Fires in the Mind

Get kids to chart their progress

“Interviewing is my challenge,” said the high school student you see in this video, as he began his journalistic internship at Educational Video Center (EVC) in New York City. To chart his progress, his teacher gave him the camera and asked him to document how he developed the art of asking questions.

One of the finest examples of “rigor and relevance” in the world, EVC workshops not only provide students with academic credit and professional skills; they give them the chance to express themselves and be heard. Teachers learn, too, about how to use videography as a means to develop critical skills and content across the curriculum–and incidentally, as a way for kids to chart their own learning.

This student’s 2-minute piece, made as a “practice video,” is just the beginning of his journey. At EVC, even students who have never succeeded in school before often go on to win awards and scholarships and to work in the media industry. And they start with just such small steps as this: asking questions that matter (“What does it take to get good at interviewing?”) and documenting the answers, as new skills build on each other right before our eyes.

Reach past knowing to imagining

“The technique is your base, and you build on that base and kind of grow up through it into creativity,” said Rosalie. At 16, she had already experienced that when she was performing in musical theater with the school drama club. That’s in fact how experts work–extending their competence by reaching beyond to something not previously imagined. So how can we move that into academics, organizing units and semesters so that students move from a base of fundamental techniques to reach the level of creativity?

TIP! Encourage publicly and privately

Students want their efforts to be acknowledged, but (especially in early adolescence) they often have ambivalent feelings about being praised in front of peers. Brandie liked that her middle school English teacher posted encouraging notes about student work on a bulletin board at every week’s end. “She’d fold the notes up with your name on them, so nobody else could read them,” Brandie said. What are some creative ways you have found to give positive and personal feedback to students?

TIP: Treat mistakes as opportunities

“When people are only faced with their failures, they tend to want to give up,” said Iona, a student in East Harlem, NY. “We need help to see our own progress, so that we don’t only see how bad we are doing.”

The most effective teachers regard mistakes and even failures as interesting steps along the way to understanding. What creative and effective ways have you found for giving positive feedback to learners who don’t “get it right”?

I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best answers submitted this week.

TIP! Play it out

“That’s not fair!” “We were there first!” Creative play gives kids practice in negotiating, pretending and imagining, rethinking and revising, arguing and demonstrating, taking leaps, inventing new realities beyond self-interest and kinship. It’s crucial daily practice in democratic habits, says Deborah Meier in Playing for Keeps, her new book with Brenda Engel and Beth Taylor about a public school playground.

TIP! Chart how far you’ve come

For an end-of-year wrap-up, ask kids to look back and write down (or draw, or photograph) one thing they can tell they got better at this year (academic, interpersonal, etc.). Then celebrate their progress by making a display in your classroom!

TIP! Start small but do it daily

“Hey, three months ago I couldn’t do what I’m doing now,” said Marquis, 15, who took up Japanese language study because of his interest in anime cartoons. “Let’s see what I can do in another three months! When somebody’s helping you all the way, inch by inch, you keep pushing yourself.”

Kids and adults alike feel awkward and clumsy when we’re first stretching for a new skill. It helps to pick just one part of what you’re going for, and keep practicing it till it becomes a habit. (Don’t forget to cheer for that progress before moving on to the “new hard”!)

TIP! Watch for great models

“If I meet a musician I look up to, everything he says is like it was bolded out,” said Mike, a 16-year-old guitar player. Kids, like adults, get inspired to work at something when they see how amazing it looks when done well. We can boost their motivation and persistence by showing them models of great work, and introducing them to experts in our communities.