Penny Smits, De Pere, WI
Mel Radeke. He is one of the wisest men I have ever been fortunate enough to meet. The story he conveyed to me beautifully dovetailed with the concept of mindset, a key area of investigation for CPM’s Teaching Redesign Corps this past year.
Spending time at a friend’s cabin afforded me the opportunity to meet their neighbor, Mel Radeke. This 80ish-year-old man gave me much pause as we spoke. As it turns out Mel was talking about the songbirds that he carves out of wood. Mel was too humble to convey that he has won multiple national woodworking competitions, but our friends were more than eager to brag on his behalf. He showed us photos and they were breathtakingly beautiful!
Long story short, he was at a trade show, displaying his birds. He said many people commented on how beautiful they were and how talented he was. But the thing that really struck him was the comment many people made, “I would never be able to create something like that.”
This really bothered Mel and he said we wanted to change the way people thought about their ability to try something. So, for the next trade show that he went to, he had a plan. When someone brought up the fact that they could never make something like his songbirds, he said all you need to do is try. Many people still disbelieved that they could make such a beautiful songbird. He then reached below the table and brought out a songbird that was of less beauty and quality than those on the table. He then asked the people, “Do you think you could do this?” The overwhelming majority said that they could and almost laughed at the lack of quality in the songbird.
Mel’s response was, “Well, this was my first songbird. All you see is my beautifully crafted songbirds that I’ve created after years of practice, and you tell yourself that you can’t do it. But, you can do this just like I did. You see, I began to research birds and study their photographs. I played about with the wood to try out new carvings. You too can learn.”
He also went on to say how afraid he was to actually paint one of his birds. He was so afraid that he would ruin the beautiful carved wooden bird because you see, he was no painter. So afraid to make a mistake, he did not paint them at first. But one day, he got brave and started to experiment with the paint and the colors. Once again he practiced and studied the colors of the birds. He began to paint and paint. The beauty of this story is that painting was at one time the part of creating the wooden songbird that Mel dreaded the most, but today, he says it is the best part of creating the bird.
I know that I did not do justice to the story that he told me as it was so eloquent. I just could not stop thinking about what he said. Could I apply this to my teaching, to my classroom climate of a growth mindset? How can I show my students the first “songbird” that was created? How can I give them the tools to understand that your first bird may be the hardest? How can I get them to not focus on my most recent bird but instead have the courage to make their first bird? How do I get my students to not always be fixated on the end result of years of practice and effort? How can I naturally do this within the context of my classroom? Mel really opened my eyes to how growth mindset needs to be promoted in all areas of our lives. He showed me how self-talk can either be destructive and hold us back, or inspirational and carve a path forward for us. It made me see how powerful my words are and that they need to be chosen very carefully when working with my students. It also made me see that a growth mindset can be found everywhere, if you are willing to keep your mind open and are willing to look and listen for it. I can honestly say, that since beginning this project with the TRC, I have noticed it more than ever. I see it in my colleagues’ classrooms, in my son’s karate instructor’s conversation with the kids, in the media, and in the ways that others encourage one another. I know now how extremely important it is to teach the students about mindset so that they too can become aware of how much their world is filled with it.
I am forever indebted to Mel for sharing his story and I know that I too need to show my students that first songbird.