Category Archives: Education Books

Great Book: Mindset

Spring is the time of year when teachers typically do not have time to call their mothers, exercise or even stream a 22 minute television show off the internet so I know a book recommendation might not be of peak interested for you. That said, if you have not read Mindset by Carol Dweck please forget the phone call to your mom, any kind of exercise, and the latest Office episode (what?!? it’s has NOT played out and I’m not over it . . . don’t judge) and read this book.

In Mindset, psychiatrist and researcher Carol Dweck identifies the characteristics of the two mindsets – fixed and growth – under which we all operate. The chart below explains the basic traits of each:

Fixed and growth mindsets chart

As a teacher, I read the chart above and immediately thought “I need to find a way to shift all of my students into a growth mindset.” Cultivating this shift in our students might be the most important gift a teacher could give her students. I have drawn a lot of inspiration from my buddy Melissa Barkin Scheinfeld who has used Mindset in her classroom for several years now (check out her classroom tour here) but as I actually read through the book, I focused more on the implications of teaching within a fixed or growth mindset. This book provoked some serious reflection and self-evaluation not just of my teaching but also my parenting and adult relationships. Don’t have time to read this fantastic book? Below are my big takeaways:

  1. When we give up on students, it is often because we doubt our own abilities as educators. Dweck tells the story of the famous violin teacher Dorothy Day who has taught some of the greatest violinist of our time. This teacher rejected the idea that talent was in-born and taught her students that it could be acquired  She said “I think it is too easy for a teacher to say ‘Oh this child wasn’t born with it, so I won’t waste my time.’ Too many teachers hide their own lak of ability behind that statement.” I have personally come to see difficult students as a really exciting challenge. It is helpful to remember that when we are unable to make a break through with a child we must look beyond the tools we currently have. Who else could help us be a better teacher? Is there a resource or ally we could bring on board?
  2. Don’t judge, teach. Part of our job as educators is to evaluate. Often times this role is highlighted by the fact we give grades and send out report cards. It is easy to see how students might see us as judges and they are either “good” or “smart” or “bad” and “dumb.” However, these labels – and often grades themselves – are unhelpful and often very subjective. At the same time it is critical not to give every kid a smiley-face sticker and a pat on the back when they can’t read. We must be able to differentiate performance levels and determine when students have met expectations. Growth-minded teachers tell students the truth and then give them the tools to close the gap.
  3. Confront failure honestly and openly then teach your students to do the same. When we are in a growth mindset, it is OK and even good to mess up because we know that is when we learn the most. Dweck describes how college students with fixed mindsets study like “vaccuum cleaners” re-reading and trying to memorize as much as they can. If they fail, they dismiss the subject as something they simply are not good at. Growth-minded college students approach exams as challenges that are surmountable with effective strategies – as opposed to sufficient intelligence which they either do or do not have – and so they look for overarching themes and ideas. More specifically these growth minded students carefully look over areas they do not understand or problems where they have made mistakes in the past. Because they are growth-minded, looking at their past failures does not bother them; indeed, they specifically study where they went wrong in order to avoid the same mistake in the future. As Dweck explains, “they were studying to learn, not just to ace the test. And, actually, this is why they got higher grades – not because they were smarter or had a better background in the [subject].”
  4. Speed and perfection are the enemy of difficult learning. It was difficult for me to wrap my head around the idea difficult learning happens when students are progressing slowly and with many mistakes. Here are some phrases copied from Mindset to use in a growth-minded classroom:

When students are wrong or fail, say: “Everyone learns in a different way, let’s keep trying to find the way that works for you.”

When students finish a task quickly and without mistakes, say: “Woops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from.”

When students are struggling and moving slowly, say: “I know it’s frustrating but we’re learning.”

Have you read Mindset? What other tips do you have for keeping yourself in a growth mindset?


Awesome Blog: “The Edge of Ed”

Edge of Ed

Have you ever thought how amazing it would be if you could go to graduate school and spend day after day reading and thinking about the convoluted would of education? Imagine the depth of perspective you, as a former teacher, could bring to academic discussion! Imagine all of the insights and connections you would make between what you studied and what you experienced as a teacher! Karen Pezzetti and Katie Kirchgasler are living the dream AND writing about it in a blog. Their writing is thoughtful, provocative and grounded in their experience as veteran educators – check out the Edge of Ed!

