On Board Games, Mo Willems, and the Growth Mindset

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Having the summers off is hardly the reason I became a teacher, but it is one of the best job perks we get. There is no greater feeling than those first couple weeks of summer vacation. You don’t plan 101 things to do each day because you’ve got all the time in the world, or rather, you’ve got the whole summer. Likewise, you don’t really want to do anything just yet. No papers to grade…no lessons to plan. You could do the laundry today or tomorrow or the day after that. You’re not quite ready to pack a cooler and head to the beach or spend the afternoon at the water park. You stop setting the alarm, start binge-watch late night television, and enjoy that first morning when you finally sleep in.

The first week of summer is for writing the list of all the things you are going to do with your time: camping trips to take, yard sales to have, books to read, barbecues to host, gardens to plant, and home improvement projects to put off. But that first week, when the sun isn’t scorching yet, you simply hang out with your children enjoying that time you miss when school is in session.

One afternoon last summer while my little one was napping, I told my oldest that we could play Monopoly. She’d gotten the game for Christmas and we’d only taken it out a couple of times.

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I believe in board games, but I don’t believe in “letting” kids win. That afternoon, I played Monopoly. I bought my real estate and added houses, then hotels. While not in the official rules, we play that all monies from fines and jail-fees get deposited into the middle of the board game. If you land on the free parking space, you get the pot.

Throughout our game, the free parking pile was growing and growing. Meanwhile, my daughter was in a position where if she didn’t get some money soon, she was going to need to start mortgaging properties. She was eyeing that free parking wad like a hungry college kid…And then I landed on it.

As I scooped up the cash, my daughter started to cry.

“Why are you crying?”

“You took my Life Saver.” Her face was streaked with tears, but she was laughing at this point too.

“Do you want to quit?” I questioned.

“No, but you took my Life Saver.”

She wiped her cheeks and then the game continued. Eventually she lost, but she kept playing till the bitter end.

This year will conclude my sixteenth year in education. Over the course of my career, there have been a lot of buzz words that have come and gone. These past few years, the buzz is all about Growth Mindset, a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck.

The premise is pretty simple. If you tell yourself that you cannot do math, you won’t be successful at math. That is having a fixed mindset—a way of thinking that says that your abilities are pre-determined and if you aren’t good at something, you’ll never be good at it. Fixed mindsets are the reason even high-achieving students shut down when things become difficult and often shift the blame for their shortcomings. If you struggle, but you keep working despite your difficulties, believing that through hard work you will improve, then you have a growth mindset. People with growth mindsets have grit. They don’t give up.

Last year, every teacher at my school was given a copy of Dweck’s Mindset for a faculty book study. Everything I read made sense, but I’m not sure if I got more out of it as a parent or an educator. While teachers are asked to operate in loco parentisteachers can’t be solely responsible for developing growth mindsets in their students if the parents have not also provided a foundation whereby it is acceptable for their children to fail.

Every day I witness a student text their parents to bring them something they forgot at home, and the parents bring it. A parent emails me upset that her child did not earn the points for an assignment that was not turned in by the deadline. She knows it was done before the deadline; she made sure it was complete, yet the child never turned it in. Somehow it is unfair that the child be penalized for that. I hold my breath after posting semester grades knowing that I will hear from a few parents who want to know why I couldn’t round their child’s 88% up to an A.

When we strip children of all responsibility, they never grow into responsible adults. In the adult world, deadlines exist. In the adult world, no one brings you your forgotten lunch. In the adult world, people experience disappointment.

Children learn through failure if they are allowed to fail, and if they develop the perseverance to try again.

As the Japanese proverb says, fall down seven times; stand up eight.

Letting children fail is an idea that fell out of favor around the same time the Self-Esteem Movement began. Helicopter parenting and participation trophies are just a few by-products of that movement. Thankfully, as with all movements, the pendulum swings.

Promoting a growth mindset starts with praising effort over ability, which sounds like a trophy for everyone, but it’s not. Beyond just putting forth effort, having a growth mindset is about finding new strategies and solutions when one is stuck.

I’ve written about my daughter’s participation in karate before, but for her last belt test, she had to memorize the black belt success system: Set a goal; Take action; Pay attention to details; Change what’s not working; Practice, Practice, Practice; Eventually these steps will lead to mastery. In order to belt test, a student needs to get all of their black tips. This doesn’t always happen on the first try. In fact, my daughter often gets white-tipped. She receives feedback and returns home to perfect the skill. I’ve never seen greater self-esteem in her than when she has earned a new belt she has worked for.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. (Palmer, The Teacher’s Manual, 1840)

About a week ago, I took my youngest daughter to the library. As we were driving there, she told me that she wanted to look for Piggy and Gerald books.

“Do you know Piggy and Gerald, Momma?”

I did not, but she had read some at preschool and was already a fan. While I was able to locate a few other books by that same author, Mo Willems, there were no Piggy and Gerald books to be found. We ended up with Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed and a book about a dinosaur named Edwina instead. In the process of searching though, I found out that Willems is also the author of several books my children own and love, namely Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

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Later that same day, I came across this article published in The New Yorker: Mo Williams’s Funny Failures with the subtitle: How the Author Teaches Young Readers to Confront Problems and Be Resilient.

The article states that, “Willems’s books reveal a preoccupation with failure, even an alliance with it. In ‘Elephants Cannot Dance!,’ they can’t; in ‘Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!,’ Pigeon, despite all his pleading and cajoling, never does.” What strikes readers, however, are not the obstacles these characters face, it’s their doggedness. The same determination exists in those who possess a growth mindset, where hurdles are not seen as barriers, but as challenges to surmount.

In the article, Willems’s wife, who worked in a school, contributes this anecdote. “There were two classrooms, the same size, the same kinds of kids in terms of age, background. Every day with their lunch, the children got a cookie that came in a cellophane wrapper. In one of the classrooms, the teacher would come around with scissors and snip the cellophane off each cookie wrapper. In the other classroom, the teacher said, ‘Absolutely do not touch those wrappers, do not help the children open them. These kids are motivated, they can open these cookies themselves.’ Sometimes there was a lot of struggle. The cookies might be pulverized by the time they were opened. But they were opened, each one of them.”

On any given day, if you ask my daughter a game she’d like to play, she will choose Monopoly. She doesn’t pick the game that she’s most likely to win; she chooses the game that is a challenge for her, a game that each time she plays, she gets a little better at having learned from her past mistakes.

I believe in board games. I believe in failure. I believe, as my students say, in driving the struggle bus. Not letting the pigeon drive it, but allowing my children to get behind the wheel and navigate it themselves.

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