Sunday, February 15, 2015

Renew & Reflect #5: Positivity (& SWCBlogger Challenge #5, too!)

I admit it. This post is a bit of a cheat. I'm answering the question, "How do I stay positive and share/encourage positivity with my students?" for two blog challenges: Teach Thought Online Community's Reflect and Renew and the SWC Blogger's challenges. My prerogative, since I chose the prompt for this week's SWC Bloggers!

I wish I had written the post my colleague Adjective's Noun from SWC Bloggers wrote. I nodded my head every paragraph, both out of recognition and not a little bit of guilt. As Adjective's Noun writes, my own positivity has everything to do with how balanced my life is and how truthful I am about the lack of balance. 

Indicted. And willing to make a change. So today, I gave myself an hour to listen to a fun podcast while I cleared out a room my husband and I have been meaning to make more livable On the face of it, tidying may not sound like a balancing practice, but truth is, it felt nice. I actually invested in making our space less cluttered, a place we can enjoy coming home to. And I got to crack a grin as I caught up on my favorite podcast. 

When it comes to teaching, staying positive means recognizing that students won't often "get it" right away. It means remembering it often take many and varied iterations of a lesson for learning to stick. This means a full court press of direct instruction, reading, practicing, demonstration, and experimentation. It means second and third tries.

Secondly, noticing where students are "on the verge" of learning a concept or mastering a skill makes for productive positivity. It fosters students' sense of self-efficacy when they see how close they are to mastering an objective. Helping them see they are on the learning curves promotes more positive vibes than if I merely bleed red marks all over their papers, marks students often interpret as proof of some character defect, an index of inborn inability to learn. 

When I'm at my best, I note when students are on the verge of "getting it," that proximal zone of learning where they are almost ready, with minimal guidance, to "go solo."  I do my best to frame their learning in terms of skills to practice, habits to take on. I want them to see intelligence as something we gain through practice rather than than some internal quality of intelligence we either have or don't. 

(And yes, I'm cribbing Carol Dweck's notion of a "growth mindset."  I learned Dweck's concept after reading, studying, and practicing it; I wasn't born knowing it!) 

So when students make mistakes, I congratulate them on their efforts. Then I'll say or write a comment on their paper something like, "That is exactly the kind of mistakes someone learning this skills often makes. This means you are on the right track. Now, what about . . . "  

Or I'll say, "This error shows me that we're ready for the next step. Let's look at what you did and investigate the next steps together."  I'll observe what I think they were trying to achieve, affirming the steps that worked and directing them toward what they might do next. It's about shifting the focus from what they "can't do" to what they "can." 


It takes a different kind of energy to observe and name errors this way. Its' easier to simply say something is inaccurate, unclear, illogical, or irrelevant. I am on a big old learning curve, striving to focus on building students' sense of self-efficacy. Sometimes it's a stretch to find what particular students are on the cusp of mastering something meaningful. 

And students come to my class already primed to hear that their mistakes index their inability to learn. There's lots of inertia on both sides. Many students react defensively to what they perceive, rightfully so, as negativity, focusing on the "can't." And I encourage that spiral until I shift my own perspective and comments. 

As I get more skillful with growth mindset, students begin to trust that I'm not going to simply "bleed" all over their papers, that I want to them to see and build off their successes. And students begin to trust themselves that they can indeed learn. 

Side note: I haven't yet discussed the challenge I have clarifying to students that effort does not equal performance. But that's a whole 'nother post  . . . or dissertation!