August 27, 2017
Read Middle School Head, Sumant Bhat's latest blog.
Last week at Founders’ Day, the whole school gathered in the amphitheater for the bell to be rung sixty-six times, one for every year of the school’s existence. Prior to that moment, Mr. Smiley asked that we all take a time to pause and reflect on our year. Like me, many of you likely feel that reflecting is a practice we do not do nearly enough as we should or would like to do.
As an educator, I believe that cultivating a spirit and habit of reflection in our students is critical to both their academic and personal growth, but also to the nurturing of healthy decision-making skills. Through reflection, students can learn causality between choices they make and the outcomes.
In the classroom, at different points of the year (e.g., the mid-trimester or trimester), after projects, and prior to tests, teachers and advisors often engage in reflective conversations with students. Asking students what study habits they will try or have tried, or what they could have done differently in class discussions, is intended to help nurture metacognitive skills. Recognizing actions that led to success or identifying ones that did not lead to success can help shape future behavior.
Outside of the classroom, being reflective is equally as important, particularly around technology. Frequent meetings and discussions in middle school on digital citizenship are focused on building a habit of reflective self-questioning prior to hitting send. Always asking Is it kind? Is it necessary? or How will this impact others? can lead to better decision-making on devices. Twenty years ago, adolescents had the luxury of time and countless opportunities to reflect on a poor decision because of how long it would have taken to take a picture on a camera, develop the film and then put it in the mail. Having time to consider the feelings of others and alternative actions was enough to deter a poor instinct. For better and worse, today our world provides our raw emotions and thoughts instantaneous access to an infinite audience for all our tweets, photos and posts.
As adults who are eager to support our kids in becoming more reflective, there are several tools we can employ to counter natural walls or reluctance we get from them. Active listening and holding off problem-solving for them allows kids to talk through their challenge, reflect, and often come up with a solution on their own. Teasing out a student’s intention and then helping that person understand the impact on others and oneself is another powerful approach. Another practice I like to use is asking students to use a numerical scale to quantify feelings like frustration, fatigue, or pain that they felt prior to making a decision. Not only does it give the listener some context, but it also helps the individual have comparison points for the future to put things into perspective. Finally, finding time to identify alternative choices and pondering possible outcomes of those actions can help broaden the kids' minds to a multitude of choices they have in the event they find themselves in a similar situation in the future.
As a middle school, we hope that encouraging reflection provides students a pathway to build scholarship and good habits that will serve them well beyond our walls. Being reflective is also necessary for our kids to overcome the pressures of peers egging one another on while gathered around a device, or the perceived expectations of being active and current in social media. However, just as using a stress ball only in times of crisis proves less than effective, we must practice reflection routinely and on a daily basis. Only then will we be equipped to be reflective when we need it.
Two weeks ago, I was in Baltimore presenting at the National Association of Independent Schools Conference on the topic of “Making Your Core Values Visible.” It was a great opportunity to share so many of the ways St. Anne’s makes a concerted effort to holistically inculcate many values, including respect, kindness, integrity, perseverance and honesty, through programming, curriculum and teachable moments.
One part of our approach includes proactively promoting values and finding opportunities to practice them consistently through experiences such as outreach, writing appreciations to staff and one another, and working with younger students through our buddy program. Daily practice of values builds muscle memory that fosters St. Anne’s graduates who are empathic and kind citizens that enrich their next communities. For those that have not read it, I would highly recommend the book Unselfie which amongst other things, speaks to the many ways we can help nurture empathic kids through daily practice.
Perhaps the strength of our approach, though, lies in a community of teachers, advisors, staff, trip leaders and coaches who are all committed to talking about core values in every aspect of school life. Respect isn’t something that should be limited to advisory or a character education class. It is an essential part of the education that happens on trips, such as the 6th grade end of year trip to St. Anne’s in the Hills, where Mr. Bird teaches respect through trail etiquette, not disturbing nature and leaving places better than when you arrived. Watch a basketball game coached by Ms. Jordan or Mr. Amend and you’ll not only hear an emphasis on defensive schemes, but also lessons on playing with sportsmanship and treating the other team with the respect they deserve. Even in the dining hall you’ll see our staff, led by Ms. Jones, reminding students to say “please” and “thank you.” At school, at home, or over spring break, we always have opportunities to have conversations with our kids about values, helping build their understanding of these lofty terms through practice and discussion.
