Homework Will be the Death of Me #hfellows

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‘Cause Drake is always the answer

Perhaps I’ve been prolonging writing this blog post because I simply couldn’t figure out a way to begin.

 

For the third time, I have a cohort of young people that I’m bringing along in my sophomore English class with the goal of preparing them to move into advanced/Honors English classes. I’ve been successful with the previous two cohorts, so successful that I decided to actually document my work as part of my Heinemann Fellowship. (I won’t write too much about the genesis of that question, as I’ve written a post for Heinemann that I’ll link to when it’s up to provide that background).

This third cohort has confounded me, though. In a moment of feeling like an absolute failure, my colleague (@emilytwo) reminded me that documenting what isn’t working will help me to answer those inevitable questions we all ask when we are teaching: what do we do with the kids who “don’t get it”?

In short: I have never had a group of kids who didn’t do the independent reading that is their assigned homework. Their nightly expectation (seven nights a week) is to read their independent choice reading book for 20 minutes.

We are nine weeks into the year, and there are a few kids who consistently do not complete their reading. They are apologetic sometimes when they explain that they have other work to do, or practice, or they forgot, or…

Sure, a missed assignment here or there isn’t going to be detrimental, but when it keeps happening and nothing changes, we.have.a.problem.

When I ask the kids, they say they know reading is important. They know that it’s tied to increasing their overall reading comprehension and fluency and enjoyment. They love the books they’re reading, even! It’s just that, when they’re faced with read a book outside of class (THAT THEY CHOSE AND GENERALLY ENJOY), they simply don’t do it.

What I’m getting at is that I’m trying to figure out what it will take for them to just do it. I want reading to be as natural to them as breathing. We’ve tracked the way they use time in the day to find gaps. We’ve set reminders on phones. We’ve brainstormed ways to get in the reading, even breaking it up into chunks.

If reading is a habit we develop, how are these kids going to develop a habit if they don’t do it consistently?

I’ve been able to figure this out for so many years.

Until now.

And it’s the not knowing how that keeps me awake at night.

Image credit: https://media.isl.co/2015/05/drake_7.gif

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Back on the Case: On Being Named a #hfellows Heinemann Fellow

I’ve written about how this year has been difficult largely because I’ve not felt as intellectually challenged as I have in previous years. As a teacher-scholar that has always found something to think deeply about, work on, or consider, that I had to grapple with that issue was one that made me think seriously about the reasons why many of us both choose teaching and choose to pursue lives beyond teaching.

Then, though, a series of events happened. The first was that I collaborated with colleagues to produce a wildly successful Educators of Color Conference that convened so many amazing educators of color sharing their work, celebrating excellence, and simply exhaling together.

The next was being named one of 11 educators from across the nation as a Heinemann Fellow. A primary undertaking over the next two years of this fellowship is to conduct an action research project. Essentially, I get to think deeply about what has been happening in my classroom and focus on a question I’d like to set about investigating. I’d been taking lots of notes during our initial meeting last week, but when our leader, Ellin Keene, began explaining why it’s important to follow our hunches and to think about what is most curious or most troubling about our teaching, I felt my gears start to shift into motion again. 

I have hunches all the time. I ask questions all the time. I write them on Post-Its and in notebooks that I rediscover randomly. For the most part, though, I’ve not spent any meaningful time thinking about how to answer them because of a host of reasons. Largely, though, I’d venture that I’ve not felt compelled to pursue them because I’ve had neither the time nor the compunction to do so on my own. Such a realization is a huge one for me, as when I began teaching I was largely a lone wolf, content to work on my own (for better or for worse). It was only once I got my teaching sea legs that I realized how much more powerful (for myself and for my students) it has been when I go with others. And here I should add that the reason I have been able to remain intellectually engaged over the last two years has been because I have a fantastic colleague that refuses to let me do things alone. Refuses.

Now, though. NOW, THOUGH. Two of my strongest academic experiences were shaped with the help of other people. In graduate school, there was the Dissertation Support Group (the DSG), comprised of three of us working on our Ph.D.s We met often, pushed each other through completion of classes, exams, dissertations, and now, tenure for one of us. Then, there was the Cultivating New Voices Among Scholars of Color (CNV) for NCTE. I was part of a larger cohort of 10 of us that were defending dissertations, applying for tenure-track jobs, figuring out where they fit: in a secondary classroom or in academe (me). In both of these experiences, I was a part of something greater. I was a member of a family. And man, I got some incredible work done!

