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September 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 1

One to Grow On / Growing Capable Kids

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Conventional wisdom has it that creativity exists on a continuum. Some people, like Albert Einstein or William Shakespeare, appear to be born with a great cache of it in tow and are sometimes called "Big-C" creative. Although it appears that most of us exist further downstream on the continuum than Big-C creative types, the good news is that little-c creative people can learn to develop their creative capacities—and be the better for it.
My theory is that it's the same with resilience. Some people seem to have been born with bounce in their genes. Whenever the moment or the day or life knocks them down, they rebound to higher than where they were when they fell. But many of us have to learn to bounce back. Powerful teachers help students grow their capacity to be resilient by mindfully providing students with three elements: affirmation, opportunity, and support.

You Have What It Takes

I was in an elementary classroom in which the teacher presented students with a problem that had no ready answer. She walked around the room as they tried to figure out how to move ahead with the problem. One girl had her head cocked to the side, lips pursed, and eyebrows furrowed in a pose that shouted frustration. As the teacher passed, the student intensified her look, sighed heavily, and whined, "This is hard!" Taking a step closer to the girl, the teacher raised her eyebrows and responded, "Well of course it is. And you can do hard things."
I was surprised and delighted with the teacher's comment. Surprised because I'm so used to teachers—myself included—bending down to do some of the work with the learner. Delighted because the expression I saw on the child's face conveyed a different message from her first one. It said, "Hmmm. I guess so. Let me try this again."
That's not to suggest that there's no place for teachers to assist students who are stalled in their work. But this incident reminded me that a teacher's affirmation of a student's capacity to do impressive things is powerful. In this instance, a little girl who was moments from giving up soldiered on because an important adult in her life believed she could.

Opportunities to Stretch

As an adolescent, I was near the bottom of the scale of self-confidence. I could have generated a long list of areas in which I was deficient but would've had great difficulty naming anything I could do well. One of my teachers had gotten my attention by suggesting he thought I might have it in me to be a writer. Although I didn't believe him, I liked the sound of it and trusted Mr. Simms as a result.
One day, Mr. Simms said, "I need your help." He gestured for me to follow him, walked to a conference room, put a stack of poster board and some markers on the table, and said as he turned to leave the room, "We need signs to advertise the newspaper our class is producing." Then he looked over his shoulder and said, "You should be able to get at least six done in the next 40 minutes."
He left, and I stood immobilized. On my extensive list of nontalents, anything artistic would have been near the top. Mr. Simms must've meant someone else, but how could I let him know that? Then a thought—one I hadn't had often—flashed into my head: This person trusts me. I can't let him down.
I decided that I probably couldn't fix my unsteady handwriting, but I could make intentionally crooked letters. If I couldn't draw like an artist, I could draw like a child. So I created a "style" and made some eye-catching posters. More to the point, I saw myself as a problem solver. I did something I believed I couldn't do. If I had power to solve that problem, maybe I could stare down the next impossibility that came my way.
If a "You're capable" message raises self-esteem, a "You did it" message enhances self-efficacy. Affirmation without opportunity for success has a short shelf life.

Fuel for the Journey

Many students come to school weighed down with ballast of inadequacy. They believe they aren't smart—or aren't smart enough. They have little sense of what it means to act on their own behalf, they lack coping skills, and they are demoralized by failure.
Teachers who teach resilience communicate to students their rock-solid belief that effort—rather than ability—fuels success. They build trust with students, one at a time. They knit the group together into a team determined to support the success of its members. In that context, the teacher articulates clear and compelling goals for the class and provides students with tasks calibrated to be just a bit too difficult for their current state of skill. All the while, the teacher monitors student growth and provides targeted feedback to students about their progress, involving each one in developing plans to support his or her next step.
When things go awry, the teacher says, "That happens to all of us. What can you learn from it?" Said one boy, "Until this teacher, I never knew I was a learner. I feel in charge of me now, and that's about a lot more than just school."
Classrooms are an ideal laboratory for helping young people develop persistence, resourcefulness, coping skills, optimism, and hardiness. We're wise to live in that laboratory—and our students are the better for it.
Author's Note: All names are pseudonyms.
End Notes

1 Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2009). Beyond big and little: The four C model of creativity. Review of General Psychology, 13, 1–12.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development. The author of more than 300 publications, she works throughout the United States and internationally with educators who want to create classrooms that are more responsive to a broad range of learners.

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