Our growth mindset discussions with my third graders have allowed me to look at my own mindset. I’ve realized that in a lot of areas of my life I have a fixed mindset. In my professional life, I keep noticing these fixations I have on certain ideas about students, parents and other teachers.
The first and most damaging fixed mindset that I realized that I and a lot of other teachers around me have about our students started being clear to me. I started to realize how negatively some teachers, and admittedly myself, think about teaching and specific students. It is hard not to join in on the complaining conversations that I can so easily relate to with my fellow teachers. Yet, the negative thoughts I realize are just poisoning my mood even more. I’ve started to remove myself from situations I’ve been in with other teachers talking about students who are “trouble makers” or “stupid.” I have started to realize that I may not verbally say these things about my students, but sometimes I have a subconscious thought about certain students based on their behavior, past assessments or what I have heard or seen them display. This is unfair for students because what I have realized is that I need to put more trust in what all my students can do. I have to let go of prior or subconscious ideas and give all students a chance.
At my current school, which includes many gifted, high-performing students, this fixed mindset that teachers have are not allowing the high-performing students to challenge themselves to their highest potential. This is the population that is not making growth according to county wide data. These students may be able to work at grade level and ace every test, so the teachers think that they are OK. They are the students who we “don’t need to worry about.” But this is the wrong mindset! If we want them to grow their brain and have their own growth mindset that will allow them to be successful for the future, it is our duty to challenge them.
In my first third grade position, I was at a Title 1 school that was consistently low performing. I did not have many students that were on grade level, and I became an expert in guided reading and small group instruction. I learned a lot those two years, and was differentiated for my population of students and gave them what they needed. I continued these same practices in my current school. Many students are benefiting from this small group leveled book instruction. I love this differentiated setting during Daily 5 rotations, because students are independently working on what they need while I am allowed to meet the needs of groups of students. What I have realized, is that my highest performing group really does not need to be working with leveled text. These students are reading level Q complex chapter books and should be taught how to read purposefully through these texts. In my class this year, I have a group of especially high performing students who can read, write and analyze text much above grade level. I have been pulling more difficult text for them, but still feel like our discussions are not reaching the highest critical thinking level that they can achieve. I want them to be challenged, struggle and be self-motivated to learn like I see some of my other students do in my reading groups. This past week, I met with this group and chose a complicated fable specifically for them. This was a short story, yet it had very complicated vocabulary and a complex lesson. I started with my planned questions:
How did the Ant and the Dove change in the story? What did the characters learn?
What was the Doves’s motivation for doing what he did at the beginning of the fable? (Helping the ant who was drowning in the lake, without anyone telling him, because he was a selfless and thoughtful character)
What was the Ant’s motivation for doing what he did at the end of the fable? (Because the Dove helped him, he wanted to also help the Dove when the hunter was trying to capture her. He did this because the Dove had helped him and he wanted to return the favor)
We analyzed the character’s feeling, traits, actions and motivations. We explained the elements in the fable that we are familiar with by this point in our unit. Students were spot on with their responses. In the moment, I scrapped the written response question I had for them:
What was the life lesson of this fable? Give details from the text to support this lesson. (good deeds will be rewarded and are their own reward)
The group already demonstrated this understanding and have evaluated this answer in their verbal responses. On the spot, I thought: how can I get these students to use their analysis of the characters, use that information to create a lesson and then extend and evaluate that learning to create and connect that information into something new. I decided to start with a conversation:
How could we use this lesson the Dove learned (good deeds will be rewarded) in our own life?
Students shared how they could help others, or shared times that others helped them and they wanted to help them back. I then created the written response assignment:
Choose either the Dove or the Ant. Make that character into a third grader at recess today with you and your friends. Create a story just like this, and show what you think that character would do in that situation based on their traits and motivations. Demonstrate the same lesson learned but with different events that are real to your own life.
Students were more excited than I have ever seen them to respond to this question. I did have a boy in this group who struggles in written mechanics who started right away. I was so excited with the results I got. One of my girls wrote a story about how the Dove character (her friend “Dawn”) stood up to a bully who was being mean to their other friend, and in return she was invited to her birthday party that weekend and made a new group of friends. This may seem like a silly story, but it was really well-written and showed a higher order skills in analyzing the character and synthesis something new. Another student told a story about a soccer game at recess where the Ant character (Archie) helped him up after he fell at recess. Later, Archie fell off the monkey bars, and he rushed to his rescue and walked him in to the nurse to get ice. These stories were better than any bland response I have gotten from my previous writing assignment, and it was fun for the students and truly showed me that they understood the fable.
My previous fixed mindset may have not thought that my students could handle this assignment. This success has showed me how choice, creative thinking and just letting go and letting my students show me their thinking in different ways is a great way to assess their understanding.