It was that time again. I needed to hand back graded essays. The students saw the stack of papers. Suddenly, all the laughter and chatter that had filled my room over the past week or so, while students were working on an investigative assignment, disappeared.
“Were they bad?” asked a brave 11th grade student, staring at the pile of papers as if the ink would unveil a clue.
I’m mindful of the words I use with students, and replied with something like, “I saw improvement in everyone’s writing. Remember, the grade is only a snapshot in time.”
I’ve found Carol Dweck’s research about mindsets to be invaluable in my teaching. In a 2015 article revisiting her original findings, Dweck said that “students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset).” Dweck provides the ultimate student buy-in: Getting smarter by taking agency over one’s own learning.
Sometimes high school students have trouble internalizing that a growth mindset is more important than a grade, especially when college admissions are approaching. But when students take control over their own learning, they can begin to see the connection: They come to understand that with every paper returned, their probability of improvement goes up. And with this growth comes intellectual independence. And with this independence comes a natural progression toward better grades.
Expectations Set From the Start
Most students who enter my classroom have had practice filling in an exit ticket or self-reflecting at the end of a learning experience. I’ve found that when I add just one more step consistently during the school year my students improve their attitudes about their own thinking and learning.
Here’s the extra step: I ask students to include a Now What? in their self-reflections. I believe that it empowers them to become arbiters of their own learning. Instead of looking at a stack of papers and thinking, “Are they bad?” students begin to think, “I wonder what I’ll learn.” Creating this Now What list lets students to take action based on my feedback, rather than just passively absorbing the feedback.
One particular student, who had some insecurities about her writing initially, asked to meet me for a writing conference after her first essay.
“What do you think I can do to improve fairly quickly?” I remember her asking.
“I know you are concerned about your grade,” I said. “Writing is a skill you will need for the rest of your life. Let’s get it right. Take my comments and try again. What do you think?”
“I’ll do it tonight,” she said. Her revised version was measurably better.
This student decided that she would meet with me before the next essay. She worked on honing her analysis and writing skills inside and outside of the classroom. As the year progressed, she began to glance up at me with an I-got-this smirk during her in-class writing. Her confidence grew. In her last self-reflection for me, she wrote:
“I feel as though this past year has taught me a great deal in terms of growing content-wise and as a person. I have learned to look at every obstacle as an opportunity to grow and learn, rather than something in the way of achieving goals. Instead of adhering to my fixed mindset, I have learned to develop a growth mindset and realize that failure is a must in order to succeed.”
For students to gain this confidence, they need to learn to be independent and secure in their educational experiences. Dweck alludes to this in an essay for Education Week, when she says, “Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches—not just sheer effort—to learn and improve.”
Finding Strengths and Opportunities
Because all children deserve acknowledgement of the positive aspects of their writing, I feel it’s important to help my students find their strengths—whether these strengths are written, discussed, or performed. That process also confirms for students the skills in which they do not need additional instruction. Those strengths are what make students feel motivated to engage in the classroom and on paper.
To support my students in finding their strengths, I refer to their weaknesses as “opportunities.” Once students identify what can be improved on, I ask them to create a checklist of those things that they can use for the next essay. I encourage them to embrace these lists because they represent a chance for change and improvement—an opportunity to get even smarter.
Show Value in the Process
While writing their Now Whats, students have to contend with these “opportunities” and develop plans for how to improve.
Here are a few of the improvement plans students have come up with:
• Use a site like Khan Academy for review
• Access expert teachers on YouTube
• Conference with my teacher to get more insight
• Use grammar resources from the classroom or online
• Use my teacher’s written feedback to practice writing
• Recite an argument to my parents to get feedback
• Determine how a more positive outlook on writing could be helpful
Student buy-in comes from feeling successful after difficult tasks, and believing in oneself leads to motivation and self-efficacy, regardless of which grade level we teach. That’s why it’s important for us to set aside time to help students develop the capacity to find opportunity in their mistakes.
We need to remember to facilitate and listen. Some students may have the dispositions to work independently on their plans, while others may need a little help. While students are working on those plans in the classroom, we can have mini-conferences to check in on their progress. Giving students the tools they need the most—the confidence of having control over their own learning—is one of the best lessons we can teach.