Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck
Ballantine Books (paperback, 277 pages)
ISBN 978-0-345-47232-8

I ‘ve rewritten a post on this book several times because I couldn’t get it right. This post doesn’t get it right either, but I want to pass some notes on this book because it has been an important book for us and our homeschooling efforts this year. While you’ve always heard that your mindset helps determine your success, this book spells out in more detail what that can mean, especially in conjunction with the messages you send your children / students / players / etc. and how it impacts their mindset. What’s also helpful are some of the actionable items (gack…business-speak! forgive me) that are easy to implement.

In short, the book has been transformational for us in our homeschooling, largely in part because of the timing of my reading it. We’re starting our third year of homeschooling and the difficulty of the first year or two of transition seems to have run its course. Dweck doesn’t pose the question directly in her discussion on different coaching / leading styles, but I will—would you rather be a coach / teacher like John Wooden or Bobby Knight? Those of you who know college basketball realize the question goes well beyond the number of NCAA championships and addresses the type of coach / leader / teacher you want to be…a chair-throwing perfectionist or a developer of talent and skills?

For me the challenge was how to take advantage of my boys’ natural love of learning and apply it in our homeschooling. The resistance to certain subjects, especially from one son, could be palpable at times. So what does Dweck mean by mindset and how it impacts us?

For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. (page 6)

On one hand there is the fixed mindset, incorporating the belief that qualities like intelligence are carved in stone and cannot be changed. The person tries to prove to everyone (including himself) that he isn’t deficient in basic characteristics. He tries to prove himself as smart or talented in an attempt to validate himself. Failure is a setback. Given this framework, effort can be a bad thing…it means you’re not naturally smart or talented.

Then there is a growth mindset: a belief that basic qualities or characteristics, including intelligence, can be developed and cultivated through effort. This person relishes challenges, wanting to stretch and develop. Failure provides a chance to learn. They believe effort is what makes them smart or talented.

Here are a few quotes that provided a nice framework for the ideas and what they mean:

  • ”Actually, people with the fixed mindset expect ability to show up on its own, before any learning takes place. After all, if you have it you have it, and if you don’t you don’t.” (24)
  • ”Even in the growth mindset, failure can be a painful experience. But it doesn’t define you. It’s a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.” (33)
  • ”John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, says you aren’t a failure until you start to blame. What he means is that you can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them.” (37)
  • (After discussing stories like the tortoise and the hare and the little engine that could) “The problem was that these stories made it into an either—or. Either you have ability or you expend effort. And this is part of the fixed mindset. Effort is for those that don’t have the ability. People with the fixed mindset tell us, ‘If you have to work at something, you must not be good at it.’” (40)

Hopefully this gives you an overview of her approach and writing. There is power in our mindset—how we approach our challenges or goals will make a difference in whether or not we succeed. I want to focus more on Chapter 7: “Parents, Teachers, and Coaches: Where Do Mindsets Come From?” As Dweck points out, we don’t intentionally try to undermine our kids but the messages, however well meant, can subvert what we want them to achieve.
Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance. How can that be? Don’t children love to be praised?

Yes, children love praise. And they especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow—but only for a moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. (175)

This doesn’t mean that successes can’t be praised. What it means is that the kind of praise should be monitored. Praise toward effort, study, and choices is good, while praise toward intelligence and talent can be subversive. There are other times praise sends a mixed message, especially when focusing on speed and perfection. How should failure be handled? In an era where self-esteem is to be valued above actual accomplishment, truth and honest constructive (helpful) criticism can be quite the shock to some people. Children learn not just from their results but also from the messages they receive about those results. As Dweck puts it, her book should help parents foster the kid’s learning through stoking the child’s interests and growths.

A central focus about intelligence in the book been is that the brain is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. Use it or lose it. Again, nothing new here, but neurological studies over the past decade or so has shown how this is so. The second focus, and just as important as the first, is that your mindset is malleable. Small changes in communication with students / children / team can make a huge difference in how they respond. The one caveat is that you have to be honest—simply trying isn’t enough. Making an honest effort instead of just going through the motions is what should be rewarded or praised, although how analysis is framed proves to be important, too.

