One of my brightest AP English lit students turned to me the other day before a Socratic seminar on Wuthering Heights and said, “You are really trying my set today.” Apparently, my challenge to her quick and superficial analysis of Heathcliff’s character did not sit well.

To be fair, she was kidding. To be brutally honest, however, I know that challenges to her intellect and her opinions make her uncomfortable. And she is not alone.

More and more, in the faculty work room and in the lunchroom, teachers are complaining about the lack of grit in our students. This volatile political season gave us a term to describe it – our students are snowflakes. Anecdotally, I know the students I taught 20 years ago could manage a heavier workload than my students today. I am also relatively confident that they appreciated challenges and had more discipline in their approach to learning. They were able to perspective shift and see the world through the eyes of Nick Carraway or Jay Gatsby, or both. Today, challenges are unwelcome, right answers are the focus, and an 87% on a quiz or test represents colossal failure to the student. For the longest time, my colleagues and I have observed the phenomena and had attributed it to the culture of instant gratification and the use of iPad technology in the classroom. My recent introduction to Carol Dweck’s ideas about the growth mindset, however, tell a different story.

What if my students aren’t snowflakes, but instead are stuck in fixed mindsets out of a sincere fear of failure?

What if my students today care more about their learning than my students 20 years ago and not less? What if the stakes are so high that they revert to over-studying ineffectively rather than truly trying to understand the material? What if the problem isn’t that society has changed them, but instead that I am the one who has failed to adapt to their changing needs?

I told my students about Dweck’s ideas regarding fixed mindsets and growth mindsets and it became immediately clear that they want to have growth mindsets, but they are terrified of failure. The slippery slope thinking that failure in one high school assessment will prevent them from admission to their dream college overpowers any inclination they might have to take a risk in an approach on an essay. Cookie-cutter writing is safer. The 3-point thesis will help them finish the assignment faster and allow them to spend the last ten minutes of class studying for their Calculus test instead of revising their essay. They would rather rely on an outdated, rigid organizational structure for their writing instead of develop one that uniquely fits the topic. I can model other structures for their writing and show their benefits, but they won’t risk leaving the comforts of what they know.

So for me it has come down to this question:

Which mindset do I want them to have?

Which one prepares them for success in a competitive college environment? For professional growth in the career of their choosing? If I believe that the growth mindset is the answer, then the way I approach my job has to change. Teaching reading and writing is not enough. Even teaching critical thinking isn’t enough. I need to convince them to take risks, to explore multiple meanings for words, for poems and for novels instead of looking for the “right” interpretation, and to understand their strengths and weaknesses as readers and writers.

I am not going to be able to magically shift their thinking, not when college applications are due in a few short weeks and my students are running on fumes. The shifting would take time. It wouldn’t come from a single lecture – it would have to be a part of the way we manage our daily routines in the classroom. Because we are a 1:1 iPad school, I decided to use the technology to move my students towards growth. They respond to poems daily as bellwork – and I reward each response – whether it is close to the poem’s meaning or a million miles away from it. Sometimes, the obscure reading gets the most praise for effort. I have to praise it if I want to encourage my students to keep trying.

I started flipping lessons using Showbie so that I could spend time working with students individually. This, in turn, allows me to providing feedback for effort and process, not only as a summative measure.

I saw my role change from a teacher with knowledge to impart to a mentor that cheers them on. And when I ask my students to complete an assignment in class, I complete it as well. I let them see what my draft looks like, and I let them know I find the assignment difficult. They feel validated. They work harder. They become more flexible thinkers.

Of course, I know they are still worried about getting into college, and they remain obsessed with their grades. But at least for the 90 minutes they spend with me every other day, their brains are growing. And so is mine.

Maria is an English teacher and department chair at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in Miami, Florida. She is also a Showbie Champion! You can follow her on Twitter @munarriz.

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