Spotlight on a Grit and Growth Mindset
A SERIES FOCUSING ON STUDENTS and staff
- PART I, ACADEMICS: MEET CHOYA TALUKDER
- PART II, SERVICE: MEET RAY MELE
- PART III, ATHLETICS: MEET BRETT BARBER
It's not very difficult to come away impressed with Choya Talukder's stalwart academic résumé.
She's always been a standout student at Springfield, and her class list this year fits in well with that track record of excellence. Talukder is enrolled in all AP classes except for one honors class, that one in physics. She's taking three science classes, something that she's always gravitated to, and she also doubles as a role model for her younger sister Asha, a freshman.
Talukder would be a fantastic poster child for Springfield's rigorous academics as is, but her academic dominance is even more remarkable considering her family background. A native of Bangladesh, Talukder came to the United States when she was around five years old after her parents won a green card lottery.
Back home in Bangladesh, she had already started learning English after her parents hired private tutors to teach her. English was her first spoken language, but her parents couldn't speak it, which was an adjustment in itself when they moved.
"It was a lot harder for them than it was for me when we came here," Talukder said. "My mom was pretty young and my dad was in his 30s, and it was a big adjustment for both of them. They had to work their way up and basically re-establish their credibility. My dad is a tax accountant, and he had to go to school all over again when we moved."
The family first started out in a nearby school district, but the allure of challenging Choya and pushing her out of her comfort zone led her family to explore a move to Springfield. In sixth grade, they made the move, and Talukder thrived under the more daunting, structured academic courseload.
"My parents were looking for a better opportunity for me and they thought that I'd be able to thrive more here," Talukder said. "I started in the gifted program at my other school, and I've always thought that I have more of an aptitude toward science and math. I've always struggled more with reading, but I feel like I don't have to try as much in math."
While Talukder downplayed the impact of the move, there's little doubt that uprooting your life and moving across the world at such a young age is no easy feat. She had mastered the basics of the English language, so there wasn't as significant of a language barrier, but having to acclimate to everyday life was a tougher task.
"The hardest transition for me to make was socializing," Talukder said. "I wasn't really in classes back in Bangladesh because I was 1-on-1 with a tutor all the time. Once I started taking regular classes here, I found it that it was hard to start socializing with people and it put everything to the test for me."
Any signs of past difficulties are long gone now. Talukder's work in the classroom makes her an appealing candidate for any college, and she's going through the admissions process at a handful of schools. She's already been accepted to one, and true to form, the schools that she's applied to are far away from home. If she inevitably ends up far away from her family, though, she'll still be a trailblazer.
"I think it was a lot harder for me than it was for my sister because I was a lot older than she was when I went the change," Talukder said. "The younger you are, the less you have to struggle with that, but I do think I influenced her with how hard I work. She knows she's lucky to be where she is, too."
She's far from the only one.
Ray Mele knew that his father, Pete Mele Sr., had been battling cancer for the better part of a decade, but he didn't fully understand the gravity of the situation.
It's hard to fault Ray for that, because he was in sixth grade when he found out that his dad was going to have to undergo chemotherapy treatments for skin cancer, blood cancer and thyroid cancer.
"He would go to the hospital, but not overnight, and I didn't really know what it was," Mele said. "It didn't really hit me until the day that he died."
Pete Mele Sr. passed away on April 3, 2014. It wasn't long before that that Ray had gotten involved with the Steve Stefani Dance Marathon, and as a result, the Brunner Bash, held annually to honor the memory of former Sabold Elementary School teacher Glen Brunner.
As it turned out, the Brunner Bash was a day after Pete Mele Sr.'s passing, and Ray watched the live stream of the event from his house. At the end, there was a slide show with photos of his father, something that gave him pause and made him realize how special everything was.
"It made me realize how close the community was," Mele said.
His father's passing helped drive Mele's involvement with the Steve Stefani Dance Marathon, which is a mini-THON that helps alleviate hardships that pediatric cancer causes families. The event partners with Four Diamonds out of Penn State, whose mission is to conquer childhood cancer. He eventually landed on the finance committee as a sophomore, which led him to meet people he otherwise wouldn't have crossed paths with.
"I met people from all over and made a lot of friends through that," Mele said. "Last May, I found out that I would be the overall chairperson, and I was asked to apply to be on the Mini-Thon Student Leadership Council. Over the summer, I drove to Hershey for it, and I was in a room with 20 people from all over the state that I didn't know, and that wasn't something that I would have done before. It made me realize just how big of an event the SSDM is, and THON isn't just local to our school. There are around 300 schools from across the state that have a Mini-Thon."
