Opening Minds in Mamaroneck NY

Last year, when educators in Mamaroneck, New York, began reviewing a new state-approved rubric to guide teacher evaluations, many wondered about the criteria that teachers demonstrate a "growth mind-set."

Assistant superintendent Annie Ward knew just where to turn for information.

Years before, while working in New York City, Ward had become a fan of Choice Words (Stenhouse, 2004), Peter Johnston's book about how the language that teachers use shapes students' perceptions of themselves as learners. Through classroom discourse, Johnston asserts, teachers can encourage students to become strategic, dynamic thinkers or reinforce the belief that intelligence is fixed. A teacher with a growth mind-set might display student work that demonstrates progress, important insights, and the capacity for learning. A teacher with a fixed mind-set might display only papers on which students had received A's.

As soon as Ward discovered that Johnston had written a follow-up book, Opening Minds (Stenhouse, 2012), she knew that the resource would play a pivotal role in the district's professional development plans.

"It just seemed like the perfect text at the perfect time," Ward says. She likens Johnston's writing to "a single malt scotch in that you have to really savor it and read and reread it. There's just so much there."

Starting with a professional book study for district instructional coaches, expanding to summer training for all new teachers, continuing with ongoing faculty studies at school sites, and including a personal visit by Johnston this spring, the Mamaroneck School District has embraced the author's work and used it as the centerpiece of a broader focus on providing effective formative feedback. As Ward explains, "How do we give it, how do we receive it, and ultimately what impact does it have when administrators give it to teachers and when teachers give it to students?"

Using Language to Change Lives

Mamaroneck, which serves about 5,000 students, is a largely suburban school district about twenty-five miles from New York City. Educators there acknowledge that they have only started to explore the richness of Johnston's reflections about how "words change the life of the classroom" and the risks that students and teachers must be willing to take to learn, not just get the right answer. "Children must experience many things as at least potentially changeable, not just aspects of the world outside them, but also aspects of themselves-their learning, their identities, their intellect, their personal attributes, and their ways of relating to others," Johnston writes. "In the talk of the classroom, we want to hear the threads of a dynamic view of intellect-indeed, of self. We want to inoculate the children against infection by fixed theories; we want them to say 'I'm not good at this yet' and to take steps to change that. Indeed, yet is a key word that we should regularly encourage children to add to their narratives" (2012, 27).

At Chatsworth Avenue School, principal Gail Boyle and assistant principal Katie Andersen led faculty study sessions of Opening Minds and also began observing classrooms to search for evidence of growth mind-set in practice. The following are just a few of the examples they captured in the elementary classrooms:

  • A child freely acknowledging "I don't get it" and asking for and receiving help from a peer
  • A team of teachers who asked each other to return with ideas about how to collectively support a struggling student instead of just judging his deficiencies
  • Teachers carrying "cheat sheets" to remind them to use empowering terms when conferring with students

In the upcoming school year, Andersen plans to set up a lab site where teachers can model lessons using what Johnston calls a "dynamic-learning frame," such as emphasizing that the goal is to learn as much as you can, versus a "fixed-performance frame" in which the goal is to look as smart as you can.

Andersen and Boyle also have tried to model the instructive feedback they expect teachers to give to students through their own interactions with the faculty.

"I do believe that people will grow, and we communicate that to teachers," Boyle says. "We acknowledge the hard work they are putting in but we also communicate that we believe they can do better and therefore the children will do better."

Adds Andersen, "If you talk with kids in the classroom, most can articulate back to you what they need to work on. I believe that's because the teachers have given them specific and direct feedback in terms of where they need to grow as a learner."

Dialogic Conversations

If people question whether young children are capable of thinking meta-cognitively about their learning, Kelly Brennan would beg to disagree. A second-grade teacher at Mamaroneck Avenue School, Brennan strives to create what Johnston refers to as a "dialogic classroom," one in which "there are lots of open questions and extended exchanges among students. These are not classrooms based on the delivery of facts. They are classrooms in which there are multiple interpretations and perspectives-classrooms in which facts are considered in different contexts and in which people challenge each other's views and conclusions" (2012, 52).

Providing feedback to show students that learning is a process of improvement is one of the ways Brennan puts this theory into action. During a lesson focusing on poetry and reading fluency, for example, she modeled how to read a poem and then asked for volunteers to follow her lead. At first, when classmates offered constructive comments about their delivery, the students felt dejected. But when Brennan stressed the value of the feedback from their peers and asked the students to try reading again, they not only improved their fluency but also asked to try more difficult poems to stretch their range.

"It's fun to watch it happen," Brennan says, when kids realize that getting better is "really the best learning instead of only being right."

Brennan says she used to have dialogic conversations when she taught fourth grade, but reading Johnston's book reminded her of the importance of establishing expectations for divergent learning in the primary grades too.