Character Education and “Mind in the Making”

This fall I met an award winning pre-school teacher from Hawaii named Jonathan Gillintine. He was just lovely and so patient while I peppered him with questions about early childhood development (I have a two year-old daughter). “If you only read one book it should be Mind in the Making by Ellen Galinsky,” he said. I have yet to finish Mind in the Making (review to come when I do!) but it is blowing my mind both as a parent as well as a secondary educator. Each of the seven chapters focuses on a particular “life skill” children need for success and includes research based tips for how to cultivate these traits. Here, for example, are Galinsky’s suggestions for promoting self-control:

Suggestion 1: Help infants and toddlers learn to bring themselves under control.

Suggestion 2: Weave these skills into everyday activities in fun and playful ways – no drills, “teaching,” or expensive games or toys necessary

Suggestion 3: Promote focus – encourage your children to have “lemonade stands” [a personal interest or passion to pursue]

Suggestion 4: Play games that require children to pay attention (like Simon-Says)

Suggestion 5: Read stories to children in ways that encourage them to listen

Suggestion 9: Promote congitive flexibility – have children play sorting games with changing rules

Suggestion 10: Encourage children to pretend and make up pretend stories

Suggestion 11: Give children puzzels

Suggestion 15: Promote inhibitory control – play games where children can’t go on autopilot

Suggestion 17: Make sure your child is well rested and has breaks

All of these suggestions are backed by extensive research and there are even technique recommendations for how to practice these ideas with young children. What stood out to me as I read How Children Succeed and Mind in the Making along side each other is how although both authors are looking to specifically teach the same skills (executive functions, “character,” soft-skills, etc.) the techniques are entirely different. Look at the list above: at no point does Galinsky advocate using a report card for character development.

In addition to character report cards, Tough writes about a program called OneGoal that works with underserved children in Chicago. The program aims to raise their ACT scores by an average of three points as well as teach a set of nocongnitive academic skills such as “study skills, work habits, time management, help-seeking behavior, and social/academic problem solving skills.” Sounds great! We know these traits are critical for success but the program is using the traditional classroom, teacher centered curriculum model. Where are the puzzels? Where is time to make up pretend stories? What is preventing these teenagers from going on autopilot in class? I deeply believe the same suggestions for cultivating self-control in pre-school children could easily transfer over to adolescents.

An entire chapter of Tough’s book is dedicated to looking at a particular successful chess program at a Brooklyn middle school. The founder of the program appears to have developed a reflection process around chess that is a very helpful means of acquiring focus and thinking skills. By carefully examining mistakes children can improve their performance.

What would it look like to take the suggestion list above an apply it to middle and high school students?

Book Review: How Children Succeed

Every now and then it seems like there is an “it” book that everyone in my reform-y education circle is reading. No doubt about it, How Children Succeed by Paul Tough is hot. The book begins by exploring a collection of studies that point to a child’s “character” (as defined by her ability to self-regulate, to persist, to bounce back from failure, etc.) rather than her IQ as the key aspect to her future success. Another name for this understanding of character is “executive functions” which are like “a team of air traffic controllers overseeing the functions of the brain.” Executive functions regulate impulse control, emotional stability, and focus. However, research suggests that low-income students or those from troubled homes begin school with reduced executive functions which dramatically impedes their ability to self-regulate both thinking and feelings. Why?

Tough describes how our physiological ability to regulate stress is centered around the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which uses various signals and hormone releases to prepare us for catastrophe. It rases our blood pressure so our muscles can move quickly, it conserves fluids so we survive attack, and it produces antibodies in case we are wounded. This system works great if we are trying to survive on the African savana – not so much if we are just trying to get through a “How To” talk in our high school speech class. The HPA does not know the difference between the two. Additionally, if your HPA has been overstimulated as an infant or young child it can cause actual physical damage to your body as well as limit your ability to respond appropriately to future stress. To this end, Tough underscores the importance of a stable, safe childhood; but, as we teachers know, this is not always possible. Tough writes:

It is hard to argue with the science behind early intervention. Those first few years matter so much in the healthy development of a child’s brain; they represent a unique opportunity to make a difference in the child’s future. . . . Pure IQ is stubbornly resistant to improvement after about age eight. But executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood.

The remainder of the book is dedicated to exploring programs working to teach underserved students critical character traits, or executive functions, that will dramatically increase their ability to be successful both at school and in their future lives. These include college readiness classes that teach soft-skills, character report cards (check back tomorrow for my take on these), youth mentoring, and middle school chess programs. On the whole, I was extremely compelled by Tough’s argument for the importance of teaching character or executive functioning skills. We must do this. However, I am less sure about the methods he highlights as possible solutions (more on that tomorrow).