Regardless of where the conversations happen, as adults I believe we must be mindful of the way in which we have those conversations. A major tenet of my presentation to other educators was that we must not rely solely on a list of “Do not do’s” to guide and grow adolescent behavior. After all, it is impossible to remind and direct kids of every single thing they should not do. And when we tell them to not do something without proper rationalization and context, the reality is we have merely piqued curiosity of the developing adolescent brain. None of us wants to raise kids who are going through life worrying about all the possible missteps they can make. So, we must cultivate an understanding of values so that our kids may use them as a road map to navigate the many new situations that await them in the world.
There’s no question that it is much easier to teach from successful demonstrations of values. But when you have a school that brings together over 400 children in the same space for eight hours each day (or a home with one or more kids in your family), the reality is there are going to be instances when our kids fall short of embodying those values. While we must enforce boundaries, we must also view these instances as invitations to discuss our core values. “Inappropriate uses of technology” is listed in our handbook as a violation of our student expectations, but when a student makes that mistake, how do we help them understand why it is written in our handbook? Empathy and our core values provide the key.
There are several tools that our faculty use frequently in our conversations with our students that help shift the focus from a “don’t do that,” to an opportunity to construct meaning and understanding of values. The first is the use of intention versus impact. Asking a child about what their intention was or to share what factors motivated their choice accomplishes several things, the most important of which is the deferring of judgment and opening a channel for dialogue. Second, whether the response is “I was trying to express that I was mad at them,”, “I was trying to raise my grade,” or “I was looking for attention from my friends,” it leads to an opportunity for us to help them make a connection between their choice and the values that the choice might not live up to, whether it was kindness or honesty. It also can sometimes provide us a window into feelings and emotions the child is really experiencing. Finally, it tees up a couple of natural follow-up questions: “What do you think the impact of your choice was on your peer/friend/teacher/you?” In most cases, there’s also an opportunity to shine light on how others not considered might be impacted. Considering the impact on others nurtures empathy and helps them realize how their choices impact more than themselves. “What is an alternative choice you could have made that might have addressed what you were feeling and would be respectful/kind/honest?” Asking this question helps students understand that there is almost always more than one option. Considering the likely outcomes of those alternative options can also provide good conversation and a chance to correct misconceptions and coach good decision-making.
Embedded in all of this dialogue is the notion of separating the child from the choice. Rather than saying “you’re a bad kid,” saying that they made a bad choice reminds the that they had control over their decision and that you see they make lots of other choices every day that are good ones. This kind of phrasing supports a growth mindset where a student can make progress other than a fixed mindset of being incapable of making good choices because they are a bad kid. Our children need to know that we believe in their capacity to be good.
All of these tools require patience, empathy and time, precious resources which, I realize, are not always available to us on a given day. At the same time, our kids are receiving inconsistent messages from media, the internet, and even travel sports teams, amongst other places, which demand that we spend time talking about values.
While there is certainly a space and need to be brief and direct with kids about what is and is not appropriate behavior, finding the balance is necessary, as is keeping perspective. It is important for our own health that we remember that, despite our modeling, efforts and reminders, adolescents will learn from making both good and bad choices at different points in their lives, just as we have done. They will also ask questions, push boundaries and challenge us. Values, after all, are ideas we wrestle with still today as adults, and there are definitely circumstances when two important values may come up against one another, such as being kind versus being respectful. Expecting our kids to be masters at this right away is unreasonable, but it is worth our time. Being thoughtful about how we have conversations with our kids not only can help build trust and empathy, but it also provides a means to teach the values we hold dear and hope to pass on to them.
If you went back in time and asked the middle school version of myself if he believed he was creative, he would probably have balked at the statement. No doubt he would respond that creativity was a gene he was not born with and a talent possessed by only those who were artistic. Fortunately, I’ve since learned otherwise and am always seeking ways to pay it forward as an educator, encouraging kids to see creativity as a process which everyone can tap into and access.
