Just before 6 PM on April 4th, 1968—a Thursday—Martin Luther King Jr. stepped out onto the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, to address his colleagues from the Christian Leadership Conference in the parking lot below. The group was preparing for another non-violent protest march, this time in support of the striking Memphis sanitation workers. Suddenly, a single shot is fired. Dr. King falls with blood on his face. People rush to support King and get him to the hospital. He’s pronounced dead an hour later. Violence erupts in cities across America; forty more lives are lost. Four days later, still in Memphis, King’s widow Coretta marches with thousands to honour King, to carry on his work, and to support the sanitation workers who are still striking.
The day after King is shot to death, in a small Iowan town 700 miles directly north of Memphis, a grade three class comes to school confused, as PBS Frontline describes in their documentary of the class:
“On the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in April 1968, Jane Elliott’s third graders from the small, all-white town of Riceville, Iowa, came to class confused and upset. They recently had made King their “Hero of the Month,” and they couldn’t understand why someone would kill him. So Elliott decided to teach her class a daring lesson in the meaning of discrimination. She wanted to show her pupils what discrimination feels like, and what it can do to people.”
Skip forward another forty seven years. A group of 100 Christian school teachers gather in a gym in Hamilton, Ontario, to explore what Carol Dweck has outlined as the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset. As an entry event to the day, we watch a three minute clip of Jane Elliott leading her students in the “daring lesson” where the kids experience discrimination—based on their eye colour—first hand. They don’t question her when she states frankly that brown-eyed kids are better than blue-eyed kids. The body language reveals the confusion and anxiety of those who are deemed less valuable. The privileged group reveals a sense of excitement and pride in their superior position.
After the clip, we discussed together its implications. As teachers, we realized that our power in the classroom is shocking: what we tell children about themselves is often accepted as fact. And what children believe about themselves will have a significant impact on their capacity to learn. How do we create environments in our classes that encourage all students to believe they can grow? How do we help students develop social-emotional learning—a deep understanding of their own identity and a deep commitment to understanding others through healthy relationships? The tragedy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and Jane Elliot’s classroom reveal that social-emotional learning has both global and local implications. As the SCLC bumper sticker pictured above states: how do we create environments where we “turn TO each other, not ON each other”? In an age of “radicalization,” this seems more pressing than ever.
Our day was then spent diving into these key questions through three sessions:
- Session 1: Social-Emotional Learning: Ethos and Learning Go Hand in Hand. In the first session we explored the relationship between ethos (the environment and culture of our classrooms and schools) and learning. How do we create healthy spaces for students to understand themselves and their classmates together? How do we do this both proactively and reactively? How might programs like Restorative Practices, TRIBES, or The Leader in Me help us to accomplish this? As an embodiment of this pursuit, each grade table brainstormed and created their table’s “Group Norms”—statements that help name how a group wants to “be” together—commitments that the group agrees to in order to make the community excited to spend time together collaborating in their work and play, in their pursuit of meaningful learning. Each table wrote their own norms, displaying them on their tables and in our work gallery for the day. Examples of the norms for the tables included the following:
- “We give space and time for each voice.”
- “Our group is a safe place for honesty, courage, passion, and awe.”
- “We celebrate individual giftedness.”
- “We will pursue feedback that is both constructive and supporting.”
- “We listen attentively and actively.”
- “We want original and creative ‘out of the box’ thinking.”
- Session 2: Growth in Action! Creating Growth Mindset Critique Sessions for Learning. After establishing what a growth mindset is, we moved into experiencing growth in action. This session borrowed extensively from a session we were offered at High Tech Elementary Chula Vista, led by two teachers there—Trisha Magoon (gr. 1) and Paul North (gr. 3). Huge thanks to them for being willing to share their presentation materials freely with me. (Primary teachers should check out Trisha’s class page here!) This session also took on a bit of a risk—I asked teachers to think about a time in which they or one of their students had experienced a significant learning moment that impacted their character and then write about it in a paragraph. It’s not easy to share our stories with each other, especially at a table with colleagues we may not know well. (I love the way my friend Owen has urged us to consider the power of sharing each other’s stories—both teachers and students—as a way to pursue meaningful learning. You can read his brief article here.) After exploring a powerful mentor text as a model written by one of my former grade 12 students, the group chose the learning targets that they wanted to focus on in their writing and worked on their first drafts. Then, using the categories of warm and cool feedback we tried to offer each other kind, specific, helpful feedback to sharpen our writing and the experiences we were sharing. Finally we incorporated this feedback into a second draft.
|Warm Feedback (I like…)||Cool Feedback (I wonder… I suggest…)|
|I was really struck by how you _____________.||Can you explain why ____________________?|
|__________ stands out because ___________.||I’d like to see more of ____________________.|
|I like how you used __________ to _________.||Perhaps you could try_____________________.|
|I understand ________ because you ________.||I have trouble understanding ____ because _____.|
In our debrief of the activity, we used the following discussion questions to frame our experience:
- Are there themes we can identify in our deep learning experiences?