As educators, what can we do to help our students regulate their HPA reactions? Here are some thoughts:

  • The younger the student, the bigger the opportunity: It is clear young children are particularly impressionable and able to increase these skills. This underscores the importance of teachers and parents working together to create safe, stable environments as well as consistant rules and expectations. I know this is stating the obvious and is what many of us already do but I put this book down with a renewed commitment to making the school/home relationship stronger.
  • Don’t give up on teenagers!: It is important to remember that executive functions are malleable and not fixed; you can become more self-regulated regardless of age.
  • Teach students about the HPA and their fight/flight instinct: Help students understand how their bodies respond to stress. Help them to recognize when they are having an intense reaction or becoming frustrated and then give them a set of tools to use in these situations. Count to 10. Take 3 deep breaths. Ask for a “time out” and return to the situation after calming down. Learning about fight/flight helps students feel more in control of their bodies; sure, they might be freaking out but they can at least name what is happening and put some distance between themselves and their reaction. I have done this before with high school students but I think it could work even as far down as upper elementary. Heck, I am even teaching these coping strategies to my 2 year-old.
  • Make room for teaching conflict resolution in your curriculum: Providing students with scripts for navigating common conflicts (sharing, feeling betrayed, feeling hurt) can empower them to solve their own interpersonal issues and reduce their stress. Teach them to use I statements (i.e. “I felt angry when you said that about my friend”), model how important it is to listen rather than talk in a conflict, and show them how yelling and escalation are never solutions. The great news is there are 1000s of opportunities to teach these lessons naturally over the course of a school year. Kids will get mad at each other, kids will be disrespectful, kids will be unable to control their own impulsiveness and you will have the opportunity to show them a different way.

How do you teach self-regulation in your classroom?

Great Books: How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

My daughter and I with my retro version of an amazing book. This particular copy is older than I am.

Reading How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish did more than make me a better teacher – it made me a better person. The book was written primarily as a parenting guide for younger children however I have found it to be an invaluable guide for interactions with high school students all the way through 12th grade and even, at times, my adult relationships. Faber and Mazlish give plenty of examples and write in a clear, non-preachy tone that make their concepts easy to apply. They cover topics from “helping children deal with their feelings” to “alternatives to punishment” to “giving praise.” Here is an example of their advice on encouraging autonomy in children:

  1. Let children make choices
  2. Show respect for a child’s struggle
  3. Don’t ask too many questions
  4. Don’t rush to answer questions
  5. Encourage children to use sources outside the home [or for our purposes, the teacher]
  6. Don’t take away hope [or allow for a wide range of possibilities/outcomes]

I personally took this list, photocopied it and kept in on my little podium at the front of my  classroom to guide my actions when students worked in groups. This book is full of little such gems. Another amazing aspect of How To Talk is that much of it is written in cartoon format.

As teachers we don’t have very much time to read – but we can probably all swing what is essentially a comic book! The one cavat here is don’t be put off by the parent/young child format of the cartoons. Read the cartoons thinking “teacher/teenager” and the advice is still extremely aplicable. For example, to give effective praise instead of evaluating, describe what you see. “I see a clean floor and books neatly lined up on the shelf,” you might say. Then describe what you feel: “It is a pleasure to be in our classroom right now!” Finally, label the child’s praiseworthy behavior with one word, “You cleaned the floor and sorted the books. This is what I call organization!”

The chapter that most influenced my teaching is called “Freeing Children from Playing Roles.” Children are often “assigned roles” by well-meaning parents and teachers at a very young age such as shy, clumsy, or bossy. By the time we reach puberty, these labels have worked themselves into the essential fiber of our self-concepts. As educators, we should empower children to choose their own identities rather than accept other’s definitions of themselves. Below is a quick list of steps Faber and Mazlish advocate for accomplishing this task. The steps are the authors but I’ve written different examples to better fit our teaching context.

To Free Children from Playing Roles

  1. Look for opportunities to show the child a new picture of himself or herself. “What do you mean you’re bad a math?!? You just made a 100 on this quiz! You’re really good at math!”
  2. Put children in situations where they can see themselves differently. “Juan, would you please welcome our visitors and explain to them what we are doing in class today?”
  3. Let children overhear you say something positive about them. “Sarah worked silently during our reading time.”
  4. Model the behavior you’d like to see. “I find the language in this poem really frustrating and outdated but I’m not giving up. Ok, let me see if I can use context clues to figure out what glib means.”
  5. Be a storehouse for your [students’] special moments. “I remember the time we went on the field trip to San Antonio . . .”
  6. When the child acts according to the old label, state your feelings and/or expectations. “Hearing from you is really important to me. Despite your reluctance to talk, I expect you to participate in our discussion. Would you like to speak now or should we come back to you later?”

