While I was running one of my favorite races a few years back, I was turning the last corner of the last mile, ready to sprint to the finish line. I was running alongside a new friend, which happens a lot in races; part of being a runner is about creating relationships within the encouragement and support of that community. I suddenly hit a mental wall, and gasped out to her, “Go on without me- I’m gonna puke!” Feeling the stomach cramps and nausea overcome me, I jumped into some bushes, but she dragged me out. “You’re a real competitor when you’re going to puke. That means to dig deep, overcome that feeling, and run faster,” she said. Then she grabbed my arm, and we kept going. The nausea and pain disappeared as soon as I crossed the finish line, and I was very excited to see I had a new PR. Runners are usually driven by their PR’s, or “personal record,” as they compete in races. Rarely have I run a race with a friend who wants to win the race; they just want to improve their PR. It’s a victory to shave off a few seconds or minutes from a mile pace. Improving yourself as a runner (or athlete) means pushing yourself, tapping into not just physical endurance but mental stability as well. This year I had decided to try out this philosophy in my classroom.
Having a growth mindset is the popular buzz word (or phrase) in education right now. Teachers are always asked, “How are you instilling a growth mindset in your students?” I am actually inspired by this new pedagogical topic. Students with growth mindsets aren’t afraid of new challenges, they fearlessly apply new ideas in the face of failure, and have thoughtful, purposeful explanations for their decisions. Usually growth mindset skills are facilitated during math and science, when children have a chance to investigate new concepts and apply different strategies to determine an accurate outcome. They are not led by the teacher nor held by the hand while making decisions. Every decision is challenged by “Why?” or “Tell me your thinking behind this.” I always think of the growth mindset as the educational equivalent of a PR. A student can only grow as a learner if they push themselves to reach a new personal record in gaining and applying new knowledge and skills.
Although excited to apply the growth mindset concept to my math and science lessons, I noticed that it was lacking in my Language Arts curriculum. Our school district has an explicitly structured curriculum that includes a specific process of teaching phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. The scope and sequence is clearly laid out for the hundreds of teachers in the district to follow. The curriculum that is “scientifically-designed to be followed with fidelity” is a two-edged sword. On one hand, it is nice to have it all laid out for the year, and know that everyone is on the same page. On the other hand, it kills a teacher’s creative soul. There is not much “wiggle room” for teachers to think outside the box, create higher-level metacognitive opportunities, or design activities that meet the students’ personal interests. I had to find a way to respect my district’s teaching requirements but incorporate the avenue to a growth mindset in reading. Children only become lifelong readers when reading becomes a habit and a passion. Therefore, I created Mt. Readmore.
Mt. Readmore was supposed to be a very simple homework project. One of my parents created a 6-foot mountain (including 3 peaks for 3 goals) in the back of my classroom. The children designed little mountain climbers, with their photographs glued onto the heads. Folders were organized with specific directions of this “challenge,” including expectations, examples of book reports, and deadlines for each “peak” of the mountain. I thought they were attainable goals- for the last 12 weeks of school, the second graders were expected to read 10 chapter books. These 12 weeks were broken into 3 mini-goals, with 3 celebrations for the readers who made it to each peak of the mountain. Finally, the Mt. Readmore Challenge was ready to begin.
On your mark, get set, GO! I noticed at the beginning of this reading challenge that my little readers were acting just like athletes. They had been training for this challenge for the first semester of second grade: decoding multisyllabic words, building vocabulary, practicing fluency and comprehension skills. Now it was time to apply them in the race. The children were excitedly reading aloud their chapter books to family members, creating quality book reports to share with the class, and inching their mountain climbers up the mountain. We were bonding over shared books, laughing at creative book reports, and most importantly, really loving to read. The students who usually resisted reading at home were begging their parents to get them more books to read.
Middle of Mt. Readmore… the honeymoon was over. That’s when the parent e-mails started pouring in. Excuses of why their children can’t read, questions about why one child’s book is bigger than their book, and you get the picture. At this point I realized that this “simple reading project” AT HOME wasn’t so much about building the growth mindset of the children, but also the parents. I had to spend a lot of time encouraging parents to keep going, giving reminders and suggestions to keep their little mountain-climbers moving up the peaks. My friendly little Mt. Readmore was becoming a dangerous Mt. Everest of reading.
End of Mt. Readmore… celebrations and tears. Mostly from the parents! A lot of wonderful achievements resulted from my experimental reading project:
- 22 out of 30 students created a PR in reading: reading more than 10 books, and pushing themselves to read more complex text.
- Families spent quality time together, designing creative book reports that showed higher metacognitive thinking skills.
- 27 out of 30 students completed the end-of- year DIBELS assessment at benchmark or higher level.
- 200+ growth mindset conversations with students as they shared 286 books as a class.
- Students were excited to keep reading as the summer vacation began!
As I packed up my classroom last week, I sadly tore down Mt. Readmore. A parent stopped by and asked me, “Will you have it next year?” I stopped for a moment and thought… torturous emails and phone calls, 200+ book reports, high-fives, the looks of joy and pride when the child hits the “top” of the mountain… heck yeah! Mt. Readmore will continue.