I’ve been thinking a lot about a student, whom I’ll call Alberto. I always felt like I failed him as a teacher when it came to improving his writing. Every essay I assigned was returned with, at maximum, a paragraph or so. He shrugged when I conferred with him. Organizers, scaffolds, etc. were returned blank.
Another student, whom I’ll call Andrea, was different. She was still learning English- she had, in fact, only been in the US a couple years- and her first essays were short and confusing to the reader. But she quickly tried out scaffolds like organizers and academic language frames, and over time her writing became more developed and clear. Most of all, she gained confidence in her own writing abilities. At the end of the year, she told me she was sure she would pass the state mandated test.
At the time, it was hard to figure out the difference between the two students. On the surface, Alberto, who was a native English speaker and did well in his other classes, should have done better on his essays than Andrea. I started to get a hint at where the difficulty might lie when we did a short project on growth mindset. Growth mindset is the belief that you can learn and improve with effort and hard work, and research has shown it is central to student success in the face of academic challenge. Alberto told me that he just didn’t think that you could overcome certain difficulties. I tried to explain that yes, we might start at different points based on genetics, etc., but what was important was what we did next- did we believe we could grow our skills from that starting point? That didn’t seem to be enough to challenge his fixed mindset around writing, however- as evidenced by the way he threw his hands up when faced with the difficulty of writing an essay. In fact, I should probably revise my initial statement about my feeling of failure in regard to helping Alberto improve his writing, and say I feel like I failed to find a way to challenge his fixed mindset- to see if I could help him shift it, at least a little.
I think another way to conceive of growth mindset is to think about it as having hope. Brené Brown says that, “Hope is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities.” What pains me when I remember those writing conferences with Alberto is the pervasive sense of hopelessness I felt from him. It’s all too common for students to feel helpless when faced with difficult writing and reading tasks. So how can we help? The Brené Brown quote gives us a roadmap:
- Help students set goals
- Help students with the determination needed to achieve those goals
- Help students believe in themselves
What does that mean in practice?
1) Help students set goals
In “Reading Time With Goals in Mind,” Jennifer Serravallo argues that in order to make Sustained Silent Reading more motivational and purposeful, teachers should set assessment based, purposeful goals with students- the kinds of goals that will make the most difference in students’ reading and motivation. I think we can take a similar tack for writing and other reading endeavors as well- taking the time to set purposeful goals with students before embarking on more substantial literacy oriented tasks such as writing essays.
2) Help students with the determination needed to achieve those goals
Research indicates that simply setting goals isn’t enough. One thing that does seem to work is setting a goal, visualizing obstacles to overcoming that goal, and then planning how to overcome that goal (for more, plus a simple acronym to remember the process, see WOOP– or Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan).
3) Help students believe in themselves
This is a really tough one. But one thing I wish I’d done more of is what I like to call “catching kids growing.” Sometimes students have trouble seeing their own growth, but if we can highlight and name it for them, it may challenge their understanding of themselves and their abilities.
I think that the scaffolding I provided, plus the individual experiences she brought to the table, may have helped Andrea have hope, even if some if it was inadvertent on my part. I provided models of essays and academic language frames, which may have helped Andrea create her own goals around writing. Some of the simple scaffolding activities we did, such as printing out essays, using colorful paper strips to add additional evidence and analysis, and then reflecting on how the addition of evidence improved the initial writing, may have helped her see her own growth in action. This may have fueled her perseverance in her next writing assignment.
That same scaffolding, however, wasn’t sufficient to support Alberto in shifting his mindset, even a little. I wish I’d tried some additional, more explicit, hope-oriented scaffolds with him. We could have:
- Set a meaningful goal together each time he wrote. Maybe we could have set a goal of including three more pieces of textual evidence than he did the time before, for example.
- We could have had an honest discussion about the obstacles he felt when writing and created a concrete plan for how he might overcome them. Did he feel discouraged and exhausted after tackling a paragraph? Perhaps he could check in with a teammate and talk through the next paragraph before writing it down.
- We could have checked in more frequently on the achievement of his goals and I could have tried to catch him in a moment of growth, no matter how small, with each check-in. Did he add an additional piece of evidence? Fantastic- I could have noted it.
It’s not an easy feat to for anyone to change his or her own mindset around a demanding academic activity or topic. But there are some things teachers can try that might help students challenge their own beliefs about themselves and their abilities and feel a little more hope and confidence when tackling academic obstacles.