A Writer’s Mindset: Nurturing Independence from the Start

Sometimes our lack of knowing keeps us from doing something, and sometimes it doesn’t. It seems there are countless examples of things people rarely are prepared for yet continue to charge toward every day. Two vastly different examples might be entering into parenthood or trying spicy food for the first time. Each will give you potential jolts of joyous adrenaline, make you sweat, give you pause on your ability to make sound decisions, and each can quietly evolve to a manageable moment in time. 

In the writing classroom, our lack of knowing may lead to a belief or perception. We get the idea that independence is unattainable or something for a different teacher to embody. We fool ourselves into thinking success rests solely on the students’ ability to perform or demonstrate a mirrored image of our ideal. The perception of this class and those kids gets in the way of organic messiness with potential. We get it in our heads we just aren’t good at teaching writing, or our students just don’t care. 

The terms growth mindset and fixed mindset have been immutable for a while now. I don’t remember when I first heard them, but in my earliest readings and Ted Talk viewings, they were almost always shared parallel to the name Carol Dweck. Since some of her first work and research was published, she has evolved her thinking. One could say she has developed a growth mindset about growth mindset, and she explains this in a more recent article from Education Week published in 2015. We are all a mixture of a fixed and a growth mindset when it comes to how we perceive our abilities. We can’t reject the fact that fixed mindsets exist, but we can become aware of their presence in our lives and our students’ lives.

Dweck shares her frustration with the idea of a growth mindset being turned into an explanation as to why a student isn’t learning.

She goes on to say, many educators, when first faced with the notion of a fixed or a growth mindset, had to choose one. Many chose a growth mindset without really understanding the depth to which a growth mindset is claimed. 

Have you ever found yourself stifling your beliefs about what children can do because of your own experiences? 

I’m not a writer; therefore, some people just aren’t writers.

Does your mindset get in the way at times?

Darin just gets it and Sarah probably never will. I’m doing the best I can to help her, but she’s too far behind.

What if we believe writing is a challenge, which we back with our own empathy as writers? 

“I see what you mean, that is a tricky part. You know, last night I was writing a story about feeling embarrassed, and I kept getting stuck on expressing it so my reader would really get it. I’m still working on it.”

What if we believe in ourselves as facilitators and guides to leading brilliant thinking, sharing, and writing within our classroom walls? Believing something is possible and demanding something be possible are two very different ideas and upon delivery feel very different for our students. They know when we believe in them, and they also know when we are just going through motions to generate some kind of product demand. 

Teacher and author Debbie Miller shares in her book, Teaching with Intention: Defining Beliefs, Aligning Practice, Taking Action what would be a simple moment in her life, eating shaved ice on a hot day, and found it to be worth recording. So she wrote a poem to share with her students afterward. This perpetuated some reflection, and she realized early on in her career as a teacher, she was not a reflective reader or writer.

It is a “can-do spirit” that often ignites a change in our thinking. Even when it feels like a shift away from what might be our normal method of operation. So how do we instill these ideas? This belief? 

First–Uncover Your Misconceptions

Maybe there are biases you haven’t uncovered yet. Think you don’t have any implicit bias or imagine you could never fall prey to making unfair associations? Watch this PBS video (shared with me thanks to Beth Moore). It will give you an informative look in a little over two minutes as to how you can be more aware of your own implicit bias. Perhaps your misconceptions are wrapped in the physical environment and spaces you create in your classroom for building community. It could even be the conversations the teacher down the hall shares with you about your incoming students. Recognizing what we don’t know and responding with action is our best tool to dismantle unproductive beliefs. Teaching Tolerance offers tools that can help us uncover these unknown biases or misconceptions. We can also work to look closely at the challenges our students face and ask ourselves what part we may play. Just because we suddenly know better doesn’t mean it all gets better overnight, but knowing can help us to prioritize our response to make change.  

Then–Create Shifts to Build Structures

Our responsibility, as educators, is immeasurable. Our words, our actions, and our responses create the environment in which writers grow their independence. It rests on our shoulders how they will see themselves in the classroom and as writers in a community. Utilizing resources like, Welcome to Writing Workshop (Shubitz and Dorfman) or Kids 1st from Day One (Mraz and Hertz) help us imagine a space where writers feel like contributors to a growing community. 

For instance, shifting our reflective conversations with our writers.

Finally–Reflect on New Discoveries

I revisit this quote as a teacher, a writer, and even a parent. I can’t say it any better because it is so true. In the words of Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz in their book Kids 1st from Day One:

The real key is how we see setbacks, because let’s be clear, we teachers encounter a lot of them. If you see a setback as a threat to your identity (“But I am supposed to be good at this!”) it is very hard to confront it and learn from it. But when we are able to see setbacks as a natural part of learning and living, look at them honestly, and come away with some valuable feedback about what to try differently next time (there will always be a next time!), then we live as teachers who constantly grow and develop and constantly improve and refine our practice. (p. 4, 2018)

A setback I encounter every year in third grade is the shift in social dynamics within my classroom each spring. It’s as though there is a change in the air as soon as I flip the calendar from February to March. When I didn’t know this was a predictable problem, my first year with third graders, I was thrown! Now, I can prepare for these issues, and I understand the social brains of eight and nine-year-olds a little better. The change isn’t anyone’s fault, but instead is a part of a plan moving forward and I’m able to help students navigate and prepare for changes they aren’t expecting. 

So now you might be wondering:

You talk about it. 

Depending on the age you teach, a fixed mindset about a student’s ability to write or not write might be challenging to shift. It also might be rooted in past experiences that are best acknowledged instead of ignored. Telling someone they can do something doesn’t actually help them make moves to do it, but tools do. In A Mindset for Learning, Teaching the Traits of Joyful, Independent Growth, Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz share tools to do just that! They are called “the constellation of stances.” These five stances are the core of how Hertz and Mraz build their classroom community into independent thinkers with growth in mind. They include:

Optimism

Persistence

Flexibility

Resilience

Empathy

These five words inspire hope and are woven into reflective conversations across the day from facing challenges after recess to facing a blank page in a notebook. Seeking a growth mindset isn’t a list of steps. There is no script or magic bullet that can change a mindset in a complex adult or a developing child. However, our words, our actions, and our position in the classroom can set the tone for a community on their way. 

So my answer to, how can I change the mindset of my students is, you can’t. You can change your own and you can inspire your students to make moves toward a growth mindset. You can create the environment, prepare for challenges, and plan for opportunities. We can’t change our students, but we can be the catalyst for the changes they make. We can also name it when we see it, so our writers can own all of that hard work of facing foreseeable challenges. It is through perseverance that we meet challenges ourselves, so persevere as a teacher of writers with a growth mindset. The best way to help a growth mindset in growing writers is to help them see and believe it is within their grasp. That belief in your student writers is what can flip the switch from reluctant and resistant to trusting and open. 

Join us for a Twitter Chat about nurturing independence on Monday, 8/12 at 8:30 p.m. EDT.

Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of No More “I’m Done!” and No More “How Long Does It Have to Be?” by Jennifer Jacobson. Thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy of each of these books — one book for a primary educator and one book for a secondary educator. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
  • For a chance to win a copy of  No More “I’m Done!” or No More “How Long Does It Have to Be?”, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, August 11th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. BE SURE TO WRITE DOWN THE GRADE LEVEL OR GRADE BAND YOU TEACH SO WE CAN PUT YOU IN THE RUNNING FOR THE BOOK THAT BEST MATCHES YOUR NEEDS. I will use a random number generator to select the winning commenters. Their names will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, August 12th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – NO MORE BOOKS within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.