Flatten the Fold


I am a middle school teacher and school leader. So it goes without saying that I have a bias towards developing the brain during the “tweenage” years, of from about 11 to 15 years old. These years serve as a critical pivot point between growth and fixed mindsets. Those involved with this age group recognize this urgency. Students become more aware of themselves, particularly of their limitations when it comes to pursuing a passion. What they do not often see is that one’s self image during these tweenage years is a snapshot rather than a definition of self. It is as if they are using an old-school paper map to navigate across country, yet they are only working with one tiny, folded square of the entire paper. Schools who recognize the responsibility that exists within a classroom to “flatten out the paper” so students can see across the fold are special, indeed. However, as specialization rips through a young person’s life, from the growing specific content in math class to extracurricular pursuits that require more and more time and dedication in order to stay competitive, the time has come to have a real conversation on what we are doing to our students and where we need to go.

The middle school child faces an internal struggle between the hope for success and the effort it takes to get there. As educators, we aim to bridge this gap by helping students develop a way to:

  1. Define the struggle so them may identify the gap that exists between hopeful destinations and current location;
  2. Strategize how to overcome the gap between where they are and the hopeful destination while appreciating (notice, that is not simply recognizing) the effort required to get there; and
  3. Become willing to fail along the journey, finding the tools and skills to succeed.

A Guide for the Journey

Our mission as educators should always include a method of enhancing the lives of our students by providing them inspiration to pursue their passions. I think this is a lovely, albeit idealistic endeavor. John Dewey once said, “A genuine enthusiasm is an attitude that operates as an intellectual force.” This quote embodies my motivation and philosophy for teaching and now leading middle school children. As students need to develop focus and determination, they cannot run so fast as to lose sight of what they are running on. Teachers have a special opportunity to remind students where to look along the path the avoid the pitfalls that will prevent them from a successful trip.

As Jo Boaler discusses in Mathematical Mindsets, we remind our students of these dangers along the path most often by placign said traps ourselves. The truth is, we must encourage children to make mistakes. After all, earning “A’s” on everything means they know just about everything, right? (Please note the attempt at written sarcasm.) However, making mistakes places a young person in a state of disequilibrium. This state of unbalance forces the brain to find ways to fit outcomes into the initial design (Boaler calls them “mental models”) and thus reprocess and adapt the design to better fit the problem (Boaler, 18–19).

So when their personal map leads them to a roadblock, a student must find a new route. This is a skill in and of itself. But how to teach it? I’d argue that, if we educate our students correctly, we don’t have to. The system in place should account for varied levels of success within the curriculum, and personal development along the route chosen by each child.

My academic environment utilizes a grading system that includes partitioned letter grades (A+ / A / A-). Further, we have stated in writing that a C is average, B is above average, and A is excellent. While we aim for excellence, it is my hope that families learn (through discussion and support of educators) that grades are a measurement of development. We are not excellent in everything we do and at every moment, so we shouldn’t expect our kids to be. The systems we create in schools should reflect this appropriate level of imperfection.

What are your methods of measuring development in your schools? Do you use a tiered grading structure? Perhaps you don’t use grades at all…please share.


Boaler, Jo. (2016). Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ POTENTIAL Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and INNOVATIVE TEACHING. Jossey-Bass.



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