Casting Call: Enter the Habits of Mind!


By Nancy Skerritt

My daughter Jessica is an actress. She was recently cast in the starring role of Cinderella and is delighted with the opportunity to showcase her talents throughout this Roger and Hammerstein Musical. Every actor’s dream is to be the star of the show! However, a musical like Cinderella needs more than a leading lady. Rich productions rely on supporting leads and talented actors to make up the ensemble. Whether the cast member is the star of the show or in a minor role, the production is enhanced by all of the parts.

Think about the Habits of Mind¹ as actors in a play, and imagine them being cast in every lesson that is taught. Sometimes the Habit is the star of the show, and we present a direct instruction lesson where the Habit of Mind takes center stage. The Habit is the lesson objective. Subject area content in these lessons becomes a vehicle for developing a deep understanding of the identified Habit of Mind. The students explore definition, looks like and sounds like qualities, and application. They focus primarily on the Habit just as an audience focuses primarily on the leads. For this day, in this lesson, the Habit of Mind takes the lead and becomes the star with all attention directed at the qualities and characteristics represented by the selected Habit of Mind.

Let’s cast Listening to Others with Understanding and Empathy as the star in a middle school unit that focuses on the American Civil War and slavery. The teacher has selected this Habit of Mind for multiple roles in the unit because she wants her students to apply empathy to the diverse points of view represented by people in the North and the South. Today, empathy will be the star of her lesson! She guides the class through a reflective process where the students are first asked to recall what the word empathy means to them. She encourages the students to use mind mapping as a vehicle to draw upon background knowledge and suggests that the students use words and pictures to unpack their thinking.

After inviting students to share their ideas, the teacher directs the students to use dictionaries and thesauruses to research the meaning of the word and to compare what they discover through the resources to their own reflections. Together, the class constructs a common and shared definition for this starring Habit of Mind: demonstrating sensitivity and understanding toward others. To deepen the learning, the teacher directs the students to work in trios to develop a list of descriptors for empathy. What would it look like and sound like for a person to demonstrate sensitivity and understanding toward others? After small group work time, the teacher facilitates a process for creating a classroom check list that will be used to find evidence of empathy in stories, historical figures, and human interactions.

Empathy has been the star of the show in class today! The teacher has spot lighted the definition and attributes of empathy by maintaining a focus on the Habit of Mind throughout the lesson. Tomorrow, the teacher plans to cast empathy is a supporting lead. This time, Empathy will share the stage with a picture book entitled The Tin Heart by Karen Ackerman. This book depicts the conflicts among families in the North over the issue of slavery. Students are asked to use the checklist for empathy developed in the starring role lesson and apply this check list to each of the main characters in the story. Through this process, the students discover differing points of view toward the issue of slavery and begin to understand how conflict ran deep during this painful time in American History.

While empathy was not the lesson objective, this Habit of Mind was woven throughout the lesson as a tool to support understanding. Students applied their knowledge of empathy to new characters and learned an important historical theme: Deeply held beliefs can create divisiveness and conflict. We can apply empathy or sensitivity as we explore different points of view. Rather than rushing to judgment, we can first seek to understand and then form our own opinions. Empathy played the role of supporting lead in this lesson. In this role, the Habit was reinforced throughout the lesson to further the content objectives.

Great productions require quality ensembles to build depth and provide background. Without the support of minor characters, a story like Cinderella would fall flat. People need to be at the ball, mice must sew the dress, and footmen have to drive the coach. While we may not see a certain character with frequency in a show, we are very much aware of the character’s contribution in the scenes where that individual plays a role. So it is with the Habits of Mind. Habits bring value added to any lesson by reinforcing attitudes in the student or illustrating characteristics in the content.

Our skilled history teacher continues to cast Empathy in the lessons that make up her unit on the American Civil War. After teaching a lesson on slavery, she draws closure by asking her students to reflect on how the character in the picture book she has shared demonstrates empathy for the slaves in the south. While the main focus of the lesson is on making inferences from the picture book Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson, the lesson presents an opportunity to reinforce the Habit of Mind of Empathy. The teacher cast Empathy in an ensemble role and in doing so, adds a layer of depth to the lesson, reinforcing a valuable Habit of Mind.

My daughter Jessica will always prefer the lead roles. However, major productions are all made possible by casting actors as supporting leads and as ensemble members. The Habits of Mind can and should have a role in every lesson. In a few of the lessons over the course of a school year, the Habit should be the star. Students need direct instruction in the Habits of Mind to build conceptual understanding and to practice both identifying and demonstrating each of the Habits. Habits will also have roles as supporting leads in lessons where they a seen throughout the lesson but in the service of content goals. Finally, any lesson benefits from Habits cast in ensemble roles. These minor references are how habits are developed. They must be practiced repeatedly and applied continually in order to become habitual.


¹ Costa, A. and Kallick, B. (2009) Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Characteristics for Success. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

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