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The Key to Success

The Key to Success
A person jumping for joy next to the word "Resilience".

Having a resilient mindset and fortitude amidst challenges is vital to a fulfilling, satisfying life—more so than any degree. But how does USM, as a top preparatory school, teach resiliency?

A person holds their head in distress.

It’s 8:10 a.m. on a cool, cloudy Thursday in October. Students in Robert Juranitch’s AP Physics C class are patiently waiting for the day’s lab, which explores energy and the dynamics of circular motion, to start. University School of Milwaukee students have been doing this particular lab for decades, but Juranitch has put his own spin on it. He wants students to build their confidence while experiencing science the way it really is—messy, uncertain, and sometimes frustrating. But they don’t know that yet.

As he hands out the assignment, Juranitch explains that—in the real world—scientists show their work on paper before they can use limited and expensive laboratory equipment. “First, your job is to prove your math on paper, without any help,” he says. “Then you can test your math using the equipment in the back of the room.”

An illustration of an athlete helping his teammate off the ground.

The room is quiet as students read the problem. Some have their head in their hands while others have their arms crossed. A few make half-hearted scribbles, followed by furious erasing, while others simply stare at the page. After about four minutes, Juranitch amps up the pressure. “I was thinking,” he says, “that I might make this lab count towards part of next week’s test. What do you think?” Some laugh nervously, but most are silent.

AP Physics C is a college-level, calculus-heavy class. Academically speaking, the high school students who take this class are amongst the top 1% nationwide. They are not used to being unsure of an answer. They, like most people, don’t like feeling incompetent and unsure, and they really don’t like feeling as if their grade may be at stake.

Finally, after the students have confronted their perceived inferiority for a full 11 minutes, Juranitch determines they’ve had enough. “Okay, pencils down. I’m going to tell you a story.”

Having a resilient mindset is vital to a fulfilling, satisfying life. Psychologists know this, as do researchers,  journalists, and educators. Parents, for the most part, know it too. But when their child is facing a looming college application deadline and sweating their GPA and ACT score, the pressure is high.

“I think something happens when students cross the threshold into high school,” said Jon Shoop, Upper School math teacher, “because they become super concerned about grades. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a student say, ‘Mr. Shoop, what if I don’t get an A on this test?’ They think not getting an A means they won’t be able to apply to a top-tier school. But they’re going to make mistakes—they should make mistakes, for the sole fact that they don’t know everything yet.”

An illustration of a woman speaking in front of a large group of people.

USM is a rigorous academic institution. Preparing students for success in higher education is written into the school’s mission statement, and developing learners who thrive on challenges and celebrate successes is part of the school’s Portrait of a Graduate. But that doesn’t mean that USM students and alumni are immune to setbacks, or that they get everything right on the first try; nor does it mean that they are expected to. USM teachers from prekindergarten to 12th grade are acutely sensitive to the role resiliency plays in school and in life, and they intentionally weave age-appropriate lessons into their curricula to expose students to challenges and provide a supportive environment in which to experience failure and recover from it.

Celebrating Our Mistakes

“We’re very intentional with resiliency education in Lower School, although we refer to it as growth mindset,” said Katie Lee, 1st grade teacher. Teachers are often the first in their classes to mention out loud when they make mistakes, and openly celebrate them. “Whenever I make a mistake I point it out to my class and say, ‘Oh my gosh, my brain just grew,’” said Lee. “And if a student makes a mistake, I say ‘I’m so proud of you, your brain just grew!’”

With younger students, growth mindset is woven throughout the school day in various capacities. It could be a book that they read and discuss as a class, an ice-skating unit in physical education, or an argument during recess that all serve as teachable moments. “As a class, we often talk about how we’re all on the same path, but we’re on different stages of the path,” said Katie Jablonski, 2nd grade teacher. “It doesn’t matter where you are on the path; as long as you’re moving then you’re growing.”