So what did we change? For starters I’m trying some new curricula, which has been a lot more fun for them. I think the most important part was a multi-day conversation at the start of the school year on what was expected of them as students and what they should expect from me as a teacher. We agreed on the methods I would use to challenge them to learn and they would agree to do their best…and we would help each other succeed in these goals. Our agreement covers three areas in more detail: what type of place the classroom will be, what they should expect from me as a teacher, and what I expect from them as students. We even came up with a hokey saying we put at the top of each day’s “learning list:” Today I will learn something new; today I will get better at what I do; today I will give my best effort.” To say that there has been an improvement in their mindset to the school day would be an understatement. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Herodotus reading group at the Reading Odyssey

I know this is last minute but if you have ever been interested in reading (or re-reading) Herodotus' The Histories, consider signing up for the Reading Odyssey's reading group beginning on September 17, 2014, and running through March 2015. I have participated in several of their reading groups and have found them extremely helpful and fun.

     The Reading Odyssey's page
     The sign-up page
     My posts on Herodotus
     Some online resources on Herodotus

I plan on re-reading The Landmark Series edition alongside the recent Tom Holland and Pamela Mensch translations. I guess there goes my (theoretical) spare time. But I can't think of a better way to spend it. Join us!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Pushkin's Onegin: Tatiana's age

It's been a few years since I read Pushkin's Eugene Onegin but I saw an article today that has me wanting to revisit it again soon. This may be nothing new to many, but I wanted to pass it on.

Onegin’s Tatiana Was Only Thirteen? points out the references to Tatiana's maid's age in reference to her own. Also telling is Pushkin's choice of words:
Pushkin uses the word otrokovitsa. This hard-to-pronounce Russian word is usually translated as maiden but in Pushkin’s time otrok (male) and otrokovitsa (female) referred to children from 7 to 15 years old.

The conclusion that she *could* have been only thirteen seems to be consistent with my memory of Eugene's on-again/off-again conscience and not wanting to betray her innocence. It is possible for a "superfluous man" to do the right thing, even with (or because of) Pushkin's irony.

My concern with this supposition, though, comes from the consistency with Russian societal norms of the time. Would girls of thirteen been allowed to dance with men (as she does on her name-day party)? But then for a work that examines art vs. real life, how much stock should you put in what was common at the time? Like I said, I'll need to revisit this soon. I'm interested to hear from others on Onegin's rejection.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Curriculum update: Moving Beyond the Page (early review)

I've gotten a few questions via email over the years on the curricula we use in homeschooling our two boys. I'm always a little hesitant to answer because we have been trying different approaches to see what is a good fit for the boys and what isn't. The latter group doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad approach…instead it may just mean it didn't click with them and their learning style.

One curriculum that is definitely clicking this year is the Language Arts subject from Moving Beyond the Page. I'm using the Ages 10-12 package for the fifth grader and the Ages 8-10 package for the third grader and they seem to be a perfect fit. Based on an n of 1 for each package I can say I'm enjoying them as much as the boys.

The younger boy just finished reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The lessons often focus on the concept of interdependence…how the family was dependent on and impacted the environment around them. The lessons provide for plenty of topics to cover, weaving in grammar lessons along the way. I estimate we did about 75% of the activities in the lessons, substituting other activities to explore in areas he expressed interest. I liked the mix of activities, and even the ones we didn't use gave us ideas for things we did want to do. As a side-benefit, it's a book I enjoyed reading, too.

The older boy finished reading The Wanderer by Sharon Creech, a story about 13-year-old Sophie, her cousins, and her uncles sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. Told through journal entries of Sophie and her cousin Cody, we saw the challenges they faced and their development from the experiences. One thing I liked in both workbooks was the book-long recording of a particular topic. For The Wanderer the focus was on Sophie's and Cody's character development during their journey. There were also a lot of other fun lessons focusing on storytelling, grammar, and writing. Then there were the subtle mysteries just below the surface, resolving nicely at the end of the story. I'd say this was appropriate for the fifth-grade level.

