The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

True Grit

on May 8, 2016

Topping the national news several months ago was the story of the escape of two dangerous criminals from a high security prison in New York State. They had spent long months in preparation, persuaded some prison employees to help them, dug a route to the outside from their cell, worked late at night to avoid attracting notice and, when their preparations were finally complete, went through rehearsals before actually carrying out their plan. A few days later they were recaptured far from the prison site in a place where they had had no opportunity to plan or practice any further escape.

What interested me most about this story was that those men who had wasted so many years of their lives in criminal activities were able to plan so well, work so hard and show so much patience in carrying our their escape. They developed a lot of “grit” when the stakes were high enough.

Another story of grit is told in one of my favorite movies, “Cool Hand Luke”, which is about a man arrested for a minor crime and  given a long term sentence in a chain-gang type prison.  Because he is smarter, more independent and resourceful than his fellow inmates, he is singled out by guards for repeated punishments and humiliation. Yet, he persists, even to the point of taking his own life when the final choice is between that and going back to the  prison life he had before. At the end of the movie Luke is gone, but his lessons of “grit” inspire other prison inmates to stand up for themselves against prison unfairnes and cruelty. The ultimate message is one of hope.

I’ve been thinking a lot about grit lately because the idea of teaching students how to develop it has become a controversial topic in the news and a practice in some schools. The focus started a few years when psychology professor, Angela Duckworth reported on her study of the attitudes and behavior of successful students and determined that grit was their key characteristic, more important than native ability. As a result, many educational leaders have begun to advocate for making the teaching of grit part of the regular school curriculum and some schools, especially charters, have bought into the practice.

It should not surprise my readers to hear that I strongly disagree with the belief and the practice. You can’t teach poor kids, middle class kids, or rich kids to work hard and long on things they don’t care about just because the school thinks they are important. Not tyrants, prison guards, nor expert teachers can change that reality.

On the other hand, as a teacher and principal–and later as a researcher in high poverty schools– I saw many ordinary kids develop grit because the conditions in the classroom were right. Their teachers made instruction interesting and offered students opportunities for self-chosen projects, collaboration with classmates, and innovation. And, if those kids had already tasted success and satisfaction in previous classroom activities, they believed they could stretch themselves even further this time. Yes, the work was harder than before, but it was doable, and they knew that completing it would bring them them the power and self-esteem they had enjoyed before.

In today’s classrooms where reaching standards is the mandated goal, teachers can still help students to develop grit. Their style of teaching and their assignments will either encourage or discourage students to reach for new goals. Who cares about analyzing the structure of a short story”? But after reading and discussing a few stories, students might like the idea of  writing their own stories. Completing math worksheets is the epitome of boring school work, but figuring out a monthly budget for you own allowance or designing a scale model for your ideal bedroom is a pleasurable activity. The power to develop grit lies within all of us.  All we need are the conditions that motivate and assist us.



2 responses to “True Grit

  1. Wendy C Kasten says:

    Hmm. Interesting, Joanne. That somewhat abstract and intangible quality- grit. Maybe it is also called volition, drive, ambition, agency, or a Japanese word I love : ichinen.

    I once asked my parents in their later years, if my brother and I had each turned out the way they thought we would have. They would not commit to having had any predictions. But they did say, they wished my brother had my guts. I guess that could be called grit. I think, growing up, people assumed he was the smarter of the two of us. The budding engineer was fixing and designing and making things.

    Today, it reminds me of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. My brother and I are extremely different, and smart in different ways. He got the mild mannered personality we knew in one of our grandfathers. One thing I am sure of is that no one could change either of them. I got the grit.


  2. Don Bellairs says:

    Great piece, Joanne. You and I can make “grit” lesson plans for those who can’t make their own. Teaching “grit” is like teaching other abstract nouns that symbolize human characteristics: i’e. tenacity…compromise…leadership. You ROLE MODEL it…then you talk about (process) it. Of course, you have to be involved in something with your class that requires grit and you must actually possess the quality yourself.
    I actually teach A LOT about abstract nouns (or used to). You can do a lot of creative things with abstract nouns.
    Tragically, I can provide a number of examples from my own experience where public education tended to diminish “grit.” In over-crowded classrooms, it takes a very sensitive teacher to allow a stubborn (a “grit” word) child to finish a project that languishes behind those of the other kids…Bureaucracies do not nurture individualism.


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