Last year, 4th grade teachers started supplementing their math curriculum with youcubed® lessons created by Dr. Jo Boaler. Boaler’s math curriculum is framed within a growth mindset, meaning ability increases with hard work and exposure to opportunities. “We really like this curriculum because it’s specifically designed for kids to have some struggle with it,” said Laura Blanchet, 4th grade teacher. “There’s not necessarily one right answer, so they’re learning how to push through and stick with it.” Many of last year’s 4th graders mentioned the growth mindset work as being their favorite Lower School memory.

"Rather than saying 'I can't do this,' we encourage them to say, 'I can't do this–yet.' It's about recognizing where you are and being willing to grow with it."

As students progress through Preschool and Lower School, they become more aware of the differences between themselves and their peers. Some may thrive while reading, some might love dance, while others might prefer Spanish or French. Teachers highlight these differences, noting that not all classmates are on the same point of the path. “We’re constantly talking about the power of ‘yet’,” said Jablonski. “Rather than saying ‘I can’t do this,’ we encourage them to say, ‘I can’t do this—yet.’ It’s about recognizing where you are and being willing to grow with it.” To further support the growth mindset concept, Preschool and Lower School students are not given grades. Rather, they are described as “beginning,” “developing,” or “secure” on their report cards in different categories, depending on their abilities in a particular area (personal development, language arts, mathematics, etc.).

What Does it Take to Get an A on the Mile?

An illustration of a boy climbing across monkey bars.

In USM’s Middle School, a good illustration of growth mindset occurs when students run the mile in physical education class. “Kids are constantly asking me, ‘What do I need to do to get an A on the mile?’” said Middle School physical education teacher Erin Cermak. But to grade students based on time alone doesn’t tell the full story. What if they love to run and practice running in their free time? What if they hate it? What if they have asthma? Should they all be graded on the same arbitrary metric? Middle School administrators don’t think so, and as a result, students are graded against their own progress. “Kids, and even parents, have a lot of anxiety over whether or not PE will affect their grade point average,” said Cermak. “But if a student ran a 10-minute mile last year, and an 8-minute mile this year, that is a huge progression. That’s showing effort, growth, and improvement—that’s what everyone should be focused on.”

Sixth grade teachers have taken note, and implemented a pilot program this year in which they are not assigning scores on assignments or tests. Instead, they’re giving each student customized feedback based on their performance. “In 6th grade we call it moving the needle,” said Amy Norman, 6th grade English teacher. “There’s no end game with a letter grade; we want them to grow from wherever they are and when they do grow, we celebrate it.”

Similar to how students are assessed in Preschool and Lower School, in many Middle School classes, students are evaluated against their own work rather than just receiving a grade. “They’re still being held accountable for their work,” said Norman, “but it’s transferring accountability back on to the student.” Rather than receive a grade on an assignment or a test, students write about their performance and meet with the teacher to go over the feedback. This way, at any given point, students have a clear understanding of how they are performing in class and what is expected of them.

Since implementing the 6th grade pilot program, Norman has noticed a positive change. “I find myself in a much healthier place as a teacher because no one is disappointing me,” she said. “I’m meeting each student where they are individually and helping them to grow at their own pace. I’m their partner, rather than someone who will give them a bad grade.” Students, in turn, focus more on the content they are learning about rather than the outcome. In addition, the feedback allows them to take ownership of their performance and build resiliency. “We want our students to believe in themselves and believe that they’re capable,” said Norman.

When Points Don’t Make the Grade

A young girl walks across a balance beam.

Although the idea of a world with no points or grades might sound nice on paper, it’s not the reality we live in. And while some colleges might be ditching standardized testing when analyzing applicants, they still closely evaluate a student’s grade point average. In fact, studies have shown that the best predictor of a student’s success in his or her first year of college is cumulative grade point average. That leaves Upper School teachers in a tough spot. They know that grades don’t always serve as a good indicator of learning, and they can negatively impact mental health, but they can’t be eliminated. So what can teachers do?