As a Heinemann Fellow, I am part of a cohort again, and they are some of the most interesting educators I have met in a long time: dedicated, smart, doing great work with young folks. And we’re all doing the work together. TOGETHER. 

Getting back to the research: I had two of the best qualitative methods professors I’ve ever had and I remember both of them talking about hunches and then setting out to see where the data takes you. That, to paraphrase Anne Haas Dyson, is what it means to be “on the case.” I remember being vaguely terrified because, well, that meant that hunches might or might not pan out and what then?!

I’ve come to realize that the what then is actually where the magic happens. That, as one begins to listen, to think deeply, and to simply be willing to be open to what one sees, truth reveals itself. That truth is oftentimes nothing close to what was initially anticipated, but that is okay. Being brave enough to ask the questions is what starts this entire amazing process.

Being named a Heinemann Fellow has reminded me to be brave enough to ask the questions again, and to follow where the case leads. I am beyond excited about this next part of my journey.

 

 

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#kal Kids Are Loving #3: Books My Students are Currently Reading and Loving

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Image from New York Times

Welcome to the latest in the occasional series I call Kids Are Loving. Here, I briefly note books that my sophomores and seniors have loved. (Previous lists can be found here and here). [Note: My classes are comprised of mostly underserved young people (i.e., students of color, ones with learning challenges, boys, etc.) who usually have not had enough positive experiences with reading before starting my class.] Happy reading!

Humor

Zits: Chillax, Jerry Scott, Jim Borgman: This book has captured all types of kids. They say it’s funny and enjoy the comic strip aspect of the book (and even stop and sketch while they’re reading).

Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir, Eddie Huang: Before it became a hit TV show, it was a book. This one resonates for students from a broad range: language learners, different races and ethnicities, etc. All say Eddie is irreverent and hilarious.

Swim the Fly, Don Calame (from Amazon):  three 15-year-old buddies make a pact to see a naked girl before the summer is over and in the process mire themselves in increasing trouble and constant humiliation. All three are on the summer swim team, and, in a desperate attempt to impress the superhot new girl, Matt agrees to swim the dreaded butterfly at championships, despite the fact that he can barely tread water. At the same time, he’s dealing with his horny grandpa, a sadistic swim instructor, and his pals’ wacky schemes to catch a glimpse of bare skin, which includes dressing up like girls and entering a women’s locker room. That would’ve worked if it weren’t for the accidental dose of laxative . . . well, you get the idea. My note: BOYS LOVE THIS BOOK.

Noggin, John Corley Whaley: (from Amazon): Five years ago, Travis Coates died at the age of 16 after a long, hard battle with leukemia. However, Travis was offered a chance to become the 17th test subject in a very unorthodox medical experiment, which involved cryogenically freezing his head and eventually bringing him back to life once science becomes more advanced. Science moves faster than either the doctors or Travis and his family ever imagined, and soon he is back with a healthy 16-year-old body thanks to a generous young donor. Kirby Heyborne fills Travis’s voice with a realistic mix of pain, confusion, and the joy of being given a second chance, as he highers and lowers his pitch and volume. He also tackles the many people in Travis’s life who had to grieve his loss and must now deal with his return from the dead—albeit with a different body.

Hodge Podge

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Max Brooks: zombies, zombies, zombies. This book got passed around so often I purchased a few more copies. Kids found it spooky, amazing, and couldn’t put it down.

Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible, Suzanne Kamata: I found this book while doing some reading for a chapter I’m writing on multicultural kid lit. Aiko, the 15-year old protagonist has cerebral palsy and creates Gadget Girl, a graphic novel featuring a fearless, creative heroine who solves problems through her ingenuity with kitchen gadgets. Aiko is biracial (Japanese and white), also. I’ve added this one to my classroom library because 1) there aren’t enough books about disability and 2) those books tend to not feature characters of color.

Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon: A good-old love story that was in frequent rotation. The main character is a young woman in a bubble, content to live there until…Ollie, a cute boy, moves in next door. Things suddenly get WAY too complicated, in those ways that make you love teenage romance and identity development. There are lots of delicious sentences, too, in case you’re looking for mentor texts.

A Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, Misty Copeland: many students have been captivated by Misty Copeland’s story. They find her persistence and ultimate triumph inspirational and profound. That they can also find her on social media is an additional element that makes her life come alive for them.

And One to Grow On: A Great Read Aloud

Blackbird Fly, Erin Entrada Kelly. Kids love being read to. I need to remember that. I found this middle grade gem while doing some reading for the chapter I wrote. Essentially, it makes the reader cringe about middle school and all the reasons why it is a terrible place for many folks, particularly if that life resembles that of main character Apple, a Filipina American living in Louisiana. Yet, there is so much hope here and reminders about the power of parents, and music, and good friends. I read some excerpts to my kids and they ate it up.

 

 

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How Penny Kittle Made My Day (for the second time)

I’m featured in the Teacher Learning Sessions Podcast chatting with Penny Kittle (OMG!!!) about how to get young people reading. Please listen (it’s less than a half hour) and send some coins to the Book Love Foundation. Teachers need books and Penny Kittle is, essentially, the fairy book mother by giving teachers classroom libraries. She is a gem and my kids are better readers because I received one of these grants. All the money raised goes to teachers to buy books. If anyone has ever purchased books for you or for your students, it’s time to pay it forward. Book love is contagious!booklovelogov2020416

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#kal Kids Are Loving #2: Books My Students Are Currently Reading & Loving

Welcome to another Kids Are Loving (#kal), where I offer up texts my students are reading and loving. In case you missed KAL #1, you can catch up here. These texts are ones young people choose to read. [Note: My classes are comprised of mostly underserved young people (i.e., students of color, ones with learning challenges, boys, etc.) who usually have not had enough positive experiences with reading before starting my class.] Kids are currently reading, chatting up, and passing around a lot of nonfiction. Enjoy!

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Image from Amazon.com

Nonfiction

Columbine, Dave Cullen: none of my students were alive when this school shooting happened on April 20, 1999. Cullen’s account of the shooters, the environment, and the aftermath holds them spellbound through the entire account. Plus, Cullen’s writing is riveting and makes for great modeling about powerful writing.

Laughing at My Nightmare, Shane Burcaw: Burcaw is a 21-year-old living with spinal muscular atrophy. It’s Burcaw’s use of humor that students love as they read about his triumphs and travails. What kids realize is that having a challenge doesn’t mean someone is so different after all.

Lost Girls:An Unsolved American Mystery, Robert Kolker: I picked this book up after reading a review in the New York Times. Essentially, this book attempts to find out what happened to four murdered women whose bodies were found in New York. That these young women were, essentially, forgotten because they lived lives of survival makes their fates and the inattention paid them, even more troubling. This book has resonated with many students and has topped a number of Best Of lists for them.

Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, Nathan McCall: Nathan McCall came to my college when I was a sophomore (I vaguely remember). At that time, his book had just been published. I remember him as being warm, strident, and of having my peers note that they felt he was talking about their own experiences. Now, nearly 20 decades later, that same feeling of personal address by McCall continues to resonate with readers, particularly ones of color, but McCall’s message holds true for any young person going through difficult times and encouraging them to keep pushin.

Fiction

The Coldest Winter Ever, Sister Souljah: I can’t keep this book in my library and have multiple copies. This is a fast-paced, drama-filled story of a young woman who navigates elements of urban life. Winter is street smart, in love with a bad boy, has a complicated relationship with her father…kids love it (and so do I). There are two sequels, BTW.

Spanking Shakespeare, Jake Wizner: A senior in high school has to write his memoirs as part of a graduation requirement. As you might imagine, the details are hilarious. This book has been popular with boys who want to laugh. A lot.

What are your kids loving lately? Share their faves (and yours) in the comments!