To cultivate creativity in adolescents or people of all ages though, there are often many obstacles. Many share the same perception I held as a kid that a creativity binary exists. People either are or are not creative. When generating ideas, there can be an instinctual desire to fixate on one solution and one right answer, rather than explore a wide ranger of possibilities. Social pressures and fears can lead to someone filtering their wild and crazy ideas, undermining a true creative process. A final hurdle is dispelling the notion that creativity is just a spontaneous, unpredictable and individual event, making it unreachable for can be generated through an intentional process.
Changing our thinking is not easy, but as I wrote last month, I believe fostering a growth mindset is an integral foundational piece for students to understand so they can learn to be creative, rather than requiring a specific gene to be creative. Flexible thinking can be cultivated in a variety of ways through exercises like the 30 Circles test or simply having to use a variety of everyday materials like buttons and pipecleaners to build prototypes.
Providing kids tools and an environment for how to brainstorm is also a vital skill in order to ensure that a proliferation of ideas is produced rather than a singular initial solution. Creating ground rules for those brainstorming sessions that defer judgment and encourage unique ideas is critical to overcoming the social fears of looking silly by saying what is on your mind. An important component to that environment is a patience and commitment to providing enough time for multiple ideas to come through as expressed in this fun video.
In the middle school innovations program, we do a combination of robotics and design thinking which offer a wide variety of skills that nurture creative and divergent thinking. However, both curricula also teach creativity as a process rather than a spontaneous event. A great example of this came last spring for our sixth graders. The school was in the early stages of exploring the possibility of creating an outdoor classroom for the preschool and kindergarten students. With the Head of School’s blessing, we set forth to dive into a design thinking project to generate some new ideas.
In the first stage of the design thinking process, our sixth graders spent time observing our youngest students play at recess.Then they had the opportunity to interview and ask questions of them and their teachers which provided empathy and insights about the needs and wants of the primary users of the outdoor classroom space. After a little bit of additional research, they brainstormed ideas to meet the needs and built model prototypes. On the final day of the process, we had our students share their prototypes and explain their ideas to the preschool teachers, maintenance staff, and several administrators.Having participated in this process at every stage including the final presentation, I was impressed with the thoughtfulness and diverse ideas our kids came up with that reflected the ways our youngest students play. There was an empathy and understanding for those needs which is at the heart of the design process. Over the summer, we were able to share some of the ideas that students came up with the actual outdoor classroom designers. While certainly not all of their recommendations were implemented, when the final designs were made, there were elements that you could point to that appeared in some capacity in some of our students’ designs as well. This fall, when the beautiful outdoor classroom had been built, it was such a treat for those same kids to visit. Now seventh graders, they could see a space that did not exist before and that they had a hand in shaping, a powerful educational experience. Furthermore, they have been involved in changemaking, having a positive impact that would enrich the daily life of other students.
Though this specific design thinking process happened in innovations, the reality is that many of the design thinking elements occur throughout a kids’ days. It happens everywhere from drama students writing a script and considering the needs and wants of a set of characters, to students designing and executing a lesson plan to teach verbal irony to their classmates in English. There is no doubt that being content creators and having the opportunity to brainstorm ideas to meet a solution is a powerful experience, but perhaps even more valuable is the opportunity for students to cultivate empathy and thinking about the experience of others. It is the sum of these kinds of experiences that help our students be more comfortable and confident in the creative process in ways that I couldn't imagine when I was there age.
Here are the steps I took to help build these communities:
1. Remove the furniture. Before desks and chairs prohibited my students to move freely and pair up with a maximum number of different partners or groups. By speaking to various people during the class period, students can move outside their comfort zones and use different vocabulary to find out about each other's interests, thoughts, and experiences. Students write in composition books, on post-its, or on index cards while in the circle which allows for more sharing, and ultimately, growth.
2. Encourage silly games, touch, and movement. While silly games encourage students to take risks and see one another in a different light, they also provide an opportunity to take a necessary break from the intensity of an immersion experience while remaining in French. Touch pushes the students to challenge their comfort level, and movement keeps their minds sharp while encouraging other forms of communication. Acting out a vocabulary term is one of the three skills taught in the class to stay in the target language, along with drawing and circumlocution.
