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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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?

Got Character?

Cover of Today's New York Times Magazine

Today’s NYTimes Magazine is the Education Issue. Our Head of School forwarded one of the magazine’s featured articles to the faculty earlier this week: What if the Secret to Success is Failure? A Radical Re-thinking of how Students Should be Taught and Evaluated. It’s a thought provoking article, but if you’ve been following some of the changes in education over the past few years, it doesn’t seem all that radical.

Daniel Pink has explored zest, grit, and optimism in his work Drive along with empathy (social intelligence), play (curiosity) in his book A Whole New Mind.

Carol Dweck, in her book Mindsets discusses self-control as an important factor in developing growth mindsets.

Nel Noddings has been writing about the ethic of care for years.

I was able to catch a few of the TEDxLondon talks that were live-streamed this weekend, and there was definitely a call to spark curiosity in our students. Hopefully, the videos will air soon, but Ewan McIntosh posted the transcript of his talk about creating a generation of ‘problem finders’ on his blog. I encourage you to read his post.

Character Ed. isn’t new, but what I found compelling about the article was how they broke down the list of character traits into two categories ‘moral character’ and ‘performance character.’ I also liked how the article mentioned many of these character traits can backfire. “Too much grit…you start to lose your ability to have empathy for other people.”

I also liked the Head of Riverdale’s “philosophical issue with quantifying character.” It’s true that the last thing we need are people trying to game the system with test prep on character traits. Also, if too much of a certain trait can backfire, how would you measure what is best?

Another great question brought up in the article is: How do you teach these traits? I don’t know the answer, but it’s definitely one worth exploring. I know you can’t do it with carrots and sticks and you can’t do it simply by putting quotes around your school. You can start by modeling these traits (I’m 41 and I’m still learning how to grow some of these traits and moderate others), getting to know your students, and creating supportive relationships with their families. I suppose what’s radical is that more an more people and schools are thinking about these questions. It’s exciting to see some start to try new things.

I’m looking forward to hear what others at my school think, as our Mission and Values have both the moral and performance character traits we strive towards.

Connecting Through Storytelling

At the TEDxEastsidePrep event I attended last week, there was one speaker told a very compelling story. Marcus Brotherton is an author, journalist, and, according to his speaker profile, an adventure motorcyclist.

He began talking about an earlier experience where, due to certain circumstances, he had to share a house with a crotchety 72-year old WWII vet for a landlord. It wasn’t until years later, when he had an assignment interviewing other WWII vets for his research, that he began to understand and reflect on what his landlord had taught him and perhaps why the old man behaved the way he did. Brotherton began to learn about developing empathy. He asked this question: How does one teach taking yourself beyond one’s self? Brotherton listed three things to develop:

  1. Invite people to tell their stories.
  2. Imagine the world through other people’s eyes.
  3. Suspend judgement.
With many education leaders talking about the brewing change upon us, and the challenges that lie ahead if we don’t adapt, Brotherton reminded us of what I think is the most important element in education – the connection between a student and teacher (that teacher may be another student, a parent, or anyone willing to make that connection). Brotherton also demonstrated very well that storytelling is a very effective way to do this. Empathy is a 21st Century Skill. Our students need to develop it, and so do we. I’m still working on mine.
The TEDx event was driven by inquiry and asked the following essential questions:

What could education look like in the next 5-20 years? What paths must we follow to develop engaged citizens in a digitized age?

  • What assumptions about our current education systems no longer hold based on new capabilities, new insights and new developments in the fields of brain and behavioral research?
  • What essential attributes must remain in future incarnations of our education system to be successful?

I think we know which question this speaker addressed.

Meaningful Conversations

I am still digesting an incredible evening of ideas thoughtful discourse on public education from a diverse panel of advocates for public school and change at Seattle University (Part of their Conversations in Education series). Each made one articulate point after the other. While their views all differed slightly, they were all passionate, and there were clear common themes that came through. The panel included the following people: Chester Finn, Kati Haycock, Tyrone Howard, Reverend Al Sharpton, Denise Pope, and Nicholas Hanauer.

The discussion was moderated by Joseph W. Scott (professor of Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Washington – and husband of one of my favorite profs at Seattle U.) He first asked each member to answer this question: Name the top two things on your list that you think is preventing achievement in public education.

Kati Haycock began and mentioned that we do not demand enough of our students. She also said we need to act on what we know. We know early childhood education makes a difference. Chester Finn mentioned that the state standards are too low, at least the Common Core curriculum seems to be better, he suggested, but warned that it only exists in math and reading and then reminded us again that the curricula is week. Tyrone Howard and Al Sharpton talked about the “New Racisim” which is saying to a child of color or poverty, “I understand your situation, so you don’t need to care as much, nor do I.” We need to become more comfortable talking about race and how education is not serving a significant part of the population. Denise Pope also agreed that our standards were too low, but particularly on authentic real-life skills. She mentioned that now we have doctors, who have aced every standardized test imaginable who cannot diagnose something because it doesn’t look “exactly like it does in the textbook!” She said there’s serious disengagement in school and kids are not healthy (both mentally and physically) – basically, she said (and I’m paraphrasing because I didn’t record it), “The curriculum is extremely broad, but about an inch deep and kids cannot think for themselves, collaborate in healthy ways.” Nick Hanauer (whose children I have taught), talked about bureaucracy, politics, and the need to distribute money equitably.

They were then asked to name one remedy they thought would work. It basically came down to proper distribution of funds, and shave away layers of bureaucracy.

