Practice Makes Progress: How Citizen Schools is Expanding the Minds of Teachers and Students

By: Chloe Stroman & Michael Kubiak for MENTOR

Mentoring inspires youth to discover their areas of passion and encourages them to pursue their interests in education. Citizen Schools shares how the concept of Growth Mindset is making a difference for the AmeriCorps Teaching Fellows who serve their students directly and the young scholars themselves.

“Mistakes make your brain stronger.”

“I’m glad you let me know that you are struggling.”

“You don’t know how to do this math problem yet. Let’s figure out what we need to do to get there.”

These simple phrases are some of the tools inside the Growth Mindset for Mentors Toolkit, developed in partnership between MENTOR and Stanford University’s PERTS with the support of the Raikes Foundation. As a mentor, using language that emphasizes effort and improvement, rather than fixed traits (i.e. “you’re good at math”) can help young people develop a growth mindset. In turn, research has shown that a growth mindset leads to higher academic performance and higher levels of resilience and confidence.

This year, Citizen Schools, a national non-profit organization that provides academic and project-based learning programming to nearly 5,000 middle school students in 6 states, incorporated the Growth Mindset Toolkit into training for AmeriCorps Teaching Fellows, its front-line staff. Citizen Schools also included the Toolkit on Citizen Teacher Central, where volunteers access support and resources. After completing the toolkit, Teaching Fellows overwhelmingly agreed that growth mindset was “extremely important” and felt confident implementing growth mindset practices.

Back on campus, their work paid off, as Citizen Schools’ program is designed to provide a rich setting for students to develop their growth mindsets. First, Citizen Schools creates a space in which students explore topics that are outside of the traditional middle school curriculum. Through 10-week “apprenticeships” taught by volunteer experts called Citizen Teachers, young people have the opportunity to “try on” up to four different careers each school year, in fields ranging from aeronautics to nutrition to slam poetry. Second, Citizen Schools reaches students during the developmentally tumultuous and academically challenging middle grades. Michelle, an AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow, described one student’s experience: “Daniel consistently gets his work done, but is very quiet and regularly shuts down when things get really hard. Middle school can feel like a high stakes environment. As he developed his growth mindset, he felt safe enough to hear the people pushing him to do better.”

mock trial

Learning about growth mindset can be a profoundly rewarding pursuit because in many ways it gets easier as you go. Studies have confirmed that once someone learns about neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to rewire itself and grow stronger with practice – they are more likely to develop a growth mindset. The toolkit also emphasizes the value of reflecting on past challenges to generate problem-solving strategies.

For Daniel, his first challenge came in the form of a trip to the bowling alley in the apprenticeship “Stand Strong.” Daniel was reluctant to bowl because he had never tried it before, unlike most of his classmates, but he bowled a strike by the end of their second game. Michelle affirmed that “practice makes progress,” and saw him persevere in other activities: “We went rock climbing the following week, and the kids who were super amped only made it halfway up. Daniel had never been rock climbing before, but made it to the top of each climb.”

Michelle is now the Citizen Schools Deputy Campus Director at Trotter Innovation School in Dorchester, MA, where this year’s academic focus is Growth Mindset. Specifically, Citizen Schools’ staff strive to provide opportunities and supports for students to engage in productive struggle as they grapple with mathematical ideas and concepts. Citizen Schools is committed to promoting and measuring students’ growth mindset and social-emotional well-being (in sports, math, and everything in between) at all of its partner schools.

Choosing a Citizen Schools apprenticeship is often a student’s first experience actively choosing how to spend his or her learning time, and all apprenticeships result in a final presentation or project with real-world implications. When students are inventing a product to improve the water quality at their school, for example, they are less likely to want to “look smart” (a goal associated with a fixed mindset) and more likely to want to truly learn and work through challenges collaboratively. They are encouraged to fail early and often to achieve better long-term results. Their Citizen Teachers, the volunteer experts who lead apprenticeships, are able to share the first-hand experiences with failure that shaped their path to and through adulthood. At the same time, Citizen Teachers are challenged to step outside of their personal and professional comfort zones and develop a growth mindset through their work with young people. One Fidelity employee concluded: “If you can engage an audience of middle school students for over an hour, you can handle most anything the corporate world might throw at you.”