Sunday / July 21

Stretch Your Brain: Bringing Out the Personal Best in Students

personal best

This post was originally published on Reagan Reach.

I have an exceptional group of kiddos this year. They just work so hard! This week, a student teacher began in my classroom. As we talked about the kids, she asked, “How did you get them to care so much? To invest in the learning? To want to do their personal best?” I have to give a lot of the credit to these students, their parents, a community that values excellence in education, and especially to my colleagues who have been instilling those values into these children since they started kindergarten. But as I thought about her question, I realized there are several ideas I can suggest to help establish a classroom culture of student-internalized, high expectations.


We use this phrase a lot in my classroom! Kids want to know “why” more often than anything else. Why do we need to read 20 minutes per night? Why do we need to memorize our multiplication facts? Why do we have to cite text evidence? Sometimes they bring up these questions, but lately, I’ve found myself turning these same questions around on the class. Why do you think we have to respond in complete sentences? The kiddos always begin by focusing on the obvious, immediate answer: Because you’ll make us re-do it if we don’t. We’ll get better grades. The state test requires it. Although these are true, we then start to move the conversation from the immediate to the more lasting effects of these good habits. It helps us communicate more clearly. It will help us be better workers and community members when we grow up.  

But we eventually always come back to one main reason: “To stretch your brain!” At the beginning of the year, I explain to the kids that their brain is like a muscle—the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. I teach them about neurons and how they fire across paths and that the more often those paths are used, the more quickly their ideas can travel across them. I explain how connecting things from all different parts of their life and all different parts of the curriculum gives those neurons more paths to travel inside their head. And I tell them that pushing their brain just a little further than what is easy or comfortable stretches their brains little by little every day.

Now this phrase has become a part of our shared vocabulary in the classroom. I even hear students using it to encourage each another during times of frustration: “You can do this! Stretch your brain!” It is the motto that our class culture is built around. We constantly reaffirm a commitment to daily growth.


Not only do I want students to buy in to a culture of high expectations, I want parents to be a part of that culture too. I share the language we use in the classroom to talk about these expectations with parents in various ways such as open house, digital communication, and parent conferences. Additionally, this year, we began using the SeeSaw app where students can upload their work for parents to see. Their parents can then “like” and comment on their work. The smile on a student’s face is priceless when he reads a message from his mom saying, “Wow! I love how hard you worked on this assignment! I’m so proud of you!” Knowing that someone else notices their effort, motivates them to work even harder. When both the teacher and the parent are intentionally about acknowledging that little extra effort students put forth to “stretch their brain,” they see that growth is valued by some of the most influential people in their lives.


I grew up in a time when kids were encouraged to ignore differences and treat everyone the same. Although I understand the intention behind this advice from well-meaning adults, it sometimes makes those differences seem taboo. In my classroom, we have open discussions about the fact that not every kid is the same, from life experience, to reading level, to learning style, to family situations. We acknowledge that in order to be successful, some kids might need to sit near the front either to focus or because of vision problems. Others might need to have an adult read out loud to them when they take tests. They understand that if every student in the class read third grade texts all year long, some students would not be stretching their brains at all because they are already reading higher than that.  And others might be frustrated a lot because it would stretch their brains too much since they need to grow a little more before they are ready to read third grade texts on their own.

Because we have opened up these conversations, differences are not necessarily seen as a disadvantage. Instead, the students stop comparing themselves to other people, because they know that the comparison is never equal. They see that there are tons of factors playing into ever person’s equation that affect how they learn. And therefore, they aspire to become a better version of themselves instead of playing the comparison game.


Once the kids understand differences and can openly talk about them, they are ready to learn two very important skills—to self-differentiate and to self-advocate. Many times, when I introduce an assignment, the students want to know, “How many do we have to do?” or “How long does it have to be?” Instead of simply answering the question, I take that opportunity to do a quick pep-talk on refusing to settle for mediocrity. I explain that although I am assigning a minimum standard, that they should set a personal standard of excellence. Whatever “personal best” looks like for them should always be their goal.

