Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery



"When kids are finally given a voice, it's always amazing to mehow on target their perceptions of schools are!"
Bob Mackin, director, America's Choice HighSchools

What does it take for young people toget really good atsomething? Teenagers from diverse backgrounds explore thatgame-changing question in Fires in the Mind. As theydescribe what fuels their interest and effort, they offer teachersexciting new perspectives on why ...

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"When kids are finally given a voice, it's always amazing to mehow on target their perceptions of schools are!"
Bob Mackin, director, America's Choice HighSchools

What does it take for young people toget really good atsomething? Teenagers from diverse backgrounds explore thatgame-changing question in Fires in the Mind. As theydescribe what fuels their interest and effort, they offer teachersexciting new perspectives on why students choose to engage andpersist with challenging work. Kathleen Cushman—whoselandmark book Fires in the Bathroom brought youth voices tothe national stage—here asks adolescents and their teachersto think more deeply about how we develop mastery, both in and outof school.

Starting with what youth already know and do well, Fires inthe Mind uses the latest research on cognition to help studentsand teachers together address motivation, practice, and the needfor high standards. Filled with thought-provoking exercises andresources, this book lights new fires in the minds of both teachersand students, and galvanizes them toward more powerful learning forall.

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Editorial Reviews

VOYA - Ann Crewdson
Mastery, motivation, and momentum are meaningless without the will to succeed. How do you plant the seeds of success in young adults so that they control their own future? Is the answer deliberate practice? Cognitive research shows that "express purpose, attention and focus, repetition and rehearsal" aimed toward individuals are effective. In this collaborative work, teachers and young adults brainstorm their teaching and learning styles. Practice, adult guidance, and public honor are all methods for actualizing education. An "Alternatives to Traditional Homework" diagram includes helpful tips, such as texting and e-mailing questions. The online component makes it easy for teachers and parents to download tools. Checklists, questionnaires, and worksheets give educators interested in reform multiple tactics to engage apathetic students. Short, paragraph-long anecdotes, though necessary with 160 students from the Practice Project, abridge individual stories. Because students' faces are featured at the end of the book, anonymity is not guaranteed. For fear of peer scrutiny, many may not disclose their entire journey. For educators, predicting spontaneous teachable moments is a difficult task. This is a valiant effort by Cushman, author of Fires in the Middle School Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from Middle Schoolers (New Press, 2009), who harnesses the components that foster motivation and mastery. As long as caring educators continue to make an effort to create innovative ways for educational reform, there is hope for our future generations. Reviewer: Ann Crewdson
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781118160213
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 2/21/2012
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 583,843
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Kathleen Cushman writes, speaks, and consults to a national audience of educators. A journalist and documentarian, she cofounded the nonprofit What Kids Can Do, which collaborates with diverse youth in the United States and abroad, bringing their voices to bear on the complex challenges that affect their lives and learning. She is also author of Fires in the Bathroom and coauthor, with Laura Rogers, of Fires in the Middle School Bathroom.

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Table of Contents

by Dennis White  ix

1. What Does It Take to Get Good?
Young people are developing mastery in ways we easilyoverlook1

2. Catching the Spark
Kids tell what draws them in and gives them confidence inlearning 11

3. Keeping at It
When do young people stick with something and make it theirown? 31

4. Asking the Experts
Looking at how experts work, students make sense of their ownprocess  55

5. Exploring Deliberate Practice
Young people look closer at what makes practice effective71

6. Practice and Performance
Demonstrating mastery also helps students improve 87

7. Bringing Practice into the Classroom
Students imagine the classroom as a community of practice97

8. Is Homework Deliberate Practice?
Whether, when, and how to give kids practice after class117

9. School Projects That Build Expert Habits
Students talk about their most compelling curricula 135

10. Making School a Community of Practice
Kids suggest ways that schools can foster expert habits 153

Appendix A: The Practice Project: A Five-Day CurriculumOutline for Secondary Teachers or Advisers
How to help students investigate the expert process 159

Appendix B: Resources That Help Light Fires in the Mind
Inspiration, tools, organizations, and other resources165

