Mindset Matters

Before the school year began, I found myself noticing a common thread among some newer education resources. Many books, in particular, seemed to be focusing on a growth mindset. This isn’t a new idea but I have been very happy to see a renewed focus and more research dedicated to the topic.

The first month of school I focused almost every lesson within every content area on its relationship to a growth mindset. We discussed mistakes and brain synapses. We talked about real learning and how a fixed mindset can really interfere with our growth as a learner. In late December I began reading MATHEMATICAL MINDSETS, Unleashing Students’ Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching by Jo Boaler. I wanted to get my own mindset re-focused and lay my eyes on some fresh material.

As I began reading, about 13 pages into the book, it addressed the importance of mistakes. It reminded me of how surprised my students were to learn, at the beginning of the year, the positive impact mistakes can have on our brain. Peter Sims, a writer for the New York Times, is referenced in the book and his summary of successful people boils down to six statements.

Successful people:

  • Feel comfortable being wrong
  • Try seemingly wild ideas
  • Are open to different experiences
  • Play with ideas without judging them
  • Are willing to go against the traditional ideas
  • Keep going through difficulties

After reading those pages I knew exactly what I would be doing the first week back in January. We would revisit the idea of a growth mindset and within our writing workshop, we would write a short piece about a time in our life we felt success. This would allow us to quickly go through the writing process as a refresher while also sharing some stories about ourselves to rebuild our community.

To begin I shared a few stories from my childhood that I thought were moments of success. It led to a conversation about what defines success and who determines our measure of success. As a group, we shared a few ideas that were likely common stories among third-graders. Stories such as riding a bike, learning to read, and making new friends, were some favorites. I explained that I wanted them to get right to the point and write a really short story. I also asked that they really think hard about how they accomplished the success and how it felt. How did they know they had done something amazing?

Students got to work planning and drafting. Within a day or two several were ready to start sharing, revising, and re-crafting their pieces. As students began to share with peers, I heard conversations that really perked up my ears. Students were taking cues from each other and I felt like some students were revising with more reckless abandon than I had seen in a while. They weren’t afraid to cross out, try out a sentence differently, or experiment with word choice. It made me realize that I had gotten away from the ideas of mindset and that weaving that thread continuously throughout my teaching was going to be beneficial but I would have to do so intentionally.


Maddy Jane’s story was about learning a new skill in swimming class. She was so proud of her risk-taking and revision in this piece


When you give students permission to mess up and start over they begin to see the real power of revision. Students begin to seek opportunities for growth. The risk lies in not taking the risk. If we already know how to do something and just repeat that process over and over again there is no risk and there is no gain. When we take the risk, tackle the consequences, and change our thinking growth will consume our work and mind.

As we talked and shared as a class I asked students to look for a pattern within the stories. What did they notice was a common thread or theme? We began to see that almost everyone’s success story had occurred because they hadn’t given up or they tried something new and worked hard to achieve a goal. I equated this to revision and showed students some of their peers’ work, highlighting the risk taking I had noticed.


Sydney’s draft with some of her revisions.

Below Sydney talks about what led her to make some of the changes to her ending. It was within this moment and conversation with Sydney during the workshop that I realized the power this lesson was having on students. It’s rare that I give all students a starting point or topic but I think in this case the purpose of writing about success helped students to see that they each are successful writers. Each of them holds the power to be the changers of their story, literally.