It is the first glorious Saturday in early may. The breeze is a perfect balance blend of warmth and cool scented with the freshness of cut grass and green growth. My sons swing, throw, hit and dive with relish onto summer diamonds and instead of my usual posture of clinging to the fences, I am sweating in a classroom at Wayne State listening as a teacher pours out a story of failure. The ballad he sings has a familiar chorus. It is one I could write if I had any musical talent. But today I am not mentor or muse, but instead peer and compatriot as he shares a story which is only his to tell and mine to feel.
It started out so promising as most fabulous failures are apt to do. The year before he had media worthy success and this year in an attempt to increase his effectiveness he gave the kids more space to grow, explore, and even fail. And this year with a new crop of kids…the outcome was different. I watch him rub his brow, frown, and squirm clenching and unclenching his jaw as he grows more agitated . I feel his irritation and mounting frustration at the process of trial and error, risk and reward. He knows some students have grown and learned exponentially, but his fear is NOT ALL. And he is greedy for all kids to reach the peak, he doesn’t want even one left behind.
This mystery of how to move all kids along the motivational continuum is my personal obsession. It has defined my work as an educator, a parent, and a person. How is it possible that someone who was once obese is now a health and fitness gluten and dairy free fanatic? How can my child have morphed from a speech delayed special needs student into a child who is well like by peers and a pitching star? How can the children in my Title 1 classroom have so much academic growth? On some long days I wish for a quick recipe that would fit the 140 characters of my Tweet, but I think of Einstein’s famous words on complexity, ” Everything should be as simple as possible but not simpler.” The truth of these massive movements is they have taken mountains of gritty effort.
Grit…the magic ingredient which spurs genius into invention and allows you to face the sacrifice of grueling hours and unending task lists without blinking or balking. What is it that produces this quality in us? In others? And above all, how do we teach children to have grit without grinding away at their creativity and imagination? I know that I am gritty about my children and their successes, but how do I teach them to be gritty about their own futures? For grit without a passion and purpose is a life sentence in a concentration camp, a hopeless unending means of torture…but when the light of hope blazes brightly, it is a Rocky-esque montage of chasing chickens and jumping rope. It speeds by in the blink of eye and suddenly you are ready to face the Russian in the ring and knock him senseless. But before they are lifting weights at 6:00AM on a 20 degree morning, completing year long inquiry projects with minimal supervision, or piling dishes into the dishwasher without being asked…I have to give them a VISION of why.
And here is what I know so far about grit…it is tied to identify. When I BELIEVE in what might be, it empowers me to reach out with an expectant hand. Many kids and grownup do not believe they can change their lives. Blinded by heaps of disappointment and personal struggle they give up on hope and live in the land of survival. When you hope for something better your sacrifice means a reward awaits, when your mental state is maintaining existence you view delayed gratification as too much to ask. If I know that I am college bound, my homework can feel like meaningless drivel but I do it because it is an means to an end. But if my vision of myself as a college graduate is murkier…if I am unsure of how I am getting to college and if I will have the means to complete a degree, if I don’t see the value in a college degree because the degrees they offer have nothing to do with how I like to spend my time…why sit at a desk puzzling over Algebra when I could be watching Captain Sparkles defeat Zombies?
In my classroom I have fought everyday to show my students how to have a growth mindset. By branding our Room 4 mantra as F.L.I.G.HT. (Fearlessly Learning Growing Improving so we can Hit Targets), I have asked them to develop new ways of viewing the future. I have tried to create a group identify so can view themselves as capable of having bright and beautiful futures. Some of them have internalized the group’s identity, I hear them ask one another, “Is that what a leader does?” While others still struggle tremendously to move along the motivation continuum. And although even these students have had great academic achievements this year the work they have done has been for me and not for themselves. Even after a year of modeling success and leadership on a daily basis they do not view themselves as capable of more.
These kids need piles of external rewards as a I work ceaselessly to incentivize their good choices. And over the year, they have come to trust in my even handed justice. They know I will deliver on both rewards and punishments. Because this group has such low levels of grit, working independently is a relentless struggle. They need constant monitoring or they are unable to complete even the most creative and interesting tasks. In a classroom where free choice is valued, they present a unique challenge to a open ended learning environment. Things are the worst when there is a substitute teacher. When I am removed they are left without the strong external regulators they have come to rely upon. They often find themselves unable to remained focused on working productively. And yet, there have been huge gains. These same challenging students have moved 2-3 RIT bands of growth as measured by NWEA, they have achieved A-B averages on a rigorous science and social studies curriculum, and they have turned in nightly homework. They might have only done because of external pressures but they HAVE done some amazing things.
And what of the others? The others have achieved more than I dreamed of…At almost every level they have surpassed what I thought was possible because more than their faith in me, they have come to believe in themselves. They are leaving Room 4 convinced they are smart, capable of growth, understanding mistakes are how you learn, and they view themselves as scholars and leaders. They know leaders act in certain ways and I believe some of these kids have grown in grit, developed habits and patterns of success. They have moved farther along the motivational continuum stretching towards the promised land of fully self regulated internal motivation.
This year with these kids has taught me that if we are going to help students grow the grit they need to become hyper motivated, we need to show them how to identify with these levels of success. My classroom brand has created a group identify which kids used differently. For some it was exposure to a totally differently way of viewing themselves as scholars and leaders. This growth mindset challenges their previously formed identities causing ripples of internal conflict. Others were able to assimilate the F.L.I.G.HT. brand with their personal choices. For these F.L.I.G.HT. Is no longer a choice, but a series of guidelines for the way they live life, as it become a part of their identify. I believe I cannot teach content in a way that will impact how kids think…until I have changed or at least challenged the way they think about themselves. And I will never have students with enough grit to work on challenging rigorous tasks independently UNTIL they view working in this way as a realize their hopes and dreams. So when our ambitious classroom projects fail, I think we need to ask ourselves did ALL fail? And of those who failed was the project, class, assignment tied to a critical part of their identity, or was it just an assignment? For the children in my life and their success are a HUGE part of my identity. Their failures and struggles are my own as I work with grit and determination to remove the obstacles to help them find a dream of what they might be…