Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Achieving Failure with a Growth Mindset

The issues raised in this blog are not specifically motivated by the policies within my own school or within my district. I write about many topics that are often related to discussions with educators who do not work in my school district. This blog in no way is intended to reflect solely on any specific leaders or my place of employment. 

Yesterday I was a first-year teacher again.

I really had no idea where my social studies lesson plan was heading and the bewildered looks on student faces was a flashback to my rookie year. Trying something new in my classroom was the best way for me to recognize how far I have to go in terms of my own improvement.

Our high school class was attempting to unpack the topics of addiction and the decriminalization of drugs in the US legal system. We used the documentary, Chasing Heroin from PBS as a digital text and students developed meaningful questions for a Socratic seminar following our viewing. My intent was to create an environment where students would dig deeper as writers and thinkers. I was hopeful we could get past the generic talking points related to addiction and make it relevant on a personal level.

I wasn't sure how to meet my lofty objectives so I ran my ideas by a couple of all-star English teachers. They coached me through the "Socratic Seminar" process and they addressed some of the challenges of completely turning the direction of the conversation over to students. Meaningful dialogue without me leading might be tough they warned. I was determined that the class should make their own path so I relied on their expert advice to let it go wherever it needed to go.

Falling flat on my podium and crawling back to a last-minute victory with an audience of high school seniors was humbling and necessary for my growth. I have a fresh experience to draw from as I work to improve as a teacher. This very real and clumsy teaching experience is a gift.

Learning can be messy

With eyes wide open, I took the plunge insisting every class member contribute to a natural "Socratic-style" dialogue with no hand raising. After some valuable writing time and a review of their excellent questions, it was time to start.
[Followed by even longer silence]
[ Interrupted briefly by side conversations or a hurried question for the class to ponder]
[More silence] 

My typically engaged class was censoring their voices. For more than thirty minutes, student comments were sandwiched between awkward gaps of quiet - the kind where everyone in class notices the air vent blowing. Agitation could be measured by the occasional paper shuffling to fill the space while a few students nervously tapped their feet. A majority of people just stared down at the paper in front of them pretending to read as our most outspoken students doodled and drifted. It got so bad that when I mustered the courage to look out to survey the entire circle, the class smart ass nodded to me with raised eyebrows and a self-assured smirk silently saying, "What did you expect?"

My students expected me to take over.

I did not do much to help and we spent a thirty minute eternity in this awkwardness. Inevitably, it broke down when a single student raised an issue about the demeaning body language of a classmate and an alleged comment he made under his breath about "stupid people." Others were frustrated and admitted not wanting to share ideas for fear of being viewed unfavorably.

With that, all sorts of ground rules and expectations were established by the class - not me - and the silence was broken. Student expressions of frustration mixed with some laughter helped everyone re-calibrate.

The blow-up was cut short by a student who rarely speaks in class. He shared a very personal story dealing with heroin addiction and death. Our raucous classroom turned back to silence - the best kind of silence - and everyone listened intently. Naturally, a very authentic and serious conversation about rehabilitation and the legal process filled up our remaining 25 minutes of class. Students left wanting more.

It was a phenomenal moment as we eventually managed to stumble our way into some really valuable learning. I wished we didn't have to stop at the bell. My students helped me gain an honest assessment of how I can raise my game as a teacher and why my growth is critical for student learning.

The Immediate Take-Aways

Optimal learning requires a safe space

I was advised by a sassy student during our preparation for our Socratic seminar that if I followed through with it, I should prepare for failure. The implication from this likable student was that I was wasting my time with high expectations. She giggled at my optimism and told me students would stare at the wall and no one would participate. I accepted her challenge and she was absolutely correct.

Even though there was a lot of silence and mumbling, it was a success. She lived something that I struggled to understand completely - that sharing ideas and feelings about a very real topic like addiction would require committing to new expectations in our classroom. Besides me there are seven or eight students who carry the majority of the dialogue in our class so we rarely hear from other important voices in class. This experience helping me learn precisely why why we need more voices. As a professional, I need to learn how to do a better job.

