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Ms. Blizzard and the Potential Weight of Single Interactions

By Dave Stuart Jr.

I was giving a keynote to the wonderful Colorado English Language Arts Society last fall, and the guy giving the keynote right before mine was none other than award-winning author Matt de la Peña. I had heard plenty about Matt before, and I even had some of his novels in my classroom library. What I didn't know is that all through high school, Matt didn't really consider himself a writer. It wasn't until college, actually, that he started to see writing as a life path. But the seeds for Matt's eventual calling to writing were planted in Ms. Blizzard's English class back while he was in high school.

I'll butcher the details if I try to get into them (I was too busy listening to Matt to take any notes that day), but here's the gist of the story he told: He was pretty unmotivated in school, way more interested in basketball (he went on to play in college). So one day he shows up to his English exam in Ms. Blizzard's class, and Ms. Blizzard doesn't hand him a final exam. Instead, she pulls him aside and tells him that, while everyone else is taking their exam, she wants him to just write for the entire exam period. So he sits there and goes to town — from what I remember, this was a pretty novel experience for him, getting an extended time to just write whatever he wanted. After the exam period ended, Ms. Blizzard holds Matt after class and says, “Hey, Matt, do you know why I did that?”

“No,” Matt says.

“It's because you're a great writer, Matt, and I wanted to see what you could do if you just sat down and wrote whatever you wanted.”

If my memory of Matt's story is accurate, he then walked out of Ms. Blizzard's class thinking, “Wow, she's weird.” But two years later, while in college wondering what he was going to do with his life, it was this one interaction with Ms. Blizzard that came back to his mind. Ms. Blizzard, all those years ago, had helped Matt believe that he could be a writer (the Efficacy belief), and she had planted the seeds for Matt seeing himself as a writer (the Identity belief).

And here's the crazy thing: you and I have had Ms. Blizzards in our own lives, haven't we? People who unwittingly planted resilient seeds that eventually blossomed into the beliefs underlying some of the best work we do today, be it at parenting or writing or teaching or cycling. Key beliefs underlie the best work that we do, and the same is true for the work of our students.

Today, you and I have the chance to durably affect what our students believe about themselves and their work. What a great privilege it is to teach.

Note from Dave: I've built an all-online, schedule-friendly PD course on student motivation — a course on the five key beliefs highlighted in this post. Sign up here.

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