- How did it feel to decide the learning targets and peer-assess each others work?
- Was the mentor text—the model—important in helping you do high quality work?
- How did critique help you and/or challenge you?
- Can you see yourself using critique and co-assessment (assessment FOR Learning) in your class? (Or do you already?)
We discussed that it was difficult to provide suggestions for improvement, given the fact that our stories were quite personal. Understandably, we didn’t want to seem critical of experiences that were quite profound or difficult. I’m considering changing the writing activity in the future to provide more opportunity for both “I like” and “I wonder” or “I suggest” feedback. I’ve had great conversations with participants that have really helped me in this reflection. (The first draft’s the worst draft… Growth mindset!)
Session 3: Pursuing Professional Growth Together. In last year’s spring PD days we pondered a key quote from Ron Berger that urges us to move students off of the treadmill of mediocrity:
“Most students, I believe, are caught on school treadmills that focus on quantity of work rather than quality of work. Students crank out endless final products every day and night. Teachers correct volumes of such low-quality work; it’s returned to the students and often tossed in the wastebasket. Little in it is memorable or significant, and little in it engenders personal or community pride. I feel that schools need to get off this treadmill approach and shift their focus from quantity to quality” (p. 8-9).
I’m a firm believer that often “the answer is in the room.” We know that often the most powerful learning occurs in engaging collaborative tasks with peers. So, in this last session, we opened up the space for each grade table to reflect on two major questions to help us deepen our desire to create learning for students to pursue deep learning with growth mindsets. The questions were quite simple: first, for the sake of our students’ and our own health, what should we stop doing? And second, what should we be doing more of? I was inspired by both lists—allow me to share some of our feedback:
Things that need to go:
- some of our content
- informational staff meetings
- marking everything
- spelling tests
- pointless colouring
- smaller blocks of time in divided subjects
- busy work
Things we should do more of:
- professional learning communities (staff PLCs) (as opposed to informational staff meetings)
- circle time
- posting “big ideas” and learning targets in our classes
- more authentic learning—PBL and presentations of learning
- flexible learning spaces
- exploration of the Bible that leads to awe and wonder of God’s world
- teacher prep time
- more process/skill development (as opposed to content)
- time to review ministry expectations
- bringing in experts
- time to watch others teach
- bigger blocks of time with interdisciplinary learning
As much as these lists are exciting (and they are extremely exciting to me!) what has inspired me most is the stories of teachers sharing with me what they’re doing in their classrooms.
Grade 2 teacher Lisa Vanderkuip from Beacon shared this story with me:
“This week, I’ve jumped in with my students with some of this to lay the framework for the project we are starting in a few weeks. Tuesday we brainstormed on how our brains grow. Wednesday we thought about “stop” thoughts and actions that can stop our brains from growing and learning and matched them with “start” thoughts and actions. Once we’d written it down, I gave them the words Fixed and Growth Mindset. Never to young to give them the vocabulary! I was amazed at what they came up with! Yesterday I taught an art lesson using Austin’s butterfly and introduced critique. I was excited by what I saw my students doing and saw them increasingly amazed at their own improvement in drawing a butterfly . It was also great to have discussed mindsets earlier in the week so when they started groaning about having to do multiple drafts, we could label the groan for what it was!”
Grade 8 teacher Rodney Kooy from Laurentian Hills shared with me the way he’s been using critique feedback through his Google classroom. He and some of his students were happy to share this sample of his students using a persuasive essay group feedback form that I think is fantastic.
My colleague Laura has written about Halton Hills kindergarten teacher Amanda Vandervinne also using multiple drafts and classroom critique to help students foster a growth mindset. From the same school, another teacher has shared that the word mindset is popping up in their staff “lexicon.” One colleague said, “I’ve got a mindset to go for a donut!”
I love that playful banter. I think it isn’t just fun, it’s a sign of mental health and joy (and perhaps our Tim Horton’s addictions?) in our daily work. We also finished the PD day with a reminder to us all that we have to take care of our own mental health—our own sense of joy and balance might be the most important factor in helping our students to experience joy and growth too. So we finished with an activity that celebrated both our success and failure—a whole group “Rock-Paper-Scissors” tournament! We all found someone to compete against, and if we lost, we became the cheering squad for the person that had beat us. At the end of it all, the battle came down to two staff members from Covenant Christian School in Smithville—gr. 1 teacher Diana Brunsveld, with 40 supporters (including a group of boisterous principals!) went head to head with her colleague—gr. 8 teacher Marie Ramsey. Relying on her expertise, a sound game plan (after they tied on paper, Marie went with rock), and an incredible support team, Marie came out the ultimate victor! Congrats on being the Rock-Paper-Scissors 2015 Champ of the Grand River District Marie! Stay tuned for the provincial championships…