- - Friday, August 21, 2015

A few weeks ago I read a piece titled “Got Grit?” — or, “What Grit and Perseverance Could Look Like in the Classroom,” by Mikhail Zinshteyn.

The essence of the article was to ask the question, “Can ‘grit’ be taught?”

Sure, I thought. Parents, experience, biographical accounts of people with grit—they all can teach the attribute.

But the question pertained specifically to the formal K-12 classroom. Can ‘grit’ be taught (and hence, be required to be taught) in a school classroom?

My response was, No. Or at least, not if the teacher doesn’t have grit in their own heart to pass along this character quality. So, my guess is that it comes down to what the individual teacher brings to the classroom and his/her students.

I thought to write up a post about Zinshteyn’s article and audio, but then it dawned on me that I know numerous teachers personally, and that many of them could easily be described as having “grit.” So why not get their take?

So without any further ado, what follows is from my friend and teacher, Susan Mattingly, (her bio is at the bottom). 

The True Grit-ty Reality of Classrooms, by Susan Mattingly

Whether you love or hate Common Core, the first mathematical practice standard says:

Common Core State Standards. Math. Practice. MP1:

Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

It’s at the heart of Mikhail Zinshteyn’s recent article “Got Grit?” posted on EWA.org where he looks at some of the upsides and pitfalls of trying to teach grit or perseverance.  For the “math–haters” out there this practical standard rings true.  Life is full of problems and giving up isn’t the answer.  While it might be a stretch to find someone who acknowledges Algebra is useful, Mathematical Practice 1 is beneficial life setting if it can be taught to students.

What’s with “grit?”

Buzzwords enchant the education field.   Recent favorites have included rigor, higher-order thinking, and grit.  We worry that U.S. students lag behind and a one word or catchy-phrased fix would be fabulous.  But “grit” brings to my mind two meanings, one is sheer determination, the other a sandpaper wall in a hardware store with its myriad of variety so I was happy to read and listen to the diverse aspects Zinshteyn makes available to his reader. My day is all about grit in the true determination sense. 

My day = 175 students in 5 hours of Algebra I.   So many unique issues, skill sets and goals can be a challenge.   My students’ math skills span nine grade levels.  No, that wasn’t a typo.  The students come as a pretty rough-cut bunch cognitively.   Algebra 1 is no cakewalk if you struggle to solve 3 + 0 and if you are coming in at the upper end of that range, it can be a struggle to have patience with other end of the range.

Add to that the non-cognitive aspects of a being a teen in a diverse area where 90% of the kids receive free or reduced lunch. I hear, “Sorry, I couldn’t get to school because mom worked the 3 am shift and no one could take me,” or, “Sorry I missed last week.  My brother was sick and mom had to work so I stayed home with him,” all too often.   For some, it took grit just to get through the door, never mind the mathematics.  A snapshot of my students show them working to bring in income for the household, dealing with parents in or recently out of jail, adjusting to divorce-related and addiction-related concerns as well as regular adolescent concerns.   Sadly this is hardly unique to my students.  It does, though, give a glimpse of how non-cognitive factors figure into learning and why I keep granola bars, tissues, a first aid kit, a sewing kit, phone charges and ponytail holders stocked.

Now for that sandpaper wall and my embedded faith.

In my classroom there are a couple of standard operating procedures rooted in faith that every Christian teacher can tap into.  I start every year by asking who my math haters are.  It’s fun over the year to watch “I can’t do math,” change to “solving problems doesn’t totally stink,” and maybe even, “Hey, I’m a pretty good problem solver.”  Bringing about this transformation is crucial to combat the way a fixed mindset of “being no good at math” can stop a student in their tracks as Zinshteyn points out.  This is not isolated in math so whatever you teach consider first that every person is uniquely fearfully, and wonderfully made, gifted and equipped by God.  Therefore, if you want a well-finished student, you need to select the right level of grit.

You don’t need to say it but you do need to understand it to help mentor each student.  Yes, it does take time and effort and no, I do not have a time machine but I schedule class time for individual conferences to give feedback, celebrate successes, and commiserate with and polish them through times of failure.  Indeed, we see Jesus, the Teacher and Carpenter, using different approaches and different tools in different circumstances to leave no child of God behind.

The parable of workers in the vineyard from Matthew 20 explains my grading policy that is similar to what Farrington advocates for in Zinshteyn’s article.  Here’s my policy – “Did you master the standard?  Yes?  Fantastic!  I don’t care if you did it later than someone else.”  Frankly if you are struggling to subtract 10 from 20, Algebra 1 may take a little time to catch on to and shouldn’t we celebrate if a student keeps trying and learns?  This removal of artificial timing fosters perseverance in both my students and me. 

No student wants to learn something if it’s too late to get credit and they check out of the whole semester if the “permanent” failure happens early on.  Plus, would I really invest time re-teaching a student a skill if it doesn’t count?  (See, “no I do not have a time machine.”)  I let my students know that I will meet them where they are and rejoice when they cross the finish line.  I’m pretty sure there is a scriptural model for that too.

Finally, I take the idea that God calls us to live in community pretty seriously so I have a no man left behind policy.  If a student can explain a concept to another student, they have not only helped a fellow student but they have also expanded their own mastery.  Win-Win!  Everyone feels like part of the body of my classroom with the added benefit of crossing racial and cultural divides and encouraging friendships with people who may not think or look like you.

Zinshteyn’s article highlights not so much competing views but rather the tension that excellent education must live in and the audio files help to map out some aspects every teacher should consider.  Naturally both cognitive and non-cognitive skill sets are in the mix because our students are the sum of those plus a whole host of variables that arise both in and out of the classroom.  As Christian teacher, I’m thankful for having the example of Jesus in his ministry.

Interested? Here are a couple of TED talks to put in the hopper for consideration.  Check out the ideas of Rita Pierson at https://youtu.be/SFnMTHhKdkw, John Bennett at https://youtu.be/xyowJZxrtbg, and Taylor Mali at https://youtu.be/h5yg0u1MkDI or https://youtu.be/kSDPhhfEY5A

Susan Mattingly teaches high school mathematics and loves when her students connect and see life modeled in numbers. The same is true for her own study of Scriptures. She says, “Let’s help real people make real connections with a real God who has a real plan for our lives.” Mattingly serves as youth leader and ruling elder at Living Hope Evangelical in Michigan.


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