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I heard a story today and I think it’s worth sharing.  Here’s my attempt at retelling it:

Quick Background before we begin:  The original teller is an accomplished swimmer, works as a lifeguard, and teaches swim lessons at a local pool.  He’s a thoughtful and kind 16 years old.  He can  be a bit distracted at times and he is incredibly curious.  We’ll call him Andy today.

Andy was having a rough day.  He’s been having a few rough days lately, but this one was special.

The other day at the pool there’d been a “fecal incident” with one of the younger kids, so they had to push up the chlorine level in the pool to a ph value somewhere near 13 in order to prevent people from getting sick.  The chemicals made his eyes so red that when he got home his mom accused him of being high.  Add to that his children’s year-old swimming class in which every single student seemed out to get him by complaining, trying to swim away, and generally not listening to him.  (A multi-hour block with six 8-10 year-olds in a swimming pool would probably get to anyone even on a good day.)  Beyond all this work related difficulty Andy has been having some issues in his personal life that are just plain frustrating.

With all of that working in concert against him Andy finished his swimming class frustrated, tired, and generally just feeling down to the point where he just zoned out in the locker room lost in his own head.  In walks Paul.  Paul is a disabled kid (somewhere around 12 years old.  Maybe he’s autistic, maybe he has downs syndrome.  Andy isn’t quite sure) and he’s pretty regularly around the pool.  Andy knows him, but doesn’t usually have much to say to Paul.

“Hi Andy.  Do you like Angry Birds?”

“What?  Oh, hi Paul.  Umm… I guess so…”  Andy pretty deep in his own head and tried to ignore Paul, but Paul wouldn’t have it.

They talked about Angry Birds for a bit.  Maybe a minute or two, but no more than five minutes.  Paul was clearly pretty excited about the game and happy to have someone to talk to.  Andy was kind of half talking and half still in his own head.

Andy interrupted with, “Hey Paul? … Are you happy?”  Now Andy meant: is Paul happy in general.  Is he a happy person?  Andy wasn’t quite sure if Paul understood the nuance, or if Paul thought Andy was asking if he was happy in that moment.

Regardless of Paul’s interpretation he immediately and emphatically answered: “of course!  You’re awesome Andy!” and then Paul left as inexplicably as he’d entered.

I asked Andy what he thought about the interaction and he broke into a huge grin.  He said that Paul’s affirmation of Andy’s awesomeness turned his day around and he started to feel better.  He was happy that he didn’t just blow Paul off, which would have been pretty easy to do.

I then asked him if he thought he had any impact on Paul.  He didn’t really think so.  He’d just talked about Angry Birds for a second.  It’s not like he’d gone out of his way.

That’s when I told him the story of Renata, and how a simple note I’d written had a larger impact on her life than I’d expected.  Andy didn’t think much of it at first, but Paul really meant it when he told Andy he was awesome.  Having worked with many people with a range of developmental disabilities, I can tell you that most of the time people don’t take a moment and talk about Angry Birds.  I would conjecture that most of the time, people hear Paul say something unexpected and either ignore him, blow him off, or (hopefully not, but I try to be realistic) tease him for it.

Andy did a very simple thing.  He treated Paul like a regular human being and took his question at face value.  Two minutes talking about Angry Birds was all the effort required.  That’s all it took to brighten the days of two people.  It made me think of how I treat the more socially awkward students I have.  The students who, at the wrong time, say unexpected things.

Do I blow them off when they say these things, or do I take the time to honor their ideas and treat them like a human being?  I’d like to think that I honor them more often than I blow them off, I don’t have any evidence.  Moving forward I will be more mindful and I will choose to honor them more frequently.

The next time someone asks you if like Angry Birds take a moment and have that conversation.  You have the time.  Even if it’s awkward and uncomfortable at first, someone might think you’re awesome for doing it.

I just had an experience that I’d forgotten I could have.  I thought I was above this kind of thing.  My ego just barreled through and knocked me out cold.  Then it did a little dance over my body.

