I think I can, I think I can

By Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
 

“She was a happy little train”

Perhaps you are already chanting, “I think I can, I think I can.” Keep chanting, but be forewarned. This blog is a love letter to a beloved children’s book, and you won’t find a single analogy to perseverance, positivity, mantras, or mindsets. Further, there are no gender-bias debates. Quite the contrary, the evidence puts that to rest (Blair, 2014). Prior to 1930, all trains in the story were simply trains. Since then, the “happy little train” and the “little engine that could” have been written as female (did you know there were two little engines?). Give your analytical mind a break and ponder the power of prose, sharing stories with one another, and reading for the joy of reading.

Pseudonyms and settlements

The Little Engine that Could, retold by Watty Piper and published in 1930, is now in its 86th year. It is fitting that the story was published under a pseudonym because, like Piper (aka Arnold Munk, owner of Platt & Munk Publishers), the title of the book is a pseudonym of sorts for the original tale, which most scholars (and a 1955 legal settlement) agree is The Pony Engine by Mabel C. Bragg. Ironically, Bragg’s work may have been a retelling of a Sunday school pamphlet or a sermon by Rev. Charles W. Wing titled “Story of the Engine that Thought It Could,” which was published in the NY Tribune on April 8, 1908. The debate about the origin of the story continues, including claims of some print copies as early as 1902 and evidence that it originated in Europe (Sedelmain, 2012; Zielinski, 2007).

A story meant to be told

From Europe at the dawn of the 20th century through the 1955 settlement, every “Little Engine” origin story begins with telling the story or reading it to others. Each time, three consistent ideas always emerge: (1) the little engine accomplished far more than suggested possible by her size and perhaps her age, (2) the illustrations and language evoke strong memories (compare the 1930 original and the 1954 remake), and (3) this is a story meant to be told or read aloud.

About a century before technology caught up to insight, we understood the power in telling stories and reading to others. Now we have visible evidence of that power via a study of preschool children found that listening to stories and books read aloud supports mental imagery and narrative comprehension (Hutton, et. al., 2015). Using MRI, researchers found that the areas of the brain essential to processing text are activated when children listen to stories and when books are read to them.

I thought I could

The Little Engine that Could remains at the essence of education. We care for the health and well-being of children. To get that done, we support each other in all efforts to nurture, teach, encourage, and inspire. We can accomplish anything we set out to do. Dreaming is a powerful start, but accomplishment requires more. Visualizing takes you further, but at some point you have to wake up, open your eyes, and get to work. Accomplishment requires a purpose, a goal, a system to handle temporary setbacks, a pace, a way to monitor progress, and time set aside to validate the achievement. Whether it is Rev. Wing, Mabel C. Bragg, or Watty Piper sharing the message, The Little Engine that Could explains each element required for accomplishment:

  • Purpose: “The boys and girls on the other side of the mountain will have no toys to play with and no wholesome food to eat, unless you help us.”

  • Goal: “Up, up, up. Until they reached the top of the mountain.”

  • System: “Cheer up.” The Passenger [and the Freight] engine is not the only one in the world.”

  • Pace: “She tugged and pulled and pulled and tugged.”

  • Progress: “Down in the valley lay the city.”

  • Validate: “I thought I could. I thought I could.”

From homes to libraries, classrooms, and even the superintendent’s office, The Little Engine That Could reminds us that we teach because boys, girls, young men, and young women, are counting on us to get them over mountains large and small.

Whether it’s helping one of your students master a difficult math concept or remembering to keep your classroom stocked with extra pencils, do you have your own “I think I can” story? Let us know in the comments below!

Still curious? Explore the Renaissance EdWords definition of growth mindset now.

 

References

Blair, J. (2014). In ‘Little Engine That Could,’ Some See an Early Feminist Hero. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2014/07/08/329520062/in-little-engine-that-could-some-see-an-early-feminist-hero
Hutton, J., Horowitz-Kras, T., Mendelson, A., DeWitt, T., & Holland, S. (2015). Home Reading Environment and Brain Activation in Preschool Children Listening to Stories. Pediatrics 136(3) 466-478. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/early/2015/08/05/peds.2015-0359.full.pdf
Sedelmaier, J. (2012). Watty Piper’s 1930 “The Little Engine That Could.” Printmag. Retrieved from http://www.printmag.com/obsessions/watty-pipers-1930-the-little-engine-that-could/
Sticht, T. & James, J. (1984). Listening and Reading. P.D.Perirson (Ed) Handbook of Reading Research (pp. 293-3 17).
Zielinski, S. (2007). The Little Engine That Could—Identifying Variants. Children’s Picturebook Collecting. Retrieved from http://1stedition.net/blog/2007/04/the-little-engine-that-could-identifying-variants.html

Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer

Jan Bryan has more than 20 years of classroom and university teaching experience. Her work at Renaissance focuses on formative assessment, exploring data in a growth mindset, and literacy development.

Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan has more than 20 years of classroom and university teaching experience. Her work at Renaissance focuses on formative assessment, exploring data in a growth mindset, and literacy development.

