Teams of eighth-graders played teachers — and motivational speakers — for elementary school classes Friday as they led lessons on the power of positive thinking and learning from mistakes.
Throughout the week, in fact, groups of Mont Pleasant Middle School students trekked the short distance to Pleasant Valley Elementary School to deliver their handcrafted lesson plans to younger students. The visits aimed to pass on a lesson the middle school students have learned for the past couple of weeks: Students who believe they can get smarter and devote more time to learning will in turn get smarter.
Wearing a suit and tie and holding a coffee mug in his hands, eighth-grader Anthony Ally looked like he belonged in the front of a classroom. He individually greeted each second-grader in Doreen Croteau’s class as he explained how the young students can learn from their mistakes and not fear the things they can’t yet do.
“It’s all about what you tell your mind,” Anthony told the second-graders he stood before Friday morning. “If you want to, you can and will succeed in life. If you really want it, you will get it.”
“Eventually?” one of the second-graders asked.
“Yes,” he answered. “With hard work.”
Anthony and his teammates asked the second-graders to list one thing they “can do” and one thing they “can’t do… yet.”
“They need to write down what they can do and what they can’t do?” asked Croteau, the teacher.
“Yet,” Anthony jumped in, emphasizing the lesson’s key word.
“Right. What they can’t do, yet,” Croteau said. “That tiny word is so important.”
The lesson, along with about a dozen others, focused on the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset, two different attitudes that learners have: Students who believe they can learn, even topics they struggle with, have a growth mindset; students who shut off learning after they face challenges have fixed mindsets.
Since last school year, eighth-graders across the district have spent time explicitly learning about what makes up a growth mindset — an effort by the district’s educators to shift students’ attitudes about their ability to learn material that doesn’t come easily to them, especially for middle school students nearing the start of high school.
“We have a bunch of kids who have internalized this thing about school stress: They haven’t had success, so they think they can’t have success,” Superintendent Larry Spring said. “The only way to get that kid to put that effort in is to get them to think that putting that effort in is actually going to help.”
Carmella Parente, the district’s social studies coordinator, summarized the focus as one of “recognizing effort instead of merely outcome,” a shift to emphasize for students that effort is a key component of learning and developing intelligence.
“Teaching is the best way to solidify your learning,” said Mont Pleasant Middle School teacher Molly Schaefer, whose students were leading the lessons Friday.
In a fourth-grade class, eighth-graders Lydia Ragubir and Kiani Squires had to shift plans after technical problems shut down their computer presentation. But in a real-time embodiment of the lesson they were teaching, the pair of students stood in front of the class, delivered their presentation directly and answered questions from the younger students — refusing to let technical challenges set them back.
“If something bad happens to you, you can always study harder,” Kiani said, summarizing the lesson she hoped to instill in the fourth-graders. “If you have a growth mindset, you learn from when you fail and you can help other people do that too.”
Lydia said she wished she had gotten a similar lesson when she was in fourth grade.
“I think I had a fixed mindset because I didn’t want to try something if I thought I would fail,” Lydia said. “I didn’t learn this in fourth grade. If I did, I’m really sure I would know how to play the piano by now.”