Since reading Mindset I’ve been operating under the basic premises therein that a growth mindset allows you to improve while a fixed mindset acts as a roadblock to your improvement.  I’ve been all about it, telling everyone to read the book, having my students read sections.  I’m Carol Dweck’s biggest cheerleader.  Her premise is not difficult to grasp, but as I’m discovering, it can be a difficult concept to adopt as part of your life on a daily basis.

As part of developing my own growth mindset I signed up for a math class through EdX.  I wanted to model lifelong learning for my students, and it’s a subject I could use a refresher on.  The class is a statistics course through UC Berkeley.  The basic format is do some reading, watch a lecture, some practice problems, and then do a problem set.  It just started and I was feeling  (over)confident that this would be a simple brush-up and a good way to remind myself of the stats classes I took in high school and as an undergrad.  The first problem set and lecture proved to be pretty straightforward, introducing types of variables, basics about percentiles, and how to arrange data so that it makes some sense.  I skimmed the reading, skipped parts of the video lecture, and did fine on the first problem set.  Ding!  Round one goes to the fixed mindset approach.

With my hubris firmly in place I figured why not get a jump on the next assignment, check the sample problems, and jump straight into the problem set.  The second problem set checked my ego.  Hard.  Did I go back to the reading and lecture before moving through the rest of the problem set?  Nope.  I just told myself “that was the first question, you’ve got this, just keep going.  You’ll be fine.”

By the time I got 70% of the way through the problem set (with limited success, thank you instant online feedback) it hit me: “I’m rationalizing my lack of understanding.”  I’m telling myself this class doesn’t matter.  Telling myself there’s no grade attached.  I’m not a statistician.  I don’t really need this.  I can just stop if I don’t like it.  I’ll go do something I care about like reading a book.  All of my emotional baggage related to math classes came back at me like a sucker punch to the throat.  My heart rate and breathing were elevated and I had to stand up and walk away from the computer in order to calm down.  Round two:  technical knockout due to forfeit.

Damn.  Talk about a fixed mindset in action.  Even ten minutes after putting the problem set on hold I was telling myself it was because I didn’t care; that’s why I didn’t do well, not that I didn’t know the math.  I was actively preserving my ego.

I could stop.  It would be easy to stop.  Easy to go back to fighting the fights that are inside my comfort zone.  There is no grade here and I’ve made no financial commitment.  This statistics course it not attached to a degree.  If I give up though I give up on myself.

This experience puts me back on the same footing as my students.  They experience this regularly with their classes and it serves as a healthy reminder to me to be understanding of their reluctance, frustration, and the difficulties they encounter.  I’ve read books like Outliers and Mindset.  I’ve adopted the theory and I still get blindsided by my ego and the ease of a fixed mindset.  My students haven’t read these pieces and so modeling and teaching a growth mindset is even more important.  I need to be able to provide support and context when they are unable to do it for themselves.

Well:  Time for a rematch.  I’m ready to get back in the ring and get the KO on my Greatest Obstacle.  I need to (and will) go back to the reading and the lecture.  I will finish that second problem set, and for the third problem set I’ll come from a place of humility and do the process from the proper state of mind.  The ability to go back and fix problems is what sets the growth mindset apart from the fixed mindset, the willingness to pick yourself back up and try again.  Watch out ego:  I’m coming to get you.

Finals are stressful for all involved.  Students are studying as if their lives depend on it.  Many of them are also scrambling to turn in any remaining late work in a hopeful attempt to salvage their grade for the semester.  Teachers are either furiously grading work, writing their final exams, or they are (like I often find myself) in a bizarre holding pattern where their finals are written, but they can do nothing to get a jump on the massive pile of grading that finals inevitably bring.  The sense of comfort and relaxation we all felt during winter break quickly evaporated to be burned as fuel for the necessary sprint to the end of the semester.

