As I write this, I am in the season of becoming a runner again. Running is not something that is natural for me—either in inclination or ability. It is also apparent that as I gain years, my body protests more. I’m becoming a runner for two reasons.
Jay, my 13-year-old son, asked me to help him build his capacity to run a 5K.
I like knowing I can do hard things.
Because I live in northern Indiana and took on this goal in the middle of winter, subzero temperatures banished me to the treadmill for a few weeks. When that happened, the running became nearly impossible. I was ready to quit, deciding there were other hard things I could do instead of running (like writing, for example).
Having filled my mind with thoughts about how I’m just a fake runner and will never be a real runner, I stepped onto the treadmill one day and it wouldn’t start. “Hooray!” shouted the fixed mind-set part of my brain.
Instead of taking it as a pass to skip the run and permission to be a nonrunner for life, I noticed the sun was shining. I pulled on layers of winter running gear left over from my former running days. The road was icy, but the risk was diminished by my negative self-talk: If I get hurt, I won’t have to run for a while.
I concentrated on firm footing and the rhythmic beat of my stride and breathing. The air was cold, but the wind was still. The sun warmed my nose and cheeks. It wasn’t hard to keep my head up: I was busy noticing the nests in the crowns of the bare trees.
I followed the curve of the road along the river and was startled when I heard the geese honk. I was a mile into the run. Looking at my watch and calculating my speed, I realized that not only did I go farther outside, but I went faster than on the treadmill.
The thing that was so hard on the treadmill became a gift on the road. On the treadmill, my only data points are time and speed. I constantly feel like running is hard and I’m about to fail. My mind is filled with all the ways I am not a runner. I finish a run on the treadmill and wonder if I’ll be able to move again. I think I deserve a medal if I take a shower. I never want to run again.
When I’m on the road, I am running faster and farther. I don’t check my watch or notice my distance. When I run out in the world, my data is much more abundant. It’s the rhythmic beat of my breath and the slapping sound of my shoes.
The data in the world makes me feel empowered.
The data on the treadmill makes me feel deflated.
I spent the run home wondering about the data I give kids and how it makes them feel. Time and speed are viable influences on a running life. Yet they don’t seem to have nearly the positive effect of other factors.
In A Book That Takes Its Time: An Unhurried Adventure in Creative Mindfulness, Otje van der Lelij shares a chapter called “Let Your Mind Run Free.” She discusses an alternative approach to running called ChiRunning, a practice that focuses not only on posture and strength, but relaxation. She quotes trainer Kik Nelissen-Kleipool:
If you are constantly thinking about how many miles you’ve already run or how many you still have to go, you get tired quicker . . . but by focusing your attention on the here and now, you have more energy and you can run for longer.
By simply shifting my attention to different factors, my running improved. The same is true in our classrooms. We can shift our attention to the here and now. Here are three ways to shift our attention to the data to empower rather than deflate students.
Number of Errors vs. Types of Errors
If students are growing as writers, then their writing will have errors. This is a fact. In addition, the kinds of errors they are making give us evidence about the new teaching they need as writers. For example, when young writers begin linking all sentences using the word and, it is clear that they are ready to learn how to punctuate compound sentences. When you see a paper with a new paragraph for every sentence, you know the writer is ready to learn more about paragraphing. Rather than detail the number of errors in a piece of student writing, let’s take a look at the types of errors. This will allow us to celebrate the new growth the student is ready to undergo.
Amount of Writing vs. Focus of Writing
Sometimes there is a misconception that more writing is better writing. There is a need for fluency and quantity. However, a bigger need is for students to produce focused and meaningful writing. If we shift our attention to meaning and how to create meaning, then students won’t just write more; they will write more effectively. By teaching ways to stretch scenes, bolster information, and firm up arguments, we offer students a way to become stronger writers rather than longer writers.
Number of Books Read vs. Diversity of Books Read
It is no secret that students grow as readers when they read. But for some students the focus on number of books hinders their selection of books. We can shift the emphasis from number of books to diversity of books. Let’s help students read in different genres or different cultures. We can help them find books from different places—other students, teachers, family members, or online book blogs. By taking the pressure off of numbers and placing it on diversity, many students will read more than they ever imagined possible—and have more fun doing it!
Running for me wasn’t the problem. The data I was depending on was. The same can happen in our classrooms with reading and writing data. Learning ought to be enjoyable. If it’s not, let’s find ways to put the emphasis on data points that help students want to grow.