Growth Mindset

As the first semester of the school year draws to a close, I am beginning to reflect on the work that has been done in the math department thus far this year.  Our goal as a department is to create a student-centered curriculum that promotes critical thinking skills and helps students get motivated to keep improving themselves to the best of their potential.

The work that all teachers at Verb do to prepare their students for the rigor of college level courses is for naught if students do not believe that they are capable of learning and growth, which is why the math and science departments have chosen to focus on developing a growth mindset and grit in our students.  If our students truly believe that they can learn anything, solve any problem, do anything they set their minds too, then we have no doubt that our students will be successful not only in their coursework, but also in life.

I am happy to report that among ninth grade students at Verb, over 40% rated that they highly agree with the statement “I have a growth mindset”.  This is an improvement from 30% of students who highly agreed with the same statement in September.  My goal, and the department’s goal for June is that 100% of our students will self-identify as having a growth mindset, and will use that mindset to achieve wonderful things.

Student data on if they agree with the statement “I have a growth mindset” on a scale of 1-5.

Intellectual Fairness

All political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.
~ George Orwell

The real beauty of the above quote —and almost everything penned by Orwell— derives from the undeniable fairness inherent in his critique of political language. Intellectual fairness or critical thinking —as I will henceforth refer to it— has never been more out of vogue and more desperately needed than it is today. Amid all the tumult around us, it is tempting to think that the current political and social divisions are the result of a pernicious “other”: a conspiratorial, amorphous group of enemies impeding progress at every turn. Subjected to the maddening din of political sound-bites, and the fervent reposts of hastily produced opinion pieces passed off as “Truth”, it is understandable that many believe society to be irreparably torn asunder. But as Orwell makes clear, the problem with our powers of perception derives from the language that informs it. Language shapes thought, and if we are not diligent in our critical thinking we allow ourselves to accept many forms of illogic. What is the solution? How do we make ourselves into critical thinkers capable of sussing out the purposely manipulative speech promulgated from every corner of political discourse: Left, Right, and Center? Like all problems, the first step is learning how to recognize the problem. To this end, senior English students have just finished reading Orwell’s prophetic classic 1984.

That my students were able to discuss the complex ideas presented in the novel with verve and insight did not surprise me; I expected as much. What impressed me most was the political astuteness displayed in their essays where they identified and analyzed contemporary examples of what Orwell referred to as doublethink: the acceptance of or mental capacity to accept contrary opinions or beliefs at the same time, especially as a result of political indoctrination. While it is easy to identify the inherent illogic and manipulative language of those with whom we disagree, it takes a far more critical mind to discern and point out the same phenomenon occurring in the discourse among “our team” – whoever that happens to be. Many students took up the extra challenge of looking for rhetorical and cognitive dissonance within their own digital milieus. The results, for some, were enlightening. Many students were quick to realize the unsettling implications of all the doublethink swirling around them: most of what we hear and read simply is, at best, comprised of half or distorted truths, and, at worst, rhetorically false. Many students concluded that only through thoughtful reflection on an idea, and the language used to express it, can one hope to discern truth from falsehood; sincerity from cynical manipulation.

One of the most insightful, if somewhat humorous, examples came from a student who illuminated the doublethink inherent in a common refrain issued by well-meaning adults who in the same breath will, without a hint of irony, exclaim: Follow your dreams…but get a “practical” job. I had to laugh. Touché Juan! Orwell would be proud. And so am I.

Kairos Retreat 2015

Each year, we take the seniors on a four day Kairos retreat.  We go up to Camp Pondo in Running Spring (near Big Bear), where students get to retreat not only spiritually and mentally, but physically as well.  This year, our Kairos was Nov. 15 – 18.

Kairos is one of those experiences that is really hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been on one themselves.  If I were to try to describe what we do, it would probably sound boring or possibly even strange.  However, our students continuously come back each year so grateful for the experience.

This year, our students were lucky enough to experience snow while we were there.  The hail began shortly after they arrived – complete with thunder and lightning.  The hail storm was pretty short-lived, though, giving way to a beautiful snow.  By the time we woke up in the morning, the ground was covered.  During free time, students were even able to go tubing (sliding down a hill in a blow-up inner tube).  By the time the day was over, there were two snowmen on the camp’s grounds.  And, of course, there were some pretty epic snowball fights!

Mixed in with all this fun, student and adult leaders gave open and honest talks, students shared and allowed themselves to become vulnerable with one another, and relationships with God and with one another were strengthened.  Student leaders had been preparing for this retreat since June, and showed some true leadership skills while on the retreat.  The “MC” for the weekend had the perfect balance of humor, seriousness, and prayer.  He was able to quickly move students into the right mental and spiritual space for each activity, as well as keep them laughing during those times when it was needed and appropriate.

Even though, as the adult leader, this wasn’t “my” retreat, I still found myself both laughing and crying.  It was a powerful four days.  One student commented near the end of the retreat, “This was a life-changing experience.”  I can only hope and pray that those sentiments continue.  Our students were left with the challenge to “Live the fourth!”  For those who have experienced a Kairos retreat, you know what this means.  For those who haven’t, it is the challenge to our students to bring the retreat back home – to not leave behind all they learned on the mountain.  It is a difficult challenge, but one I believe our students can meet head on.

As a final note, I want to mention our ride home on Wednesday evening.  It turned into what could easily be seen as a bit of a disaster.  That being said, it highlighted for me how incredibly amazing our faculty and staff are, as well as how exceedingly awesome our students are.  The two buses were supposed to arrive at 4:00pm to pick up our students, hoping to arrive back at Verb about 6pm.  The first bus didn’t arrive until 5:45pm, arriving at Verb at 8:15pm.  The second bus didn’t arrive until 7pm, and then broke down coming down the mountain.  Our students had to wait for a new bus to arrive, and did not get back to Verb until 11:30pm.  They had not had dinner and had plenty of reason to complain.  Instead, students told jokes and laughed, and even started dancing in the turnaround where Highway Patrol had them wait for the new bus.  Those of us back at school made coffee and hot chocolate for waiting families, and put on cartoons for younger siblings.  When the students finally arrived, they got off the bus with big smiles and started hugging everyone – parents, siblings, teachers, one another.  Instead of complaining to me about their ordeal, they thanked me for the past four days.  They also told me joyfully that they felt like President Obama with the Highway Patrol controlling traffic on the mountain to ensure their safety!  As I mentioned earlier, what could have easily been seen as a disaster and ruined the retreat, became a blessing for me.  It reminded me of why I work at Verb – and why it is not just a job.  It is a gift and a blessing to be a part of the Verb family.