Teaching Grit Continued

[Editors note: Please notice that in the right-hand margin I’ve moved my twitter feed up. My tweeting is just too genius to reside anywhere else.]

Thanks to last week’s comments, I’ve continued thinking about teaching and grit. The two primary questions I’ve been grapping with are: 1) What is grit? And 2) Should it be taught in public schools?

1) What is grit? We think it consists of courageous acts in the face of opposition. For example, a hiker survives for six days after an 800 pound boulder pins his arm. Eventually, he uses his pocket knife to self amputate his arm and somehow he survives the ordeal. The height of grittiness right? Or the marathoner who withstands 80+ degree temps and a series of surges to hang on and win.

But Duckworth and her colleagues define grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” The hiker wasn’t thinking long-term, he wanted to live to see the following week. The marathoner’s performance probably doesn’t qualify as gritty as his months and years of race prep. Is it possible that the elderly couple who have stayed married for sixty years despite personality differences, debilitating illnesses, and financial hardships are especially poignant examples of grit? Or the baseball player who breaks into the “bigs” in his mid 20’s after years of honing his craft in single, double, and triple A?

Or the alcoholic who has been sober for several months, years, or decades?

Or Jim Abbot, the one-handed former professional baseball player who I heard interviewed on a Seattle radio station this week. Abbot pitched at the University of Michigan, and in the 1988 Olympics, and in the “bigs” for a decade. His “grit quotient” has to be off the charts.

Or just read the opening of Michael J. Fox’s most recent book, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, about what it’s like to get out of bed, shower, shave, and get dressed with advanced Parkinsons. Fox’s resolve in the face of daily challenges is inspiring, but I’m not sure it constitues grit since it doesn’t involve long-term goals. Clearly though, his grit is evident in the foundation he’s spent years building, a foundation that has radically improved the pace and prospects of Parkinsons research.

If my “grit quotient” was higher, I’d have published a book or two by now.

2) Should it be taught in public schools? Not as simple a question as it first appears. Seymour Sarason, in The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform, contrasts teachers with docs. Docs he says have been honest about how difficult it will be to cure cancer. He argues they’ve done a great job of managing expectations. They continually remind the public that there are genetic and environmental variables (like smoking and nutrition) that are outside their control. They repeatedly say any progress will be slow. As a result, the public appreciates the real progress that is being made.

On the other hand, teachers, too altruistic for their own good maybe, have taken on more and more intractable social problems—like hunger and poverty, teen pregnancy, racial reconciliation, and most recently, childhood obesity. And let’s not forget that business leaders, journalists, and politicians like Bill Gates, Tom Friedman, Arne Duncan, and President Obama routinely, if somewhat indirectly, blame teachers for our slowing economy, for letting our lead slip in the global economy, and for our declining standard of living.

What should families be responsible for? What should “the community writ large” be responsible for, whether non-profits, religious youth groups, or civic associations? I anticipate one loyal PressingPause reader, a school counselor in a poor community, to protest, “But if families aren’t teaching grit, what are we supposed to do, just sit back and watch their children not accomplish meaningful long-term goals?” Fair question that highlights this is a real dilemma.

Back when Obama was smoking dope at Occidental (belated and weak 4/20 reference), and Nineteen was about to start kindergarten, the Good Wife and I had a meeting with her two teachers who wanted to know what we most wanted her to learn during the year. I suspect my answer was different than most. Growing up in a reading intensive home with two experienced educators as parents, I wasn’t worried about basic literacy. “I’d really appreciate if you’d help her develop a social conscience,” I said. “I want her to be in touch with her privilege and to be an empathetic person.”

That was a private Quaker kindergarten which I grant is a little different animal, but one wonders, should public schools teachers be held responsible for young people who don’t have a social conscience? Do public school teachers set themselves up for failure by taking on way more than literacy and numeracy? Does their seeming willingness to take on a never-ending list of social problems partially explain why the “powers that be” are so dissatisfied with their performance and are pressing to evaluate and pay them based upon their students’ test scores even though the problems with those proposals are painfully obvious?

Despite Sarason’s insight, I believe the study of grit, it’s absence and presence, can most definitely be taught in the context of reading and writing instruction. Student have to read and write about something. Why use innocuous, fictional reading material when they could be introduced to stories that prompt discussion about perseverance, long-term goals, and grit? If Sarason were still alive I wonder if he’d see any harm in that.

If a grit curriculum doesn't fire you up, what about a grits curriculum?