 

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Teaching Flint, MI, Teaching Social Justice: Curriculum Materials to Use With Students

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Contaminated Water in Flint, MI 

I have amazing colleagues. Yesterday, during a quick chat at the copier, Ariel Maloney and I discussed ideas that would blend current events, nonfiction reading, and discussion. Given, too, that Mrs. Maloney walks the talk EVERY DAY about teaching for social justice, it made sense that she would use the current injustices of what’s been happening in Flint, MI to do that work.

I asked her if she’d type up all her materials so I could push them out on her behalf in the hope that more of us could build on her work to make our students aware of what is happening right here in the United States (because I talked about it with my students this week, too, and they were agog that clean water wasn’t a given everywhere in the country). Believe me, they want to know. If you dig a little deeper, too, these discussions open an important level of discussion about race, access, class…yup, this issue lets you go there (and, I argue, as educators, we should go there).

I tend to think it’s all of our responsibility to teach what matters. The materials below offer a road map for how we can do that work.

Case Study-Flint, MI Flint MI Case Study Mrs. Maloney’s contact information is on her materials in case you want to contact her, ask her question or give her props for her excellent work.

Image of Flint water from: https://cdn4.dogonews.com/images/78b27af9-041f-4a8d-817f-cc668f9ae2eb/flint-water-top-compressed.jpg

 

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#kal Kids Are Loving #1: Books My Students Are Currently Reading & Loving

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Boy21 image from Matthew Quick’s website

Welcome to what I hope is a regular series I’m calling “Kids Are Loving” #kal. Here, I’m aiming to note what is popular with my teenage readers in hopes of having a record for future recommendations, to also serve as suggestions for those of us working with young people, and to remember what they enjoyed at that particular moment. These books are all ones students selected on their own and read as part of their independent reading lives.

Boy 21, Matthew Quick: boys love this book! I can’t keep our multiple copies in the library. From Matthew Quick’s website: Basketball has always been an escape for Finley. He lives in broken-down Bellmont, a town ruled by the Irish mob, drugs, violence, and racially charged rivalries. At home, his dad works nights and Finley is left alone to take care of his disabled grandfather. He’s always dreamed of somehow getting out, but until he can, putting on that number 21 jersey makes everything seem okay…

Rule of the Bone, Russell Banks: another one that is always checked out. Review here from the New York Times.

Monster, Graphic Novel, adapted by Guy Sims from original by Walter Dean Myers: a graphic novel of the popular story of WDM’s Steve. Tackles timely questions in a gripping, accessible way. Students who loved the original Monster also like this version.  More info here. 

Redefining Realness, Janet Mock: another popular selection that is informative and inspirational as well as a great example of how literacy can save us. Plus, Mock has a fantastic online presence that encourages follow-up and further reading.

The Death of Bees, Lisa O’Donnell: a student explained why she loved this book: alternating narrators and a mystery that isn’t resolved until the last few pages. Great for kids who love mysteries, young adults as protagonists (and I found them portrayed accurately, though it took me a moment to get used to the narrators because they talk just like…well, like teenagers!), and a well-told, sentimental story. (The link takes you to an NPR story about the book).

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Rereading My High School Classics: Killing Mr. Griffin

I received this amazing grant from Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation, allowing me to stock my classroom library with an awe-inspiring number of books my kids will actually enjoy reading. While perusing the catalogue, I noticed that Lois Duncan’s Killing Mr. Griffin was among the options. KMG is one of those books that evokes an instant reaction for me: flashback to early high school (or maybe late middle school). I was a binge reader, so I probably was in the process of reading every book Duncan had ever written by that point. I was most likely splayed out on my bed while my grandmother was most likely telling me to do something (most likely to wash the dishes or pour the food up after dinner) and I was unable to tear myself away from the book. I passed much of my youth like that.

During this particular time of year, when life threatens to speed up and have its way with me, I start to read for comfort as a way to reorient

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Killing Mr. Griffin: Nearly As Good Now as It Was Then

myself. This type of reading is my self-care, I reckon. I might reread a book or two that I’ve enjoyed (cue Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed), a lot of young adult literature, some poetry…I don’t want to veer too far outside of the familiar because I need a place to stand (or read, if you will), that is comforting. That’s why I wanted to reread KMG. Would time stand still the same way? Would I feel those little creepy thrills at the mystery? Would I be as enmeshed with a text in the ways I was when I was a teenager?