The variety of the lessons in the accompanying workbooks was the high point for us. Since I'm not using the other subjects I can't comment on how well the other curricula offered tie in with this subject, but it's apparent from the way they approach Language Arts (and the books selected) that there is a perfect opportunity to tie other subjects in with these books. A caveat: because I felt Language Arts was the area I didn't cover best with the boys last year I really wanted to focus on it this school year. While the Language Arts package appears to cover areas of the topic well (including grammar, spelling, etc.), I'm going to supplement the curriculum with another one. It has nothing to do with any perceived shortfall on MBtP but reflects the additional emphasis I'm placing on this subject this year. The cost of the packages can be pricey, but it's nice that there are several options based on whether you can provide the books yourself as well as choosing e-copies vs. physical workbooks. Also to keep in mind is that the pricing is for the full year. We've been very happy campers so far, admittedly early on, and plan to update and post on the books as we go along…especially since I'm looking forward to all the books we'll be reading together!

Monday, August 25, 2014

American artists' sketches from World War I

Maybe I'm back? I hope so…I've missed this place.

While we're in the middle of so many -ennials, such as the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War I, I did want to pass on this article from about American artists sent to Europe by the War Department (as it was called then) to sketch a historical record of what was happening. While the artists were sent late in the war (coinciding with America's late entry), it "marked the first time that the U.S. government commissioned artists to capture a war effort." [A serious aside to the Smithsonian and other sites…don't make it so difficult to copy a short quote if you'd like an article to be shared.]

Other countries were already doing this, realizing this was a history-changing event. According to the article, the American sketches were much more documentary, though, compared to other artists' expressionistic works.

The American History Museum digitized the collection and a paperback version of Art from the Trenches: America’s Uniformed Artists in World War I by historian Alfred Cornebise will be released next month.

Troops Leaving Esnes by Ernest Clifford Peixotto
Date of work: September 26, 1918

Monday, August 04, 2014

Slavnosti snezenek / The Snowdrop Festival (1984 film, Czechoslovakia)

In my post on Rambling on: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal I mentioned that Jiří Menzel had directed a movie based on those stories set in the Kresko settlement of Bohemia. I finally watched a copy of the movie with English subtitles and I found it almost as much of a joy as the stories on which they were based. This is the third Menzel movie I've watched based on Hrabal's stories and I'm convinced they were a match made in celluloid heaven. Menzel captures the playfulness, ambiguity, and the subversiveness of Hrabal's writing.

Menzel includes many of the quirky people and situations populating Rambling on, capturing their traits and peculiarities making them memorable. For example, watching the farmer take his goats for a ride in his car provides the same smile, inside and out, as the reading provided. Menzel downplays the subversion in Hrabal's stories, probably a factor of filming in Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s. Hrabal's chief of police dispenses arbitrary justice favoring his friends (and himself) while meddling in everyday affairs. While Menzel's characters distrust the police chief, he provides a calming effect on the populace, especially at a rowdy dinner party.

Even though the movie provides many laughs and smiles, a sadness permeates the bucolic setting. Like the stories, alcohol provides a social lubricant as well as an escape. Just what people are trying to escape isn't quite clear, amplifying Hrabal's ambiguous messages, although you wouldn't be far off the mark if you simply answered "their lives." While some things give these characters joy, many things drive their desire to escape, including family, work, government, opportunity, and materialism.

Similar to Hrabal's style, Menzel allows the quirkiness and banality of the residents to supply both beauty and humor. It's a dark humor, though, but one that celebrates the uniqueness of each character, breaking your heart while making you laugh. The central story for the movie is "The Feast," where competing hunting clubs argue over the right to feast on a wild boar shot in a local schoolroom. When you watch Menzel's version you'll agree with Hrabal's repeated admonition in the story that "you've never seen, nor could you have seen, the things I saw, we saw, the things that came to pass that time when a boar, a wild boar, got shot by us folk from Velenka inside the school at Přerov." Menzel combines "The Feast" with another story that marks a bittersweet turn to the drunken fight/feast.

I don't know where the movie was filmed but I seem to recall reading somewhere that the opening montage of local scenery was shot in and around Kresko (don't quote me on that, though), where Hrabal had a cottage he used when he wanted a break from Prague. Hrabal has a cameo in the movie, sitting on the porch of a pub with another patron, a pint of beer in front of him. I raised a glass to him while I was watching it and to the movie in general. Despite not displaying the full complexity of Hrabal's stories, Menzel does a wonderful job of adapting them to the screen. Very highly recommended.