Wade Bosworth, Upper School physics teachers, may have found an answer. Bosworth and Upper School administrators had noticed a high amount of stress in their students as they prepared for the AP Physics 1 exam, and overall poor performance on the test with students nationwide. “I thought we could produce better physics students if we weren’t tied to the AP exam,” said Bosworth. So for the 2019-20 school year, they dropped AP Physics 1 from the division’s course offerings. They replaced it with a new Physics-Honors course that covers the same content, at the same rigor, without the stress of the exam. In addition, Bosworth implemented a complete shift in grading philosophy, eliminating points and grades, and establishing a new grading system in which students are evaluated against a standard, instead of earning points on an assignment or test.

Bosworth sets learning targets at the beginning of each semester; for example, “I can solve problems using the conservation of momentum principle.” Each target has associated criteria for mastery, and students have unlimited chances to master the targets. In order to earn an A by the end of the semester, a student must show mastery of each learning target via an assessment that is reviewed by Bosworth. “Each assessment becomes super individualized because I can tailor it directly towards a student’s weakness. So when they are getting reassessed they really know, ‘Okay, this is what I need to work on.’ Once they reach mastery of a target they have such a sense of accomplishment.”

"I always remind me students, 'This is a hard class, It's not you; it's the stuff. It's hard stuff.' But they have to get used to the hard stuff. They need to understand that they won't always get 100%, things won't always be easy, but they can get through it."

An illustration of a woman walking into the wind with an umbrella.

Bosworth also established a system of “free quizzes” that do not count for any points. After completing a quiz, students are given the answer key and invited to score themselves, and Bosworth also reviews their work. He asks students to evaluate what went well and what didn’t, and how and why they made mistakes. He also asks them to reflect on how much work they did to prepare—did they put in enough time and effort? This way, students get timely feedback on their performance in a low-stakes setting. “I absolutely love the free quizzes,” said Anika Krishnamurti ’22, “because they just take all the pressure off. It’s a relief knowing that, if I am having an off-day or not feeling well, there will be other chances for me to show my knowledge. It doesn’t all boil down to my performance on one test on one day.”

At the end of the first year of his new grading system, Bosworth noticed significantly lower anxiety amongst his students, as well as higher retention in the class. Through individual assessments, students are able to identify their weak points and practice—over and over again—until they improve their understanding. This is a cornerstone of resiliency. Not only has it helped students, it’s improved his life, too. “The mastery learning approach is the best thing that I ever did as a teacher,” he said. “It’s changed my relationship with the kids because I’m not the hard part anymore, the physics is. And they see me as their partner, someone who is there to help them. When the kids get frustrated, they don’t hate me for removing points from them, because there are no points.”

The course has been well received by students, and Bosworth has now implemented his mastery learning approach in AP Physics 2. Other teachers in a variety of departments in the Upper School have taken note, and have implemented similar learning approaches into their own classes. As USM embarks on its strategic design planning work, and adds a new assistant head of teaching and learning position, which will work with division heads, teachers, and others to evaluate and refine USM’s academic programs across all grades, the school’s leadership team will likely be considering whether a traditional, points-based evaluation system is the best way to produce learners, leaders, and citizens.

Beyond the Classroom

There’s no doubt that USM provides a rigorous, challenging curriculum that can test resolve. But it also provides many avenues outside of the classroom through which children can build resiliency. Examples include extracurricular activities like athletic programming (USM maintains a no-cut athletics policy), visual and performing arts, student clubs, affinity groups, FIRST Robotics teams, and more. Each are designed to provide a safe space in which students can take risks, try something new, and make mistakes in low-pressure settings. USM also employs three full-time counselors (one in each division) who provide support and resources for both students and teachers.

An illustration of a father helping his son learn how to ride a bike.

