By Jim Fredricksen
My brother’s oldest daughter started high school this year. We live several states away from one another and early this school year my phone rang in the afternoon. It was my brother.
“Can you help us? Her English teacher is asking her to write an introduction to an essay using a ‘delayed thesis.’ I tried to get it, but I’m not sure I’m explaining it right.”
My brother is a thoughtful guy, an elementary school principal for almost two decades, and he’s skilled at understanding where other people are coming from. Still, he’s stuck.
My niece gets on the phone. “Hi Uncle Jim. We just have to practice this delayed thesis thing.” She reads me an example or two. She’s feeling stuck, and it seems like she just wants to figure out what the teacher wants so she can finish her homework and not talk to her dad and uncle about her school work. I worry that she’s taken on a fixed mindset, looking for just the “right” way to do it – “right” meaning that she’s trying to please her teacher, her father, and now her uncle, rather than thinking about how this move can help her and her audience when she writes.
I try to re-direct her to see a pattern in the examples and why the writers might have organized their writing in the way that they have.
“Most introductions,” I say, “move the reader from understanding a bigger context, a problem the writer notices in that context, and then the writer’s response to that problem.”
She doesn’t really say anything, and I imagine she’s looking at her example paragraphs, trying to connect my language with the language her teacher is using.
We hang up, so she can try to write a couple of paragraphs on her own. She’ll call later to let me hear what she’s written.
Writing is a process filled with uncertainty, and how we deal with that uncertainty tells us a lot about who we are as writers.
Sometimes that uncertainty comes from thinking that writing is solely a way to demonstrate what we already know rather than seeing writing as a way to discover and learn what we think and know and feel (see examples of more experienced writers talking about this here and here and here). Other times that uncertainty comes after we discover what we want to say, but we might not be sure how to organize it in a way that best helps our audience (e.g., what is already familiar or unfamiliar to the audience; what are the attitudes of our audience). Besides the uncertainty any writer can face, writing in school can add layers of uncertainty for student writers, because they’re not only trying to figure out what to say and how to organize it, but they are often worried if they are writing in the way that their teachers expect.
As a teacher of writers, I’m interested in how writers respond to this uncertainty. I’m interested in helping each writer see the choices available to them, which in turn, helps me know whether or not they believe they can grow as writers.
The fixed mindset is one that says, “I’m not a good writer, and I never will be.” The dynamic mindset is one that says, “I’m not a good writer, yet.”
As a teacher and as a parent, how do we know if young people are taking on a growth or fixed mindset? How might we cultivate the dynamic mindset in the young people in our lives so they can see that change and growth is possible? How might we create the conditions in our conversations with young people so that they see it’s okay to try something new, to feel like they have a legitimate stake in what they are trying so that the uncertainty and struggle is worth it?
I wonder about these questions as I wait for the phone to ring. When my niece calls me back, she reads a couple of paragraphs that sound a lot like the examples her teacher asked her to try. I’m not sure, though, what she’s taking away from the exchange or exercise. Did our conversation cultivate a fixed mindset where she’s just looking for what the adults want her to do? Or, did this lay the groundwork so that she can transfer what she’s learned to a future situation? How does she see herself as a learner and as a writer? Did we–her teacher, her father, and her uncle–model a “growth” mindset in how we framed our questions?
Even now, months later, it’s hard for me to know for sure. Feeling uncertain is something my brother, my niece, and I all navigate together.
This feeling of not knowing if we’re on the same page, but slowly working through it with our questions and prior experiences, by talking through examples and by pointing out what we notice all help us negotiate what the “delayed thesis” might mean and what it might do for the writer and the reader of a piece.
This feeling of uncertainty is a big part of learning to write, and it’s central to helping others think through their choices as writers. How we respond to this uncertainty, I would argue, is more important for my niece to learn than a delayed thesis. It’s more important for the adults in her life to show how uncertainty can be an opportunity for writers to ask questions, work with others, make and share attempts, and listen for feedback that helps a writer with his or her goals and purposes.
Jim Fredricksen (@jimfredricksen) is associate professor of English at Boise State University. A former middle school teacher, he works with K-12 colleagues and students as a thinking partner interested in how they make sense of their situations and choices. He co-directs the Boise State Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project.