My students had a significant final exam.  They wrote an essay in addition to a multiple choice exam that covers everything we’ve studied to date.  We have a two-hour block reserved for final exams and I intend to use the time to give a proper final exam.  I see it as a pedagogical responsibility to help my students learn how to study for an exam of such magnitude.  In a high school environment their grades are (usually) calculated on a combination of homework, in-class participation, essays and tests.  As such, for most students, the final exam has a significant impact on their final grade, but is not the most important factor.  This is a relatively (relative to their likely college experience) low-stakes way to teach the process of studying for a final exam without simply throwing them out of the nest with the hope that they’ll learn to fly.

And I do teach it – how to study.  We spent the last two weeks prior to the exam covering essay writing and methods to review for an exam.  This is paramount.  As educators, we suffer from a mistaken idea that if we simply tell students to study, they will, and they will study well.  Like absolutely everything, if we expect students to do a good job at something, we have to teach them how to do a good job.  Studying for my exam requires something different than studying for a math exam, or a regular unit exam.  If I want students to be able to study well, I need to make it clear how to go about it.  As such, I’ve made the choice of emphasizing skill-based lessons in my classroom as the cost of spending less time on historical content.  I’ve traded content for skills – a trade that teachers all over (and particularly in AP classes) are loath to make.  I am extremely confident that this is the right choice.  Historical content can easily be found through a quick search or by flipping through a book.  The skills of how to study or how to write, are easily transferable to future situations.

As is my wont, I pushed my students outside their comfort zones in the process, giving them an authentic need to apply the skills we’ve practiced.  They’re used to supports like review packets and being told precisely what to study for a given exam.  I chose instead to partially remove some supports by having them create their own study guide.  They have guides to the most important information from each chapter we’ve studied to date, and so it should be manageable to compile that into a master list of what is on the final.

It is a difficult balance to support student success while also helping them be independently successful.  I’ve said before that the best judgment of my success is whether my students can apply their learning from my classes once they no longer have me as a teacher.  Teaching academic independence is much harder than teaching how the Ottomans sacked Constantinople in 1453, but it is significantly more useful once they leave my class.

Everyone who has been in school knows that student.  The one where the whole class groans or laughs every time she raises her hand, regardless of my constant reminders that all questions deserve respect, and the best way to solve confusion is to ask questions.  She asked tons of questions though.  It was a constant assault:  What does analyze mean?  Wait, so the Ottoman Empire was Muslim?  Does the thesis need to be at the beginning of the essay?  When is the homework due?  Can you go over that again?

Renata (not her real name) was that student to a T.  She’d ask four, five, six questions a day.  Every day.  Asking me to repeat directions, clarifying things that seemed completely obvious to everyone else.  She was just all over the place.  Renata was an incredibly kind and conscientious student, quick to lend a hand to other students, but she really struggled with the class.  AP World History moves quickly and she was regularly behind with the reading, and her writing was like her questions: confusing and scattered.  She particularly struggled with tests.  She would completely psych herself out with stress and would fail the test.

I actively proctor when I give tests.  I walk around.  I check students work.  I read over their shoulders.  We’ve all got that story of the teacher (usually and older man) who would sit at his desk reading the paper while all the kids cheated on the test.  That is not me. During one of our tests I saw she was struggling.  I’d looked at Renata’s test a couple of times and she was moving slowly and her normally upbeat demeanor was off.

Time to time Renata would ask me for definitions to words she didn’t understand on a test and ask clarifying questions, but she wasn’t doing it that day.  She had that look that students get when they’re about to give up.  She was looking around the room.  Not looking at other students’ tests, but just hoping, praying for inspiration to strike and tell her all the answers, looking for any possible clue from the maps and posters around the room and receiving none.

I went over to my desk, picked up a stack of yellow Post-It notes and scrawled a quick message.  “Stay calm.  Trust yourself.”  I walked over to Renata, dropped it on her desk without a word, and  walked away to check on other students.  She took a couple deep breaths, and finished the test looking dejected. The next day in class things were back to normal with her regular attitude, and barrage of questions.  I quickly forgot the note.

