Quarterbacks, writers, and resisters: Fostering a growth mindset in the writing workshop (Guest Post)
by Mark Overmeyer
Living in Denver means Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is on the front page of the paper more often than anyone else. One story that emerged this summer is about Manning’s work ethic – what teachers would undoubtedly call a “growth mindset.” Manning spends time every year with his former college football coach. He isn’t there to visit, but to learn. Manning says his college coach knows more about his throw than anyone else in his life, so he needs his advice in order to improve. Peyton Manning makes millions of dollars a year, but he knows he is never “done”: he understands the importance of feedback from someone who knows him well.
I often shy away from sports metaphors when thinking of effective instruction, but Manning’s story is a perfect fit with our work as teachers of writing. Manning’s coach knows him best. More than any other subject we teach, writing helps us to know our students in the same way Manning’s coach knows him.
When I confer with students early in the year, I learn so much just by talking to them about their writing territories. What students choose to write about helps me know them as people, and the attention I pay to their topics will go a long way toward building trust. I have learned to treat all topics with equal interest. As I walk around the room in the early fall and notice what students are writing about, I am equally as interested in learning more about Minecraft as I am about someone’s new dog or new soccer coach. I want to hear about visiting grandparents in Omaha, racing on the swim team, and yes, I also want to hear what it is like to “mostly sit around and play video games.” Early in the year, I think of the term “privilege”: Do I privilege particular topics over others, or do I truly welcome all of my students’ writing territories? Early encounters with our writers set the stage for the rest of the year, and I want my students to trust me so that later I can provide meaningful feedback.
When Manning says his coach knows him best, he is talking about his knowledge of how he throws a football. As teachers, we can learn so much from our writers by learning how they write, not just what they write about. Every time I spend even 10 minutes in a classroom of writers, I notice how they get their work done. Some of our writers get started right away and keep going the entire time, pausing periodically to re-read. Some of our enthusiastic writers will write page after page, never re-reading, excited to “finish” so they can share their stories. Other writers sit and ponder, waiting for an idea to arrive. Sometimes these writers spend a lot more time sitting than writing, and they might say: “I’m thinking… I just can’t decide what to write about yet.” While this may be true, I do want to watch out for these writers who can quickly become resistant.
As writing teachers, we welcome all of our students, the resisters as well as the enthusiasts. We respect their writing territories. We support them to become the best they can be, just like Manning’s coach has supported him for more than 20 years. The best writing teachers are like the best coaches because they encourage continuous learning. Every writing teacher I know has lived that moment when a former student comes to visit, seeking the advice of a trusted mentor, coach, and friend.
Mark Overmeyer is an educator and writer from Denver, Colorado. He has worked as a classroom teacher in grades 2 through 8, a literacy coordinator, and a Title I/special education teacher. Mark co-directed the Denver Writing Project for 6 years and worked for 9 years as an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. Currently, he consults around the country and in international schools, supporting teachers and students in reading and writing workshops. His most recent book is Let’s Talk: One-on-one, small group, and peer conferences, which is available from Stenhouse. You can contact Mark at email@example.com or on twitter: @markovermeyer