Growth Mindset: Embracing Failure

Photo by Naomi Washer

At the end of my street, there is a secret path that leads into the woods. On the other side of those trees, a boardwalk winds through a meadow of wildflowers. It drops you off at the edge of a peaceful body of still water. Behind the water – rolling mountains.

The boardwalk has weathered many winters, and the wood planks lie warped and wobbly. When I decided to move to this town, I visited the boardwalk and spent some time by the water looking at the mountains, reflecting on the path that brought me here.

More than once in my life, I have taken the risky leap and moved to a new city where I knew nothing and no one. Each time, I found myself accomplishing different things than what I imagined I might achieve in those places. I learned to develop skills in visualization – picturing myself in successful scenarios in an effort to manifest them – and comfort in pushing myself through the unknown, remaining open to unexpected growth and discovery.

This is not easy to do, by any means. It takes belief, and it takes practice and time.

Photo by Naomi Washer

It can be easy to feel that big life decisions arise out of failures – not getting into the school of your choice; not getting the job you wanted, or the place you thought you wanted to live.

But the truth is that this binary divide between success and failure doesn’t actually exist. Society conditions us to believe in following one straight path, and to believe that we have failed if we deviate from that path. But that’s not even close to the full story.

Persistence, commitment, and dedication are necessary skills for pursuing a path or a goal, but they have to be paired with a growth mindset if we are to remain open to opportunities we didn’t originally plan for – things we never could have expected; perspectives we’d never imagined.

High school is that exciting, confusing, and complicated time when many young people prepare to leave home for the first time – the beginning of a long journey through new cities, jobs, more schooling, new friendships, accomplishments, and discoveries.

So how does one prepare for all that newness? How can you make yourself ready when you don’t even know what lies ahead?

Photo by Naomi Washer

We make ourselves ready by cultivating an awareness of what triggers our fears, our worries – our fixed mindset. The voice in our head that tells us we are unable to achieve what we want to achieve. The voice that emphasizes our fears, and tells us we shouldn’t even try.

Once aware of this voice – work with it. Talk to it, collaborate with it. Use it to muck through what you perceive as a barrier or threat until the truth is revealed – that we are very often the only people standing in our own way.

High school is the perfect time to begin developing a growth mindset. Your family, friends, school community, and other local communities of which you are a part have got your back.

High school is a safe time and place to take small risks in new directions, whether it’s auditioning for a play, learning to paint, or joining a debate team when you thought you were always too scared to speak in public. The high school environment gives you space to stretch yourself, ask questions, make new attempts, and revise, revise, revise, knowing you’ve got a safety net to fall back on; mentors to guide you; peers who are going through the same things.

When I walk down the boardwalk from my house to the river, the wood dips and bends beneath my feet. It creaks, and sometimes it feels like it will break. And I will fall.

But I do not. I wobble a little; stretch my arms out to the side to balance myself. Keep my eyes focused on the flowers, and the mountains, and the water waiting for me up ahead.

How to Take Good Notes

Notes in the margins of Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, from Oak Meadow High School’s course The Hero’s Journey: “Research: we go off in directions we think are sure but in fact are way off the mark. But we often have to go there first to find that out.”

Admit it, you’ve been there – a test or essay deadline approaches, and you scramble to gather notes using what you think is the “best” or “most efficient” note-taking method.

But what is that method? What is the best way to study and keep good notes?

Allow me to let you in on a very important secret: there is no “best” note-taking technique!

Note-taking is all about how your own unique brain processes information. A note-taking system that works for your friend won’t necessarily work for you, though it’s always worth a try. As a high schooler, you are frequently asked to take your learning into your own hands – identifying a note-taking strategy that works well for you and developing your own independent study skills is a great place to start.

Note-taking is a visual representation of your mind at work, and the mind is often messy – especially at the beginning of a learning experience, when you’re diving into something unfamiliar and new.

Some people like to fit new knowledge into a familiar box in order to comprehend it. Others need to muck around in the unknown more ambiguously first, before they discover a frame for their new knowledge.