"I think sometimes in your career there's just a book that comes along and it's what you need to hear again," she says. "This was a way to remind us to take a step back and figure out, 'How do we find time to have these conversations with our kids?'"

The Capacity for Learning

After taking time off to raise her children, Kim Armogida returned to teach reading at Hommocks Middle School in time to participate in the faculty book study of Opening Minds. She took to heart the message that teacher feedback is a critical part of shaping students' resilience.

"It was my nature to rush in to praise them to build up their self-esteem, but I wasn't having great results," she says. "So I went back to the book. I did a second read about halfway through the year and realized I wasn't giving them enough time to struggle through it."

She started writing sticky notes to remind herself not to jump in at the first sign of student hesitation. This was particularly challenging with a group of eighth graders who had never been successful with reading. Armogida concentrated on turning around their negativity by valuing their contributions and relying on their expertise to interpret literature and share strategies for finding meaning.

"I used Johnston to figure it out," she says. "If you act as an expert, it cuts off their ability to figure it out together. I shifted the power back to the kids."

When students looked to her for answers, she shifted the responsibility. Over time, both Armogida and her students learned to become comfortable with uncertainty and have rich conversations about racism, social justice, peer pressure, and other topics that gave their texts relevance.

"As Johnston says, we want to read for meaningful action," she shares. "We want them to take it out into the world with them. I think the kids have been amazing, but they have to have the opportunity to think and the time to do so."

Katie Nagrotsky, a sixth-grade English teacher at Hommocks, says she also had to learn how to stop rushing in to provide answers to her students so they would develop intellectual independence. She has pushed them to share the steps of their writing processes and to invite feedback from their peers, just as medical or law students might analyze cases from their own fields. At first, students typically offered soft commentary to curry favor rather than to coach improvement, but as Nagrotsky asked for more precision, they eventually sharpened their language to talk about maintaining voice, choosing quotes with impact, using complex sentences, and other important literary devices.

Assistant principal Nora Mazzone, recalling research that most of the feedback kids get every day comes from their peers, says teachers like Katie Nagrotsky provide value-added instruction. "If we model for kids how to give feedback, we're helping our own work as teachers. We are guiding learning in a way that's far more powerful than we can ever do by being one in a group of many. Katie's work really exemplifies that, teaching them to teach each other in how they give feedback."

Math teacher Paul Swiatocha says he initially struggled with how to adapt those principles in his classroom, believing that ambiguity has more in common with literary or historical analysis than computation or algebraic thinking. But, encouraged by teachers on his sixth-grade team, he began asking students to show their problem-solving strategies in addition to finding the right answer. Responding to students' familiarity with the shorthand of Twitter, Swiatocha and Nagrotsky put the message #SWYK on their classroom whiteboards: hashtag, Show What You Know.

"That's really what popped for them and got them to show the process," he says, particularly as they prepared for the state testing period. "We looked at a lot of complicated problems and kids would say, 'I don't know how to do this.' I would say, 'What's the problem about? It's about area. Okay, what do you know about area? Write down everything you know about area.'

"On the state tests on open-ended questions, they get partial credit for showing substantial thinking about the content."

Building on those practices, Swiatocha also encouraged students to put collective intelligence to the challenge of analyzing problems. The more he stepped out of the way, the more students stepped up, and in the process they learned to respect each other's contributions.

"If a child gets 85 percent of the way to solve the problem, we'll look at that solution in class," he explains. "Somebody will be able to follow the thinking and fill in that last piece, and then the class has the right answer. You're not chastising them for not getting 100 percent of the way. You're celebrating, 'Wow, you didn't know how to solve it, but because you showed your work so beautifully the rest of the class was able to say, 'This is the last piece we need to solve it.'"

Teachers and administrators plan to continue cultivating a growth mind-set this next school year. Reading teacher Nancy Capparelli says she wants to display classroom anchor charts of prompts so students can use them to initiate academic conversations, explain their learning strategies, and provide feedback to peers. Nagrotsky says she plans to emphasize the value of struggling, beginning with the first days of school, so students will understand that the most important work in class "is the thinking, the process." And Mazzone says she will encourage colleagues to keep opening minds.

"It's riveting enough to us that it's a topic that's going to stay on the table," Mazzone says. "I think everyone feels this has been valuable."

Acknowledging that much work still needs to be done, such as reflecting the growth mind-set on students' report cards, Annie Ward says she's nevertheless delighted by what's happening in Mamaroneck.

"It's been very exciting and energizing to see teachers and administrators at all stages of our careers respond and participate in professional dialogue and make change," Ward says. "It's attributable to Opening Minds and to our work on leadership and providing constructive and timely feedback at all levels of our organization. . . . We think this work is enhancing the professional culture of the district."