Essentially, yes. The quick premise of the book: Mr. Griffin is a high school English teacher who pushes his students to be excellent. He doesn’t take late work, doesn’t accept mediocrity, insists that students think critically. Wait. Am I Mr. Griffin?! I hope not, because four particular students decide to play a prank on him and scare Mr. Griffin into becoming a nicer teacher. Of course, given that Duncan wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer, this intention was going to go awry, and it did. The kids kill Mr. Griffin.

I’m relatively sure that when I read it as a teenager, I would have been all caught up in the social structure of the killer kids: they lure in a nerdy junior (the majority of them are seniors), they make her feel that she belongs, they complain about the teacher being too demanding. I would have totally gotten behind their cause (well, up to a point), allowing myself to get caught up with the momentum of the story. I would not have paid any attention to Duncan’s attempts at Mr. Griffin’s backstory, choosing instead to consume myself with how Murder Inc. was going to either hold or fold as more people began to find out what they’d done. I did feel some anxiety at moments around the actions of the one kid at the center who orchestrated everything. But, yeah. I would have spent all night reading it, going back to wherever I got that book the next day (be that the public library if it were a Saturday or the Thrifty Bookworm if I could get a ride there to trade it in) to keep reading something along those lines.

Fast forward to nearly 25 years later. Here’s what I noticed reading KMG this time:

  • Lois Duncan had some great lines of prose, particularly when it came to description. A line I wrote down to use as a mentor sentence: Susan turned to see David Ruggles running toward her, the slightness and delicacy of his bone structure giving him the framework of a kite with his blue Windbreaker billowing out beneath his arms, the wind seeming to lift and carry him (3).
  • All I could think about this time was how similar my teaching philosophy was to Mr. Griffin and how, IRL, if you’re a tough teacher, you’re often not considered a “good” teacher by students until years down the road. I also thought it was so sad that he truly loved his students and working with them and all they were concerned about was their grades. So, they killed him. Yipes. And he and his wife were expecting a baby?! NOPE.
  • I was less forgiving of plot holes. Characters came and went, then reappeared (or didn’t) with little rhyme or reason. Again, I notice this now but then? Such discrepancies wouldn’t have bothered me much. I was also not satisfied with the (relatively) tidy ending.
  • There are some fantastic allusions to Macbeth (the Murder Inc. kids make a reference to the line about the old man “having so much blood in him”) and there are several to Hamlet. The English teacher in me cheered.

In sum: Grade then: A; Grade now: B+

Reading one of my classics was a delightful experience. While I’m sad about how things ended for Mr. Griffin, I do think the experience of reading the book was as positive now as it was then. I also have had a series of great conversations with colleagues about rereading the books that mattered to them as young people and if they held up to our grown up eyes. Wouldn’t that be a wonder to share with our students? But, oh, it was simply joyful to sit in a restaurant this afternoon and read, and read, and read and not care what time it was, or who needed me. For those moments, it was me and my book. And that was all that mattered.

 

 

 

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Update on Taking the Diverse Books Pledge: Harder to Reach 100 Than I Thought (sigh)

I pledged to read at least 100 books written by diverse authors this year. I make my kids keep a chart where they list the number of books read (goal: 40 by year’s end). In keeping with do as I say and also what I do, I thought I should check in to note my progress and make some final plans as the year ends.

I keep too many lists in too many different places. Plus, I read a variety of texts, to my bio kid, with my other kids (students) and a bunch in between. Some recent favorites for the boypie:

For my students:

For Me:

Some In-Progress Reflections: There are not many books that feature kids of color just being kids of color, doing normal kid things. The closest I can find are the John Steptoe, Angela Johnson and Spike Lee board books. In the Johnson books, Joshua goes to the ocean, walks in the rain and looks at birds. There’s nothing didactic about them, and, I’m realizing, those are the books I want to read with my son. I don’t want to always feel like there’s a lesson beyond: hey, it’s fun to wear rain boots and splash in the puddles. Why does it always need to be deeper than that? We need more of THOSE stories! Thus, I’ve found us reading more books about other topics of interest: trucks, Wolfie the Bunny, Find it books because they are FUN, essentially. What is disappointing there, though, is that when these books feature actual people, few, if any, are people of color. UGH.

