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How to Take a Growth Mindset Approach to Summer Learning

By Elizabeth Stein — June 20, 2017 6 min read
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For many, the mention of summer school conjures an image of sluggish students slouched in their seats—with that all-too-familiar, dazed look on their faces—as a teacher cracks sappy jokes. Hard as the teacher tries to create a relaxed, motivating summer learning experience, these students cannot be persuaded; they have already surrendered to the notion that they are not smart enough. Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth.

What if we challenged the typical vision of summer school by designing an active, summer learning process that cultivates a true connection between learners and learning? What if we replaced common learning myths with a deep understanding of brain-based learning and immersed students in the belief that they can grow their intelligence?

How to Keep a Growth Mindset at the Center

As the coordinator for my district’s Summer Resiliency Academy, I work alongside courageous, curious, and dedicated administrators and educators to co-create a middle school experience that guides each student to connect with a meaningful learning process. Developing a unique summer learning experience for students who struggle throughout the school year has come with many challenges: educating the whole learner; keeping academics and social-emotional learning on target; empowering and supporting teachers’ personal mindfulness beliefs and habits; and increasing teachers’ awareness of personal attitudes and language. My colleagues and I have come a long way since we launched our program in the summer of 2013. We have approached each challenge with our own growth mindset convictions firmly in place, and continue to do so today. Our collaborative steps include a focus on:

1. Teacher self-care. We have enlisted Project Presence to lead training in social-emotional learning (SEL). Practicing mindfulness through breathing techniques and exercises has helped my colleagues and me take care of ourselves—so we can take the best possible care of our students.

2. Professional development. To expand its focus on educating the whole learner and to embrace social-emotional learning, our district has invited teachers to participate in SEL training throughout the school year, not just as preparation for the summer program. Since implementing year-round instruction, we’ve found that teachers come to the summer program prepared to apply mindfulness and SEL practices.

3. Growth mindset language. By hosting roundtable discussions and other activities, teachers practice their ability to embed intentional, empowering language within instructional time. Teachers can then model for students the thinking, speaking, and action steps necessary to persevere through the challenges that come with any meaningful learning experience.

4. Instructional focus and classroom structure. During the first year of the program, we found that teachers tended to approach academic and SEL instruction as separate entities. We fell into our default mode of emphasizing teacher-centered experiences, with teachers serving as the key decision makers and drivers of educational experiences. In our second year, the scale tipped way in the other direction as we began prioritizing student-centered experiences. Our third year was the charm! We realigned our schedule to include rotating academic and SEL workshops, and we incorporated project-based learning to reactivate and harness students’ passions for learning. In daily genius hours, students explored one idea they would like to learn more about—and as they honed their research skills and unleashed their creativity to find solutions, our students became leaders of their learning.

To this day, our instructional focus naturally incorporates the principles of universal design for learning as we keep learners—teachers and students—at the center of the learning process.

Resiliency Training for Students

The overall goals of our summer resiliency program are to close students’ personal achievement gaps and to reconnect students with their natural curiosity to learn. Summer is an optimal time to embrace a whole learner view and introduce some powerful skills that move beyond the traditional focus on content knowledge and academic supports.

To maintain a focus on the whole learner, educators can consider the five core competencies developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. In their work to cultivate these core competencies, students learn to apply focused strategies to help them accept, embrace, and persevere as mindful, strategic learners. In the summer program, for example, we begin by reframing students’ thoughts of self-doubt. This helps students reach a place where they are willing to push through challenges to find (and celebrate!) personal successes. Here are a few key strategies to increase students’ interest in becoming resilient learners:

1. Storytelling. At our summer program, teachers share stories of famous achievers who have demonstrated tenacity and overcome obstacles, from Michael Jordan to Albert Einstein, as well as personal stories of family members, friends, or fellow teachers. Then teachers ask students to tell their own stories—keeping in mind that they are in charge of how their stories unfold.

2. Student choice. Students often come into the summer program and sit quietly waiting for teachers to guide them, tell them, and in essence, think for them. After the first week or so, we notice a huge shift as students have opportunities to make choices in their learning processes. Choice allows students’ thinking to drive their journey toward becoming self-regulated, self-motivated learners. By applying strategies that align with the Universal Design for Learning Principles and Guidelines, we strive to cultivate expert learners who reach a unique personal best, and we hope students will carry this feeling of accomplishment with them throughout the following school year.

3. Movement and expression. We incorporate movement into our lessons in order to encourage students to forge a bond between what they are learning, why they are learning, and how they learn best. Some movement is naturally embedded in our rotating workshops and project-based learning activities, and we strategically plan our lessons to take advantage of these opportunities. In addition, we introduce yoga, mindful walking, and intuitive art and journaling to help students focus on their mind-body-energy connection and create a more relaxed, positive outlook on learning.

Students need to have an active role in the learning process, so they can gain content knowledge and develop the social and emotional skills they need to achieve personal goals. Summer is the perfect time to capture students’ natural curiosity within a relaxed setting. Teachers can use this time to guide learners to tap into resiliency when the going gets tough. As more students gain these resiliency skills and more teachers integrate resiliency into their instruction, I hope that the summer classroom will evolve to be a more dynamic, innovative, positive place—and the traditional vision of summer school will become a thing of the past.

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