’s gay be a Republican?

Can someone working at Microsoft like the iPhone?

Can an epicure eat cereal for dinner one night and love it?

Of course they can, but too often lines are drawn in the sand instead of bridges being built.    Rather than objecting to the curriculum, as one of the writers in the opinion page mentions, parents should use those areas as teachable moments. Teachers should too. I remember a child years ago asking me about the existence of Santa Clause. He just couldn’t see the plausibility of it all. I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to break the news to an 8-year old. What I told him was to think critically about it (I’m sure I used different words) and make that decision for himself. I didn’t defer it to his parents nor did I subject him to my thoughts. That was an example where he could make up his own mind. He could grapple with his own dilemma and reach his own conclusions.

Currently, I’m teaching a unit on penguins. What would be objectionable is if a parent insisted that I teach about emus and ostriches instead. There’s no reason why I couldn’t, but there’s no reason why I should either. A follow up question to this debate on whether parents should control what kids learn at school is if teachers can control what their students do at home?