Medium 9781609945695

Teaching That Changes Lives

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Gold Metal Winner in Education Commentary/Theory category of the 2014 Independent Publisher Awards
In response to educators who are already fans of her bestseller Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, Marilee Adams, the originator of Question Thinking, presents a compelling model for creating a classroom environment infused with curiosity, creativity, and caring. Through a moving story of a teacher on the verge of burnout, Adams demonstrates the powerful influence our mindsets have on how we interact with our students, our colleagues, and ourselves. Through vivid examples, she illustrates how cultivating what she calls a Learner Mindset leads to breakthroughs in critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. Complete with Adams’s Choice Map for identifying our own mindsets, a workbook, and access to online resources, this inspiring book will transform teachers and students alike into open-minded, creative, resilient problem solvers and lifelong learners.

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18 Chapters

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Introduction: Mindsets for Learning


The hidden curriculum … is the teacher’s own integrity and
lived conviction … It is the message which is written in a
teacher’s eyes throughout the course of his or her career. It is
the lesson which endures a lifetime.

Jonathan Kozol

You wouldn’t be reading this book today had it not been for the teacher who changed my life. As a youngster I was never a star student, though I always had a book in hand, often reading at night with a flashlight under the covers or hiding in the closet to finish a story long after my parents thought I was asleep. While I loved to read, school was often a struggle for me and I had little confidence in my own abilities. It was in graduate school that a single teacher, Dr. Bill Friedman, provided that magical combination of caring, connection, and intellectual conscientiousness wherein I was able to flourish. While Bill was demanding, he was also kind and patient, always letting me know he believed I could live up to the high standards he set for me. Over the years he helped me hone my natural curiosity into the kind of disciplined question asking that is the foundation of critical and creative thinking—and thereby contributed to the path that has become my life’s work.


Chapter 1 The Alchemy of Inquiry


Not just part of us becomes a teacher.
It engages the whole self …

Sylvia Ashton-Warner

I leaned against the kitchen counter at our home on Cedar Avenue, gazing out the window into the backyard. Since it was during the Thanksgiving break at my school, our cherry tree was bare, the grass lifeless and brown. But inside, sunlight streamed through the stained glass artwork which hung in the kitchen window behind the sink, sending little rainbows of light all around the room. Tiny facets of color danced over my arms and apron. The real magic to me, however, glowed through the big question mark at the center of this artwork. Set in a simple wooden frame, a bit larger than a 3-ring binder, that colorful stained glass image was a poignant reminder of Sophie Goodwin, who had been my teacher in the sixth grade, a year that dramatically changed my life. Much later, when I myself began teaching, Sophie became the most important mentor I could ever have wished for.

At the bottom of the frame was a small silver plaque that Sophie had had inscribed years before. She said this quote had been a guiding principle throughout her life:


Chapter 2 Mindsets Make All the Difference


Seek opportunities to show you care.
Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them.
They remember what you are.

Jim Henson (Creator of The Muppets)

On Saturday, my GPS led me to Sophie’s address at Hillview Apartments, an attractive building with large windows that let in plenty of light. It was surrounded by well-manicured lawns and beautifully tended flowerbeds.

I was buzzed in at the glass door in the vestibule and took the elevator to the third floor. As the door slid open, I found Sophie waiting for me in the hall. My heart skipped a beat. Her warm smile instantly reminded me of how seen and appreciated I had felt in her class. I had become the kind of student that had seemed impossible to me before that. Recalling all of this, I was nervous that she would be disappointed in me when she found out about my present problems. I was certain I hadn’t lived up to her expectations.

Sophie gave me a brief hug which instantly put me at ease, just as her presence had made me feel more at ease in the sixth grade. I was startled by how frail she felt, reminding me of how much time had passed since I’d last seen her. But as she led me briskly down the hall to her apartment, she seemed as peppy and vital as ever. By the time we reached her door, she was excitedly sharing a story about the course she was teaching at the university, as if we were colleagues.


Chapter 3 Mapping the Geography of Our Minds


When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world.

Carol S. Dweck

Sophie put the flowers into a large vase and brought them back to the living room. Their color and fragrance lifted my spirits.

“Are you okay?” she asked, turning to me.