Kati said, you cannot teach from a textbook – you need people who know HOW to teach, and you need to talk honestly and act.

Chester said we need to look at governance and strip away layers and have more leadership at all levels – not something that is hierarchical.

Tyrone said, use data and get effective teachers on board, incentivize them to go out to needy areas, include parents in the discussion, identify teachers that aren’t doing their jobs, try to remediate, if that fails – they should choose another profession.

Denise really spoke to the need for a strong Social / Emotional curriculum, and that the work kids need to do should be authentic, like the work we do. How many timed tests have you done lately? It’s like if my boss gathered all of us and gave us a timed test and those who didn’t score above a certain amount were fired. Many kids face high stakes testing daily, and we’re sending the wrong message to them. She said, kids need to know the value of being wrong, receiving redemption and leraning from it.

Nick spoke about allocating funds strategically and equitably and supporting legislators that support education. He gave concrete examples, like supporting arts programs in schools, and subject specialists. He also talked about the need to support early childhood education and all day kindergarten programs in public education.

Rev Al said, to change the culture, we have to create the culture, and to do that we have to have active engagement.

Active community engagement was on everybody’s list.

That was just the first part of the evening. There were three, but I couldn’t possibly try to summarize it all in one post, so I’m going to leave it there for tonight. I went with four colleagues, and I know one more who went separately. I just wish we could have had more people there , parents, board members, other leaders. It was an incredible and inspiring evening full of people modeling what they believe, taking action, and engaging in meaningful conversation.

What Can One Little Person Do?

A couple of days before our spring break, our whole school went to Seward Park (a large Seattle park) as we had done for the past three years to steward a portion that we had committed to. Many teachers and I agree that it is one of our favorite days (even though this year it was very cold, muddy, and wet), as it brings the school together as a community to take responsibility in our civic duties. In the past, we had been charged of a few duties including the removal of invasive species, but this year there were no more to remove. I would definitely call that measurable progress. Our sole job was to plant and mulch trees for the future of the park. The kids enjoyed nature walks, outdoor games, and of course tree planting. Although, my favorite part of that day comes at the end, when the entire school forms a bucket brigade to deliver mulch from the main park road to the region of the park where trucks simply can’t get to. If you want a scene of a whole school working together with a common goal – the image of kindergarteners to fifth graders continuously handing each other buckets of mulch with teachers, administrators, and parents interspersed throughout that chain, is a very good example of one.

What I love about service learning is the ability for kids to see that one little person can indeed make an impact in the world (we had a coin drive for solar cookers in Chad earlier in the year – an idea from our fifth graders), or even in their own city. We also go to a local organization to help package food for those in need, not to mention the various ways kids help around their classroom and campus.

The planting of trees struck a chord with me as our Kinder and 2nd grade classes attended the Seattle Children’s Theatre’s production of The Man Who Planted Trees today. It’s a great story (albeit fabricated) about how one person can make a positive impact in the world. The Seattle Times was enchanted in their review. So was a parent in her parent review from Seattle’s Child magazine.

When we got back to class today, some children asked if were a true story, I read them the afterword to the book, which admits that its protagonist was in fact a work of fiction. I’m sure Oprah would have fun with this story. I also mentioned, however, that there are still plenty of examples of people who make a difference with the small but powerfully positive things they do. Jane Goodall, is one living example. Harriet Tubman another example from history. Then I then tried to link the play they attended to their own experience of planting trees a few weeks ago in the park as well as the recent planting they did in their school garden plot. I could physically see the bodies of many of the kids change taking pride in what they had done a few weeks ago.

Sometimes these coincidences just happen. This field trip was booked almost a year ago, with no idea what date we would get, whether the show would be any good, or how well it would tie in with our school’s theme of sustainability. While the story is magnificent, the book is a little dry for second graders. The Puppet State Theatre Company from Edinburgh that brought this production to Seattle, had the children hanging on every word. Aside being a wonderful piece of theater, being able to connect this story with the work the kids did a just before break was a really nice serendipitous teaching moment..

There’s a nice  service learning article  that appeared in the connected principals blog a couple of weeks ago that echo some of what I’ve said here.

Kids can have such a positive impact with the little things they do, I feel very lucky to be part of a school that gives them many opportunities to do so.

“Emotions are the Foundations of Reason”

“Emotions are the foundations of reason,” says David Brooks in today’s TED talk, “because they tell us what to value.”

Mr. Brooks is one of my favorite columnists in the NYTimes. Articulate and smart, this TED talk shows that he is also very funny. It’s fascinating that he spent three years culling research about our need as humans to be social. He admits, that emotions are not something he is known for, but in his research has found that “reading and educating your emotions is one of the central activities of wisdom.”

He sums up what many colleagues have been saying for years – that EQ is just as important as IQ, if not more. We do, however, have to be reflective about our biases. By nature, humans need to be social, but according to Brook’s research, it’s the quality of the social connection that matters, not just the superficial connection.

I keep seeing these terms, ‘mindsight’; ‘theory of mind’; ‘sympathy’; ‘group IQ’ (although Brooks says it’s less about IQ than the quality of connections among the group) in most of the books I’ve read over the past couple of years. Learning how to empathize and using one’s emotions to drive one’s reasoning are extremely important skills to grow.

Early in his talk, Brooks mentions what many of my colleagues and I have said: we can build a fancy school building (and we did), but it’s the connections we make and the values we share with each other, the parents, and kids that make a great school. I’m lucky as we’ve got that too.

It’s been an exceptional year of TED talks and I highly recommend this one. Will you take the 18 minutes to watch it?