Category Archives: education

what’s your mindset on “mindset”?


[IMAGE CREDIT: Edutopia]

One of the most common refrains I’ve heard from my students over the years is, “I’m just not creative.” When I taught high school, I heard and I asked my students to write in any genre beyond the five-paragraph essay (which is indeed a secondary school genre in that very few writers write in it past graduation, even English majors). In fact, if I dared suggest that my students write FOUR or FIVE+ paragraphs, oh the gasps that ensued! Oh the wringing of hands!

As determined as I was as a teacher to coax students out of their fixed mindsets as writers so that they could grow creatively, I have a confession to make: when I’m asked to move beyond a fixed mindset as a writer, I feel aghast sometimes, too.

I’ve been earning part of my living as a writer for “five-ever,” as my daughter would say, and though I definitely have my dark days, I’m pretty confident in claiming that identity once-and-for-all. In that respect, I’d say I have “fixed mindset” that yes, indeed, I am a writer. So that’s where my quibble with Dweck’s thinking about mindsets in dichotomous terms comes in. Rather, I see fixed and growth mindsets as related in potentially positive way.

When a fixed mindset is tied to an actionable identity, I believe it can be generative. That is, actually seeing myself as a writer is what propels me to engage in and grow through writing.

At the same time, when I dabble in varied genres and write for audiences beyond academia, I inevitably have to activate a growth mindset. I have to start over in a sense, but I can always come back to that anchor identity, that fixed mindset that I am a writer, just one who’s always stretching and growing. I ‘m not gonna lie, as with my high school students, there’s always some gasping and wringing of hands when I transition into a growth mindset, but it’s the fixed mindset that gets me through said grasping and wringing to the other side.

Thus I don’t see fixed and growth mindsets as either-or’s; I see them in potentially generative tension with one another.

I’m not the only one with a quibble about Dweck’s ideas. See, for instance, Alfie Kohn’s critique about buying the “mindset” mindset hook, line, and sinker, and then take a look at this critique of Kohn’s critique by whip-smart writer/gifted teacher/former student/luminous human being Jaime Wood. (Jaime’s piece is on a terrific site called Bark, which you’re going to want to start following right now, immediately. Just read this for starters.)

I think Jaime gets it right when she points out that an inordinate focus on the individual, which the notion of “mindset” (understood singularly) implies, ignores that the individual always exists in a sociocultural context of “family, teachers, economics, societal expectations, and a range of other factors beyond ourselves to contribute to our success.” In that case, “the notion that personal responsibility is the only condition that matters for success, or the most important one, is just plain false.”

Jaime’s conclusion: “growth mindset isn’t really the problem. The problem is that we have to understand the complex system in which this new strategy will take place and how other issues like forming positive relationships between students and teachers will have a substantial effect on whether a growth mindset will work.”

What she said.

in spite of / because of / on behalf of


I made the mistake of checking CNN at lunch and spoiled my appetite. I’m not exaggerating when I say that my worst fears for public education were just confirmed today by Betsy’s DeVos’s confirmation. I’d be lying if I said I was shocked, but somewhere between disappointed and devastated sounds about right.

And for about the hundredth time in the past few weeks, I thought, “What now? What’s next?”

Ironically, I had another tab open on my laptop while I was reading the news. It was this blog post by Parker Palmer on Krista Tippett’s fantastic website On Being. Palmer was writing on an unrelated topic, but as usual, his words had profound relevance for the moment. Here’s what he had to say:

“…you may be asking the vexing question, ‘What can I do?’ For me, the answer begins within, then moves out into the world.

…Here’s where many of us get stuck, thinking of how little power we possess compared to the enormity of our nation’s problems. So let’s listen to the wisdom of writer and activist Wendell Berry who reminds us that, when it comes to big problems, there’s never been one big answer, only a million-million little ones.

If you believe that the little thing you’re doing can’t possibly make a big-picture difference, remember Berry’s words:

‘We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do?’”

Well, at the moment, I don’t really know what to do. So in the absence of that, I just invented a heuristic to ground my thinking. I’m calling it “IN SPITE OF / ON BEHALF OF / BECAUSE OF.”  Here’s how it worked for me:

IN SPITE OF Betsy Devos’s confirmation, I will keep working…

ON BEHALF OF public education…

BECAUSE OF my belief that the world will become more just and peaceful only if all children have an equal opportunity to thrive and grow.

At the moment, I still don’t know what to do exactly, but I’m hoping this statement can be a starting place that will allow me to follow Parker Palmer’s advice to “[begin] within, and then [move] out into the world.

If you try the heuristic for yourself, will you let me know how it worked for you? I’d love to hear your statements and feel inspired.

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touchstone moments


In CO301D today, we’re thinking back to our touchstones–that is, those moments in our schooling that have stuck with us as writers/readers/thinkers/human beings. This video, “Some Study That I Used to Know,” makes it clear that touchstone moments for students and teachers don’t always intersect. But when they do, what are those moments like, and what conditions have to be in place to made them possible?

Although my memory has grown faultier with age, my memories of school remain fresh, way way back (like kindergarten back). I admit that these memories aren’t always positive, but many have been or I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today, trying to support my students in becoming teachers themselves.

I’ve written about several of those moments here and here, for instance, so I’ll just touch on a few here. (See what I did there? Touch on my touchstones?) I think especially about my Senior English teacher, Mr. Ford, whose class started with writing every day. I loved that silent, hallowed space where I could be alone with my thoughts and get them down on paper. I think about Mr. Hougardy, my middle school science teacher, who trusted me to walk down to the library by myself so that I could find more research on lichens for my science fair project. I think about presenting that at the state science fair and what it felt like to earn a ribbon for my thinking. I’ve never looked at lichens the same way, especially since even then in 7th grade, I started thinking about carbon emissions caused by our local energy plant and how those were affecting not just lichens, but our environment and what would happen as a result. (Mr. Hougardy was right about climate change.) I think about Dr. Flanagan’s class where I learned how to plan a unit and was surprised by the latest research on why grammar doesn’t make a positive difference in student writing. (Also still true.)

So what were the common denominators that led to those touchstones? Clearly, teachers who trusted me as a learner to be curious and thoughtful and surprised, who helped me persistent in pressing through questions I didn’t understand and to explore those on paper and through research–my own and other experts’.

I think about how they valued every students’ ideas, even the ones who didn’t speak up often, like Marlon Gabriel, the cowboy who wrote a beautiful poem about a spider’s web that still makes me look closely every time I see one. Those teachers encouraged us to share our writing and our ideas with our peers and with others outside the classroom. They took us seriously as writers, scientists, and future teachers.

And they made me want to do that for others. So here I am.

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