by Gerry Wass, Purdy R-II School, Purdy, Missouri
So this guy walks into a bar, into the hotel bar actually, after the open mic night is over, after emceeing, performing a song of his own and helping to wrap up cords and take down equipment. And he works his way up to visit with Jim Wooldridge AKA Señor Wooly (www.senorwooly.com) and Dr. Stephen Krashen, the professor whose works he had to read back in college. He has actually talked to Stephen a couple of times during the conference, and he talked to Jim nearly every day to convince him to perform at the open mic night. His improv version of "Puedo ir al baño" was a lifetime memory, and that's the glow over everything as Dr. Krashen looks at our guy and says "Get me an article about 'that' in the next week for the International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, a page and half maximum."
Allow me to put off for a moment telling you what "that" is so I can explain that Jim Wooldridge has a website full of stunning videos that help Spanish teachers teach vocabulary and generally excite their students about learning a new language. At this point in the story, I had been on his website only enough to pique my interest, and I'm relying on my colleague Bryce Hedstrom's advice that his students "literally run to class" to see the videos which he shows only during passing time. As for Dr. Krashen, he spent his time in academia researching every technique he could uncover to understand how we really acquire languages, what works best for our brains, and in fact the term "comprehensible input" is deeply associated with him. I actually met him at a conference two years ago where I stood with friends behind him, singing while he played old standards at the piano, and that emotional event galvanized me to work harder at listening to his knowledge about teaching and learning.
So Dr. Krashen's reference to "that" is the multi-level Spanish classroom I'm returning to for the second year, at Purdy High School in Purdy, Missouri. It's Spanish 1-4 plus native speakers, in whatever ratios happen to register for each of my three sections. My first year of teaching this way had been a great improvement over the segregated levels I used to teach, but I could not explain to Dr. Krashen or anyone else why it was working, and when he got my first draft of the article for the International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, he wanted to know more about how I was differentiating to meet the needs of various levels of students. I told him that the very nature of the class seemed to take care of any differentiation challenges. And then the school year was upon me, with an added detail, that Emily Diehl from Mindset Works had asked me to write this article, about what all this teacher stuff has to do with the book Mindset and the research of Carol Dweck--into how to teach students to adopt a growth mindset that allows for fearless learning.
I knew that when I started studying Mindset in the middle of the previous school year, my teacher talk had changed and the work habits of my students improved profoundly, so much so that I felt I might want to modify Dr. Krashen's lifetime of work that we must always make foreign language comprehensible. Rather than working to make sure everything was clear, I wanted to create more of a sense of mystery, more of a feeling of immersion where my students would be willing to work, to guess the meaning of at least some of what I say in class. I asked my school for a new video camera so I could see what was really happening as I taught, and my connections to Drs. Krashen and Dweck helped me get that requisition approved.
I shot some video during my first week and skimmed through enough of it to see some simple problems I needed to fix, but I generally liked what I saw and had to acknowledge that I have acquired a lot of skill with TPRS—Teaching Proficiency with Reading and Storytelling. It's an amazing way to learn and teach, but it's been hard for me to master; I'm in my 16th year of learning it. Bryce Hedstrom is one of the leaders driving this field. He introduced me to Jim Wooldridge at the beginning of this conference, just one more way he is mentoring me, and I'm thrilled to discover that he has followed my suggestion to read Mindset, has already done so multiple times, that his copy is full of notes, and that he is telling other teachers about it.
Then, during the third week of school, I learned that I was not taking care of the needs of my upper-level students and that the class was going too slowly for some of them; one of them came to tell me so, and I could see it in the body language of others. This sent me into a panicked search for a solution which ended in the realization that I was not doing TPRS, not telling stories, so I worked myself back into telling mini-stories based on personalizing the interests of the students, and one day of that was enough to change the tone of the class back. I promptly forgot the need to do that by the next day, returning to some hodgepodge of songs and other activities, including the super-popular Sr. Wooly videos. There is little time for reflection in my teacher life, but I am constantly aware of how complex the dynamics of a classroom are.
It seems that hardly a day goes by now without a conversation or some reference to Mindset. When a friend came to spend the weekend with my wife and me, she picked up our copy and read far enough into it to produce a stunning insight while we were watching a video featuring biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton. His viewpoint? That most people still buy into the "central dogma" of biological science, that our lives are driven by the nature of our DNA rather than switched on by our environment and our beliefs. Our friend's comment—"What a way to grow up with a fixed mindset, by believing that our lives are determined by our genes!"
I'm stunned by the connection and still trying to unpack the ways I could connect that into my constant quest for growth, for feedback that challenges me to see deeper into the mysteries of teaching and learning. Whenever I send Mindset out into the world, it boomerangs back into my world with more force than ever.
So you probably suspect by now that this story is not moving toward resolution, that things are getting more complicated. Here, I have barely touched on all the insights coming my way; I'm making connections to many other disciplines and seeing a world full of opportunities for problem-solving, so I feel like I have to resist the urge to take on more and more projects because of the enormous pull of possibility. For instance, I'll wrap this up by saying that there is something in mindset work that is profoundly connected to the quest for happiness, and it was through Shawn Achor's book The Happiness Advantage that I first discovered Carol Dweck and Mindset. Shawn's new book Before Happiness just arrived, and I've read enough to know that this journey just got a lot more interesting.
About Gerry Wass
Gerry teaches introductory Latin, French and German to sixth graders, Italian to seventh graders and Spanish to 8-12th grades in a multi-level classroom that includes levels 1-4 and native speakers, at Purdy R-II schools in southwest Missouri. He also teaches a Service Learning class that concentrates on recycling and gardening. He is advisor to the Spanish Club which operates the Purdy Recycling Project, the only school-based, industrial recycling program in the nation that is now in its 7th year, having recycled over 630,000 pounds of material. He and his wife also have a small farm on which they practice intensive rotational grazing. Gerry is a singer/songwriter among many other interests. Gerry says: "Finding Mindset has greatly intensified my sense of fulfillment and success."