The students also need to learn to ask for what they need. When they don’t understand something, they must learn to verbalize their questions and seek out help. When they are struggling, they need to know how to find the resources available to help them. This is an important life skill that is impossible without acknowledging differences. But when students are encouraged to self-advocate, they do not feel ashamed of their needs. Instead, they feel empowered push themselves to work beyond what they can do by themselves.


It is essential that students view failure as a springboard towards success. They need to know that risk-taking pays off because any solution to a problem that does not work is research to find out what will work. I am partial to STEM-infusion as a method for students to practice problem-solving, risk-taking, and failing forward because it allows the students to practice these skills while also integrating real-world application of our content standards. The students make mistakes and then get a chance to fix them in a safe environment using the engineering design process (ask, imagine, plan, create, improve.) However, I have seen this attitude taught well many different ways. Some teachers like to do team-building activities or ice breakers. I have a co-worker who does morning work-outs with his students to help them learn the growth mindset through physical strengthening then applies those same ideas to emotional and academic growth.

Another of my colleagues has a sign up in her room that says, “We can do hard things.” Part of learning to fail forward is attempting to do things that are hard. The word “challenge” is very much a part of our shared language as well. I present our STEM projects as challenges and create challenge tasks for students who finish early or excel on grade level work. In order for students to learn from their mistakes they have to attempt hard things. And as they begin to conquer them, their confidence in their ability to do hard things will grow, further motivating them raise their personal standard.


As much as I value tying curriculum together into real-world application-based lessons, I am also a firm believer in the importance of reading and math fluency. And therefore, one of the least exciting parts of our day in my classroom for many kids is one-minute multiplication drills. However, a couple of weeks ago, one of my students was taking his 3s tables test for about the third or fourth day in a row. When I called time, he yelled “YESSS!” I cheerfully said, “Good job buddy!  Did you get through all your 3s today?” He responded, “Nope, but I got two more than I did yesterday!” I loved that moment because that child values growth and is proud of progress. He’s not discouraged that other students are already on their 8s or 9s. He knows they already came into third grade knowing some multiplication and that he is just learning it for the first time. And he knows that if he keeps working at it and growing each day, he will get there too.


We don’t always finish everything. In fact, just this morning I started reading an informational text with my class, and we only got through the first two pages of the book. But the discussion we had in the meantime was AMAZING! The kids were engaged and asked questions and made meaningful connections.

We do a lot of embedded writing to reflect on the projects we do and I have a couple of students that have a hard time finishing. However, it’s not because they are off task or lazy. It is because they are putting in so much detail, evidence, and effort into their writing that it takes a while. I never send those students to study hall to finish their work. For one reason, I trust that they will finish it tomorrow because they have that standard for themselves. However, this is also because I want the kids to know that I value the quality of their work and the effort they are putting in to stretch their brain more than I value finishing their work before recess time.


I would say about 90% of the time all of these little things that I have talked about collide into a classroom culture where students are learning and setting the bar high and pushing themselves and engaged in learning. But some days a student shows up at school and his parents have gotten in a fight for the 100th morning in a row and his priority just isn’t to read and write and do math and engage with other people. Sometimes, a girl is working on something hard and gets stuck on one question and starts doubting herself and her ability to grow anymore. Occasionally, the teacher has to remind the same child to line up his place values before subtracting for the 17,238th time and uses a tone that communicates something other than a celebration of effort. This is not fool proof. We are most definitely a classroom full of imperfect people. But because we have become a family, we now have shared language and culture that fosters an expectation of personal excellence.

I would love to hear from other teachers on this. How do you help your students develop the desire to do their personal best?

Written by

Miranda Reagan worked two years as a STEM teacher and technology coordinator at Sam Houston Elementary School in Maryville, TN. In this capacity, she has designed and implemented lessons for a K–3 STEM lab and mentored teachers in “STEM-infusing” their classrooms. Last year, Miranda was a full-time instructional coach where she served as a resource to teachers for STEM-infusion and technology integration. Because of her passion for children, she moved back into the classroom to teach 3rd grade, using the STEM-infusion method of instruction in a 1:1 iPad classroom. Miranda Reagan’s book entitled STEM-Infusing the Elementary Classroom will be available from Corwin in March 2016.

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