Creating a community that applauds mistakes, encourages students to laugh at themselves, and supports a safe risk-taking environment has pushed my students to embrace a growth mindset. They understand that in order to achieve their language proficiency goals, they have to get messy with the language, ask for help, develop a persistence for understanding, and figure out new strategies to communicate their thoughts and opinions. The class community is the safety net that supports each student in the process.
Thank you for your continued support. Merci beaucoup!
Throughout elementary and middle school, math came very easily to me, and I excelled in class. I relished how quickly I could compute answers, delighting in the speed with which I could complete my work. I ended up being accelerated into an Algebra II class in seventh grade where things changed, and the material got hard, fast. I found myself being challenged in ways I had not before in a class where others around me were still thriving. I remember being fearful of asking for help, questioning my abilities in math and beginning to dislike the subject matter. Math had always come easily, but not anymore. By sophomore year of high school, I had completed AP Statistics in less than stellar form and decided I was done taking math classes in high school or college.
A decade later in graduate school, I remember learning about the research of Carol Dweck around the notion of the growth mindset vs. the fixed mindset. For those unfamiliar with the idea of the growth mindset, I highly recommend this RSA Video by Dweck. In short, Dweck’s research finds that students who possess a fixed mindset, hold the belief that they are born with a set amount of an intellectual trait or talent and that’s that. Others hold a growth mindset where they believe that intelligence and talents can be grown by effort and learning. Looking back on my math experience, I immediately recognized in myself a fixed mindset that limited my growth.
The challenges with having a fixed mindset are many. In my case, I associated having to exert effort, asking for help, and struggling to understand a concept, as a sign that I was not good at math. I figured no one who was bright asked for help, so I didn’t. I did this in part because I was worried that others might think I was not smart. For many students, this misguided view of effort and concern about how they might look in the eyes of others are primary reasons they shy away from self-advocating when they need help from a teacher. The fixed mindset also causes students to “rule out” activities and interests because they view themselves as not having ability. Unfortunately this is it based on what is usually limited life experience and preconceived notions, shortchanging kids of opportunities for growth.
This fall in our before school meetings, our middle school faculty spent time as a group delving into the idea of the growth mindset and discussing how we might cultivate it in our students. Not surprisingly, many noted that we must first be sure to model it ourselves. Some ideas included sharing examples of perseverance in our own lives, embracing our own mistakes when they happen, and being willing to learn new things ourselves no matter how confident we were in our abilities, experience, or curriculum.
In advisory and middle school meetings, we’ve shared this idea with all of our students and teachers and explored examples of each mindset. Teachers have also followed up by having conversations in their own classes. We’re all working hard to correct kids when they say phrases like “I can’t do this…” by responding “You mean, you can’t do this yet.” This applies in all cases from a student trying to hit an overhand serve in volleyball over the net to nervous students ready to zipline or a challenging hike to a pesky math problem they can’t quite solve.
Our innovations curriculum in design thinking and robotics is also perfectly suited to cultivate a growth mindset where students learn about the iterative process and how to grow from setbacks. In the arts, it is with intention that we expose students to a trimester of art, music and drama for all three years, ensuring that they do not write themselves off too soon in an area without proper exposure.
In all classes, showcasing multiple approaches to success for a given problem or assignment helps promote an open mind.
With a mid-trimester now under our belts, goal setting can be explored through a new lens. In their reflection of the start of the year, students can look at mistakes and struggles not as a definition of them as individuals, but rather they become places for them to learn from and stretch themselves. Praising effort over intelligence and pointing to specific strategies and actions helps engender a connection between effort and success.
We are also making an effort to make it visible in our halls. The core value of perseverance you will find on our Middle School Constitution, a copy of which you’ll find in each room. A new display has been put up in the staircase proffering ways to change their mindset by changing what they say and how they respond to challenge. While we do not expect students to walk by, high five and instantly adopt a growth mindset when they see it, we do believe it helps in recalling all our conversations we’ve had. What’s on your walls is a good reflection of what you values I believe.
As parents, you can do several of the same things we’re trying to do as faculty. In particular, modeling a growth mindset and interest in tackling challenging endeavors, praising effort over intellect or talent, and encouraging reflection over the efforts that made students successful all are good measures to consider.
A growth mindset is not fostered overnight, but our hope is that our consistent efforts and conversations in a variety of places will help shape and re-shape our students’ mindsets so that they are poised to enjoy success and make the effort required to achieve it.