Whether you are defining complex terms in biology using flashcards or analyzing a character’s actions in literature by writing a diary entry in their voice, writing out content in your own words is a crucial first step toward true understanding.

Whatever your approach to note-taking may be, remember that there is no single best method for how to study – but there can be a study skill that turns out to be the best method for you. It may take some time to discover what that method is, so don’t be afraid to try new skills and explore!

Trust the Mess and the Grace, from The True and the Questions by Sabrina Ward Harrison. In the gray area of your learning, ask yourself this question: how will you fill up that space?

Here are a few note-taking techniques my fellow Oak Meadow High School teachers and I recommend. Try them out, pass them on to a friend, or see what new techniques they help you think up on your own:

K-W-L Chart (Know – Want to Know – Learned)
A great tool for guiding you through a text, KWL Charts demonstrate your prior knowledge of the topic, set a purpose for your reading, and help you monitor your comprehension by brainstorming everything you already Know about the subject; generating a list of questions of what you Want to Know; and answering those questions about what you have Learned. Find a blank chart example here.

Statement-turned-Question
Check your own reading comprehension by turning a topic or title, i.e. “The XYZ Affair” into a question,
i.e. “What were the effects of the XYZ Affair?” then answer it fully in your own words.

Cornell Method
One of the most popular note-taking strategies out there is the Cornell Method – a structure for organizing different kinds of information on one subject clearly and efficiently. Find an example and guidelines here.

Two-Column Method
This note-taking method, pioneered by Landmark College, stimulates active reading and can help you parcel out main ideas in one column with specific details in the other. Read about it here and give it a try!

Graphic Organizers
Education Place has a treasure trove of printable graphic organizers for all subjects and approaches. Find one that works for you here!

Annotation Technique
When reading for a class, write margin notes that help you organize different strands of thought: use question marks for passages that confused you; exclamation points for important plot points; underlined text for passages you enjoyed; and highlighted text for passages relevant to your writing assignments. Write thoughts in your own words in the margins to jump-start ideas for your essays!

Talk to your Mirror
Whether you are practicing the same text over and over with the goal of memorization, or in need of a strategy for explaining concepts in your own words, find a bit of private space and talk it out with your reflection.

On Poetry

by Antony Yaeger, Oak Meadow teacher

Photo Credit: Szmodis Family
(Oak Meadow Archives)

Having studied poetry with amazing teachers in my life, and having honed my own craft at Sarah Lawrence College, it is a joyful and enriching experience to teach poetry at Oak Meadow. What makes poetry so unique is something discussed in our poetry course: Poetry is a universal art form that can be found in all aspects of human life and can hold within it elements of all other art-forms. Poetry is not bound solely to the page. The famous phrase “poetry in motion” is a purpose of graceful fluidity, such that moves with tactful elegance throughout. Abstract, yet direct and completely beautiful to all 5 senses. We live with poetry every single day, even if we don’t have time to pick up a book.

To find poetry in the world, we often look to nature. To try to create an essence or impression of nature in art, we often turn to poetry. In my teaching, I try to teach in a way that takes into account my student’s developing mind as well as their heart, blending the two with their imagination. Poetry is one perfect way to do this. Each student brings their own unique perspective to analyzing a poem and their own special voice to the crafting of their own poems. Poems can be successful in any number of ways, but calling on the senses of our readers is crucial.

Photo Credit: Starkus Family
(Oak Meadow Archives)

What makes poetry even more incredible is that the reader is welcome to read between the lines, to string together their own meanings and ideas, to bring their own working palette of comprehension to the experience of reading. I feel this way with my students in this distance learning course and in the monthly poetry workshops we have created together. In these workshops, students celebrate their classmates’ poems and give them the gift of constructive feedback. It is amazing to see how perceptive each student becomes, how kind and selfless they are in making another poet’s poem better.

Poetry exists around us all, and you can read into that statement all that you want! For it’s not simply an abstract or ambiguous thought, but a truth waiting for us all to discover.

