Sunday, March 23, 2014

Teaching Grit... In a High-Stakes High School

Grit is the new ed buzzword apparently. It's nothing new to those of us who teach the arts. We've known for years that without grit, or perseverance, students cannot answer open-ended questions. In a high stakes high school like the one where I teach, open-ended questions can produce a lot of angst. When students are faced with a problem or question that doesn't have an easy, 'correct' answer or when you pose a problem and don't give them a linear path through the problem, many crumble. 

When I first started at this high school 6 years ago, I began teaching architecture and created the curriculum. One of the projects asks the students to map their journey through school for the day. I tell them they must show me where they entered, what path they took, the rooms they inhabited, how those spaces felt and then how they exited. Our school building is a warren with classrooms on four different floors. Some students get right to work. Others are completely stuck and have no idea how to begin. They ask me how to convey this information-how should they make these drawings? I tell them, to their dismay, that I don't care what format they choose, they just need to get the information across to me in a clear manner. Students have not learned yet what a floor plan looks like. In the six years I have been doing this project, I have had students who are so uncomfortable with not being told how to convey the information that they get really mad at me. 'Why won't you tell me how to do it," they ask? And why don't I just tell them what a floor plan is and ask them to create one? If I tell them, they don't have to figure it out for themselves and then it's just one more thing that someone has taught them that doesn't have relevance to their lives. If they figure it out, they own it and they never forget it as a useful tool to convey information. 

But back to grit. Some students have it, some don't. Can you teach it? Of course you can. Like any other skill, it is learned through practice. The uncomfortable place of open-ended questions without right answers can be overwhelming if you've always been in an environment where there are only right answers. But as far as I can tell, it's the only way to build grit. You have to let students be in that uncomfortable place long enough to have an aha moment and figure things out on their own. The more we give them questions with only one right answer, the more multiple choice tests, fill in the bubble, find the solution tests, quizes, and quizlets, the more stressed they get and the more they believe there is only one correct answer. Grit isn't even part of that equation. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

"I'm So bored, I'm Going to Die!"

"I'm so bored, I'm going to die!" How many of us, as parents, have gotten that text from our child while they were in class? I'm not proud to say that I have been known to text my kids while they were in school, but I have. And I've received countless texts like that and worse. 'This professor is the worst-so boring.' Since texting became the primary means of communication between parents and children, those types of texts must number in the tens of thousands!

And, I too, have sent those texts to my girls. Two years ago, as I was completing my administrator's degree, I sent many of my own. Sad to say, the only redeeming quality of one of my night classes was that my daughter also had a terribly boring class at the same time and we could commiserate via text.

What's wrong with the system? Why are our bright and active children being made to sit and listen and sit? We have a national obesity epidemic. Most children don't get enough exercise. Has anyone made the connection between this and sitting in classrooms all day? What ever happened to DOING things?

I read something online last night that has been bothering me about kinesthetic learners:
"Making up about 5% of the population, tactile and kinesthetic learners absorb information best by doing, experiencing, touching, moving or being active in some way." (

Really? Five percent? I can't believe that's the real number...

I've been talking a lot to students lately about how they learn. So many of them tell me that when they DO something, they remember it, and it empowers them, because they know they figured something out in order to make it. So who decided that only 5% learn this way?

I don't think students are exposed to this type of learning anymore. Instead, they sit and listen and are expected to accumulate knowledge. But if they're bored, do we really think they are going to remember anything? People of all ages need to DO things, to make things and to learn to use the knowledge that's out there to take action and solve real problems. Let's stop boring our kids to death. Let's allow them to learn actively.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Do Something That Matters; Do Something You Love

I had one of those conversations today with a student that makes you remember why you love teaching. Our students get the last six weeks of their senior year to work on an independent project or an internship. I asked one of my seniors what he was planning to do, and he said he was just going to go help one of his elementary teachers. When I asked him  why, he said that it seemed easy and he didn't really know what else to do. So I challenged him. I told him it was six weeks of his life he would never get back and that as an adult he would look back with longing at this time and wish someone would give him that time as an adult. I told him to do something that matters. 

This lead to a longer conversation about school. He really didn't see that anything he had done in the last four years was related to anything he really cared about. How would it help him when he was out in the real world? I asked him what he cared about, what he wanted to do in the future. He didn't know-which I told him was appropriate at 17-but that he wanted it to be something creative. Eventually we worked our way around to what he thought was really interesting-furniture design-but it was almost as if he was embarrassed to admit it. 

Creative endeavors aren't valued in our high stakes culture. My student talked about an older friend who chose between doing something he liked and a career that would make him money. The friend had chosen the career that made money. And he is miserable. But he is too far down this path to change things: in debt for college and graduate school, he has to continue in this money making field in order to pay back his hundreds of thousands of dollars of loans. What are we doing to our kids?

The story has a good ending: my student is potentially taking an internship working for a company that makes furniture for handicapped children: Adaptive Design Association. Even if this internship isn't the one, I think he's been empowered to do something that he cares about and something that matters.