The Student Contributors 173

Acknowledgments 177

About the Author 181

About What Kids Can Do 182

Index 183

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  • Posted May 28, 2010

    Fires in the Mind Provides Insight into Young People's Meaningful Mastery

    Fires in the Mind is Kathleen Cushman's latest in a series of books stemming from collaborations with young people to explore their experiences and their learning. In her new book, Cushman goes deeper than ever before into what is powerful and meaningful for young learners, by exploring the question, "What does it take to get really good at something?" First of all the reader is struck by the seriousness with which her interlocutors take on the challenge to explain to her their own experiences with getting really good at something. This is a testament both to Cushman's capacity to engage youth in serious discussion about what matters to them and to their own motivation to be able to describe it to an adult. Next, we note how capable they are, as her co-inquirers, of deep reflection and analysis of their experiences. Counter to what many educators will say about young people's motivation to be analytic and use higher order thinking skills, the teens with whom Cushman collaborated on this project demonstrate a mindful and self-aware persistence both in reflecting on and improving their chosen practices and in working with Cushman collectively to analyze them for their and our understanding. Once these youth have completed this task, they venture out to explore the world of adult expert practice, to see if their analytic framework holds up, and to compare themselves with those a few or more years beyond them on the path to mastery. The students' own words, and the range of kinds of practice they describe, are so enthralling that we almost don't notice that Cushman's text provides a solid background and intriguingly emerging structure to what the students have to say about practice and mastery. So when we do step back to enjoy Cushman's craft as a writer, her own expert practice, we realize how carefully she has woven these discussions with youth into a text that is both simple and profound. It is writing that gently challenges us to understand and wonder both about the learning experiences of these young people, and how far from the normal experience of school their passionate commitment to becoming experts at a chosen interest is. For very few of the experiences with "sustained practice in pursuit of mastery" that her students describe and analyze happen in traditional schools or classroom settings. So the task that she and her students undertake in the last part of the book is daunting: to help educators and those interested in education rethink how school might work if it were able to encourage and support this level of persistent practice toward mastery. While the first part of the book focuses delightfully on the passions and practices of her students, the second part brilliantly tilts toward this ultimate purpose. And yet therein lies what is frustrating to me about it, because the reader watches as the students, so expansively passionate when describing and analyzing their practice and the practice of adults who are experts, seem to dampen, to need to be shrunk, or compressed, to be made to fit within the confines of school as we know it. However, Cushman does not leave us in the doldrums, stuck in this dilemma; she and her students finish with clarity about what it would take for school to support this depth of practice, examples from some schools that have remade themselves in this mold, and concrete practices that teachers as practitioners could work to master. An ideal ending, mirroring how the book begins.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 19, 2010

    Kathleen Cushman Does It Again

    Once again Kathleen Cushman takes the voices and insights of students and applies them to the teaching profession. Starting from the broad question of how one trains for mastery, she quickly establishes a persuasive model and then shows how it helps teachers give direction and focus to classroom work and homework. As a teacher of history for 25 years, I was especially struck by the argument for "deliberate practice" with assignments attuned to the actual needs of individual students. Throughout the book, I found gems that will also help me as a tennis coach of individuals and teams, I have already recommended this engaging book to several new teachers I am mentoring. It is a must read!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 18, 2011

    Highly recommended for ALL educators!!!!

    Fires In the Mind
    by Kathleen Cushman
    Published by Jossey-Bass
    A Wiley Imprint

    Fires In the Mind by Kathleen Cushman is a nonfiction book from students' perspectives. They tell us about motivation and mastery and the excitement they need from their teachers to get them to be an expert in what motivates them.

    This book motivated me and regardless of what grade you teach, you will allow you to ignite that fire into the lives of those that you teach!

    Being able to practice what they are learning is where this book starts off. It is implying to show us teachers the importance in getting to know our students outside of school because that is where most of them can shine. It is our job to "fan the flame" because if they don't have the support, they are more likely to give up when things get tough. We can do this by finding ways to connect their "real world" to what they are being taught in school. As teachers, if we can do this...we are helping them improve which in the end creates mastery learning (that connection).

    Throughout the book there are exercises and resources for the teacher and student. Towards the end of the book it goes deeper into how kids want project-based learning (vs. book work) because its exciting to them. Deep down it is our job to help find "the expert" they can be in each of our students...and it takes having high standards, motivation, and alot of practice in doing it to find that future expert. The end result is a motivated community of kids that are on fire!

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  • Posted April 18, 2011


    Fires in the Mind by Kathleen Cushman
    This book is really unique in that it is a collection of responses. The Metlife foundation and What Kids Can Do non-profit collaborated to get responses to from students nationwide about what motivates them. Kathleen Cushman comments on certain areas and highlights some their responses that coincide with the latest research on motivation. The book also includes exercises throughout to help the reader put the ideas expressed in practical use.
    The book is broken down into ten main sections with each section addressing a different aspect of teenage motivation. In the first section, "What does it take to get good?," the main point is that it takes time to get good. In the second section, "Catching the Spark," the main point is something caught your attention to make you want to try or get good at something. It may have looked like fun, you may have been encouraged, you had an audience, and/or you had a personal interest in that something. Either way, try to catch the spark at school through one of these avenues. In the third section, "Keeping at it," a main point seems to be that encouragement is a really important factor in someone sticking with something. In the fourth section, "Asking the Experts," the main point was that experts have qualities that make them standout such as relying on evidence, persisting, continually revising, and looking for patterns. In the fifth section, "Exploring Deliberate Practice," Kathleen illustrates that deliberate practice is the not so glamorous part at getting good at something and has with it inherent characteristics such as it is geared to the individual and demands focus. In the sixth section, "Practice and Performance," the main point is that students performing as a part of their practice is an essential and good tool to drive one forward. In the seventh section, "Bringing Practice into the Classroom," gives practical steps to bringing chapters 1-6 into the classroom. In section eight, "Is Homework Deliberate Practice?," demonstrates that homework needs to be structured so that students can and want to do it helping them to intentionally practice what they are doing in class. In section nine, "School Projects That Build Expert Habits," the main point is that students need projects that have value and allow them to use teamwork. In the last section, "Making School a Community of Practice," is that the ideas of excellence must be a shared community value.
    As far as implications for educators, the book hammers on two main points throughout. One must know how to practice and have a good social scaffolding system to foster motivation. In the classroom, this translates into relevant, interesting, and challenging exercises that really keep students attention and relationships must be built and maintained.
    This book was thought provoking. As an educator, this book confirmed some of my understandings of what motivates kids and it illuminated a couple of points I need to focus on. I would recommend this book to other educators.

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