Forming Growth-Oriented Thinkers

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By Tasha Fisher, Special Education Teacher

“Great teachers empathize with kids, respect them, and believe that each one has something special that can be built upon.” – Ann Lieberman

Did you have a teacher during your childhood who you could never forget? For me, it was Miss Callahan, my fifth-grade teacher. She made class exciting and fun in a way that I had never experienced before. Her infectious energy and joy from teaching was something we could all feel, and it made us love school. I remember my fellow students being so happy to be in her classroom because she not only enjoyed teaching, but she also seemed to really enjoy us. Even kids who were considered underachievers in early years changed for the better in Miss Callahan’s class. That was the first class where I felt a sense of community and belonging.

Now that I’m a teacher, I make it my mission each school year to transform my classroom from a mere meeting place into a community to transform my students into critically thinking scholars as Miss Callahan did. I strive to give to my students what Miss Callahan gave to me, because when students know that you believe in them and are willing to go the extra mile to see them reach their potential, they begin to believe in themselves.

The Power of Positive Reinforcement

In my first year of teaching, I administered a math test and the results left a lot to be desired. In an effort to improve results, I retaught and retested. Thankfully, everyone passed except one student. She was a sweet, quiet special education student who already knew she was struggling in her general education class. Making her feel ashamed or behind other students wasn’t going to encourage better performance from her; it risked setting her even farther behind. When I met with her to give feedback, I wanted to boost her confidence. I emphasized the tremendous growth she had already made since the school year began, one of the biggest gains in the class – 30 points. If she continued this type of growth, she would absolutely pass the next test.

When students know that you believe in them and are willing to go the extra mile to see them reach their potential, they begin to believe in themselves.

Later that week, her mother visited me after school to share the impact my words had made. She said previous teachers had made her child feel like a failure, but my words inspired her. This nearly brought me to tears because, truthfully, if it was a different student, I may have caused harm with my words. I could have easily provided damaging feedback like, “Everyone else passed. Don’t you think you should have studied more?”, “This is better than I expected…!”, or “This is pretty good for a [insert descriptor of student here].” This kind of feedback is destructive for students, even if the person who says it is well-intentioned. It assigns blame, compares students to one another, and shows low expectations for certain students, which makes them have low expectations for themselves. The purpose of feedback in the learning process is to improve a student’s performance, not damper it. When providing feedback, it’s essential to choose your language carefully so that it skews positive or neutral-positive to ensure students know you see their potential – and always share steps or guidance on how they can improve.

Shift Your Mindset

Humans have limitless learning potential, but we, as adults, frequently forget that and don’t always pass that mindset down to students. As early as possible, I teach my students about the brain and its remarkable ability to change and grow. We actively work on positive self-talk and the power of “yet,” the concept that reiterates that it’s not that you can’t do something, it’s that you haven’t figured out how to do something yet. Developing skills takes practice, and even though sometimes it seems like a skill is effortless to another person, there’s always the invisible practice and training that went into honing the skill.

Students learn to say, “I can’t do this yet”; we are all capable of improvement.

I never let a student say “I can’t do this”. They learn to say, “I can’t do this yet”; we are all capable of improvement. The goal is to help students make a mindset shift where they view mistakes as opportunities to learn. I relate it to something that they had to practice to learn, like riding a bike or playing a video game. Armed with a positive mindset and the knowledge that growth and change are always possible, the class will be ready to persevere through their work.

Set Impactful Goals

During check-ins with each student, I use a goal tracker that allows both me and the student to watch their progress over the course of the year. It has space to note where they are in their learning at certain dates, the goal for the next check-in, and steps that will help each student accomplish their goal. This allows the student to have a sense of buy-in in their learning and see their own progress over time. Seeing their own results gives them the confidence and assurance to believe they can achieve higher goals. Not all students will be top performers, but giving them a resource that shows their progress keeps them motivated and in a growth-mindset. The goal is progress, not perfection.

The goal is progress, not perfection.

Download Tasha’s Goal Tracker

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(If you’re looking for resources to help measure student progress, I like to use the assessment tools within Raz-Plus to measure foundational skills, comprehension, and fluency.)

Make Work Relevant and Engaging

Curriculum should both be reflective of everyone in our community as well as accessible in multiple formats to allow students to see themselves included in the lessons and, logistically, be able to access the content in ways that allow them to learn. Presenting material in diverse and relatable ways helps students make personal connections with the lesson, making content easier to remember and, thereby, making it more effective. This could include memorable visuals, musical components, tangible objects, unique experiences, collaborative work, creative writing exercises, and any other mode that helps get students out of their seats or in a space that takes them beyond a textbook and classic activity sheet. I give students learning style surveys at the start of the year to better understand how my students learn best: by kinesthetic, auditory, or visual lessons; this helps me plan more unique learning opportunities throughout the year.

How Learning A-Z Helps

Learning A-Z has been an instrumental resource in providing engaging material and learning experiences to my learners. Here are just a few ways it has helped me and my students:

Vocabulary: A strong focus on a shared vocabulary allows students to better comprehend the world around them and learn to effectively communicate, both in school and in their larger community. If students don’t have that shared vocabulary, there’s a strong chance they’ll fall behind academically and socially. I lean on Vocabulary A-Z to provide interactive ways for students to learn both academic and common vocabulary in a game-based environment. You can create your own vocabulary lists and a variety of practice activities, but students especially love the vocabulary games that can be tailored to their skill levels.

Writing: Writing A-Z allows a variety of ways to differentiate tasks, like the interactive Build-A-Book resource that gets even my most reluctant writer excited. It made a tremendous difference when my emergent 4th grader could participate in the same task as his grade-level peers. I also recommend taking a look at their Back To School Writing collection to help students get to know one another and practice writing skills at the start of the year.

Social-Emotional Learning: The Meaningful Conversations collection within Raz-Plus provides sets of resources that present a variety of perspectives to help all students feel seen and understood. The collections help teachers guide conversations around culturally and socially relevant topics, using age-appropriate resources – all while covering the five Social-Emotional Learning CASEL competencies. Meaningful Conversations hits the mark on multiple levels:

  • The content ties back to topics that students can identify with (like what makes each of us marvelous, families, and working together through difficult times)
  • There’s a wide variety of students represented in the resources, giving students the chance to both see themselves in the content and to learn about others’ experiences
  • There’s a variety of resource types that help differentiate engagement - including resources for teachers and families.

I curated a list of SEL and community-building books and activities from Learning A-Z that I like to use to start the school year strong with my students. I hope even some of these help generate conversation, new ideas, and sparks of curiosity in your class.

Download Tasha's List of SEL and Community Building Resources

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As we go into the new school year, I hope you have a chance to reflect on the teachers who changed your world for the better like Miss Callahan did for mine. Do your best to instill optimism, inspire confidence, maintain a growth mindset, stay engaged by trying new things, and lean on resources that help guide your teaching. Creating a classroom community grounded in equity, respect, and social-emotional learning is just as important for you as it is for your students. After all, we are all learners who need space to be vulnerable, try new things, make mistakes, and keep motivated when we simply can’t seem to figure it out… yet.

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Interested in Learning A-Z resources that help spark student curiosity and engagement? Visit our Inspire Curiosity in All Students page!

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