Have you ever been at a school or community event where kids are challenged to three-legged races or water balloon tosses? And then all of a sudden they announce a hula hoop contest . . . for the adults? My husband can hula hoop for ages, making it look effortless — the hoop in perfect sync with the movement of his hips. Whenever I’ve tried, the hula hoop makes it once around my waist and then awkwardly falls to the ground. Even with time and practice, I don’t think I would ever be a contender in a hula hooping challenge. Because of this, I’ve convinced myself I’m okay with never learning how to hula hoop. It’s undeniable that I have a fixed mindset when it comes to hula hoops.
Recently after reading Mindset by Carol Dweck, I talked to second-year teachers in our district about recognizing the difference between a growth and a fixed mindset. It made me realize how much I live in a growth mindset. Dweck’s website shares more information about her work, and also how a mindset for achievement supports students’ academic success:
Hula hooping aside, there aren’t many instances when I find myself in a fixed mindset. I believe I owe any success I have with students, parents, and colleagues to living the growth mindset. Engaging in new experiences, following through with ideas even with the uncertainty of success, and learning from successes and failures is what the growth mindset is all about. Put fear aside and go for it. The growth mindset is also about persisting when obstacles present themselves. It’s about getting creative and figuring how to work around anything that gets in your way. Even more, it’s about not giving up when your first thinking-outside-the-box idea doesn’t go as planned. The growth mindset is about being okay with going back to the drawing board because eventually, you’ll get it right.
The Growth Mindset in Action
I started working with a student named Jackie when she was in second grade. Jackie was diagnosed with a bilateral high frequency hearing loss, which means she has hearing loss in both ears that inhibits her from hearing high-pitched sounds like “s” and “th.” She was in a bilingual classroom, and I provided hearing itinerant services three days a week to support her listening and reading skills. I was lucky enough to be Jackie’s teacher all the way through seventh grade.
When Jackie was in fourth grade, the emphasis was on improving her reading skills in English. Jackie was a fourth grader reading at a first-grade level. She was reading simple text with visual support and when we talked about it, it was clear that it wasn’t engaging her interest. But how can a fourth grader read a book that’s engaging if it’s not at her reading level?
I had three obstacles to tackle with my growth mindset:
1. Find an age-appropriate book that would appeal to Jackie.
2. Find a way for her to be able to read and understand this age-appropriate book (remember, she was reading way below grade level).
3. Find a way to support her so she would want to continue reading and finish the book.
I pulled some books from my shelves as well as from the library and looked through them with her. We talked about the covers, and I explained a little bit about each book. One book was The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. When we got to this book, we talked about how cute the little mouse on the cover was and I showed her how short the chapters were. We narrowed down our choices. She picked The Tale of Despereaux.
My first thought was to put the power of read aloud to use. Jackie needed to experience the joy of reading through read aloud. I knew this would also help develop her English language skills in general, and improve her reading skills when it came time to decoding words. Oftentimes, she decoded a word but didn’t know the word in English to be able to decide if she said it right.
In talking to Jackie’s mom, I found out that she had a fourth-grade education herself and that she didn’t read in English. Reading aloud to Jackie at home in English wasn’t going to be an option . . . yet. I would start with reading aloud at school.
Scaffolding was going to be key here. I thought back to my senior year in high school when my British Literature teacher helped scaffold Shakespeare’s Hamlet for us. At the end of each class, she would give us a preview of the assigned reading for that night. She told us what was going to happen, and then let us read it in Shakespeare’s own words. This is what I did for Jackie. I read the book and wrote little two or three sentence summaries about each chapter. When she came to see me, we started with me explaining what was going to happen in the first chapter. Then I would hold my book while she held her book, and I would read aloud. I stopped to explain words or phrases that might be confusing, and I coached Jackie to stop me if there was a word or phrase she didn’t understand. We made it a game, she could buzz in to stop me at any time. We talked about the characters and made connections to our lives as we read. Sometimes I asked her to read along with me. Then I would send her home with the book and let her reread what we had read together.
It was slow going at first, but we kept it up and we loved the characters and the magical feel to the story. Eventually, we were far enough into the story that Jackie had a good grasp of what was going on and who the characters were. I wanted to let her take the book home and read on her own, but it still wasn’t at her reading level. She needed to hear the book being read to her to support her comprehension. That’s when I realized I needed to get the audiobook! Checking out one CD at a time, Jackie was able to have a read-aloud experience in English at home. Her mom would tell me stories of Jackie listening intently while following along on the page. Sometimes her mom would sit with her and listen too. We transitioned to spending less time reading aloud at school, and more time focused on reading skills.
There were days when she didn’t read and I was her cheerleader, telling her it was okay but then encouraging her to find time the next night. We talked about what would get in the way of reading. Sometimes it was a family activity after school or an appointment. I would stress that this was a job. Her job was to be the best student she could be, and she had to advocate for herself and tell her parents that she had to get her reading done. Because didn’t she want to know what was going to happen in the next chapter?
Little by little we read The Tale of Despereaux. It was an accomplishment where she finished and we were both so proud. At the end, we talked about how good it feels to reach a goal. We talked about what worked, and we planned how to move into another book. The audiobooks would be key for Jackie. Audiobooks let us harness the power of read aloud when a real-life read aloud at home was difficult to achieve. She made great progress in reading when she became an active reader. Last year when Jackie was in seventh grade, she was finding her own books to read and she wasn’t relying on audiobooks any more. Every time I met with her, she had a book in hand and was ready to tell me about it.
The Growth Mindset Prevails
The key to Jackie’s success was in not giving up when obstacles presented themselves. It’s easy to blame parents, students who aren’t native English speakers, or a lack of motivation. And maybe sometimes the blame is justified, but it doesn’t get us anywhere.
Living the growth mindset and figuring out ways to work around obstacles enabled me to help Jackie. It makes me think that maybe someday I will give hula hooping a try.