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Antony Yaeger received his undergraduate degree in Poetry and Theatre from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and his Masters of Science in Education and Waldorf Education from Sunbridge College, New York. Antony spent four years at the East Bay Waldorf High School in Berkeley, CA teaching poetry, photography, literature, and directing school plays. In 2009, Antony graduated once again from Sarah Lawrence College, this time earning a Masters Degree in poetry and creative writing. He encourages students to use writing as a tool for self-exploration and to gain clarity and perspective on world events by examining issues from new angles. 

For more information on enrolling in Oak Meadow’s semester-long high school Poetry course with Antony Yaeger, click here.

For more information on purchasing Word: The Poet’s Voice curriculum for independent use, click here (on sale for the month of April 2017 in honor of National Poetry Month!)

Exploring Ornithology: A Week on Hog Island

by Fianna Wilde, senior at Oak Meadow School

During this past summer, my sister Blythe and I attended a week-long teen birding camp on Hog Island, Maine. The Hog Island Camp, run by the National Audubon Society, is now in its 80th year of existence.

Photo Credit: Fianna Wilde
(Oak Meadow Archives)

Having applied for and received scholarships to attend, we joined 22 other teens to learn about everything from bird banding to seabird restoration. In the sport of birding there are few young people, so spending time with other fledgling birders was particularly special.

Not only was this our first camp away from home, it was also our first time birding on the East Coast. Other campers were endlessly helpful with identification, and everyone was so willing to share their knowledge.

Photo Credit: Fianna Wilde
(Oak Meadow Archives)

We designed an advanced study project (ASP) through Oak Meadow about our explorations in ornithology, and our trip to Hog Island was a part of that adventure. Being able to pursue my dreams and incorporate them into my high school experience is one of the reasons I find Oak Meadow extremely special.

A Day on Hog Island…

4:00 a.m. Get up and out of bed, having awoken long before, unable to sleep because of the excitement of unknown birds singing and the lobster boats motoring around checking pots.

4:30 a.m. Out the door and down the creaky wooden stairs of Crow’s Nest cabin to meet up for a bird walk or thrush banding with Scott Weidensaul (program director) and a few other souls.

7:00 a.m. Breakfast, finally!

Photo Credit: Fianna Wilde
(Oak Meadow Archives)

The weather held, and we motored out aboard Snowgoose III on an all day trip to Eastern Egg Rock. Common tern chicks hatching, Atlantic puffins feeding, and painting the five research interns’ shelter on the island while being dive bombed by a tern parent are memories I will never forget.  

12:00 p.m. Lunch  

Off to a bird banding workshop, or an intro to recording bird song, or drawing with the resident artist.

6:00 p.m. A delicious dinner.

7:30 p.m. Nightly presentation by someone highly regarded in his or her field; tonight it was Stephen Kress, author of Project Puffin and director of the Sea Bird Restoration Program that brought puffins back to Eastern Egg Rock.   

Photo Credit: Fianna Wilde
(Oak Meadow Archives)

Then teen campers known as the Corvids met to discuss the day, do activities, and enjoy bonding time.

Bed? Not quite.

Owling with Josh Potter (teen camp leader), moon and star gazing, and then journaling time.

10:30 p.m. Heather (teen camp leader) singing and playing her guitar as the campers fell asleep, to do it all again tomorrow. Paradise!    

Hog Island, Maine is an incredible place with remarkable people. The National Audubon Society camp I attended, Coastal Marine Bird Studies for Teens, would be an excellent camp for teens with a strong interest in birds, hands-on learning and a love of nature. Hog Island hosts camps for those interested in other aspects of birds, including drawing and photography or a wish to learn more about nature. Explore the Hog Island website (http://hogisland.audubon.org) to find out more.