USM’s Upper School advising program, in which each incoming freshman is assigned to an advising group and an adult advisor, is another way the school promotes resiliency. Students are carefully and intentionally placed into their advising groups, which remain the same for all four years and consist of six or seven students. By the time they reach senior year, students’ advising groups will have become almost like an extension of their families—safe places in which they can be vulnerable and feel supported. “One of the key features of resiliency is having strong relationships with caring adults who aren’t necessarily your parents,” said Dean of Students Charlie Housiaux ’02. “And our advising groups program is critical for forming those relationships. I think most students feel like their advising groups are a real highlight of their experience in the Upper School.”

As students progress through Upper School, they find themselves under increasing pressure, whether real or perceived. “They get very caught up in the pressure of their peers, their parents, and whatever they think that highly-selective college wants to see on their transcript,” said Susan Zarwell ’87, director of College Guidance. “But their experience is very limited, and what they value is also very limited.” Not to mention, as Zarwell noted, the industry of college admissions grows more difficult and selective with each passing year.

The College Guidance office’s approach to resiliency is very intentional. Each student is assigned a College Guidance counselor, who remains the same for all four years, to provide guidance and support. Beginning in 9th grade, all students complete self-reflection surveys every fall and spring, which help them identify and articulate how they measure success in their lives. Students reflect on classes they have (or have not) enjoyed, connections they are making, activities they value, and things that excite them. Their answers to these questions will ultimately help them to find a college—and hopefully a vocation—that will result in their success, however they define it. Identifying for themselves what success looks like strengthens students’ ability to withstand disappointment.

An illustration of a person jumping for joy.

Back in the AP Physics C lab, when Robert Juranitch told his students to put their pencils down, there was palpable relief in the air. Just about anything was preferable to staring at a difficult math problem. He told them about how, as a young engineer early in his career, he was summoned to a meeting with his new boss, who told him his next project was to design a multi-constraint rate, multi-error rate Viterbi decoder. “You know what a Viterbi decoder is, right Bob?” his boss had asked. He did, at least in theory, although he had never designed one, not even close. But he didn’t tell his boss that. “I walked out of his office with a desperate, sickly feeling, certain that I was going to lose my job,” he told his class. “I was in stage one of Juranitch Project Management model, which I like to call the ‘Oh crap’ stage.” But after sitting with the assignment for a few days, Juranitch eventually passed into stage two—the gathering of resources. He worked with the company’s on-site librarians to research the problem, solicited the help of a senior engineer at the company, and ultimately was able to complete the project on time. It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t easy, but he didn’t give up.

“That's what I want for you and this lab,” he told his class. “I want you to experience what it is to struggle with whatever demons you have. Because you all can do this. You have the skills and you know the theory. The question becomes, what got in your way?” Juranitch invited the students to pair up and tackle the proof together, and the room became filled with laughter and high-fives as students worked to solve the problem.

“They were so excited when they got the right answer,” Juranitch later recalled. “I always remind my students, ‘This is a hard class. It’s not you; it’s the stuff. It’s hard stuff.’ But they have to get used to the hard stuff. They need to understand that they won’t always get 100%, things won’t always be easy, but they can get through it. Otherwise they’re going to take themselves out of the game early. And they’ll never know how far they can go.”

Writing the Book on Resilience

E. Kelly Fizsimmons

E. Kelly Fitzsimmons ’89 knows a thing or two about resilience. When the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, the serial tech entrepreneur was on the hook for $5 million. But that was nothing compared to a medical scare in 2016 that forced her to rethink almost everything in her life. Thankfully, she regained her health, both financially and physically, and decided to share the lessons she has learned in a book, “Lost in Startuplandia: Wayfinding for the Weary Entrepreneur.” Fitzsimmons credits much of her success to resiliency. For her, resilience is being able to separate our self-identity from our failures. “It all comes down to the stories we tell ourselves,” she said. “It's important to teach kids how to handle failure early on. Learning to say, ‘I tried my best’ and giving ourselves grace can keep us from giving up too soon. In the end, we tend to win by staying in the game longer—until we eventually succeed.”

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