I’m trying to put my finger on what makes Debbie Silver’s book, Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8, so inspiring.
There are a few books I’ve read in my teaching career that gave me an about-face: the ideas were a lightning bolt that utterly changed the way I taught. For example, when reading Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle (so many years ago), I was introduced to writer’s workshop for the first time and my classroom was never the same again. Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 is not like that – it’s not about making a radical change in education. Silver doesn’t introduce anything mind-bogglingly new, but she does something that I find even more difficult – she brings abstract educational theories down to a level that we can understand and implement. Her book is indisputably one of the most motivating educational books I’ve read in a long time.
Many of the ideas she writes about are concepts that teachers are probably familiar with, that they’ve studied in education classes, and that they’ve thought about over and over again in the past. But it’s the way Silver organizes them, the techniques she suggests, and the examples she uses that give difficult theories a fresh twist and make them seem doable. We often read about educational theories only to think, “yeah, okay, but how do I do this?” Debbie Silver takes these concepts and shows us how to put them into practice in our classrooms. I loved her book so much, that last year I decided to use it in our weekly professional development in TCFL’s secondary school. As anyone who works in high school will tell you, motivating teenagers is not an easy task. “How can we inspire these kids?” is a question that comes up repeatedly in our staff meetings.
We started our series of workshops with an introduction to the book, using the ideas from Chapter One. After that, groups of 2-3 teachers chose a chapter to teach to the others, and in our weekly professional development meeting, we discussed the ideas they presented. It was a phenomenal learning experience. After the training, I observed a chemistry class in which the kids were on-task, engaged, and obviously enthusiastic about what they were doing. When I discussed the class with Dennis, our chemistry teacher, he said, “Hey, it’s what we’ve been learning in professional development. That stuff really works!”
So what “stuff” is Dennis talking about?
- Keeping lessons in the students’ zone of proximal development (ZPD). Dennis used to “challenge” kids with extremely high-level reading material and complicated experiments. Now I saw him using simple experiments to teach complex concepts, challenging his students with questions that made them go deeper into their own thinking.
- Helping students realize that to get good at something, persistence is key – sometimes you’ll fail and that’s alright, because failure is often a necessary step in learning. As students struggle with a difficult math exploration, it’s tempting to give them the solution, but instead I often hear the teacher say, “This is a tough problem. Keep thinking. What other possible way could you solve this?” When the group groans, he smiles and says, “You’re almost there; don’t give up.” When they finally discover the solution, the feeling of accomplishment is palpable.
- Silver tells us that students often attribute their grades to “luck,” with the work being “too hard” or “too easy” for their natural ability, instead of realizing that the effort they put into their work can make all the difference. Since our book study, I’ve heard teachers making a concerted effort to let students know that their effort (or lack of it) is the reason behind their success or failure. “Jane, I can see that you worked hard on your revisions. Your essay has improved a lot since the first draft.”
- Silver also gives techniques for helping students develop a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. We’re taking her advice and making efforts to avoid labeling kids with comments like “you’re so smart,” or “you’re a great artist,” and instead we’re concentrating on giving effective feedback that will help them grow and improve. We’re modeling the skills we want them to learn. For instance, rather than just telling them to study more, we’re actively teaching them the study skills that many of them don’t have. We’re also pointing out the progress they’ve made over time.
- In Chapter 6, Silver discusses the downside of rewards. In our school we’ve always focused on internal motivation, and we avoid stickers, stars, and pizza parties as rewards for good work. However, we realized that in spite of ourselves, we often use praise as a form of reward. We’re reminding ourselves to refrain from saying, “Wow! Nice work!” and instead to give effective feedback like “The strong verbs you’ve used in this piece make it so much more interesting,” or to ask questions like “How did you come up with this opening paragraph?”
- All teachers want to help their students become independent learners, but in order to do so, we need to give up control… which can be one of the hardest things to do. Since our book study I’ve seen teachers give students choices in what they study and how they present information. They empower kids by allowing them to manage their time and by letting them know that they trust them to do their best. I hear teachers saying things like, “I don’t mind who you choose to sit with, as long as you’re able to get the work done,” or “Of course you can write the information as lyrics to a song. What a creative idea.
As teachers implement these methods, they’ve seen students respond quickly and positively. A weak math student decided she could learn math and became one of the most involved kids in the class. A failing student who insisted that he hated school, came in to my office to tell me that he’d changed his mind, school wasn’t so bad, and he was surprised to see that he could do the work. Power struggles between certain students and teachers disappeared. By giving us concrete techniques that we can use on a daily basis, Silver has empowered us in our teaching, giving us the tools to be more successful.
It’s true: “That stuff really works!”
P.S. Our elementary teachers are in the midst of doing a book study of Fall Down 7 Times, Get up 8 and are loving it!