My Strongest Start Yet: Teaching Growth Mindset

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A cartoon by one of my sophomore boys.

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. Continue reading

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The Theatricality of Teaching

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Teaching and acting have a great deal in common. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Students walk into a dim classroom.

“Thank you for being here today,” the teacher intones to the first student who arrives.

“Your presence here this morning would have meant a great deal to him,” he remarks somberly to the next student.

“I know this is a tough morning for you; he considered you a great friend,” he assures a third.

As students take their seats, bewildered, they notice the podium is draped in black, fake vines and a rose hanging from the top, flickering tea light candles arranged across the top of the lectern. Behind the podium, a drawing of a long-haired boy next to a soberingly terse epitaph helps the students make sense of this bizarre start to their second-period English class:

Simon
c. 1944-1954

This is the dramatic scene that greeted my sophomore students this week the day after I assigned them to read chapter nine of Lord of the Flies, the chapter in which the stranded boys of the novel, driven savage in their isolation from “civilized” society, “do in” ten-year-old Simon in a frenzy of mob violence.

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The Power of a Teacher Pep Talk

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Dead Poets SocietyFreedom WritersStand and Deliver. Chances are good that if you’re a teacher, you’ve seen at least one of these movies and had one of two reactions. You were likely either stirred and inspired by the teacher protagonist in the film who seemed to achieve the impossible in their fictionalized classroom, or you were frustrated by the impossible standards for teachers created by a film you felt had little connection to the realities of teaching.

In a recent New York Times article by education reporter Motoko Rich (which I highly recommend), Rich explores the strange dichotomy that exists in teacher-centric movies: every Hollywood depiction of teachers seems to represent them as either a hero/savior figure or as an incompetent clown (Mr. Schue on the Fox series Glee was alternatingly inspiring and incompetent). Rich suggests that “neither cliché has much connection to reality,” adding that, unlike the doctors in medical dramas or the lawyers in legal dramas who are actually depicted doing their jobs, “movies and television rarely show teachers, well, teaching.”

Teaching in Dead Poets Society, for example, is reduced almost entirely to a matter of charisma (although I would argue there are some small moments of pedagogical excellence in that film, too). Extended footage of a teacher doing what we generally think of as teaching–working with a small group, giving a brief lecture, conferencing with a student–is not a feature of teacher movies. While Rich’s article is a fascinating read and raises provocative questions about representations of teaching in film and television and their effects on public perception of education, it also got me thinking about the role of charisma in our profession. Continue reading