This year is my seventh as a teacher. I’m at the same high school, and while many things about my teaching and my teaching context have changed over those seven years, one thing has remained the same: no matter what other classes I’ve been assigned to teach, I have taught sophomore English every year.
Each year, I’ve made changes to my English 2 class. Early on, I re-arranged the curriculum to organize the year by a progression of writing genres, each paired with corresponding mentor texts. Later, I worked to add more performance tasks and authentic writing. Each year, I’ve swapped out at least one traditional text by a dead white man for one by someone of color, someone female, someone queer, and/or someone still living. My curriculum has come to better represent the United States, and my Southern California students.
I’ve learned to make better, more personal connections with my students by assigning personal writing assignments in the first days of school, sharing more about myself and teaching authentically, having more personal conversations with students on a daily basis, and greeting my kids at the door as their song requests play on the classroom overhead speakers. This year, I feel that the first month of school has been my most successful yet, and one component that has contributed to that success, I believe, has been a short, three-day mini-unit in the first week of school. The topic: growth mindset.
Growth mindset has received criticism in recent years and months because studies have failed to demonstrate consistent positive correlations between teaching kids about growth mindset and improved student outcomes. Carol Dweck, the Stanford professor behind the recent obsession with growth mindset in education circles, has suggested that one reason may be that adults have misunderstood her theory, misrepresented it to students, and misapplied it in educational contexts. I think there is something to that idea. Growth mindset is often reduced to catchy slogans, inspirational posters, and truisms that the only thing holding anyone back from success is their own mind. This is a misreading of Dweck’s theory, though, and perpetuates the myth of meritocracy by ignoring factors like systemic oppression, privilege, and inequitable practices in schools across the country.
Having helped my students to understand growth mindset for themselves, however, I am seeing some of the benefits Dweck promises in her explications of her research.
I began my three-day unit on the second day of school. After reviewing students’ questions about my syllabus, which includes grading policies that promote revision, risk-taking–in short, growth–I opened up to my students about my own struggles with self-doubt before assuring them all that in our class, growth, not perfection, would be our goal. Stealing a TEDx lesson from the amazing cartoonist and communications expert Graham Shaw, I taught my students how to draw cartoons. The message: anyone can draw with the right support, and after this school year, they’ll see that anyone can write or analyze a text, too. Students left class in good spirits with funny cartoons in their notebooks.
The next day, students read and annotated an article about growth and fixed mindset, giving them language to talk about the previous day’s cartooning lesson. As students read, I encouraged them to make personal connections in the margins. We follow this up with a TEDx Talk about “The Power of Belief.” Students completed a reflection before leaving class.
On day three, students shared their takeaways about growth mindset in small groups and shared out to the class. As an assessment of their learning, I assigned them to create comics that show the difference between growth and fixed mindset and the benefits of having a growth mindset. What a fun bonus it was to see students transfer their brand-new cartooning skills to this assessment!
Since this lesson, my students have embraced a growth mindset. I have seen more students asking to revise their work for a higher grade, more students volunteering to share their writing in draft form without shame, and fewer students giving up on or avoiding tasks. While this change is anecdotal rather than scientifically measured, and while not all of my students have embraced the growth mindset in practice, the change is noticeable. Mindset is not everything–but it sure is something.