“I’m actually fine,” I assured her, knowing that my reddened eyes were sending a different message. “It isn’t easy for me to look at how often I go Judger. Lately, I think it has completely taken over my internal climate. So please go on. What you’re saying is all very helpful. I know I can’t just be thinking about myself. I have to think about my kids, their grades, and their test scores—not to mention whether they’re really learning, or accomplishing anything worthwhile.”

“Oh, absolutely,” Sophie said. She was silent for a moment. Then she asked quietly, “Do you think your students will learn more—and as you said, accomplish more—in a Learner climate or a Judger one?”

The answer to that question seemed obvious but it also opened up a lot of other questions for me. After a moment I reflected, “It’s painful to think of myself this way, I mean, as a Judger kind of person. I certainly don’t want to be that way.”


Chapter 4 Exploring Learner and Judger Mindsets


Each of us literally chooses,
by our way of attending to things,
what sort of universe we shall appear
to ourselves to inhabit.

William James

On the way home from my meeting with Sophie, I stopped to do the weekend shopping, then rushed home, put away the groceries, and got everything ready for the coming week. Jared wouldn’t be back from his conference until early the next afternoon, which meant I’d have a few hours in the morning to myself. There’d be time to read over the materials Sophie had given me and make some notes in my journal. After the visit with Sophie, I had lots to write about.

Sunday morning I had a quick breakfast, made myself a mug of tea, and headed for my office. I picked up the blue folder Sophie had given me, titled Mindsets Make All the Difference. There was a colorful print of Sophie’s stained glass question mark on the outside of it. That image took me back to when I was twelve years old, walking into Sophie’s classroom for the first time. I had stopped in my tracks, staring at that stained glass artwork with its prominent question mark. It had hung in the window by Mrs. Goodwin’s big, oak teacher’s desk.


Chapter 5 Thinking with New Questions


Everything we know has its origins in questions.
Questions, we might say, are the principal
intellectual instruments available to human beings.

Neil Postman

When I arrived at my classroom on Monday morning, I went immediately to the teachers’ bulletin board just to the right of the door. That was where we posted everything from emergency phone numbers to a calendar of school holidays and the weekly schedules of staff meetings. Right in the middle, dominating the board, was Dr. Malstrom’s Behavior Chart. I cringed. Every child in the class knew what it meant when I walked over to that chart holding—or, in Mrs. Santiago’s case, brandishing—a big black marking pen. It meant that somebody was going to get a big X next to their name, and this would tell the world they were in trouble for misbehaving in class. When they got three Xs in a week, they would be sent to the principal’s office. Though Dr. Malstrom had retired, I’m afraid some of her antiquated ways lived on. Every time I made a mark on that chart, I was reminded of Miss Hackett. Maybe she didn’t use a chart exactly like this one, but she had her own way of punishing and humiliating us. Every time I used that odious chart of Dr. Malstrom’s, I could feel my stomach knot up.


Chapter 6 Listening with Learner Ears


My words itch at your ears till you understand them …

Walt Whitman

Mrs. Santiago and I started having regular meetings, sometimes for a few minutes at the end of the day, sometimes over lunch. As I shared more of Sophie’s materials with her, our exchanges became increasingly collaborative and creative. There were other changes, too. Good ones. We were now on a first name basis: Carmen and Emma. I’d never called her anything but Mrs. Santiago before.

One afternoon, after the children had left, Carmen showed me a sheet of paper she’d found crumpled up on the floor near Brandon’s desk. She smiled uneasily as she smoothed it out on the desk for me to see.

Scrawled at the top in blocky letters were the words Behavior Chart, except that Behavior was misspelled: Behaver. Under that were two names: my own and Carmen’s. Following each of our names were long rows of Xs. Carmen watched as I examined the paper. Earlier in the day we’d both put Xs after Brandon’s name on the Behavior Chart, mostly for his obnoxious remarks about other kids. He talked more than any other child in the class, but most of it had little to do with any lessons. Much of the time he was interrupting other people, including Carmen and me. There were times when he didn’t seem able to contain himself.


Chapter 7 Questions Out of the Box


If we would have new knowledge we must get
a whole world of new questions.

