My teaching situation is a little unique in that I teach the same students for three years in a row in English 10, 11, and 12. I enjoy the continuity and, to a certain extent, the ability to “pick up where we left off” each year. As a result of this structure, I believe, I have very few behavior issues in general. Once I figure out what makes a student “tick,” we are a on our way. This being said, I do get a new cohort of sophomores each year, and that figuring-out process can take some time. This year’s English 10 groups is larger than my other groups, with several rather rowdy boys, and I recently discovered something interesting about them as a group.
Picture it: It’s sixth period (2:10) and you’re observing my English 10 class. A couple of boys come into the room wrestling and a few others are shouting fake-insults regarding last night’s basketball game at one another across the room. As class begins, most students are working on an entry task reviewing vocabulary. I begin my lesson–we are identifying and analyzing rhetorical devices King uses in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” We have been doing this for a couple of days as a whole group and students are familiar with the process. I model it one more time, and then students are instructed to work in partners. The transition is smooth, but after a few moments students begin to struggle. A number of them raise their hands for help, and as I make my way around, the wait becomes unbearable for those who do not get immediate support. The class volume increases and chaos soon ensues. I pull the class back together and we move forward as a whole group. This is a semi-regular occurrence for me in 6th period English 10.
But picture this: The context of the situation is the same as above, but this time the task is different. Students are reading summaries of select chapters from To Kill a Mockingbird and writing simple bulleted synopses so that we can skip some of Part I. The assignment is modeled and given, partners make a plan, and then the class is mostly silent as everybody gets to work. Class ends and all students have completed the task at hand. I sit down at my desk feeling awesome that we had such a great day. Further reflection, however, leads to pondering these questions:
Is it awesome that my students can easily and quietly complete DOK Level 1 tasks?
Why is there usually so much chaos in this class?
How do I better encourage my students to dig in and embrace challenging tasks?
Last summer I started reading Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. I set it aside for several months (insert joke about my grittiness here) and just picked it back up. Though it has sparked some controversy by those who question its relevance and application in schools of high poverty (see here) or those who criticize Duckworth’s methods and findings citing exaggerated effect sizes and questionable novelty (see here), I found it an enjoyable read. Much of it echoed with my own beliefs and experiences, and I am eager to reflect upon its guidance regarding my quandaries above. I believe my students could be “grittier” when it comes to their school work, and not just because of the scenario above. I regularly see them choose the easy course over the more rigorous one or shrug off a low grade that is completely fixable. I am increasingly concerned that so many of them lack passion or even interest…in anything. So what can I do about this?
Teaching for Grit
Ideas I take away from this book that I can use in my classroom tomorrow include the following ideas mined from the examples and discussion provided in the book.
- Develop a process for how students will respond to difficulties in my classroom. Rereading and paraphrasing the question and cited text would be a must for that process.
- Help students develop a growth mindset. Kristen Labrie wrote a great post about this in February.
- Help students develop intentional habits. Binder organizing, calendaring, grade-checking, and note-taking all come to mind here.
- Show students how to set and track progress toward long-term goals. Duckworth discusses how medium and low-level goals can support our high-level ones.
- Provide opportunities for students to discover and explore their interests and passions. I am currently fascinated with 20time projects–maybe doing that would help?
- Provide opportunities for students to creatively problem-solve. Our work doesn’t always have to be about a text. We could complete a group challenge like those mentioned here and then discuss or even write about the experience.
- Keep up the work with complex texts and analyses. Yes, as I said above, it doesn’t always have to be about a text, but it mostly should be; that is our work.
- Share and discuss stories of people who have overcome great obstacles. We recently watched Homeless to Harvard in AVID, and students were inspired by Liz Murray’s story. And here’s another one about the Panyee Soccer Team. There are so many good examples out there.
- Share my own story. Like most of my students, I was a first-generation college attendee, and my parents were rarely able to help me navigate educational challenges. I have some advice to give.
- Discuss when it is appropriate to give up. Duckworth makes a point of noting that we shouldn’t always stick with something just for the sake of not giving up.
Building a Culture of Grit
One of the final chapters of the book discusses how to develop a culture of grit. Duckworth examines the Seahawks’ response to the tragic (I’m clearly biased here) 2015 Super Bowl finale as well as the Finns’ sisu, which has enabled them to historically persevere through extreme weather and numerous invasions. Through these stories and more she shows that a culture of grit is developed through constant and explicit communication regarding an individual or organization’s beliefs and values. She discusses how some successful coaches have even had players memorize statements of core belief while others (like Pete Carroll) think about how they would treat their own child in any given situation and act accordingly. This is food for thought for me as I reflect on the system of which I am a part.
Where I Will Go From Here
So, to answer my question from above: No. It is NOT awesome that my students are manageable only when completing easy tasks. I am eager to continue utilizing some of the strategies outlined here with this group to see if we can improve our stamina and, yes, grit. What ideas would you add to my above list? How do you encourage your students to dig in and embrace challenging tasks?