Apr 26, 2019 2019-04-26
By Erica Boomsma
“I can’t do this, Ms. Boomsma. I just can’t.” A student of mine said this to me while we worked in the back of the room. “Kimberly can, but that’s because she’s just smarter at this kind of stuff than me.”
“You are smart! You can do anything! We’ll keep trying and working!” I said with determination.
The truth is, regardless of how much encouragement, positivity, and determination I directed at this student, he wasn’t convinced. He had made a decision: “I’m just not smart.”
Have you ever been in a situation like this?
I am imagining you are saying “Yes!” which makes me feel good, only because I am assured that I am not alone. Being with a child in the moments when they decide who they are is critical. I thought my responses were great. They were positive, they were encouraging, and I was being honest. So why is it that this student didn’t believe me? Why was he so willing to label himself and give up? I kept asking myself if I could have done anything to avoid this.
The answer is yes! It is our job to develop a growth mindset in our students (emphasis on the word MIND). I do not mean using growth mindset haphazardly as a mantra during a meeting or a nice phrase for a poster in a classroom. I mean taking an honest look at how the brain actually works and utilizing that information to help our students unlock their potential.
Let’s be honest. Our students often believe that intelligence is like a mist surrounding only those “chosen” students. Of which, they think they are not one. Our at-risk students may believe this. Our students in poverty and EL students may believe this. Rather than allow them to continue interpreting intelligence as a characteristic that some people are “born with,” we must teach them that intelligence requires an active effort and that everyone can achieve it.
Because EVERYONE can learn!
I am a teacher to 27 fantastic 4th grade students. They are incredibly talented and wonderful people. Many of my students are immigrants and refugees, who in many cases would not have had the opportunity to go to school in their homeland. My students are all at different language acquisition levels and learning levels, but they all participate in, and benefit from, brain-based instruction.
Every Monday we learn about our brain. They are interested in all of the parts of the brain. They desire every name and detail about that area’s job. They are ecstatic that they can demonstrate the movement of an idea. What I find most incredible is that they are relieved after the lesson.
It’s as if you can see a cloud of confusion lift as an understanding for how learning occurs sets in. Suddenly, every student understands. Intelligence is active. Intelligence is attainable and belongs to everyone. They finally see that they are equals.
We use our brain knowledge and vocabulary in every subject. When a student is having trouble, classmates will lift him or her up by explaining that the dendrites are growing and not to give up. When growth occurs, my students acknowledge that synapse has happened. My students now view their weaknesses as strengths that need exercise. They take risks that would have been impossible until now. They understand failure and have the grit to continue working. Why? Because they know that learning WILL occur. It is a fact, and they will tell you all about it.
It has changed me, too.
I now see education in a whole new light. There was a time when I was only concerned with material and standards. I am not saying that we disregard these important parts of education, but now I am focused on illuminating the mind—really working the brain—as I teach content. I have made it a priority in my classroom to acknowledge the act of learning.
Brain-based instruction has caused me to become more reflective of my lessons, activities, and projects. I analyze what areas of the mind are being worked, which are not, and if it is effective. I differentiate for more than levels and language. I differentiate to work weaknesses and encourage strengths. I am learning to understand failure and how to make those failures valuable.
When I have students that are feeling frustrated or ready to quit, I respond with positive statements and facts. I provide concrete answers as to why they’re confused. We discuss what we have learned about the brain and how learning will happen. We work together with determination, understanding that learning will occur. Now, I can prove to them: “You are smart.”
We are on the precipice of something remarkable. With new technology and cutting-edge research, we understand more about the act of learning every day. Education will never be the same.
Let’s be at the forefront, blending the science of learning with the art of teaching, so our students can succeed.
Erica Boomsma is the 2019 South Dakota Teacher of the Year. She teaches 4th grade in the Huron School District. Teaching in the most racially diverse district in South Dakota with multiple languages, customs, and cultures in her classroom has brought her great joy and rejuvenated her spirit to teach. She believes there is great power in Social Emotional Learning and Brain Based Instruction that will aid in the development of minds of all children, therefore providing an equitable education. Boomsma has a BA in Elementary Education and a MA in Curriculum and Instruction from Northern State University in South Dakota. You can follow Erica on Twitter.