Thursday, February 26, 2009

Kadir Nelson

On this unexpected snow day I find myself with enough time to share an anecdote from last October's International Reading Association conference. I attended with 2nd grade teacher Mrs. Palmer, and we found ourselves seated at a luncheon with noted artist and author, Kadir Nelson.

He was a gracious and elegant man, and his post-luncheon speech was riveting. He spoke with fondness of his parents: what a strong influence they were on him, how they nurtured and encouraged his love of art.

He also shared a story about his 10th grade language arts teacher. He was the kind of bright, capable kid who was used to putting in little effort, while still getting decent grades and thinking that was just fine. However, this teacher returned his first paper with the comment, “This is not an essay!” and refused to grade it. Nelson said he was initially shocked (“But I always get Bs!” he told her). But after some thought he went back to her and said, “Teach me how to write an essay.”

Today he finds himself the winner of the ALA's prestigious Sibert Medal for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, a meticulously researched work of non-fiction for young people. Nelson's story is inspirational because it exemplifies in a most vivid way the growth mindset described by Carol Dweck in Mindset. In short, this is an approach to the world in which you see challenges, difficulties and failures as learning opportunities.

The opposite is a fixed mindset in which you see failure as a verdict on your innate worth or abilities and so avoid taking risks, which in turn inhibits growth. It also inhibits hard work and effort because some people erroneously come to believe that if you have to work hard, you must not be good at whatever it is! The same person can have a fixed mindset about some aspects of themselves and a growth mindset in other areas, of course.

I hope that by sharing stories such as this, we can all do our best to inspire in the young people whose lives we touch the courage to try, fail and try again, since after all, deep down I think we all know that the things in life that are worth achieving generally do not come easily.

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