As many of you know, my wife and I recently started our adventure into parenthood with the arrival of Rowan Leigh Bhat on June 9th. In the months leading up to his birth, family and friends showered us with well wishes, but also invariably shared the phrase, “Your whole world is about to change.” And change it has. In the last eleven weeks, my definition of a good night’s sleep has certainly become different. My phone camera roll and social media posts have shifted from panoramic mountain summit shots to a montage of smiles and tummy time from our baby boy that quickly is threatening the storage capacity of my iCloud somehow.
However, of late, I’ve felt that a more accurate description of my experience post-birth of my son has been that my world has expanded rather than changed. After all, I’ve been put in new situations from middle of the night feedings to learning to navigate the airport while juggling considerably more luggage. I’ve added the title of “Parent,” though I have only begun to scratch the surface on that job description. My perspective and decision-making have expanded to consider the needs of the newest Bhat. I’ve gained new vulnerabilities and could never have guessed the pains I would experience when I had to be away from my son and wife for the first time for a week. My expanded world has brought with it expanded emotions and nerves, but also love and support from family and friends. It has also served as a good reminder of the experiences of our kids.
On Monday, 135 will walk (or perhaps storm) through the doors of the middle school on day one of the year only to discover their world is expanding as well. They will likely feel a similar amalgamation of feelings to the ones I described feeling earlier. For 6th graders, the physical space has grown as the previously rarely used middle school becomes home now, bringing with it their own locker space, a new set of teachers, and routines. Though not new, our 7’s worlds also grow in many ways. Whether it’s the time they spend at the soup kitchen throughout the year, first time experiences rafting on the Arkansas or camping at the Sand Dunes, the exposure to new opportunities will bring with it new discoveries about themselves that they never could have known. Eighth graders return to campus meanwhile to discover that the campus now expects them to steward the community, asking them to lead assemblies, teach character education classes to younger students, give tours to prospective families,and wrestle with complex issues around race and gender in their curriculum. Even our recent graduates can relate, heading off to a new community this fall with a larger network of classmates and opportunities to grow as individuals.
Broadening horizons is part of St. Anne’s mission. So as teachers and parents, how do we then support them as they navigate their expanding worlds that are filled with both opportunities and obstacles?
We can begin by acknowledging and supporting their need and desire for growing independence. While they will still follow us at times and seek approval, they increasingly crave the opportunity to be in front and the autonomy to make decisions that will lead to successes and failures. When we give them those opportunities, it sends the message we trust and believe in their maturing abilities.
This will mean, however, avoiding the urge to swoop in and rescue them at every problem or possible misstep, such as when they forget a homework assignment at home, wrestle with their digital lives, or experience conflict with a classmate. At times they will need to learn through experience that their actions have consequences both good and bad. When they come to us with problems, we can listen intently. We can lead with questions to clarify how they are feeling, what they feel their hurdles are, and then let them brainstorm solutions to their own problems. Considering possible impacts or outcomes of those decisions helps them think through their plans. Discussing a possible backup plan or agreeing to follow-up in a few days to revisit alternatives if that plan does not work helps cultivate an understanding of causality. This type of planning and reflection will nurture the independent decision-making they require when they are outside of our watch and will help them internalize the lessons they have learned.
Does this mean we cannot offer tips and insights? Of course not! But we should know that not all of the pearls of wisdom we impart will stick. My dad, a neonatologist, has undoubtedly experienced that with me as of late. Since the birth of Rowan, he has tried to offer me every possible best practice needed to raise a baby well. There’s no question I’ve found myself employing much of that advice, but there are days I have called him expressing confusion to which he has surely thought, “I’ve told him that before! Why doesn’t he remember?” My hunch is this will be the case for you at some point this year. Know that there is a lot going on in our children’s every day lives, and despite their efforts, they won’t always recall all of our advice.
Ten weeks with a baby does not an expert make, but I can say with certainty that successes and failures await me in parenthood. The same is true for your middle schooler as they explore their growing worlds this year. Being a good listener, providing opportunities for reflection on choices they make, and encouraging them all will help them gain the most growth. Thank you in advance for partnering with us each day, and here’s to the amazing growth that awaits them all.