Helping Students Succeed

Vi Ha, Senior Librarian, International Languages Department,
Roger Arst's photography class, Birmingham High School, 2002
Roger Arst's photography class, Birmingham High School, 2002

Much has been studied on mindset and how depending upon how one chooses to experience life, one can change how successful one can be. Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success focuses equally practical and research-driven explanation and tips on how coaches, parents and managers can bring out the best in people.

Fixed and growth mindsets get talked a lot about in educational literature of how to get students to not give up if the problem is too hard. This concept is a kissing cousin with the idea of “grit”. It is not simply, “Vi you can do anything you want.” It is more closer to “Vi, let’s try to be better”. When I coach the young people I work with, I usually add a why not, what if statement as encouragement. Angela Duckworth explains grit very succinctly in this New York Times article and in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

In the October 29th, 2017 Op-Ed in the New York Times, David Kirp writes that “[even] brief experiences can have a powerful and long-lasting impact on students’ academic futures by changing their mind-sets before they get to college”. He continues with this passage:

  • A cohort of sixth-grade students was taught, in eight lessons, that intelligence is malleable, not fixed, and that the brain is a muscle that grows stronger with effort. Their math grades, which had been steadily declining, rose substantially, while the grades of classmates who learned only about good study habits continued to get worse.
  • When an English teacher critiqued black male adolescents’ papers, she added a sentence stating that she had high expectations and believed that, if the student worked hard, he could meet her exacting standards. Eighty-eight percent of those students rewrote the assignment and put more effort into rewriting, while just a third of their peers, who were given comments that simply provided feedback, did the same.
  • In a series of short written exercises, sixth graders wrote about values that were meaningful to them, like spending time with their family and friends. After this experience, white students did no better, but their black and Latino classmates improved so much that the achievement gap shrank by 40 percent.

As a librarian here in Teen’Scape, the teen department of the Central Library, our work here focuses on enabling teenagers to succeed as students and as active members in their communities. In celebration of African American History Month, we have built a display in the rotunda that encourages students to change their mindset, to choose to be challenged and to work hard. We’ve collected excerpts of commencement speeches from notable members of the African American and African Canadian community. Included in the case are excerpts from speeches from Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice, Drake, Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr.

My favorite speech from this selection will have to be Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution". He gave this speech at Oberlin College in June 1965. This speech is masterful in its use of rhetoric to convey urgency and sense of duty to the graduating class. King states: “I'm sure that you have read that arresting little story from the pen of Washington Irving entitled Rip Van Winkle. The thing that we usually remember about this story is that Rip Van Winkle slept 20 years. But there is another point in that story that is almost always completely overlooked: it was a sign on the inn in the little town on the Hudson from which Rip went up into the mountain for his long sleep. When he went up, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down, years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip looked up at the picture of George Washington, he was completely lost; he knew not who he was. This reveals to us that the most striking fact about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not that he slept 20 years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up on the mountain, a great revolution was taking place in the world - indeed, a revolution which would, at points, change the course of history. And Rip Van Winkle knew nothing about it; he was asleep.”

Ultimately, the work we do with teens is to encourage them to study hard, stay informed and to believe in their abilities and to choose to help others succeed. It is extremely important to encourage students to do well in school by giving them thoughts, concepts and reasons to stay focused. Having young people define what values are cherished and seeing role models of what others have achieved are ways of changing teens’ mindsets. There is no better way to encourage higher education and the power of positive thinking than to read a series of commencement speeches from those who are brave, intelligent and kind.