We finished the year and Renata barely passed the class with a low C due to significant effort rewriting essays, and a mountain of questions.  She was happy to get the grade.  A C- is not a particularly noteworthy grade, but AP Wold History was a big stretch for Renata, and she’d worked hard to get that C.  She was proud of her hard work and I was happy to have her as a student.

Jump to about a year later.  She’s a now a junior and I’m in my classroom after school helping a few of my new sophomores to understand the links between the printing press, the Protestant Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution.  Renata comes in and patiently waits until I’m done with my other students, and then comes over:

“Hey Mr. McCormick, guess what?”

“Good to see you Renata.  What’s up?”  I respond.

“You totally changed my life.  I just got an A on my history test.  I also know what my career will be.”

“Congratulations on the test.  That’s awesome!”  I respond, then I grok the rest of her statement and abruptly say, “I did what?”

“You changed my life.  You’re seriously the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

“Thank you,” I politely reply, flattered, and somewhat taken aback.

“I’m serious!” she insisted, sensing my readiness to deflect with humility and almost jumping off the ground with emphasis.  “You never made fun of me.  You always answered my crazy questions.  You made me realize I can work hard.”

I demurred and equivocated, trying to hide my growing feeling of pride, while making it clear I was grateful for the praise by saying things like “Just trying to do my best,” or “I’d do the same for every student,” and “don’t all your teachers do that?”  Knowing full-well that if she has to highlight that I didn’t make fun of her, it means that at some point a teacher did, or still does.

She wouldn’t let me go with false modesty.  “No! You really changed my life.  Remember that Post-it note you gave me?”

I had no idea what she was talking about.  “Not at all.  What did I do?”

She then described the note I’d given her during the test, and how it’d given her the confidence to finish the test, and not give up on the class.  She also told me that she kept it.  That little, wrinkled, yellow, Post-it note, with my bad handwriting scrawled on it.  She taped it to the inside cover of her binder.  Every time she has a test or quiz she takes it out to re-read it.  She said this simple note helped her remain calm during stressful tests because she knows that all she needs is to trust herself and remain focused.  She takes a couple deep breaths and takes her tests with confidence now instead of giving in to stress and mentally shutting down.

I tried to downplay the importance of that note, tell her it’s all up to her, that I had nothing to do with it, but I couldn’t.  She wouldn’t let me.

Renata kept insisting that my simple vote of confidence in her made the difference in her performance.  My expectations of her potential ability had a direct link to her demonstrated ability.  It was such a tiny piece of effort on my part.  I wrote two lines on a scrap of paper, and that simple gesture had a massive impact on her mindset.  Renata went through a sea change in her attitude regarding tests, and she completely credits that small note.

I leave notes for students all the time without thinking much of it.  It’s a nice way to give a student some feedback without making a big, public deal about it.  When students are working well, or need a quick redirection, I’ll leave them a small note and move on to the next student, or another group.  It’s just a quick reminder that I’m watching and paying attention to their work, even when they don’t think I am.  I do it out of efficiency.  I don’t want to interrupt students in the middle of their work in order to give them timely feedback.  I usually thought nothing of it.

Renata’s story, and her praise remind me that my actions as a teacher carry weight.  Far more weight than I usually think.  She reminds me that my students are still finding their way, and that sometimes the students we think are the most lost, are working the hardest to find out where to go.  Renata asked a barrage of questions everyday because she had such a deep desire to find answers and fix her ignorance.  Despite my best attempts at humility, Renata was insistent that I had helped her simply by being kind and treating her questions seriously; by taking her as she was, without judgment; something I usually take for granted.  It took almost no effort on my part, and those small actions continue to make a positive impact in her life.

Before she left that afternoon I asked her about what she said about finding her career.  On her way out the door she replied that she wants to be a social worker because “I want to help people get better too.”