None, though, can say that they've raised the type of money that Springfield has. In its 17 years, SSDM has raised more than $2.2 million, an amount that stands out amongst its peers. It's a point of pride for Mele, and he knows that even when he graduates and heads off to college, he'll make it a point to come back and check in. This year's SSDM takes place Friday, March 29, and more information can be found at ssdmftk.org.
"I'll definitely come back to see how everything is going," said Mele, who has independent study every day for about an hour with SSDM advisor Mr. John Gildea-Walker. "I went to the summit with other schools, and they gave us name tags and little ribbons with different schools, and it said $2.2 million. People were definitely impressed."
How could you not be?
It wasn't the first time that Brett Barber had cast his eye on something totally different than he already knew and was comfortable with, but that didn't mean the change would be any easier.
Barber, a Springfield junior, had once been a promising hockey player who'd earned an all-star spot in the Eastern Junior Elite Prospects League before deciding to move on to soccer the night before tryouts in his freshman year. By the end of that year, he was a starter on defense for the Cougars' team.
Fast forward two years later, a friend on the football team casually asked him if he wanted to try to kick field goals, in large part because he knew that he had a powerful leg.
"The football team was still in the playoffs and using their field, so I started by kicking field goals over a field hockey net," Barber said. "I measured the distance for an extra point, and I just kicked hundreds of those before I started backing up. Two days after the football season ended, I went on the field with Brad Lord, a family friend, to kick."
Brad Lord, a former standout kicker for Springfield, had tons of experience and saw enormous potential in Brett. "Brett is a great listener. He wants to learn and puts the work in to get better," said Lord. When asked about Lord's assistance, Brett was quick to point out that "Brad is the perfect mentor because he not only understands kicking, but also the mental aspect to it."
Soon, both mentor and mentee started to see positive results of that effort. "My extra points were good, so I kept backing up more and more, and I eventually hit a 40-yarder. That's when we thought I might actually have a shot at this." said Barber.
"This," in question, meant possibly joining the football team as a kicker while still playing soccer. Barber hadn't broached the subject with the football coaches yet, but the more he thought about it, the more he knew he needed to focus on just football in order to have a successful start. But that premise was not an easy one to make.
"I was very nervous about the social aspect of it, especially since the majority of my friends were on the soccer team," Barber said. "At first, I really wanted to do both and then I was kind of worried about leaving the soccer team. But, I got a lot of support from both teams, and my friends on the soccer team said they'd come support me at the football games, which they did."
So with his friends' blessings, Barber set out to become a new weapon in Coach Chris Britton's arsenal... and bombed his first audition.
"For me, the initial jitters happened in preseason. We were doing 7v7 and some special teams, and I did not do well that day," Barber explained. "I thought too much about it and tried to kick too hard, but the coaches supported me so much, especially (wide receivers coach) Coach Mike Guille."
"I just remember that it drove me crazy the next day," Barber continued. "I was on the field for hours. I didn't like to miss."
A good kicker's value in high school football is almost immeasurable. Most can handle extra points with regularity, but a kicker who can stretch his range out becomes a wild card. Those who can also add a little bit of versatility to their game and be good at that are rare. Barber quickly fixed his kicking issues, and then emerged as a standout for Britton's team.
"It's one thing to kick around when you're just messing around and there's no pressure or anything," Britton said. "It took Brett a while to get the timing, and most kids that kick have done it throughout their life. We figured we'd throw him to the wolves, and he hit a 46-yarder in practice. We told him, 'you're a month into this. Wait until you actually learn,' and then we threw kickoffs at him. He did really well with that, and it's like a dream to have him do all of that. He's going to be a problem next year for other teams."
Barber connected on a half-dozen or so field goals this year, made three kicks in each overtime to help the team defeat their rival Ridley 17-16, and drilled a career-best 38-yarder against Harriton. "He knows he's got the leg to go even further, but he doesn't try to think too much about the distance. He just wants to do his job." Said Britton.
"I was nervous watching the kick go up, but it hit the upright and went in," Barber said. "You just have to treat everything like an extra point. For me, it's better if I don't know what the distance is, because it's more of a mental game. If I think about the distance and it's further than I'm used to, I'll try to kick it harder, and I'll miss."