Adolescent Literacy

Felt nostalgic for Europe I guess and took the train to PDX for a workshop on adolescent literacy. I WANT to be a train person, but Amtrak is making it hard. It’s bad enough the train takes longer than driving. My Squeeze and I planned on eating an early dinner in the big city and then returning on the 6:15p. Workshop ended an hour early and so we decided to take the 4:20p and eat at home. Headed to the iMax at 3:40p. At the train station we learned the 4:20p was delayed about an hour.

Long story short, it never arrived, something about a tree on the track. Instead of a romantic dinner, we took a walk and then sat in front of the station reading in the setting sun eating pistachios. The 6:15p originates in PDX so it would have to leave on time. . . right? Longer story shorter, we walked off the train at 7:40p, exactly four hours after leaving the hotel for home. Something about a broken brake line they couldn’t fix. The man sitting in front of us asked if we wanted a lift home, he was bailing on the train, taking the iMax to his car in Clakamass. He had a morning business meeting in Seattle. What a life, or at least, nightsaver.

But I digress.

Stanford research prof was the main presenter. Excellent researcher I’m sure, but how can I put this nicely, his presentation skills were not as well developed. Here’s what Dr. Stanford Expert and his co-presenter, a much better teacher from The U of Utah, recommended.

1. Strengthen adolescent reading fluency, vocab, and comprehension through scientifically researched (read quasi-experimental and other quantitative studies) teaching strategies that have been proven to be effective including explicit vocabulary instruction and classroom discussion of texts.

2. Explicit instruction involves three steps: I do it (modeling). We do it (guided practice). You do it (independent practice). If teaching a complex literacy skill like summarizing, the three steps may take an entire week. Teachers inevitably rush the steps.

3. There are three elements to classroom discussion of texts: 1) efferent (the who, what, where, and why of what was read. . . what did the writer say); 2) analysis and interpretation; and 3) evaluation. . . how did you feel about it, how convincing was the argument or engaging/illuminating the narrative. Research suggests teachers slight part one which low achieving students benefit the most from. Dr. SE made it clear he had “absolutely no interest” in evaluation/students’ opinions.

It was alternatingly interesting and exasperating. Throughout the day there was no discussion of the purposes of literacy; there wasn’t a single reference to digital, electronic, or multimedia texts; nor was there a single reference to the societal curriculum. Nevermind that adolescents are in school 22-23% of the time and outside it 77-78%.

Here’s an alternative, admittedly less scientific, more sociological perspective.

Immerse children and young adults in rich literary environments for long periods of time. Surround them by interesting reading material. Unplug more and read in front of them. Talk about what you’re reading. Demonstrate a love of reading in your daily life. Repeat year after year.

Here’s a related math literacy, or “numeracy” example. One Sunday morning, when seventeen was two or three, she crawled into bed and snuggled in between mom and dad. Dad started counting. “One.” She squeaked, “two.” And thus began Sunday morning math. Overtime, we counted by twos, threes, fours, whatever we felt like. We never called it multiplication. My hunch that my daughter’s success in math is in part explained by those Sunday mornings would not impress Dr. SE one bit.

I was impressed with how candidate Obama talked eloquently about parents being their childrens’ first and most important teachers. I wonder why he’s abandoned the Bully Pulpit.

The teachers and school leaders in the workshop politely and passively accepted the “literacy and numeracy as a teacher-centered science” way of thinking as if there are no alternatives. Few probably realized with that paradigm comes a narrow emphasis on technical skills, test scores, and national economic competitiveness.

Research and what happens in school matters, but magic can happen when young people are immersed in rich literary environments where word and number play are daily activities.

Gateway Drug

This is the best paragraph I’ve read in awhile. It’s from an essay titled, “The Triumph of the Readers” by Ann Patchett, which appeared in the WSJ on 1/17/09.

Like the chicken pox, getting infected by the desire to read is best when it hits us early. As a child I was so committed to “Charlotte’s Web” that I pleaded for, and received, a pig for my ninth birthday, a gift that segued nicely into my “Little House on the Prairie” obsession. Was I, with my American classics, more noble than today’s middle-schooler who reads and rereads his copy of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”? Was I less noble than my straight-A sister who read “Le Petit Prince” in French? No on both counts. I am a firm believer in the fact that it isn’t so much what you read, it’s that you read. Reading fiction not only develops our imagination and creativity, it gives us the skills to be alone. It gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we’ve never met, living lives we couldn’t possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character’s skin. Whether you’re in the life of Wilbur the pig, or Greg Heffley, the wimpy kid, or that little blonde prince in the desert, you’ve stepped outside of yourself for awhile, something that is beneficial to every child. Even if you’re stepping into “Valley of the Dolls,” it’s better than nothing. I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read bad books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.

Now I feel bad for nagging my daughters all these years about their affinity for Archie comics.