If you haven’t done so already, it’s time for you to access your student’s first term narrative! Quite a while ago now, the SGS faculty deliberated about the best way to communicate pertinent information about our students’ academic, social and emotional growth. Way back when they weren’t as ubiquitous, we chose narratives over letter or number grades, as we recognized in them a means of sharing a more in-depth and robust vision of individual student progress. While the crafting of meaningful narratives is arduous as well as time consuming for our busy teachers, we are committed to this comprehensive format because it allows us to paint a fuller, truer picture of each student as a learner, leader, collaborator and community member.
From time to time, I find myself in conversation with a parent who finds the narrative format challenging. The main issue, as I understand it, is a desire to know what grade their daughter would receive, if we were about the business of assigning grades! That said, there is another issue, which, though subtle, is equally confounding. I get the distinct impression that some parents struggle with the positive, affirming tone that SGS teachers maintain throughout their narratives! It’s as if an assessment isn’t valid unless it’s critical, perhaps to the point of being a bit negative. A “B” or a “3.0” suggests that we can do better…strive for that “A” or that “4.0.” But what to do with the “appreciative inquiry” format of the narrative, where teachers highlight what a student is doing right, citing examples of success, and occasionally suggesting “next steps” or directions for further exploration? Rarely in an SGS narrative will you read, “You failed at/in…” or “You’d better…” or “…or else!” My teacher – as well as my parental – instincts have always told me that this is the best way to communicate progress to students and their parents, but now I have some scientific data to back up that long-held hunch!
In his latest book entitled Social Intelligence, internationally known research psychologist, Dr. Daniel Goleman (author of the best-seller Emotional Intelligence) gave me the “concrete details” I needed to back up my commentary! He explored and explained a most interesting finding from recent neuro-scientific research – the “mirror neurons” – the class of brain cells, which allow us to attune ourselves to another person’s internal state from moment to moment and which are the basis for empathy, compassion and altruism. The implications of this discovery are significant in the classroom, where a teacher’s belief in and treatment of her students directly impacts their self-awareness and sense of competency. We’ve always suspected that our students’ capabilities are commensurate with our belief in them; Dr. Goleman’s research suggests that our brains’ interconnectivity makes this relationship real. Thus, a teacher’s responsibility includes helping her students get into and stay in an internal state where they can do their best work. (This state has been being brilliantly described as flow by another cutting-edge social psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – seriously, I’m not making up that name!)
This strong relationship between maximal cognitive efficiency and a student’s emotional state suggests that when our students are alert, motivated and engaged – when they’re in flow, their brains operate at peak efficiency. Furthermore, when they’re joyous – and joy is a common by-product of flow – they’re even more efficient! Thus, if a teacher angrily scolds a student – through direct contact or via a misguided negative comment in a narrative – and then expects that student to learn better, she’s basically undermining her own efforts as a teacher.
Another interesting research discovery has direct applications to the narrative experience. Goleman instructs, “Emotions are most contagious from the most powerful member of a group outward.” Thus a teacher’s or a coach’s or a parent’s opinion (not to mention the “Queen Bee’s” ) holds significant weight in a student’s mind and directly impacts her sense of self. Goleman conducted one study which revealed that people tend to ruminate about negative comments or feedback far more than they remember positive ones. As he observed in a recent interview, this “means that a small dose of negative feedback gets magnified in your own mind, and can have great power because something coming from this powerful person in your life is amplified emotionally.” Goleman cautions, “People need to be very skillful when giving performance feedback and not be overly harsh.” He goes on to recommend that we “put negative feedback in a positive context – adding a suggestion for the person to improve, for example,” warning us that “otherwise, all you’re doing is arousing the brain’s centers for anxiety, undermining the very ability to perform well.”
So as you read through your SGS student’s narrative this term, rejoice along with us in your daughter’s burgeoning abilities and impressive cognitive capacity! Thanks to our brains’ interconnectivity, your belief in your daughter’s ability, added to our evidence of her academic, social and emotional growth, will provide the proverbial “wind beneath her wings,” and she will be motivated to continue with a growth mindset, where the Little Engine That Could’s mantra moves beyond the “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” to the more subtle but significant “YOU think I can, you think I can…and thus I can!”