I signed up for a Toughmudder.  11 miles, 28 obstacles, and a predicted finishing time of 3 hours.  This will also be my first organized run longer than a 5k.  I can currently run about 5 miles.  I’ve got nine weeks to double my mileage.  I’m confident that I can do it, but talk about stepping out of my comfort zone.  Oh, and my team is full of personal trainers from my gym so I’m definitely feeling pressure to be highly prepared.  (Read: strong and fast.)

I haven’t done anything like this in a very long time – challenged myself to this extent.  I generally think I do a respectable job pushing myself to be my best whether it’s as a teacher, an athlete, or a human being.  Rarely, however, do I really give myself a big target that is multiple steps away from my current ability level.

My feelings about the Toughmudder made me think about my students because I immediately filled my head with doubts: “Can I run that far? Will I keep up? What did I get myself into?”

These questions and doubts are similar to what students face in school.  “Can I read that whole book?  Can I write a whole essay?  Will I pass the test?”  I get to choose my challenges while our students have to respond to the tasks we set for them.

When we stay within our comfort zones we get complacent, and I’ve been relatively complacent lately.  I can’t just wait nine weeks and then go complete this event.  I will need to use what I’ve learned about strength training for the obstacles and find new training methods for the distance running component.  This is the nature of true challenge.  What I’ve done in the past will not be sufficient so I have to learn new skills.

The educational concept of scaffolding is not new.  Nearly every training, meeting, or discussion I’ve had about struggling students at some points comes back to scaffolding.  (For the non-educators scaffolding is the idea that with proper support students can reach to things they would be otherwise unable to do.  Like how a scaffold lets you scale the side of a building.)  Scaffolding is everywhere in education, but students are still failing.  How does this relate to the Toughmudder?

For scaffolding to be meaningful students need to be challenged, and at some point the scaffold needs to be removed.  One of the common discussions around scaffolding that is all too common is the idea that “if this scaffold helps some students, then give it to everyone and help all students.”  This is problematic.  If we scaffold something that is not truly challenging we’ve done nothing but lower the standard.  The best measure of my success as a teacher would be whether my students are able to succeed at the skills I taught, once they leave my classroom, when there are no scaffolds in place.  Instead of scaffolding, we need training.

I fully acknowledge that students start in different places.  They have different reading levels, different writing ability, and unequal reasoning skills.  What is challenging for one student may be exceptionally easy for another.  However if we want our students to improve we need to provide challenge.  We need to take all of our students outside their comfort zones.

When students have a difficult task to complete (reading, writing, presentation, exam) they have to add new skills to their repertoire in order to be successful.  It is then our responsibility as teachers to teach the skills and content necessary to complete that task.  Before we put a scaffold in place we should identify whether a student has really put in their best effort.  Just because my first try to get over an obstacle isn’t successful, that doesn’t mean I need a ladder.  Perhaps I just need to take a different approach.  If we always provide a scaffold we are never really holding students to the standard we set out to achieve.

If we have standards for excellence and criteria for mastery that are based on what students need to know or be able to do, we should stick to our standards.  Those criteria were (hopefully) created with intentionality and hold some value beyond the classroom.  It is unreasonable to lower those criteria just because some students are unsuccessful.

I will do my absolute best to prepare myself for the Toughmudder in 9 weeks.  I signed up for a challenge and I will do what is necessary in order to be successful.  This attitude is precisely what is needed for students who want to be academically successful.  It takes just as much mental effort to log out of Facebook to go for a run as it does to log out of Facebook and write an essay.  Challenges are only overcome through hard work.  If it didn’t take hard work it wasn’t a challenge.

I encourage all teachers to try something difficult.  Step out of your comfort zones.  Learn new teaching methods.  Teach new classes.  Take risks in your personal life.  Whatever it is challenge yourself.  We are constantly asking our students to learn new ideas, try things they don’t like, and take on tasks that seem impossible.  How can we claim to understand our students if we never challenge ourselves and feel the difficulty, and satisfaction, of doing what you previously through to be impossible?

PS:  I started a second blog where I’m doing reviews of pop culture from the perspective of teachability.  Check it out.