Friday, January 31, 2014

Why I'm Tired of People Arguing About Grit

I’m tired of the online arguing and posturing over the concept of “Grit.”  At first, it sounded like a good idea, successful people have attitudes that lead to persistence and hard work, allowing them to overcome obstacles and reach their goals.  We can teach these qualities to students and increase their chances of success.

Then the critics come to say that is just elitist B.S., even calling some of its proponents modern day “eugenicists.”  Grit is fine for the privileged they say, but citing Grit as the reason for success is just another way to “blame the victim” and place the fault of failure squarely on the shoulder of our children and not the systems that place obstacle after obstacle in their way.

So they endlessly chatter. And chatter some more. Baiting each other into argument and reveling in their intellectual exchange.  All the while ignoring the damage their polarizing attitudes, rooted in theory divorced from practice, can have on public school students in America. It creates a false dichotomy.

Haven’t we learned anything from the polarized politics of Washington and our state houses that seem to miss the reality of people’s everyday lives?

So what do our kids need?  Grit or Slack.

If you are in a classroom everyday the answer is easy.  Both.

Every child is different and every day is different.  Still, in many ways, they are not much different from us.

For example, I get a tax refund every year.  (we can debate that wisdom later)  Knowing that my government owes me money, I am motivated to file early, so I’m hoping to file by Monday.  For most Americans who owe Uncle Sam, what day are they most likely to file?  That’s right, April 15.  Some might even take the hit and file late.

When do students complete their work?  That’s right, when they have to.  Just like you and I, a deadline or a due date is the day that you finish what you have to finish.  Without compelling reason or reward, you just aren’t likely to finish early.  And sometimes you shouldn’t.  It is wise to use all of your allotted time to do something well.

Sometimes a student needs a deadline.  They need to know that it means something.  If it is not enforced then it is no longer a deadline. 

Sometimes a student needs a break.  We know they have had issues that other students have not dealt with.  We know their reason for not doing what they are supposed to is understandable. 

Not always, and sure we get it wrong sometimes.

So why not err on the side of the student, right?  Give them the benefit of a doubt.  As the mantra goes, “it about what’s best for the student.”  What is best for the student?

I got the benefit of a doubt too many times in high school.  I could remember almost anything I heard and so long as I paid attention in class, I could count on doing well on tests.  If teachers required additional work, I did just enough to keep an “A” (or a “B” if it was an AP because those were weighted).  I knew that in most classes teachers would not bother to penalize me for poor work habits if I could score well on their tests.

This relates to Carol Dweck’s ideas on “mindset.”  I didn’t achieve because of effort, school just came easy to me.  I relied on my abilities and didn’t even get that my effort (or lack thereof) mattered.

It was good enough to earn me admission to the University of Virginia, but I barely escaped my first year without an academic suspension.  I never opened a book to read for biology or psychology, the teacher went over homework in math every Friday, so I didn’t bother to do it ahead of time, and Latin homework wasn’t collected or graded so I never did it.

I spent the first three weeks of the summer of 1991 on the assembly line of the Bassett Furniture factory where I’d worked the last three summers wondering whether that was the place I’d spend the rest of my life.

Taking my excuses for not doing work and giving me second chances when the grade I had earned at the end of a marking period was not as high as I wanted wasn’t in my best interests.  After the scare of suspension and prospects of life in a factory (which would have turned into unemployment) I tried something different.  I actually read the texts assigned on schedule.  I did assignments even when they were not graded.  I found other people in my classes to study with.  I did this because after a year of college I learned that effort matters.  I finished college with a decent GPA, but more importantly, I learned in the process.

What I am advocating is not a “no excuses” attitude.  Nevertheless, there is a little truth to the old teacher mantra of “don’t let them see you smile until Christmas.”  Any successful teacher who has been at it for more than a few years does not need an armchair quarterback to explain how students work.  Grit and the qualities of perseverance are vital.  Students need to learn self-control, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills vital to success in the world.  They need external standards of accountability.  They also need to be subject to the spirit and not the letter of the law.  Situations require flexibility and because there is a relationship between teachers and learners, teachers recognize that there is a time for slack.

