“Midterm anxiety” conjures up a medley of worries. I’m not talking about midterm elections (another topic, another blog), but midterm grades. For first-semester writers, in particular, the middle of the first semester is when, uh, “things” get real, with higher-stakes assignments piling up and the looming fear of final grades.
Now is when our students need us to champion their potential, and to remind them that the whole point of education is to challenge them into growth over time.
None of us want to be the nun in the film Ladybird, who dismisses the eponymous high school character’s hopes for the Math Olympiad with, “But math isn’t something you’re terribly strong at.” In that illustrative scene, the student schools the teacher, as Ladybird corrects the nun: “that we know of yet.”
It’s in the “that we know of yet” that we find the kernel of the “growth mindset,” a concept by psychologist Carol Dweck that has been widely popularized, and remains, in my classroom experience, a empowering concept for first-year writers. My co-author, Stuart Greene, and I, include Dweck in From Inquiry to Academic Writing precisely because writing students continue to find the concept a powerful tool for understanding the pain and potential of learning.
In brief, Dweck characterizes a “growth mindset” as the belief that intelligence can be developed. In contrast, a “fixed mindset” is the belief that intelligence is static, which can lead people to give up on difficult tasks, believing that we are either naturally good or bad at particular subjects, and that if we’re good at them, they should be easy. Critical reading and writing, as we all know, is challenging work. So, it’s often tempting to give into the “I’m just not good at writing” mindset.
This semester, I am providing in-class journaling time to give students a safe place for guided self-reflection, an experiment I described in this earlier post. I attach low-stakes points to this task: If students are present and write for the full ten minutes, they earn the five points per entry. As you can see in the photo [above], students have taken ownership of their journals, and the insides are as distinct as their cover designs.
I have learned a lot from reading them, already, including some harsh realities. For example, a few students were able to write in the journal what they would not say aloud — that they found all the readings boring. Ouch. But, channeling my own growth-mindset as an instructor, I needed to hear this in order to invite more personal connections to the material.
The results? My original prompt about a quotation by Marx on work became an invitation to write about their own employment experiences, and what makes work meaningful. Wow, did they have a lot to say — on the up and downsides of being bilingual, the daily and nuanced battles of sexism in restaurants, the psychology of meddling managers, and the crew dynamics that make work alienating or a place of camaraderie. In short, they wrote their way into a terrific classroom discussion about Marx. They also pegged Marx as a growth-mindset thinker — anachronistic, but on point!
Other journal reflections have affirmed my pedagogy, as when some students lamented that I did not tell them the key ideas in a text before they read it, and instead made them do this work before class discussion. (Guilty as charged, though the comments inspired me to explain again why I want them to do this critical thinking independently.)
A consistent refrain in their journals is the challenge of time-management, a struggle I share as I try to maintain a growth-mindset about making time for my own research. I’ve shared with my students that I’ve joined a writing group, and we’re currently reading and applying insights from How to Write a Lot. Not surprisingly, the amusing and unforgiving advice from author Paul J. Silvia — another psychologist! — resonates point by point with my own guidance for students. Write every day. Make a schedule and stick to it. Keep a journal to reflect on your progress. Be accountable to others.
As I remind my students, we’re all in this together.
Photo Credit: April Lidinsky