Susanne K. Langer

One afternoon, after our students had left for the day, I remembered a special teaching aid Sophie had used in the sixth grade class. She had called it her Question Box, or QB. It started with a simple cardboard box decorated with colorful paper, with a slot on top like a small ballot box. She’d placed a bright yellow label on the top that said All Questions Welcome. With this simple box Sophie taught us so much about mindsets and how they affect virtually everything in our lives. As I shared this memory with Carmen, more and more details came back to mind, giving me new appreciation for what Sophie had taught us about the importance of questions, especially the ones we think with.

The Question Box was always available, sitting on a table by the classroom door. Anytime we wanted to, we could write a question on a slip of paper and stuff it in the box. We didn’t have to put our names on the notes either. A couple times a week Sophie drew out one or two of those notes, read them out loud to us, and wrote them on the white board. Then we’d discuss the questions in terms of Judger and Learner mindsets and where that question might take us. Sometimes Sophie or one of us would draw pictures on the board to illustrate how the person with that question might be thinking or feeling.


Chapter 8 Easy as ABCD


There is a crucial difference between being caught up
in a feeling and becoming aware that you are
being swept away by it. Socrates’ injunction,
‘know thyself,’ speaks to this keystone
of emotional intelligence: awareness of one’s
own feelings as they occur.

Daniel Goleman

As with my first visit, I rang Sophie’s bell at the street entrance and was quickly buzzed into the vestibule. Sophie met me at the elevator, greeting me enthusiastically. Carmen was driving up with her husband who was going to drop her off for our meeting. They’d phoned to say they’d be a few minutes late.

Sophie’s living room was cluttered with archive boxes. “I’m moving some things over here from my office at the university,” she apologized. “I’d hoped to have all this sorted out before you arrived.”

She led me into her small, beautifully appointed kitchen, the kind that instantly tells you the owner loves to cook. A rack over the range showed off a collection of excellent cookware, their shiny copper bottoms reflecting a warm light. I settled into the comfortable breakfast nook while she prepared tea.


Chapter 9 Becoming a Resilient Learner


We keep moving forward, opening new doors,
and doing new things, because we’re curious
and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

Walt Disney

I glanced at my watch as I pulled into the restaurant parking lot, noting that I was about 20 minutes late. Late or not, I took a minute to glance in the car mirror and fix my hair. Inside the restaurant, the maître d’ escorted me to our table. Jared gave me a peremptory hug and kiss, and I sat down. I didn’t have to be a mind reader to tell he wasn’t in a great mood. I immediately assumed it was because I was a little late, then reminded myself that there was a difference between assumptions and facts. Still, I was annoyed that Jared might be irritated about my tardiness.

“Sorry for being late,” I said.

“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s not a big deal. Really.”

Not a big deal. Really. Jared never said that except when just the opposite was true. I was tensing up, putting one foot on that slippery slope of the Judger path. Nobody can push our buttons like the people we love! I’d just come from Sophie’s, where I was honing my skills for taking the Switching Lane and here I was, squarely on the Judger path again. Wanting to enjoy my time with Jared, and remembering my ABCDs, I leaned back in my chair and took a deep calming breath. Right away, I felt a little better. It was easier now to get curious and shift my attention to Jared.


Chapter 10 Questioning Assumptions


Your assumptions are your windows on the world.
Scrub them off every once in a while,
or the light won’t come in.

Isaac Asimov

With things going so much better for me at school, I looked forward to getting to the classroom every morning, even on Mondays. But I worried about Becky. I couldn’t understand why I still wasn’t reaching her, even with all I’d been learning. What was I doing wrong? Why couldn’t I get through to her?

I decided to write about my problems with Becky in the journal Sophie had given me. But as I opened it up, I found myself getting tense and feeling resistant. Did I have some Judger lurking around, I wondered. What was my body trying to signal to me? Maybe I could use a reflection exercise to help me figure it out. I wrote down the first questions that popped into my mind:

What am I missing? What makes Becky get mad and withdraw every time I try to talk with her? Am I just no good at reaching underachievers? What’s wrong with me that I can’t figure this out? What would Sophie do with Becky?


Chapter 11 Surprising Collaborators


Good questions help us to become both
curious and uncertain, and this is always the road
that opens us to the surprise of new insight.
Peter Senge

I would learn more about Becky and Brandon in the next few days as Carmen told me about the skateboarding program and other after-school activities at the park.