Give the class back to students; they will appreciate the effort even when it is not smooth

Doing something for the first time can be scary interesting. Students may not voice their praise, but they like knowing a teacher is trying to engage them. Mixing it up and the effort is welcomed. This blog and my ideas about creating a positive culture of learning in schools helps me think through my ideas. I believe strongly that teachers are creative and talented people and writing about these topics makes me want to try new things that will help students. Seeing students eyes glaze over motivates me to keep trying better ways to reach more people. Just by virtue of the fact that I might keep more students awake has to count for something! (I do not allow students to sleep in class, but I know some will sleep with their eyes open when they're not engaged)

Meet students where they are to get where they want to go

Another student told me that if I left the room during the Socratic seminar the lesson would go better. It got so bad that I honored her request and sat outside my classroom for a little bit. It didn't go better, but it was clear to me that I was the engine of the learning experience in our class. They really did not know how to make it work without me front and center. This is more a reflection of me and not the talented students in the class. To their credit they still tried to make it work even when it was clear that we were off to a poor start.

They were struggling and we embraced the struggle together. We stuck it out and I think students appreciated my effort even if the process was flawed in the "technical" sense. We persisted because students wanted to make it work. That want is within students even if the evidence of their desire to learn is absent.

Listening is the first step to change

In the short amount time since our class experience I have talked to four students individually about the topic of addiction. They shared experiences and insights with me that informs their learning. I was taken aback by some of the connections and ideas they shared. Understanding how our own perspective shapes our learning is enlightening. Listening to new ways of viewing the same challenge (addiction in this case) is invaluable. Once we get past being right and we seek understanding then our ability to change improves dramatically. I am grateful to my students for this reminder.

We may never know the reach of a single learning experience 

A future researcher or policy maker could be sitting in my classroom. At the very least, two-thirds of my students claimed they had experiences with addiction in their own lives. Many students encounter opportunities to experiment with alcohol or other drugs so gaining a deeper understanding may help them personally. The future challenges for our students are largely unknown. If our classroom experiences help in some way, it's a win.

DISCLAIMER: This blog includes ideas and topics serving as a composite of issues from various sources. The issues raised in this blog are not specifically or solely motivated by the policies within the author's own school district.


  1. Loved this piece Mr. Gregory and loved that you put yourself out there to learn right along with your students. Transparency and vulnerability is the sign of a top educator.

    On a side note I really like the "Socratic Smackdown" as a tool for keeping some of those healthy conversations going:

  2. Along with the courage to trust young people with their own learning process (yay!), it is encouraging to know you are adressing such an important topic that is slowly crawling into national attention. Two-thirds of a classroom carrying the heavy experience of addiction shows the importance of making space for this dialogue in our small community. It supports, relieves and encourages students to educate themselves, see there is space for support, and then with these tools move through the rest of their educational journey. good work!

  3. Courageous, for you to take this risk educating our youth! Loved your Take-Aways. Not only did you put yourself out there on grounds so little traveled, but to tackle a topic we need to face head-on. Just the fact students came to you and shared is huge! Keep up the great work you're doing with our youth! As always, a favorite fan!

  4. We are in the process of writing and the initial results include writing that is alive and full of "voice" ... relieved that I will be grading something that seems more meaningful to students than the last round of essays. Thanks for all of the feedback. It is fun to experiment with some new ideas in class and to have support. Like other teachers, I struggle taking risks but the reality is that students actually appreciate the effort I think.

  5. Great piece Nick! I am going to share it with my Social Studies and Curriculum Methods teaching candidates at EMU where I am a professor.

  6. Glad you have chosen to share this Ethan. Maybe we can set up a visit. I love meeting with teaching candidates and learning from them. I did my Masters work at EMU in Ed Leadership and would welcome the opportunity to give back.