Brett also realizes that his efforts are not made in isolation. "Hockey, soccer and football are team sports, and I had a lot of help in each. This past year, I had a great holder in Andrew Johnson, an awesome long snapper in Pat Clemens, a tremendous offensive line, and Coaches Britton and (special teams coach Phil) Plank helped me out so much." Perhaps just as much as Barber helped the team.
When asked, "What's next?" Brett just smiled and stated, "Work hard. Get better."
With 28 years of experience teaching Language Arts to middle school students, one could understand if Trey Reynolds felt he was in a perennial comfort zone. That notion is dispelled quickly, even in a relatively short interview.
"I've never come into a job thinking I've learned it all. I always look for new ways to teach," said Reynolds in his E. T. Richardson Middle School classroom.
That perspective informed his approach as Reynolds taught 5th graders (which ETR included for a time) and 6th graders. It did not wane during his decade with 7th graders, especially considering "new ways to teach" became essential with the advent of more technology. However, two years ago ETR Principal Dan Tracy asked Reynolds for a more significant change—agreeing to teach the same subject to 8th graders.
"With 10 years at 7th grade I'd been inside the same comfort level for some time. I had great colleagues in Stephanie Pierce, Amanda Smith, and Nicole Schaaf which gave me even more comfort," said Reynolds. "But movement does occur. I did not go grudgingly, and was not afraid of it at all."
What Reynolds found were new and exciting challenges and two new teachers in Monica Mancini and Lauren Wiseley who he continues to characterize as "being blessed with the Language Arts folks." Reynolds said the subject area is a collaborative effort with most decisions made by a team. It is a synthesis he enjoys.
Obviously the curriculum differs for this grade level. All forms of writing are explored, produced for assignments, and contributed to the ETR "writing hub" effort. He noted a particular enthusiasm about the novels chosen for the course.
"Literature is the backdrop for everything we do. We are trying to give kids a degree of rigor in the curriculum. We are reading 'Night' by Elie Weisel. Whether purposeful or not, it coordinates with the Holocaust Project 8th grade does in Social Studies. We are also reading Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' which has always been a favorite of mine."
The novels have been vetted by the administration, but if their themes seem somewhat adult, it ties into how Reynolds sees his students.
"Present in middle school is the kids' enthusiasm. They are so dynamic. Every day you don't know what you are going to walk in to. There is great energy and a desire to learn. But I also see a different maturity at this level. They are in discovery mode about where they want to go and who they want to be. I'm glad if I play a little role in that," he said, noting a few of his own mentors during school years.
Reynolds, who grew up in Norristown, brings to this position very relevant experience which might seem in the distance past.
"I started as a journalist. One of my high school teachers connected me with the 'Times Herald.' I'd always played and been interested in sports. I called coaches and wrote short pieces. By that time, I'd already started writing an awful lot."
At Temple University, Reynolds majored in journalism. He had thought, however, that he wanted to teach. He returned to studies and first earned an elementary school teaching certificate, then continued for a master's degree in instructional design and technology. Facility with technology has proven valuable.
"In the early days of my teaching there were worksheets and ditto machines. The technology boon in the 90s seemed new and cutting edge, but the big thing then was Power Point. Now it is embedded in what we do. I'm thankful to be in this building and this district when it comes to how technology is used. It's necessary to keep up. I admit, sometimes I get help from kids on how to make something work."
In Language Arts technology may be less a matter of content than Science or Social Studies, Reynolds suggested, but it plays an important role, "It is more the practicality of how I do what I do. I can pull up 30 essays (on the computer) and watch them being written in real time. It's also much more freeing in the way we write—I really see that with students."
While he does not have a 24/7 mindset when it comes to access, he welcomes the opportunity for students and parents to reach out regarding homework or other matters.
In terms of ancillary technology issues, Reynolds said he thinks the deterioration of writing due to texting might be exaggerated.
"Most of my students are used to writing (formally), and I don't encounter problems in the pieces I get." About the work submitted, Reynolds has embraced the school-wide "second chance" learning approach whereby students are offered a "do over" opportunity to demonstrate learning and improve their grades.
Rightly or wrongly, middle school students are often seen as the most challenging age due to the remarkable changes they experience in all areas of their lives. Reynolds said his own experiences as a "dad" has made him sensitive to those challenges, and informs the way he handles issues aside from the academics. He and his wife Leisha have a daughter who is a senior at Bucknell University and son who is a senior at Spring-Ford High School. Reynolds said, in general terms, he has learned good counseling is often a matter of "taking a step back."
For Reynolds, there is only moving forward, although almost certainly in the same school, grade and subject.
