The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

What is “True Grit”?

Today’s post is a repeat of something I wrote and published more than a year ago. I am posting it again because I just ditched the one I had been working on since yesterday. I didn’t like it, and I don’t have the energy to start something new right now. I hope tomorrow will be a better day.

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.



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Is Depression What Students Learn at School?

Since writing about the dark feelings expressed by many young people a few days ago I have been thinking about how I would present my own view about what is hurting them most and what should be done about it. To a great extent what I write today will repeat some things I’ve written before. That’s because bad practices continue in public education in new forms and with more complicated excuses for their failure.

In reading a recent article in The Oregonian I was not persuaded that the extreme depression of many teenage students was solely the result of family poverty and/or the harshness of much social media. As a retired educator who continues to follow what has been happening in public education over the past several years, I believe that the federal takeover of our schools has done nothing more than create a nightmare for students, parents, teachers, principals, and state education authorities. And, as one might expect, it is the students who are most severely frightened and damaged.

In a nutshell, what has happened is that many powerful politicians, believing that international test scores scores revealed the weakness of American public schools, persuaded their comrades that the federal government should take over public education and make it a more demanding for students and teachers.

Ironically, as school expectations and practices have changed over the past several years, they haven’t succeeded in raising test scores, lowering student absenteeism, or improving graduation rates.  The only numbers that have increased are early teacher retirements and student drop-outs.

There have also been many negative effects for students at the same time. In general, schools are places where kids are pushed relentlessly to raise their test scores and castigated for not learning things quickly enough and to a higher level. The only things some schools have been able to do to help students survive is to come up with special programs aimed at making them more resistant to failure and more persistent in their efforts to improve. As I see them, those programs are merely band-aids slapped onto serious wounds.

In writing this piece I recognize that I have been more harsh about today’s public education than usual.  I think that is because I am truly frightened about the terrible feelings some students expressed, and I suspect that others also had such feelings but didn’t want to let anyone know.  If that is what schools are doing to students, it must stop here and now!








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In 2018 Oregon’s Kids are Not All Right

I had hoped that I could start this year with a report of something good happening in public education, but that just isn’t possible. The best I can do is describe the results of a survey given recently to Oregon’s eighth and eleventh grade students and then suggest some changes that might produce more positive results the next time around.

An article in the December 30th issue of  The Oregonian began by saying “In Oregon the kids are increasingly not all right.” What it was referring to were the results of the biennial “Oregon Healthy Teens Survey” given to 8th grade and 11th grade students.  In responding to the survey’s questions more than 19 percent of 8th graders and 22 percent of 11th graders reported that they had mental health problems. In addition, very few students at either grade level said that they were able to cope with their everyday stress and anxiety. Even worse, 18 percent of those responders said they had contemplated suicide and 9 percent said they had actually attempted it.

From that point on the article focuses on the living conditions of  today’s young people as seen by two specialists: Dr. Ajit Jetmalani, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University and Wes Rivers, adolescent health policy assessment specialist for the Oregon Health Authority. In both their views many outside factors have had a strong negative effect on adolescents. Jetmalani sees children’s lives as more difficult than in the past because of the wide differences in family incomes. Young people living in poverty are well aware of the fine clothing, toys, and technology their wealthier classmates have access to and their own lesser belongings.

In the opinion of Mr. Rivers the presence of social media in the lives of young people is detromental. Their continuing use of smart phones emphasizes-or exaggerates- continually what some children have and others don’t.  Although not all the information communicated is accurate, many young people believe what they see or hear and it makes them feel that their own situations are far less favorable.

To some extent I agree with the specialists that family insecurity and the power of social media have a strong negative effect on many young people. But I think they have overlooked a greater problem in not even mentioning the current public school practices that have made test results the determining factor of a student’s quality and future success. What’s more, many of the common classroom practices label students’ performances as good, mediocre, or poor for everyone else to see.

In order to lessen the mental and emotional problems that young people have I suggest two major actions by policy makers, educators and parents: changing many of the current school practices and limiting the amount of social media and where and when it may be used. Because describing in detail what I think should be done would take much more time and space than I have already used, I will defer writing further until later this week, hoping readers will come back for more of my opinions.



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