I Want My Students To Lie Better
Everyone in my classroom, including myself, believes in a self-narrative that is at least slightly, if not wholly, inaccurate. Lying to ourselves, about ourselves - how important we are, how talented we are, how good looking we are - is, it seems, an evolutionary necessity. Lying keeps us motivated. I remember driving on the bus in high school, heading to a baseball game with my team, when on the side of a four-lane highway, we teenagers spotted a heavy-set, middle-aged man jogging - well, more like lumbering. I don't remember what we said, but suffice it to say, it wasn't kind. Teenage cruelty. My coach yelled for us to stop, and then said something I'll never forget: "At least he's out there, trying."
Exactly. I imagine that man had a different narrative in his head. He wasn't heavy, he was only carrying a few extra pounds. He wasn't hunched over, he was erect and gliding. Or maybe he knew his actual physical state; he'd looked in the mirror that morning and sighed while he tied his Nikes. Still, his narrative said, "You're an athlete," despite the contrary evidence. Whatever he told himself, his lies got him out there doing something healthy, moving toward a goal. The problem was not the jogger, the problem was the nasty teenagers on the bus. We all have to tell ourselves lies to help motivate us, but unfortunately, all lies do not lead to healthy choices. Some lies keep us trapped in a bubble. And these are the ones that, as a teacher, I must combat.
When students walk into my literature course, I wonder what they've told themselves ("I'm not a reader...I'm not a writer...My opinion doesn't matter...etc.). Maybe they're right. Maybe they're not a great reader. Maybe their grammar stinks. Maybe they haven't had much to contribute to class discussions. But these are all terrible, debilitating lies, lies that keep them in a fixed mindset. I need to get them to lie better. This is a major reason why I don't grade anymore. Grading tends to maintain those debilitating lies: "See, Kaneft gave me another 72 on my essay. I just suck at writing." I'd prefer giving them positive feedback on what they did well, so that their narratives begin to change. This adds that "yet" to end of those sentences. "I'm not a reader...yet," and so forth. This is what Angela Duckworth meant by "growth mindset."
Of course, there's a level of self-awareness we all want to maintain. Odds are that I'm not going to write a New York Times bestseller, just like the odds are that most of my students won't become professional writers. But I don't want to rule either out altogether. What's important, I think, is to see all life as a work-in-progress, to not count yourself out before you've begun. With that mindset, those lies eventually become truths.