It was an evening of stories. A parent told about getting her first “F” on a math exam and her teary phone call home to tell her dad that college wasn’t for her. A teacher shared the experience of being cut from choir in sixth grade, when everyone else in her circle of friends made it. “And in sixth grade,” she said “my friends were my world.” I remembered aloud striking out in T-ball and feeling devastated. I had failed, the six year old me thought, therefore I’m a failure.
We told hopeful stories too: of the sister who tried out new jobs every few years, just so she could have new experiences, and was good at them; of the coach who encouraged his players to take chances and not dwell on failure; and of working hard to succeed, believing it possible, and pushing through challenges to learn, grow, and thrive.
It was our first Diegueño Book Club, and a wonderful collection of parents and teachers joined me in our media center to discuss Carol Dweck’s book Mindset.
Hearing the many voices from around the table helped underscore the relevance of the book, as well as the longstanding truths Dweck fleshes out. An English teacher pointed out that for years she’d been answering her students when they said they couldn’t do something with the reply “You can’t do it yet!” All of us live or work with young people, and we saw the huge opportunities we have to engage with the kids in our lives in a way we might promote a growth mindset, even as we see in our kids students with both fixed and growth ways of looking at the world.
Our diverse perspectives around the table shared some similarities. Many of us had begun our lives with what we recognized now as a fixed mindset, and most could point to a watershed moment when that fixed mindset no longer worked for us, when we had a choice: give up or move forward.
One of my favorite stories of the night came from a parent recalling her experience of going out for the cross country team in high school. She was a swimmer, she said, and tried running only to find out that she was the slowest on the team. Determined to finish, and to keep a positive attitude, she would call ahead to her friends: “Save an orange for me!” And keep running.
She believed she could get better, and that she was growing from this experience, even if she wasn’t finding the success she saw in other areas of her life. Without a delusion that she’d be improving so much she would win a shelf of trophies, she persevered with a smile.
It was inspiring to see our group of interesting and interested adults all making connections to our own lives and thinking about our kids (either our biological kids, or the 957 students at Diegueño ). Our conversation, rooted in Dweck’s book, moved from the volleyball court to corporate America, and from the hospital to the Thanksgiving table.
We reflected on the idea that people with a growth mindset “believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”
And then, by way of our own high school and college experiences, we made our way back to our own students’ classrooms.
Knowing that real learning involves some struggle, we talked about how we could promote opportunities for students to wrestle with ideas and engage in productive struggle. Classrooms are safe environments in which students can learn to face uncertainty, work through unknowing, and build the academic resiliency needed to persevere in the face of the unknown.
We all discussed how good it can be if the student who finds stress and temporary failure does so in an environment that encourages them to work through the problem, with a teacher who inspires them to try, and peers who are also struggling in plain view. How much better to have this happen earlier and in a safe space, and learn the skills to avoid that failed math test and tearful phone call home from college.
We also talked about how tough nurturing the sprouting shoot of real learning can be beneath the harsh sun of grades and the anxiety that comes from a mark not being as high as students and parents would like. Communication can help, and we all have work to do.
How we could encourage students to develop growth mindsets took up much of our conversation. We agreed that we were partners in this enterprise: parents, teachers, students, and even administrators like me.
After talking about the importance of all our work, and honestly after laughing a lot too, we ended the night on a positive note. Reading Mindset, we agreed, had positively impacted our interactions with our kids, our students (and even our in-laws).
We left the evening knowing that we may not have all the answers (…yet), but we’re among friends, all of us running at our own pace toward the same goal of helping our kids. And we know those ahead of us, or enough of them, will listen when we raise our voice and say, with hope and a belief we can improve: “Save an orange for me!”