But, even after all these years, Reynolds says his home is in the classroom. "I enjoy working with students to show them that learning never ends. That's what the growth mindset and second chance learning are all about." And every day at ETR, you'll find Reynolds and his students doing just that.
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.
A teacher's role consists of many parts, perhaps the greatest of which is inspiring students to "reach for the stars." Work hard and have serious goals.
In Springfield High School science teacher Rob Hermann's case, it is much more literal.
This school year, Hermann has been able to reach a goal of his own by bringing students an opportunity to study astronomy and earn college credit at the same time. The stars, planets, galaxies and all matters cosmic are all within the scope of this first-time class offering.
Although Hermann is anxious to get right to the course, some background is relevant. As a Springfield High School alumnus, he mused his current classroom is the one in which he took chemistry. After graduation, he went on to three different universities in the greater Philadelphia area. Majors changed from graphic design to psychology to education.
While at West Chester University pursuing a graduate degree, he found his passion for science. Nearly two decades later, that enthusiasm has only increased. He returned to the district and taught at E. T. Richardson Middle School. When the high school had a sudden vacancy for a Physics teacher, Hermann was asked to take the position and is in his seventh year. In addition to teaching, he coaches HI-Q and Science Olympiad teams.
"This is a great district to work in. Every step I have taken has made my job better," said Hermann, married and the father of three school-aged children.
Those steps included becoming the Science Department Curriculum Coordinator and the quest to develop the astronomy course.
"It's something I've wanted to do and began with a half-credit course. There was a broad interest, and I got good feedback from students. The course always filled up, and I felt there were students who wanted more."
Hermann seized the chance to work with Delaware County Community College which has a collaborative relationship with the district. Eligible students can take courses at DCCC, but the program also enables qualified SSD instructors—such as Hermann-- to teach in the high school and offer DCCC credits to students meeting achievement standards. At both DCCC and SHS the astronomy class includes a lab component.
After a year's delay from the DCCC side, the course was set into motion—a perfect segue for the celestial bodies. In addition to a hefty text called "The Cosmic Perspective," (a title not to be taken lightly), Hermann takes full advantage of technology. He can access the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia and the Skynet Robotic Telescope. He was trained and is part of the Pulsar Search Collaboratory (PSC), funded by the National Science Foundation.
"The telescope allows us to pick up radio signals of pulsars. The mission of the PSC is to get people to search and spot for a dead star."
During his seven weeks of training, Hermann studied with world renowned West Virginia University radio astronomers Dr. Maura McLaughlin and Dr. Duncan Lorimer and learned how to operate the 20 meter telescope at the observatory, collect astronomical data on pulsar candidates, and evaluate the data. Hermann's astronomy students will also culminate their training exercises by analyzing radio signals; attempting to find a new pulsar.
Hermann explained some of the finer points on the subject. "Pulsars are remnants of dead stars. If Earth is in the line of sight of that star's beam, we see the star's remnant pulse like a lighthouse, ergo the name pulsar. That pulse is collected as a radio signal and observed in unique patterns of data. Computers are used to 'develop' the data, but only the discerning human eye can interpret the data as a pulsar or background radio-noise. That is where we come in. My students will culminate their training exercises by analyzing radio signals; attempting to find a new pulsar candidate."
This DCCC Astronomy course provides the opportunity for SHS students to conduct authentic scientific research and to interact with scientists, researchers and other students. The entire scope is possible through the technology made available to the SHS program.
"Everyone is naturally curious about our world. Space is far away and mysterious. That's why I love teaching this. Physics—the laws of nature—doesn't change. But astronomy changes all the time," Hermann said, underscored by constant advancements in technology.
Hermann referred to his own experience in graduate school of astronomy being an "intellectual playground."
"I want this subject and excitement to be the reasons students are coming into class. I want their dinner conversations to be about 'what I learned in class today.' For some kids the interest comes from science fiction. Others like physics and chemistry. But with astronomy, the cosmos is your laboratory."
"That curiosity makes kids come back tomorrow. What I want is to give kids a sense of wonder, and know that we are able to figure out things like distance between stars," he said. "It's more than a body of knowledge. Today you can look anything up. I want them to have the desire to do so. I want them to spend time marveling at the cosmos and have at least a small sense of awe. You can't Google inspiration."
Hermann closed his interview by taking note of a coincidence. A former student has painted a mural of Albert Einstein for whom Hermann has great admiration. It includes the quote: "Imagination is more important than knowledge." The quote continues, "For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution."