Fixed Mindset is killing me (and this blog).

Carol Dweck’s presentation today at the ASCD National Conference spoke to me on both a professional and personal level. I’ve long been a fan of her work having read Mindset a few years ago. If you are not familiar with mindsets, take a detour here. While reading, I recognized in myself elements of a fixed mindset and vowed to work on this. I’ve done well in some areas and still need tremendous work in others. Today, though, Dweck touched on areas I didn’t want to think about. She zeroed in on the very behaviors that haunt me and have kept me from becoming my best. Then, she invited me to give those behaviors a name.

Dr. Dweck forced a spotlight on an area that I’d been flirting with exploring but wasn’t ready to commit. She called me out and invited me to do something about it. At this point, to ignore it would be cowardly.

I pride myself on a strong belief in reinvention. Anyone at anytime can assess a situation and decide to make a change for the better. I really do believe this for every person in the world. Every person except me. For whatever reasons, I have never bestowed the same grace upon myself. I give myself one shot and one shot only to get something right. Sometimes, I don’t even allow that one shot- I don’t even try. If and when I try and fail or even think I could fail, I jump ship. I bail before the failure could be linked to my abilities. If I can’t bail, I wallow in self-doubt and recriminations. Consider it the curse of a recovering perfectionist.

This blog serves as an excellent example. I have 21 different blog posts in rough draft form. I haven’t published a single piece since November. I blamed my busy schedule, overwhelming workload, and a family move for not posting more. If that was the case I wouldn’t have 21 topics and drafts. Real talk is a fear of others reading my ideas, finding fault, and judging me as less than.

In today’s presentation Dweck clarified that fixed mindset is a part of all of us. My take is that once you’ve experienced a fixed mindset you can’t shake it as much as understand it and try to avoid it. I’m now thinking of mindset as a continuum where one continually strives to move in the direction of a growth mindset. Constant vigilance is necessary though to prevent backsliding into previous fixed mindsets.  That’s what happened to me. I backslid. Much like a dieter who finally made it to goal and then found cake again. (Which, to be honest, I’ve done that, too.)

Lately, I’ve been self-assessing and realizing the toll of my fixed mindset. It is paralyzing. The unacknowledged belief  that you are one screw up away from disaster kills progress. It causes angst and disengagement.  I don’t want to be desensitized and afraid to be myself. I want to dare greatly like Brene Brown encourages and try and fail and try again.

To do this, I need to have a talk with Fran. Fran is my fixed mindset persona (complete with the Fran voice). She sees herself as a quitter. And, she’s a quitter because she knows what others haven’t figured out — she’s really not good enough to do this work. She can’t juggle the expectations like others can. She has managed to fool everyone, but eventually they’ll figure out her secret. When she feels doubted or has set backs, she disengages.

Fran is annoying. Most importantly, Fran is not me. But, Fran is a part of my life. She is going to require supervision and management so that I can grow, learn, and push my boundaries without interference.

I invite you to meet your Fran, the fixed mindset persona haunting your life. Get to know him or her and set boundaries in your relationship so that you can grow and flourish.

Most importantly, Fran is not me.

There’s Power in Narrative Instruction, Part 2

Every year, I started my course with a personal narrative. This assignment served multiple needs. It provided a writing sample for each student and no research was required. Most importantly, I had a two-page snapshot that gave me an idea of what each person valued. Even those students who failed to turn in the essay inadvertently gave me insights- usually that they feared writing or had never had a teacher who valued them or their words.

More than anything, I would use the writing process to help students find their story.

Granted, I taught during the personal narrative heyday of TAKS, but I wouldn’t change much if I was still in the classroom. Even with high school students,  I would still start the year with personal narrative writing instruction. I’d model brainstorming and selecting a topic, then drafting and revising using brief lessons to support growing various areas of need. More than anything, I would use the writing process to help students find their story.

In a time in education when many feel the expository, argumentative, and analytical essays are king, this can be a less than popular position. Bear with me.

Any writer knows that sharing your writing with another is the fruition of the nightmare where you find yourself standing naked in front of your peers.  This bone numbing fear only comes though when fully invested in a piece. If a student hasn’t gotten to the point where they feel they’ve put it all on the line then they will never feel this. I want every student to have a piece of writing matter so much that they anxiously wait for feedback. If they don’t, then I haven’t I done my job. But, I’ve got a lot to do to get my students to this point. It all starts with personal narrative.

I need students writing the moment they walk into the classroom. This means I need a topic where each of them is an expert. Students are expert in themselves and everyone has a story that needs to be told. Without a need to research, students move straight into brainstorming and flash drafting. Getting words on paper is key. If I want writers to leave my classroom then I have to create writing volume. I want their fingers to ache when the bell rings. The only subject that allows for that level of writing early in the semester is self.

I want to coach writers. I have to know what drives them, what inspires them. The personal narrative essay and the brainstorming that surrounds it provide me with this intel. I find my athletes, the class leaders, and the child who gave birth to a child that summer. There must be trust between a writer and their writing instructor. Trust starts with a relationship. The personal narrative is the beginning of a relationship.

Finally, the flash drafts and the conferring lessons that lead to the published essay will provide a starting point for improving the writer.