Friday, August 01, 2014

The Galdós Drawings

It's August already? I wish I could say I'm tanned, rested, and ready to post. Unfortunately it feels more like pasty, stressed…but at least wanting to post.

I'll start with a wonderful site I've found regarding drawings by Benito Pérez Galdós. Dr. Michael A. Schnepf at the University of Alabama has a page on The Galdós Drawings. Dr. Schnepf
"has been studying the original manuscripts of Benito Pérez Galdós since 1987." According to The Galdós Drawings page, Galdós said that "Before literarily creating the characters of my works," he tells Carretero, "I draw them in pencil to have them before me as I speak of them." In some cases, the fascinating manuscripts housed in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid and the 'Galeradas' housed in the Casa-Museo Pérez Galdós in the Canary Islands have gone virtually unnoticed for more than a hundred years . Galdós scholars can now see many of these drawings for the first time on this web site.

While the drawings are great, the part I enjoyed the most was the section on the Galeradas, or proofs. They show a combination of corrections, doodles, and many side notes. A wonderful site for anyone interested in Galdós! As Dr. Schnepf put it in his kind reply to some of my questions, "The more people we have talking about Galdis, the better." Indeed!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Posting will resume in August…until then...

I'll repeat a favorite non-book post (judging by visits). Since it's the tale-end of cherry season, you'll need to get on top of this to enjoy it during the winter holidays. From the wonderful Fancy Pantry by Helen Witty (New York: Workman Publishing Company, 1986):
A Cordial of Sweet Cherries

After the elements are assembled—the work of 10 minutes—time alone creates this pretty cordial. It requires several months in the jar before it’s ready to enjoy; put everything together in midsummer, and well before the winter holidays the fragrant spirits will be ready to sip.

When the cordial has been drained off and bottled, more sugar and brandy can be added ot the fruit, now awesomely wrinkled, for a second go-round, as described in the recipe.

2 pounds firm-ripe medium-size cherries, dark or light
2 to 4 cups sugar, depending on sweetness desired
1 quart good-quality brandy

  • 1. Rinse and drain the cherries and roll them on a towel to remove as much moisture as possible. Remove the stems.
  • 2. Divide the cherries between two sterilized, dry quart jars (or use a half-gallon glass storage jar with a gasket and a clamped lid, if you prefer),
  • 3. Divide the sugar between the two jars, using 2 cups if you are unsure how sweet you want the cordial to be (more can be added later). Add the brandy, which should cover the cherries and sugar generously. Cover the jars airtight and set them in a cool, preferably dark spot where you will remember to check them regularly.
  • 4. Shake the jars every few days or at least once a week; the sugar will gradually dissolve as the cherry juices join the brandy in the syrup. When all the sugar has dissolved, taste the syrup and decide whether you want to add more sugar; if you do, this is the moment. If sugar is added, continue to shake the jars occasionally until it has all dissolved.
  • 5. Leave the cherries in the brandy for a minimum of 3 months; 5 or 6 months is not too long.
  • 6. Strain the cordial from the cherries and funnel it into clean, dry bottles. Cap or cork them (use new corks only) and store them out of light.
  • 7. If you want to recycle the cherries, add to them half as much sugar and brandy as you used the first time and proceed as before. You may want to leave the cherries in this batch until time to pour the cordial in order to extract all possible flavor.

Anyone that has pitted cherries will recommend wearing an apron, smock, or something to avoid spot-treating

I like the results when I pit the cherries. Plus I use around 3 cups of sugar per batch, but be sure to adjust to your tastes. The picture below shows half-gallon jars (with a clamp closure). I've tried recycling the cherries, but I prefer letting them sit longer for their initial, and only use. Put it in the back of the pantry for five or six months and forget about it until it's ready to be strained at the end of the year!

My 2014 vintage

If interested, please see an earlier blog post on the cherry cordials.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Catching up

I apologize for the unplanned silence. I haven't really felt like reading or posting lately, so maybe a break was what was needed. Since I haven't read much I'll post on what I've recently watched, which was infinitely better.

Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes has a great review of Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest Coen brothers movie now available for viewing at home. I would say I'm one of the few moderate fans of the Coen brothers…some of their works I love, some I'm not so wild about…and this one was a winner for me. The "WTF is that supposed to mean" symbolism that the Coens include in their movies is still there but seems dialed down quite a bit, letting the story naturally unfold. It also includes some of the most rounded characters they've ever presented, even if they are on the screen for a few seconds. Like Trevor I watched the film again soon after finishing it to pick up on things I missed the first time. Read Trevor's review. It's a movie I'm sure I'll watch again soon.

I had been meaning to watch Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game and was finally able to do so. While it's now considered a masterpiece, I found it much darker than any review I've read. The plot is simple—a week-long retreat at a country estate provides plenty of opportunities for tangled relationships of French society's upper crust (and of their servants) to play out to a disastrous end. Renoir liked to say it mirrored the "moral callousness" of the time, but I don't think that's quite right, as reflected by the title. Most of the characters are only callous toward anything that is outside their code of ethics. It's OK to cheat on your wife as long as you follow certain rules, for example. But there is a double-edged sword at play here. While simultaneously criticizing the mores of the time and showing his characters sympathetically, Renoir seems to reinforce the importance of what *should* underlie the rules. For example, the estate gamekeeper Schumacher demonstrates a cartoonish view of honor that reveals no underlying basis other than his feeling that he has been offended. How he reacts to the offense demonstrates he doesn't understand why she should feel that way. He's adrift and the two options reflected in other situations is a nihilistic approach, not caring about what happens, and the exaggerated responses he delivers. It's a brutal reflection of society at the time and I now understand the violent reaction at its release—no one likes seeing such an ugly reflection in the mirror. Very highly recommended. Watch it and you'll see the basis for many other films. I'm looking forward to going back and rediscovering some of the influences on the movie, such as Musset's Les Caprices de Marianne and Beaumarchais' Le Mariage de Figaro.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it the "Dumas summer of the musketeers" for us. Our timing is great since BBC America has just started airing The Musketeers series and (based on the first episode) it's a hit with the boys. The credits are clear that the series is based on the characters from Dumas' novels, so expect a lot of invention and liberty taken with the original. Which is fine with me, especially if the episodes continue to be done as well as the first one. I'm never quite sure why some changes are made from book to screen…why 1630 was chosen instead of the novel's opening in 1626, for example…but as countless other filmmakers have discovered the stories and the characters provide so much opportunity for fun. A few snippets of dialogue:
King Louis XIII (while shooting birds): "There's something about shooting that makes a man feel fully alive."

Queen Anne: "Unlike the birds, I suppose."

King Louis: "They're born to be shot like rabbits…and poets."


Guard: "What do you want?"

Constance: "Fifty sous and I'll take you to heaven."

Guard: "Are you one of those religious nut cases?"

Check your local listings and enjoy.

One of the 'goals' I had this summer was to take the boys to a play, so I took them to see a local performance of City of Angels by Larry Gelbart (book), Cy Coleman (music), and David Zippel (lyrics). The storyline follows an author as he attempts to turn a successful novel into a screenplay. Author and story intertwine as his creation takes on a life of its own, which leads me to reflect once again that everything comes back to Cervantes (with a healthy dose of Unamuno). While the youngest boy was bored by the intermission the oldest enjoyed the whole thing. I thought it a very well done performance of a complicated (staging-wise) production by a local troupe. Who knows…I may even convince them to go to another play this summer!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

This weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal

If you have a chance to pick up a copy of the current Weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal I recommend you do so. The review section has reviews on books about World War I in addition to several essays about the conflict. There's also a review of The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (author of The Leopard), a NYRB Classics collection of three stories recently translated by Stephen Twilley. The stories include the title story of the book, his final work, as well as “Joy and the Law” and "The Blind Kittens."

Two of the stories pick up on parts of The Leopard. Since the review is behind an online paywall I'll only provide a short quote from the final paragraph that looks at "The Blind Kittens," intended to be Lampedusa's second novel. Only the first chapter was completed, which is what is included here. "The Blind Kittens" starts with a nod to The Leopard, with the upstart Batassano closing a deal on the selling off of lands by aristocrats to prop up their dwindling estates. His meteoric rise seems tainted by his acquisition of tainted land.
Here once more is Lampedusa's dry irony; here is his tender gaze at the anachronistic Sicily, its cruelty and provincialism; here is one last shot at the impotence of its shunted-aside ruling class.