Teach Kids to Use the Four-Letter Word

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I recently began to use a certain four-letter word in my classroom. The kind of word that most teachers wouldn’t dare say, not unless they wanted to raise eyebrows among colleagues, supervisors and parents. But I use it freely. And loudly. Now my students say it, too – when they struggle with a worksheet, strike out on the ball field, fumble with the final strokes of an art project. Some of them have even taught the four-letter word to younger siblings at home.

Grit. A four-letter word that every teacher and student should know and use.

Haven’t heard of grit? You’re hardly alone. In an educational culture consumed by grading, ranking and incentivizing (think No Child and Race to the Top), the learning landscape has become overgrown with performance standards that leave little room for anything but high-stakes testing. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no apologist for accountability. I don’t dislike grades. In fact, I’d love for our community classrooms to run just a bit more like corporate boardrooms. If you can’t measure something, you can’t change it. As my fellow Dallasite Mark Cuban once quipped, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

But along with the new standards and value-added evaluations, educators shouldn’t drop their focus on the “other” common core – the habits and mindsets that, effectively nurtured and carefully monitored, form the basis of a richer learning experience.  Today’s classrooms are notorious for handing students the basic skills to live in the world, while denying them the strength of character to transform it.  We teach kids to memorize, drill, spit back and move on. But what happens when they can’t move on, when the answers are elusive? Can we prepare students to deal with the inescapable disappointment, frustration, and hair-pulling that is a part of learning and life itself?  William Butler Yeats said that education isn’t about filling a bucket, but lighting a fire. And it is this “total education,” complete with lessons on humility, hard work, and resilience, that ultimately writes the script for a child’s long-term success. It’s not about grades. It’s about grit.

Developing grit isn’t a new concept (character education has surfaced in many schools for decades), but it’s become a lot less squishier thanks to important research that helps explain why some students fail – and others succeed. Angela Duckworth, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, studied (among others) the performance of West Point cadets during basic training. She discovered that the most powerful predictor of success – acceptance into the academy – was grit. Duckworth calls grit “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.” Applied to learning, grit would be summoned every time students stare down a challenge, persist through adversity, or refuse to quit after failing to reduce a fraction – for the fifth time.

Duckworth’s research is heir to the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck on mindsets. Believing that we can succeed even after suffering repeated setbacks (what Dweck calls a “growth mindset”) can actually re-wire our brains – and rewrite our fortunes.  Students who show grit absolutely reject the notion of remaining still. They push and scratch past roadblock after roadblock. In their supercharged efforts to drive further ahead, grit is the grease, mindsets are the engine.

How can we teach grit when all students want to do is quit? Here are a few battle-tested suggestions to help kids reach deeper and aim higher:

Powerful Words: Dweck demonstrates the power of “process-driven” language on student behavior. By shifting the focus of our feedback to effort as opposed to outcome, we leave students with the feeling that their best is yet to come. Instead of praising Johnny’s top mark, applaud his diligent study habits. Or the way Sarah worked through a particularly difficult passage in the text. This kind of process-driven feedback works for setbacks, too. Consider the sweet potential behind that tiny disclaimer, “yet.” There’s something stunningly honest and uplifting about telling a child that a goal hasn’t been mastered…yet. Keep at it. You’re almost there, not yet – but soon.

Weekly Reflection Journals: Every Friday, my students cap a week of learning with self-rating journal entries like, “Something new I learned” or “This week’s memorable moment.”  To test their grit, I’ve added a new prompt: “Something I struggled with.” In this small space, there is both a mirror and a window. Students look into the mirror and admit a shortcoming. Teachers look through a window and perceive an opportunity. I’m still amazed by how honestly students answer this prompt. Their responses are raw, unfiltered – and revealing.  A cheeky student once showed me his journal. The entry for “struggle” was left blank. “I didn’t struggle with anything this week!” he crowed. I handed the journal back, along with a reprieve: “Maybe you struggle with the fact that you think you don’t struggle!”

Community Meetings: Finally, create a forum for class-wide discussion about grit at community meetings. These are scheduled, relaxed opportunities for students to sound off on issues affecting their class and their world. Frame the gathering with a news item (older students) or a telling cartoon (younger students) geared toward grit; give them time to process it before they convene. At the meeting, encourage a conversation about why grit mattered – and why it should matter to them.

It won’t be easy. Kids grow tired, weary from effort. So do their teachers. To bring change, we press on, filled with determination. And grit.

The Forest and the Trees

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If a tree falls in a forest…would teachers even notice?

There’s lots of attention heaped on how hurried our students have become. Over-scheduled, over-worked children are breathlessly chasing elusive goals, as the powerful film Race to Nowhere documented. And that has to stop.

But I’m also worried about how hurried teachers have become. I should know – I’m one of them. In almost a decade of classroom teaching, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel hurried. Hurried to make lesson plans. Hurried to grade homework or assessments. Hurried to make the most of an instructional minute. I am hardly alone. I see colleagues dashing off in different directions, moving at a frenzied, frenetic pace. But we probably don’t even realize. We are all probably too hurried to even notice all the hurrying.

I’m not a teacher-apologist. Nor do I think that teachers are unique in this department. Lots of other professionals dash from one event to the next. Think about the speed of a hospital ER. Or a mortgage lender’s refinance department. Does a classroom move faster than a board room?

But that’s not exactly the kind of hurrying that makes my head spin. Or even turn. The hurried teacher is not busier – just more distracted. Distracted by the noise of central offices, policymakers, principals, parents. Distracted by the inner voice that questions whether a lesson could have been delivered more effectively, or if the students are even listening. Did our materials match the Common Core? And how were those test results, anyways? Distraction fills our day with lots of “doing,” but not a whole lot of “thinking.”

The forest and the trees.

We all know the well-worn analogy. You see the forest, but not the trees. A big picture thinker who can’t discern the details. In today’s hurried state of education, I think teachers have flipped the analogy on its head. We are so consumed by the stubborn details of grading, scoring, ranking, placing and managing the lives of students that we no longer see the bigger picture of educating. When grading – not learning – becomes the lookout point for teachers, we’re in a heap of trouble. Is the data important? No question. Are grades and rankings are unavoidable part of life? Certainly. But unless the information we collect reveals something more – a pattern of learning, an instructional insight, a peep-hole into a child’s mind – then we are gazing at trees and completely missing the forest.

The problem is not new, and the solution isn’t clear. We can’t relent on testing, or bury the value-added measures six feet under. But here’s something we can do, something simple and uncomplicated: Slow down. Observe the view from above, or even from the side. What does learning look like in your classroom? What are your students showing you? Telling you? What do you hear? What do you feel?

If this sounds like educational yoga, it’s not – although we all know of a few teachers who could use a little relaxation in their day. It’s a call for more mindfulness in our craft. The irony is devilish: We push our students to become more reflective and self-aware, but teachers stumble from one mandate to another without ever glancing up. As the trees grow larger, the forest seems smaller. We can only see the pressing details of the moment. The long view is long gone.

So let’s pay more attention to the forest. We’ll know our students better, and ourselves.