If the use of the personal narrative stopped here then I could understand those who would scoff and argue in favor of the expository, argumentative, and analytical essays. This is just the starting point, though. After publishing narratives, I would then move into expository writing building on the many lessons I taught during our narrative work. I would transition instruction to using anecdotes and the narrative structure in writing.  Ultimately, the enduring understanding  is twofold:

  1. Most writers blends genres.
  2. Purpose and audience should drive writing decisions.

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

There’s Power in Narrative Instruction, Part 1

Recently, the state of Texas has made great strides in reducing the test length and the overall number of state assessments. I applaud these moves. Any step away from standardized testing is generally a good idea. However, I also fear a by-product of this decision.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) as a requirement of new laws enacted after the last legislative session reduced the length of the 4th and 7th grade writing assessments so they could be completed in one day. Yes, nine year olds were previously expected to stay focused for two days, in rigid rows, writing to prompts for an audience they would never meet.State Assessment Quote

TEA made the decision to reduce the assessment to a single writing piece: an expository piece. The personal narrative essay is no longer in any Texas state assessment.  The state standards (TEKS) still fully support writing personal narratives; however, the gravity of this decision resides in those who place a higher value on the state assessment. I know there are instances where the test has become the focus rather than robust instruction in all areas of the TEKS. I realize not all TEKS are created equal, but TEKS do not gain their importance from any assessment.  That comes from their influence in growing our students as readers, writers, and individuals.

The narrative structure is critical to building strong readers and writers. In Minds Made for Stories, Thomas Newkirk shares what he considers “absurdly simple rules for reading and writing: Read as if it’s a story. Write as if it’s a story” (43). For this advice to work we have first instruct students how to write stories. As an educator that works closely with secondary students, I ask/beg those educators that get to meet our students before me to not trivialize the writing standards that support the personal narrative and narrative writing in general.

Write as if it’s a story.     -Thomas Newkirk

Applaud Texas for decreasing the length of state assessments, but do not foolishly assume their decision indicates a hierarchy of writing genres. Good writers understand and use them all interchangeably. I am starting a series of posts about the power of narrative. Each post will look at a new reason teachers should not abandon the narrative mode of writing, and perhaps even grasp it a bit more tightly than before.

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

My “Worthless” Degree and What it Taught Me

Today it seems that every other Yahoo article focuses on which college degree will earn you the most money and which ones are barely worth the paper they are printed on. More than once my lowly communication degree has appeared at the bottom of the pile while the math, science and engineering degrees hold court at the top.

These articles often make me laugh and a little sad at the time. I think of those poor kids entering college for the first time without a clue about these lists. Is anyone warning them? I think about myself, back in 1997, clueless as to how the world of college worked. No one in my immediate and most of my extended family had ever been to college, much less graduated. I had exactly one person in my world who had gone to college. She lived across town and I rarely had an opportunity to speak with her.

What I learned in high school is that everyone expects the smart kids to go to college but no one really bothers to tell them how to do it.

They seem to assume the smart kids have family members who will guide them through the process. No one thinks about those of us who didn’t. *Newsflash* There are smart kids in low SES households. Trying to figure out applications, FAFSAs, scholarships, programs of study, best colleges AND complete your senior year is absolutely daunting. I chose to attend junior college my first two years of college not because I necessarily wanted this path, but because I simply couldn’t figure out the world of college while maintaining my honors course load, my class ranking, and work. I was intimidated by I world I wanted to join that didn’t really seem to want me. Knowing this about myself always made me empathetic to the seniors I saw in a similar position. You always know who they are. It’s evident in eyes that yearn for something just beyond their grasp.

We tell our kids the American dream is to overcome long odds and make something of yourself and that the first step is a college education. But, no one gives them a solid road map. Later, we scratch our heads and wonder why they drop out. Then there are those like myself who preservere to later learn from Yahoo News that their degree is useless. Fantastic.

I remember when I choose my degree plan. I was on a tight budget and knew I couldn’t manage five years of school, so the degree needed to be a four-year plan. That meant no pharmeceuticals, architecture, or engineering. I knew I couldn’t pick a degree that would require HOURS of study because I had to keep a job to pay my bills so I could actually go to school. That nixed math and science (while I understood the concepts, it didn’t come nearly as easy as reading and writing). That left me with a Bachelor of Arts in something. I liked to talk and write plus the communications degree required the fewest hours- win! They called it public relations – whatever that was – and it never occured to me to try and figure out how this degree would translate to the real world. Remember, I was a kid new to academia and the business world. I assumed a degree meant a good job. The end.

I ended up with a Bachelors of Journalism with a focus in Public Relations and a minor in Marketing. I graduated the August before 9/11. On September 8th I had a fabulous interview with a PR company and nailed a job. On Septemeber 13th, they called to let me know all jobs were frozen. Many PR people were later laid off and the chance for me to enter that field was gone.

Many times I have cursed my choice of undergraduate degree as worthless. I blamed myself for being uninformed when the truth is that I was as informed as a person in my position could have been. I see many young people now in the same predicament. It’s sad. However, I have been fortunate enough to recently realize my degree choice isn’t all that worthless.

While it’s true that I had to go back to school to earn a teaching certificate and later a Master’s degree to be successful in my craft, my original degree has been highly beneficial. My Bachelor’s taught me how to write in a professional, concise, error-free manner. It taught me the power of a good narrative and the art of persuasion. Public Relations taught me how to work with people and present my messages in the most people-friendly way possible. Marketing gave me tools to sell an idea or product. These skills are invaluable. I probably call on them now as much as I do my curriculum expertise.

Fortunately, I managed to land on my feet. My hope is that the other kids out there in the same boat I was manage to do the same. I hope their Art History, Fashion Design, and Creative Writing degrees pan out as well as mine did. In the meantime, we need to remember these students exist and help those hungry kids who want a future- and are willing to work for it- but need a little direction to help make it happen.

Terrified

I need to do it.

           You want to do it.

What if I mess up?

           What if you never speak up?

How do I start?

            How can you not?

When will I have time?

           You won’t. You’ll have to make it.

Others will judge me.

           Others already judge you.

You can share all that you’ve learned.

             I just want to talk.

Then start the conversation.

          …

You are terrified to write.

I am more terrified of not writing.