“Sometimes, after Darlina’s soccer practice,” Carmen said, “we go across the park and watch the boarders. It’s all so well organized, supervised by a male teacher from the high school and a woman from the university. Someone said the woman coach is also one of those brainy people who are just good at everything, athletics as well as intellectual pursuits. They’ve got a new program started and I noticed that Brandon has been helping the coaches.”

“Wait a second,” I said. “Brandon is a skateboarder?”

“Yes, he’s a boarder, but mostly he assists the coaches and the woman who is observing from the university. It’s something new. Brandon is really good with the younger kids, you know, helping with their safety equipment and things like that.”


Chapter 12 Opening to New Possibilities


I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide
the conditions in which they can learn.
Albert Einstein

Greenfield’s Open House was a smashing success, with wonderful exhibits throughout the school. In our classroom, parents, teachers and kids crowded around our displays the whole evening, asking questions and talking with our students. From time to time our kids would come up to Carmen and me, telling us about exchanges they’d had with visitors. Similarly, parents stopped by to introduce themselves and say how wonderful it was to see their children so genuinely excited about school and proudly telling others about their projects. Any qualms I still had about being a teacher were behind me—well, mostly!

Marge Benson, a fifth grade teacher I knew only slightly, stopped to ask me about Brandon. “Last year, in my class, that boy was awful, a real handful,” she said. “You can count your lucky stars that he’s grown out of it.” She tipped her head toward the front of the room where Brandon was chatting with two adults, pointing at the Choice Map that he and Becky had drawn on the white board that afternoon. I watched as he traced a line with his finger along the Judger path, then up the Switching Lane back to Learner. The adults standing beside him were totally engrossed.


Chapter 13 Staff Meeting Showdown


It’s not differences that divide us.
It’s our judgments about each other that do.
Margaret J. Wheatley

A few days after our visit with Sophie, Carmen and I walked into the multi-purpose room for the special meeting about our Open House. I loved the way the chairs had been deliberately placed in a large circle, so that we could each make eye contact with everyone else.

Dr. Marshall opened the meeting by congratulating us all on the success of our annual Open House. We’d had the best attendance in seven years, and he’d received a large number of laudatory phone calls and emails from parents. This was great news, and considering the comments I’d heard in our own classroom, I thought with satisfaction that Carmen and I had contributed to this feedback. But as I looked around the circle I could tell that not everyone agreed with Dr. Marshall. As he finished his short speech and asked for people’s observations or questions,Biddy Privet’s hand shot up.

“Yes, Ms. Privet,” Dr. Marshall said, nodding in her direction.


Chapter 14 The Question that Changes Everything


And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud
was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
Anais Nin

Prior to the professional development meeting that Dr. Marshall called, Brandon and Becky drew most of the Choice Map on the big white board in the multi-purpose room. Then they waited in the background as Dr. Marshall opened the meeting by handing out agendas with a copy of the Choice Map clipped to them. At his signal, Brandon and Becky wheeled the big white board into position for everyone to see. We watched in hushed silence as Becky sketched in some final details of the Choice Map.

As planned, Brandon was the chief spokesperson. He described, in his own words, some of the points illustrated on the map: “This guy is standing at the starting place,” he said, pointing to the figure standing on the left near the junction of the two paths. “It’s like something hits you and you can’t decide where you’re going to go with it.” He walked his fingers along the Learner path for a short way to demonstrate. Then he glanced at me and made a swooping gesture with his arm along the Judger path. “This is the path where you can get into trouble.”


Workbook With Mindset Tools


This workbook presents the 12 tools of the Learner Mindset System, within which the story of Emma Shepherd was framed. Because these tools are life skills, compatible with how our brains take in new information and learn, you’ll discover they can make a positive difference in every moment and area of your life, both professionally and personally.

These tools have proven useful in a wide variety of organizational and educational settings. They are ideal for more productive conversations with professional learning communities as well as with students, other staff members, and in your personal life.

Over the years, my students and clients have shared hundreds of stories about breakthroughs they’ve made simply by posting Choice Maps on bulletin boards, as Emma did in the story, sharing them with colleagues and teams, or putting them on their refrigerators at home. The Choice Map is central to this mindset and questioning work, so it’s a perfect way of introducing others to the benefits of these practices.


Learner Mindset Online Learning




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