Mindset and Mood

Danny Stock
High School students and faculty packed the forum for the weekly Monday Morning Meeting. This week’s speaker, Head of School Russell Shaw, shared a presentation that ranged from mean puppets and sabertooth tigers to stereotype threat and destructive groupthink. The meeting closed with a standing ovation for the surprise presentation of a Gatorade DC Player of the Year banner to our world-record breaking runner Ziyah Holman. While the individual topics Russell covered (expanded upon below) were powerful and important, perhaps more important are the statements the Morning Meeting program made about what matters most for our students. When the Head of School begins the week by prioritizing student mindset and mood, it’s clear that those things are at least as important at GDS as an upcoming quiz, paper, or performance.

Russell spoke about stereotype threat and the impact our thinking about ourselves has on our capacity to learn. To our faculty, he said, “We have to explore what we’re each carrying—about gender or race or class or other biases that might be informing how we are seeing our students. We have a responsibility to believe in the genius of each of our kids. They deserve nothing less.”

He turned next to research in Nature on in-group bias and rejection, in which children as young as 6 months prefer punishment for those who are different from themselves. While the babies were innately kind and preferred puppets that demonstrated prosocial behaviors, they categorically rejected those same puppets if they appeared to think differently—in the case of the study—by liking different snack foods. “Babies did seem to care more about who was like them than they cared about niceness and meanness,” wrote one of the researchers. “So here's a real forerunner, evident as early as six months of age, of what becomes ugly prejudice, discrimination, and so on later on."

And then Russell brought out the sabertooth tigers. He explained the biological tendency to focus more on negative events or emotions.“Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones," Rick Hanson wrote in Buddha's Brain. When we visualize worst-case scenarios rather than assuming best intent from blood-thirsty carnivores, we stay alive. Yet, it is the positive experiences, that slide through our memory like water through a sieve, that allow us to feel a sense of well-being, joy, compassion, gratitude, and resilience. When we don’t train our neural pathways to hold fast to these positive events, we feel their benefits only fleetingly. Russell urged us to combat the negativity bias by shifting our mindset to one of gratitude. By noticing the negativity effect and actively working to “rewire our brains” through gratitude, we experience the world from a more positive, productive stance.

In what felt like a neat blend of lightness and serious science featuring our mascot, Russell explained the double life of the short-horned grasshopper. Under certain circumstances and due to several environmental triggers, the typically independent short-horned grasshoppers can begin behaving like locusts in a destructive groupthink, devouring whole fields. “Be grasshoppers, not locusts,” he urged students. “Model an appreciation for difference and independent thinking.”

Russell’s charges for faculty and students during the 2019-20 school year were threefold: 1) Believe in your own capacity, 2) Be grasshoppers, not locusts, and 3) Practice a positive (and growth) mindset—make time for gratitude. Then, subtly, he seemed to add a fourth charge. He passed the microphone to High School principal Katie Gibson and assistant principal for school life Quinn Killy who began what seemed to be a typical and somewhat silly morning raffle tradition. Katie announced Ziyah Holman ’20 as the raffle winner, but as Ziyah descended the forum stairs, Quinn unfurled her Gatorade DC Player of the Year award. The forum erupted, everyone on their feet, as a joyfully tearful Ziyah basked in the love from the community. Russell stood just off to the side, cheering with the rest. Close with love. As our students dispersed from the forum for their next classes, they carried with them a lightness—a warmer sense of belonging. And that’s the fourth thing: support each other and celebrate each other’s successes.
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