Denise Mroz, Growth Mindset in Action
Denise Mroz, Growth Mindset in Action

A riddle: what is age-old common sense, but new thinking; something demonstrated by Sabold Elementary School art teacher Denise Mroz as well as her young students?

Before the answer, consider these buzz words which have become popular in educational circles. The phrase "growth mindset" is attributed to Dr. Carol Dweck who has been associated with several top ranked universities and now at Stanford University. Research, studies, and data, analysis of Dweck and others lead to insights valuable to learning success.

Simply put, growth mindset is defined as the "understanding that abilities and intelligence can be developed." No logical person, let alone an educator, would likely argue with that concept. And it must be noted that in the last several decades groundbreaking neuroscience research has yielded valuable and critical supporting information as to how the brain works, including how growth take place as neurons connect and change with experience.

However, as an addition to Dr. Dweck's learned research, consider this far simpler explanation for the link between mindset and achievement. It is probably known to Denise Mroz, her students and--let's say-- almost everybody. It comes from a classic 1930's book by Watty Piper, "The Little Engine that Could." "I think I can" turned into "I thought I could" by the end of this short tale. That mindset is a key feature of Mroz's life and approach to her work.

Mroz is now in her second year at Sabold after 16 years teaching Language Arts and Creative Writing at Springfield High School. Her transition might seem startling to some who start and complete a career in generally the same subject area and/or student population. Mroz had a strong sense of growth mindset in acknowledging her abilities as both teacher and artist, and overall intelligence. But she also recognized they could be enhanced and further developed for this considerable change in assignment.

"I'm a person who accepts change, takes risks and being confident in what I do. I have always loved art and included it in my high school teaching," said Mroz. "Years ago I was in a program at the University of the Arts (in Philadelphia), during which there was an opportunity to study in Italy. Once I had the (art) certification in my pocket I was waiting for this opportunity," she said of a vacancy which includes all of Sabold classes and first-graders at the Springfield Literacy Center. "I loved teaching at the high school, but my dream is using all types of creativity and especially to foster that in children."

Mroz uses phrases that are fundamental for growth mindset thinking, such as "step forward," "can't stay in the same place," "be a risk taker."

"Not everyone would uproot the way I did. I think change is good, to be flexible, adapt and able to transition. It's a good lesson for children. My high school students were upset when I left, but I was ready to keep learning. Students this age were what I needed," she said. The way children glowed in the classroom made it obvious she was what they needed as well.

Art is an ideal platform for growth mindset. Mroz gives a great example how to foster children to be risk takers. When a project went slightly awry for one of her students, she encouraged seeing it in a new way and creating something not planned.

"The other students thought it was so terrific, they thought of doing something similar. It's wonderful that one little student took a risk and can influence others."

In another example, she recounted a student working diligently on a drawing of a superhero inspired by a teaching book in her classroom library. Not only did that youngster produce a great project, but a classmate was equally inspired to tackle a similar undertaking. Mroz's enthusiasm about children "teaching" each other was evident.

As with virtually any subject, the range of talent differs in a classroom full of youngsters. "Not everyone has great artistic talent, but they can be successful and confident in this classroom. Have fun and grow."

One review of the growth mindset literature discusses brain plasticity this way: "The connectivity between neurons can change with experience." In what are essentially common sense suggestions, the literature states neural growth is enhanced by good strategies, asking questions, practicing good nutrition and getting adequate sleep.

In the case of Mroz's classroom, add some child-centered attitudes. All around the room are posters and reminders to make "Happy Art" and that "Art Rocks." The art experience goes beyond traditional materials and techniques.

"I was always artistic as a child," said Mroz, who grew up in Springfield. "I saw things in an artistic way...a leaf or bug. Nature is art, and I have art oddities all around my room. I teach that we have to look, always observing, and the garden outside this room is wonderful."

The art room has direct access to the outdoor space which was created by retired art teacher Jeanne Cammarota as a sculpture garden. While it is not manicured, a lot is going on with art and nature combined. For the children, the outside and inside, Mroz emphasized, is "their place to be free. They go outside, stop and notice things."

The sharp transition from high school Language Arts to elementary level art seems to have had what could be termed unanticipated growth mindset components. Mroz said she's "learned to be myself around the children," although there is nothing about her that seems inauthentic. She talked candidly about the type of life challenges that change perspective.

"All a person goes through makes them who they are. It's part of the journey, and something else to learn from. Whenever you take a risk and it works, you go further."

Growth mindset has been embraced by the district in theory. Mroz is an ideal example of how it works in practice.

Mroz and students

Denise Mroz not only teaches art at Sabold Elementary School and 1st graders at the SLC, she inspires them to grow and have fun. With her L-R Lexi Wallauer and Kiera Laird 4th graders, Aubrey Good, 3rd grade, and Christian Dawit, 2nd grade.

Denise Mroz

Denise Mroz has a room filled with students' work as well as all manner of oddities to observe.

Denise Mroz

The Sabold outdoor garden is just the place for exploration, inspiration and creation.

Submitted by Susan L. Serbin