Writing books and engaging in theoretical arguments are fun, but when you deal with the reality of whether a student is going to graduate or not and struggle with the question of whether they will walk into their future equipped for success or set up for failure, that’s when you really understand the question “What’s in the best interest of the child?”

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The 2014 Official Teaching Underground Response to the State of the Union

It's that time of year again. It's our annual custom to respond to the President's annual State of the Union Address. It looks like this year there's going to be three official responses. Not just the Republican response, but the Tea Party response and a response from Rand Paul. This rebuttal business is getting pretty competitive.

So he starts with this:
"Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades." 
Well, not this teacher, but I did spend extra time with another teacher. A first year teacher, 23 years old, part-time, splitting his days every morning teaching high school then driving down the street to the local middle school to teach two seventh grade classes. He'd prefer working full time at one school, but this is the best we can do for him. It's about what's best for the kids though, right?

Is that really all he's going to say about education?

Oh, wait, here it is:

Five years ago, we set out to change the odds for all our kids. We worked with lenders to reform student loans, and today, more young people are earning college degrees than ever before. Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance. Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy – problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math. Some of this change is hard. It requires everything from more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents to better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test.

Race to the Top? Too often, raising expectations looks more like making the tests more "difficult." Not rigorous or particularly valid, just harder. And along with raising the expectations, where is the support to raise the quality of instruction? That last sentence is dead on though. If only we could find the legs to make that idea actually move.

I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need.

That's comforting. Our elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists have done a stand-up job so far in reforming education.

Last year, I also pledged to connect 99 percent of our students to high-speed broadband over the next four years. Tonight, I can announce that with the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we’ve got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and twenty million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit.

I don't care what you think about technology, it's advancing. Quickly. The better and faster we take care of closing the gaps of access, the better off our kids will be. I think our nation will suffer if this is a gap that we allow to grow.

We’re working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career.

Vocational education has suffered in the last twenty years. The vocational ed of the 20th century doesn't do much for 21st century students, but we need to acknowledge the reality that not everyone will go to college and give them the tools to succeed right out of high school.

That's all for k-12 education. But he did end this section of the speech with this: But we know our opportunity agenda won’t be complete – and too many young people entering the workforce today will see the American Dream as an empty promise – unless we do more to make sure our economy honors the dignity of work, and hard work pays off for every single American.

I like that. It seems to acknowledge that the struggles of the American economy is not the fault of our public education system and that we can't look solely to the public education system as the solution to our economic woes. If more people would realize this and see education for what it is-- an integral and vital piece of American society, but just that, a piece, not the single driving factor-- we'd start looking for more holistic solutions instead of scapegoating.

And that's the State of the Union, at least as far as the Teaching Underground is concerned.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Too Cold for School?

I’ve been a part of k-12 public education for over thirty years (I’m counting my years as a student) and this is the first year that I ever remember school being disrupted because of cold weather.

Beginning Sunday, I noticed on Twitter, several of my teacher friends in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois posting about no school on Monday and thought it must be pretty cold up there for school to be cancelled, thankful that I lived in balmy Virginia.

Then, Monday afternoon the e-mail came. Albemarle County schools will operate on a two-hour delay tomorrow due to cold weather. Later in the day, surrounding counties started announcing delays and even closings because of the weather.

Whenever schools alter schedules, people complain. “Who ever heard of closing school because it’s too cold” they say. Well, my son (using the new technology he got for Christmas) pointed out this morning that temperatures in central Virginia are colder than the North Pole, and our good friend Al Roker noted that some of the states mentioned above are seeing temperatures lower than the South Pole.

Have you ever seen those Arctic science stations? Me neither, but they’re built to deal with this kind of temperature extremes, and people don’t usually hang out there for the long term either.

Sometimes extreme things happen. When they do, we deal the best we can. It’s not often the forecast for my hometown is Sunny with a high of 15 degrees, but today, that’s what we get.

And we thought technology was the disruptive force in 21st century education. Score one for mother nature.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014