The Fabulous Struggle

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“We have to really send the right messages, that taking on a challenging task is what I admire. Sticking to something and trying many strategies, that’s what I admire. That struggling means you’re committed to something and are willing to work hard. Parents around the dinner table and teachers in the classroom should ask, ‘Who had a fabulous struggle today?’” — Stanford University’s Carol S. Dweck (Department of Psychology – Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor)

I had the pleasure of seeing author and Stanford psychology Prof. Carol Dweck present at my daughter’s high school this week, and was inspired by her focus on the power of what she referred to as “fabulous struggles.”  Professor Dweck author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” has become increasingly influential in education reform circles for her thought-provoking research and writing on the Growth Mindset.

I was introduced to this research three years ago, and I’ve shared it with all of my students ever since, because I believe it reveals some profound truths for educators who are committed to helping every student reach his or her potential. Lately, I’ve come to realize how important it is for educators themselves to commit fully to pursuing a growth mindset and modeling these behaviors for their students.

On this blog, I hope to share some of my experiences, reflections, and discoveries as an educator and lifelong learner as I work with students and other teachers in pursuit of our “fabulous struggles” in and out of the classroom.

Carol Dweck’s use of the phrase “fabulous struggle” stuck a chord with me because of an experience I’d had in my freshman English class just a few weeks before. We had kicked off a project in which students were asked to revamp key scenes from Romeo and Juliet for a live performance to an audience of their peers from other classes, sort of like West Side Story. I’d suggested a premise for this modernization: Juliet would be a freshman student from my school, and Romeo would be a sophomore from our big rival school just a few miles away. After an intense know/need-to-know session, the students jumped right in, forming acting companies, casting roles, and writing scripts. We were off and running.

On day two, one of the girls at a table in back raised her hand and offered the following suggestion: “I’ve been thinking about how to make this relevant for our generation, and I think it would be much more real to have them be a same-sex couple.” What followed was a “fabulous struggle” among the students as they grappled with this proposal. I think I said five or six times during that class period, “I’m not going to decide this for you. This is your play. You’re going to decide if you want to adopt this approach or not.” Students spoke openly, honestly, and respectfully about whether or not they liked the idea (many did, many had reservations), whether or not it better conveyed the themes of the original play than did the premise of rival high schools, what implications it had for rewriting their scenes, and how they would decide what to do. In the end, they voted, and decided to stick with the original premise. The outcome of the vote wasn’t unimportant, but the process seemed to me at the time and looking back to be the most valuable aspect of that class session.

Students took the initiative to suggest a thought-provoking alternative to a class project with an eye toward making the product more authentic, debated the proposal thoroughly and respectfully, and voted democratically on a solution. Not everyone got what they wanted, but everyone’s voice was heard and valued. Afterward, I spoke 1-1 with the student who had made the suggestion and made sure she knew how much I valued her initiative and courage. She had given us what Carol Dweck would call a “fabulous struggle” for the day; what a great gift.

The week before break, students performed their scenes before a live audience. Most of these students had no prior drama experience, yet every one of them gave a wonderful performance. When we came back to class for cupcakes and the cast party, the first thing one of them did was to ask me and the rest of the class if everyone would be up for an encore performance in a few weeks so they could do it again because they had worked so hard and had ideas for how to perform it even better. They voted to do an encore performance, 24 in favor and one opposed. In twelve years of teaching, that’s the first time I’ve had an entire class ask to take an assessment again because they enjoyed it so much and wanted to show me and each other they could perform even better. Nobody asked if it would let them raise their grade for the project. That’s what I call a growth mindset.

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