Anyone else a fan of How to Talk?

Great Books: When Kids Can’t Read

If you haven’t read When Kids Can’t Read by Kylene Beers, here are five reasons not only to kiss a copy but to crack it open and have a look:

  1. It has a cheat-sheet inside the front cover so you don’t have to read it all: If you’re anything like me, sometimes you freak out because you teach 12th grade and one of your students appears to actually not be able to comprehend what he/she reads. Never fear! Simply use the handy little flowchart at the front of the book (see below) and turn to the chapter you need.
  2. There is an amazing, mind-blowing chapter called “Creating the Confidence to Respond” that changed the way I teach: This chapter speaks to how students perceptions and attitudes around reading often hold them back as much as (or more than) actual lack of literacy skills. The capter is filled with practical strategies like ensuring students know each others names and ways to celebrate diversity. These ideas built student confidence in my classroom both in terms of reading AND overall academic ability.
  3. Bookmark Templates: One of the golden ideas from the book is to have students read with an accordion folded bookmark (see below) and make notes on various topics as they read. There are different types of bookmarks – a great one is “Mark the Bold” where students write down the bold terms in a textbook thus assembling a vocabulary list all in one place.
  4. Amazing, student-friendly, diverse and gripping book lists: In the book’s appendix there is a collection of book lists under categories like “Humor and Laughter,” “Biographic, Autobiographic and Historical Fiction,” and “Realistic Fiction.” The author has assembled a really compelling list of books that I have found super helpful over the years.
  5. Get a crash corse in literacy: In a perfect word, all teachers would get masters degrees in literacy (or have a literacy specialist working alongside them in their classrooms – holla!!). However, if you find yourself lacking in literacy skills this book is great. There are clear definitions of literacy jargon like fluency, automaticity and comprehension as well as tools like basic reading level tests.

Anyone else love this book?


Great Books: The Skillful Teacher

I love The Skillful Teacher by  Jon Saphier et. al. so much it is difficult for me to be articulate. When asked why I love this book I sound like a 12 year-old talking about Justin Beber. This is my desert island teaching book (but then why would you read a book on teaching if you were stranded on a desert island without students, you ask . . . good question, I say, but I would STILL take The Skillful Teacher with me – it is THAT good). Aside from the thousands of teaching tips and tricks (which the book calls “moves and tools”) one of the most powerful aspects I learned from The Skillful Teacher is a framework for thinking about the discipline of teaching.

I have worked with a number of organizations that have attempted to spell out exactly what makes up good teaching through various rubrics. I am not a rubric hater, however the structure of a rubric places all of the various competencies (lesson planning and classroom management for example) on an equal level when the truth is a charismatic teacher who never, ever writes lesson plans can look pretty darn good on the surface. Management must be mastered to some degree before lesson planning can be effective. It was upon seeing the image below that I finally was able to visualize teaching.

I LOVE how this pyramid begins with a foundation of teacher beliefs. The Skillful Teacher describes 7 key beliefs teachers must have in order to be successful. Below are some of my favorites as quoted from The Skillful Teacher:

  • “You can get smart” Children’s learning is primarily determined by their effective effort and use of appropriate strategies. “Intelligence ” is not a fixed inborn limit on learning capacity. All children have the raw material to do rigorous academic material at high standards.
  • Learning varies with the degree to which learners’ needs for inclusion, influence, competence, and confidence are met.
  • The knowledge bases of a professional teacher are many, diverse and complex; and skillful teaching requires systematic and continual study of these knowledge bases.
  • The total environment of a school has a powerful effect on students’ learning.
  • Racism exerts a downward force on the achievement of students of color that must be met with active antiracist teaching.

In my experience, the more I deeply believe the above statements the more effective I am as a teacher. Without these essential beliefs I might be able to teach some kids sometimes on somedays but I will be far from reaching all of my students. Least I plummet further into pseudo-religious babble about the skillful teacher, I’m going to recommend to check out the The Skillful Teacher website and then check out a copy from your local library or have your school buy a copy for you.