52 Comments

  1. Dvawn says:

    I’m at the “I think (know) I can” stage right now! We are beginning a new reading program at our school in conjunction with some other things we already have in place such as AR. I’m a little nervous about beginning it, but I know that the results are going to be amazing and rewarding for our students. So, as nervous and unsure of myself in presenting it at this time, I along with my coworkers and students, are going to persevere like The Little Engine and push through the barriers. The outcome I know will be worth it!

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Wow, end of a very long work week and you just gave me chills. Your reply is so student-focused. I am inspired. Please let me know how amazing the program becomes and how much you enrich the lives of your students. Wish I were on that little engine with you…

  2. Mikann Gordber says:

    What role did this story play in the narrative of the 1930s?

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      From what I could infer from the commentary, the 1930s narrative was most closely associated with Mabel Bragg’s work, The Pony Train. Watty Piper was likely the first to identify the two little trains as female. We do not know for certainty if the oral tradition of the tale (which pre-dates Bragg’s work) identified any of the trains as male or female.

  3. Rita Platt says:

    Sweet message! I read another great post last night that I want to share with you. I think you’ll like it!
    https://pernillesripp.com/2016/09/14/the-worst-class-in-x-years/

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you for sharing. Just read “The Worst Class in (X) Years.” Wonderful commentary. Loved the quote, “No children should be told that they are a horrible group of kids. They are kids period. And we owe it to them to see beyond their reputation and re-invent their group identity. That is why we teach, that is why we have the best job in the world.” “See beyond their reputation…Re-invent their identity.” Brilliant.

  4. Micah Chatterton says:

    I had not thought of each of these terms before, but as I read the article I could see how clearly they map onto the long-term assignments I give my students in the College -level Composition course I teach. I also think of hitting each of these concepts when rolling out a long-term reading goal for the school.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Brilliant. When I was a professor, I found that pacing was critical for university students to grasp. Mortarboards off to you!

  5. Andrea says:

    I have always loved this saying, and the Little Engine that could! Each year the students set goals, as they have done in previous years, but I show them how to just complete 10% of it each week. By the end of the 9 week marking period, they have accomplished or nearly accomplished the goal, and realize it wasn’t as hard as they thought! By the 3rd or 4th marking period, they don’t get nervous or overwhelmed when I tell them their goals.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      What a great idea. I hope you have lots of avenues to share this thinking. Best to you and your students, Andrea!

  6. Kim says:

    As Ms. Bryan said, “We care for the health and well-being of children. To get that done, we support each other in all efforts to nurture, teach, encourage, and inspire. We can accomplish anything we set out to do. ” As long as we as teachers work together, we can accomplish so much.

  7. Francine Canarios says:

    Teaching for me and for most is much more than a job, it is a calling. I love what I do, but there are days that I get discouraged, overwhelmed, frustrated, and I’m exhausted. It seems that more and more is expected of teachers everyday and there is already more to do than there are hours in a day. When I start to feel this way I just remember why I do this in the first place. It is for the children. They make me get going again. They help me focus. “I think I can, I think I can.” I just have to keep going. As long as we keep going, keep trying, we get closer to accomplishing what we need to.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you, Francine! What a beautiful comment. I hope you are blogging somewhere. Teachers need to hear from you.

  8. Narda Lugo says:

    It’s all about your mindset and that you control your mind.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Absolutely. You can accomplish what you set out to do as long as mind, spirit, and body are all on board.

  9. Christina ostrander says:

    This makes me want to read this book to my fourth graders this year! I love what I do in the classroom. When things get tough I have a little stack of notes written by parents or former students that remind me to keep going.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Read it to them, Christina! They will enjoy it and may even want to do a little research on it. There’s a hyperlink in the blog that takes you to a site where you can compare the 1930 and 1954 editions.

  10. Robin says:

    I have a copy in my office and refer to it often!

  11. Sarah Swanzy says:

    The “I think I can” mindset is something I believe many teachers have at the beginning of the school year. I encourage my students to have positive mindsets of I think I can when setting AR goals each month.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      This is great, Sarah—so their AR goals become metaphorical mountains they “tug and pull and pull and tug” until they reach their goal. If you are not yet familiar with What Kids are Reading, you may want to download a copy. It has quite a bit of information about the power of setting personalized goals in AR. Visit https://www.learnalytics.com/wkar (and plan to spend some time interacting with the data).

  12. Jennifer says:

    I’ve always told my students I loved them, but this is the first year I’ve told them EVERY DAY. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but I have truly witnessed a difference in their willingness to TRY their best just because they know I believe in them. My love and support for them by saying those few words has made even the most timid students blossom in the fist few weeks of school.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      How brave you are, Jennifer. It takes courage to dedicate yourself to do something every single day. In the 2013 Gallup Student, students who noted that their school was focused on their future and that at least one teacher liked them were more engaged and showed greater achievement in math and reading. Making sure they know that you genuinely care for them and honor their presence at school seems like “lots of much.” Best to you and to them.