Photo Credit: Fianna Wilde
(Oak Meadow Archives)

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Author Fianna Wilde is a senior at Oak Meadow High School. “Since I can remember, I have loved all aspects of nature. My sister Blythe, also a senior at Oak Meadow, and I used to have lunch with all of the bugs we found around our yard. Two years ago my family moved to Morro Bay, California, and that is where my love of birds took flight. From then on, birding evolved from a pastime to a passion. “

Nature and Physical Activity: Antidotes to Anxiety

by Chris Mays

Anyone with a teen at home has probably worried about how today’s young adults are affected by the stress of modern life. The rise in anxiety levels of students in their teens and early twenties has grown to an alarming level. Leading research confirms that the number of teens experiencing unhealthy levels of anxiety in modern America is estimated to be five times the rate it was in the 1930s, a time of high anxiety for our country. We have much work to do to interrupt this pattern.

Photo credit: Brooke Doughty. (Oak Meadow archives.)
Photo credit: Brooke Doughty
(Oak Meadow archives)

While many teens are able to process daily stress effectively, for some, the stress lingers and builds. Pervasive anxiety can be debilitating, often leads to depression, and creates avoidant behaviors, which further stress family systems, promoting even higher levels of anxiety. Students who struggle with anxiety often seek escape from the uneasiness of social, environmental, and academic stressors by avoiding situations and retreating to their rooms or home, appearing to be unmotivated or uninterested in the larger world. Many opportunities are lost for expanding their perspectives and life options.

Why is this happening? Several key factors contribute to this trend. They range from an overabundance of choices, social media influences, suspect diets, lack of physical activity, and a shift from intrinsic goals to extrinsic goals. Neurological changes take place as a result, and some of these changes are not for the better. Those of us working with high-schoolers level know how important it is for students to achieve self-regulation and engage regularly with the larger world. It is important to first understand these issues and then take effective action through a coordinated plan that actively involves the student in the solution.

Photo credit: John Paul Huber. (Oak Meadow archives.)
Photo credit: John Paul Huber.
(Oak Meadow archives.)

So, what can we do? The discovery of physical activity in aiding depression and anxiety is well known and has been monumental in helping those who are suffering. Spending time outside has also been linked to positive effects on the human psyche. Walking, hiking, biking, skateboarding, horseback riding, swimming, running, and any other active way to enjoy the outdoors has myriad benefits. As Richard Louv (2005) worded it, “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health.” Engaging students in outdoor physical activity is a powerful way to address anxiety and other mental health issues.

There are many possible kinds of outdoor activity that can help students cope with anxiety and other challenges. One form of physical activity that has proven successful in healing and transformation as a therapeutic sport is surfing.

Surfing can promote physical well-being, combat discrimination, build confidence and a sense of security, as well as play an important role in the healing and rehabilitation process for all children affected by crisis, discrimination, and marginalization…programs with organized and supervised activities can offer important opportunities for leadership development, discipline, teamwork, and personal and professional growth” (Lopes, 2013)

Connecting students with the natural world through hard physical exercise challenges them physically and mentally in a way that can be life-changing. In fact, there are many programs for youth that focus on spending time outdoors because simply being outside in nature has a therapeutic effect.

Photo credit: Natasha Diamondstone. (Oak Meadow archives.)
Photo credit: Natasha Diamondstone.
(Oak Meadow archives.)

Some students benefit greatly from a residential, outdoor-challenge-based program. Such programs can offer students a supportive environment for their emotional and physical needs while also providing an appropriately flexible educational program. One such program is the Point School in Puerto Rico, which provides an Oak Meadow education as part of their program for high-schoolers.

All students can benefit from the opportunity to learn while engaging in their natural environment, challenging themselves physically, and receiving support from encouraging adults. Incorporating regular physical activity and outdoor time can help every individual, regardless of age or circumstance, lead a happier, healthier life.  


Chris Mays is the CEO of The Point School, a residential community in Puerto Rico for young adults who need support and guidance to assist them in graduating high school and/or preparing for college. Chris has worked for over 30 years as an employee and manager of adventure-based youth development and treatment programs including sail training ships, Outward Bound programs, and private centers.