I do not like when my reading time is compromised. I rarely read at school because I’m (hopefully) having reading conferences with students. I had been reading on our morning commutes, but my toddler now wants to use that time to read together, and I love that special time. That means, though, that I have to carve out time to read, which is fine, but that time is inconsistent of late. I am most settled and happy when I know I’m going to read for a particular amount of time every single day. Since I seem to have insomnia of late, I have been reading for about a half hour or so in the early hours of the morning. I totally get what my students say when they complain about finding time to read. Thing is, though, once you have the time as habit, then it’s much harder to give it up.

I set out to read only diverse books, but my interests take me everywhere. I read a bunch of parenting books. Okay, actually I read only one that made sense to me, so I stopped there (Peaceful Parent, Happy Kid) because I knew that if I didn’t watch out, I was going to parent as I was parented and I didn’t really like that, and others on Family Traditions and another one on Failure. All are ones I highly recommend, but none are written by diverse authors.

I’m going to ball park my current progress and say I’m at about 50 books, give or take a picture book here or there. With one month to go and midterms, a national conference (woot!), and teacher-related stuff, who knows if I’ll make it to 100, but I’m going to try my hardest. I’ll also share my progress with my students tomorrow as a way of modeling the need to reflect and re-evaluate and, as having a growth mindset suggests, continuing with deliberate practice to meet my goal.

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What Happened When We Asked Students to Think: Conclusions

Reading student reflections is always my favorite part of anything I plan. There, if we’ve done it at all well, they will reveal what they really think, what they learned (or didn’t), and offer any suggestions for future instruction. This process of asking for feedback and reflection is amazingly useful and quite humbling. It’s also thrilling. Thus, when I sat down to read through the student reflections of what they’d learned through the messy process of growth mindset (part one is described here and part two is described here) and design thinking, here are some snippets of what they said:

Question: Why do you think this assignment asked you to think of a problem and design a solution?

They said: “Maybe because people want to know what kind of ideas we might have.” “To tell people nothing is impossible, there’s a solution for every problem.” “…there are always problems in this world and to design a solution can help us learn to think of a problem then solve it.” “…because Dr. Parker wanted to know/see what we’re capable of.” “Because we as students might want a change in the high school.”

Question: What risks did you take to move your project forward? What did you try that you weren’t certain about at first? What were the results?

They said:”We repealed our skit in order to move forward”…”We took a risk when we started designing our prototype. We weren’t certain about the drawing of the brain. The result of the drawing turned out to be good.” “The biggest risk was changing of topics because if we did that we’d have to start back at square one again with the very little time we had left. But it turned out all right in the end.” “I wasn’t sure that this idea will work because it seems a bit too far fetched. Like not many teachers and staff in the school may agree with the idea of naptime.” “We tried to use a soft poster, like a thin one and it got destroyed and it resulted to us having a really good poster board.” [Note: ALL students remarked that their results were satisfactory because they made changes. That’s a big deal!]

Question: What did you learn about yourself through this activity?

They said: “I learned that I need to have a positive growth mindset at all time and not everything that’s impossible unless you actually try.” “I can be creative if I want to be and I want to be able to use my creativity through everything I do.” “I like solving problems.” “I can have a lot of potential if I focus more.” “I learned how to manage my time.”

As I look at these responses a few months after the project, I’m gently reminded that, while I felt this project was disorganized and I was one step ahead of my students, they learned a tremendous amount. Specifically, they learned how to collaborate, how to think of something that mattered to them and try to change it, how to take pride in their work, how to present their ideas to an authentic audience.

Since that project, we’ve moved on to other pursuits, but we keep the throughlines of the growth mindset work with us. [Note: it’s important, too, to consider what Carol Dweck has said about how the growth mindset understandings can be used incorrectly with young people. She’s right. We are all combinations of growth and fixed mindsets. It’s situation-dependent. We are all works in progress, and that is not a bad thing.] Students will occasionally challenge each other to “GROW!” which I find hilarious, especially as those words come when we are doing something hard. Kids want more of this type of work, work that matters, work that is real, work that encourages them to push against their own boundaries and, indeed, to grow. 

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