  13. Carmen G says:

    Working at a high school I have had many opportunities to help students by motivating and guiding them in the right direction so that they can have a better future through higher education. Many of our students will be first generation college students just like I was so I can relate to them.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Congratulations, Carmen! You certainly inspire your students to lead this and following generations into college, career, service, or wherever they know they are needed. Best to you and your students.

  14. Dylan says:

    What an uplifting, encouraging, and optimistic page! This book was introduced to me very early from my parents, I think just as soon as I could read it. A pristine copy is a good addition to any desk or bookshelf, for all ages.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Dylan. Treasure the book and all your parents taught you.

  15. Stacey Painter says:

    Even when things are tough, we take it one step at a time, just like that engine.

  16. Mandy Ellis says:

    It’s important to maintain that growth mindset and encourage grit and perseverance in our students. How are others pushing that disposition in their students?

  17. Great article. This is why we are using LIM at my school My favorite part of this program is teaching the students how to set goals and what they can do a little at a time to achieve them. What a great feel they must have when the end of the quarter comes and they have earn the right to celebrate . Our class motto is inch by inch my school work is a cinch and yard by yard my school work is hard I’m going to take the school year by the inch. Also habit 3 if we put first things 1st we can achieve our goals:)

  18. Meredith Sanders says:

    I have a story from this week. While working on multi-digit multiplication with my 5th graders, I showed a student how to use several different types of multiplication (lattice and area model) until she could be proficient at the standard algorithm. She said the standard was too hard and got lost in the steps. After feeling comfortable with the new ways I introduced to her, she finally was able to remember the process for the standard algorithm. I encouraged her to keep trying and while she was struggling, she could still get the answer using a different method. She finally “got it”. She kept the pace!

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Meredith, that story gave me chills! You and your student prepared for a potential setback and realized the freight train was not the only way over the mountain. Personalizing the approach worked and now there are toys to play with (as in more advanced algorithms) and good food to eat (as in nourishment in the form of inventiveness and support from an amazing teacher). Nice work!

  19. Fatima Peters says:

    I absolutely love this story! I’ve read this book to our 8th grade students for the past five years as a motivation for moving forward with their transition into high school. Afterwards we reflect on their years at St. Genevieve school and how far they have come, it is a great bonding experience. Last year I had a difficult time getting through the book because my son was in the 8th grade class at the same school I teach at along with all his friends that I have come to know not only in school but outside of school.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant…dare I say more? It is brilliant to read this book to 8th graders in preparation for the looming high school mountain ahead. What a wonderful experience to share with your son.

  20. Patti Guthrie says:

    I have such vivid memories of this beloved book from my childhood. You see, I was blessed with a mother who read to me – and my ten siblings! This is my 34th year in education, and this mantra still rings in my head, “I think I can. I think I can.” The business of educating children is hard work! But it is the most important work! Thank you for the blog!

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      And thank you for your comment! Ten siblings…wow, what an amazing mother. The evidence is in her daughter and the work you choose to do (and choose to do it well). Best to you, your students, and your family.

  21. Renee Graham says:

    Kids must believe they can and teachers can convince them! My favorite quote, not sure who to attribute it to, is, “My teacher thought I was smarter than I was, so I was!”

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Love the quote! I often want to tell tailgating drivers that “I’m not nearly as good a driver as you think I am!” Looking at this statement in a new light is refreshing. I’m where I am today because my HS Latin teacher and HS Band Director each thought I was much smarter (and more talented) than I was. Renee, in sharing this quote with your students, you are making a difference in their lives. We can only imagine where that difference will take them. Best to you and your students.

  22. Laura Quiroz says:

    I love this story, it shows students that with hard work and determination anything is possible as long as you keep moving forward and never give up.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Absolutely! After this mountain is another. You are preparing them to climb each one.

  23. Elizabeth Vineyard says:

    I loved the story! Very motivational and I can use this and keep on keeping on!!

  24. Colleen Kendrick says:

    Teaching students the principals in Mindset, by Carol Dweck, helps students understand the importance of having a ‘growth mindset’ vs. a ‘fixed’ one.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Dweck’s most recent work describes how you can guide students to recognize when they are working from a fixed mindset. All humans operate in both growth and fixed mindsets. They are situational, but as you state, understanding the principles helps students recognize when they need to move more toward growth for optimal learning. Thank you for your reply.

  25. Kelsie Haggard says:

    I have told myself many times when a work day has been hard or the week has been long that ‘I Know I Can, I Know I Can’. I always want the best for my students and I think, I know, I can provide that to them when we work together. It breaks my heart when I hear students say that they ‘can’t’ do something. So I have outlawed that word in my classroom. I only allow students to say that they will try and that they will do their best.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Excellent. Love the concept of “outlawing” the word “can’t.” It’s really quite declarative and final. Good to hear that your students have been freed of that word. Thank you for sharing.

  26. JoAnn Mayfield says:

    I love this story and thanks for reminding me of that. Now I’m off to the library to find a copy to share with my class tomorrow.

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