Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Grit or Slack? Are We Asking the Right Questions?

I want to positively contribute to this Grit/Slack debate. I’ve started and stopped this post at least four times since Grant Lichtman asked me to contribute to the discussion on Sunday. Here’s where we are as I see it:

Paul Tough has said that students lack a set of non-cognitive skills, and the current term to define this subset of skills is grit. Josie Holford discussed her frustration with Grit in terms of socio-economic class. Vicki Davis talked about Grit as being how we respond to the tough situations in our lives. Ira Socol offered a new term, “Slack” to frame what kids in poverty lack that middle class and upper class students have in abundance because, he pointed out, kids in poverty are some of the grittiest around.

I agree with all of it and I agree with none of it. Let me try to explain.

At my inner city school, I have to remind my staff all the time that we can only focus on what we can control. We can’t control what happens to our students beyond the time they are with us. We can’t control that there isn’t electricity at home. We can’t always control when students have beds. We can’t control or solve a lack of clothing. We can’t control or be there when our high school students are acting as the parent, because the parent is working multiple minimum wage jobs. We can't control it when parents are unsupportive.

As hard as it is to admit it and face it. We aren’t in the business of solving poverty. I don’t wake up every day to head to my job as a high school principal to fix poverty. I’m in the business of teaching and learning. I’m in the business of kids. I’m in the business of offering choices and opportunity to students who need a clearer or different path.

Ira’s absolutely right when he frames slack as something that our kids are missing. I had more slack than I knew what to do with and it saved me time and time again. My kids have zero. If there’s such a thing as negative slack, then that’s what they’ve got. But I can’t spend more time than it took to write those sentences focusing on the slack my students don’t have. We don’t have any tools or opportunity to give them slack. In 2014, in inner city Cleveland, where is the slack coming from? It isn’t coming from anywhere. So Ira is right, but it doesn’t move us forward and it isn’t something we have control over.

The same is true with Josie’s points. In my white, middle class sensibility, I agree with every word she wrote. But none of it helps me at school tomorrow. Just because Josie’s frustration is true for her and for me; she and I are more alike than my students and I are, doesn’t make it true, useful or valuable for my students day to day.

I like that Vicki talked about grit in the context of dealing with what’s tough in our lives. That definition is absolutely true for me. But it’s only a small piece of the definition of grit for my students. When I was in high school, the most adversity I faced was being the shortest kid in class and always managing to find myself in the friend zone with any girl I liked. It felt brutal at the time, but let’s be honest…I wasn’t redefining what it is to face adversity and develop grit.

For my students, they have a different idea of what tough is in their lives. We haven’t had school for four days in a row because of extreme cold. Last week, while we were in school, it was also terribly cold, just not dangerous enough to close school. In the last week, I know students who have chosen to lend their coats to younger siblings and cousins, so another could be warm. I have plenty of students without coats at all, and most are choosing to come to school every day we’re in session. I know students who choose to let someone else in their family eat today. They will see how hungry they are tomorrow and see if they need to eat then. I know students who don't have beds, or who offer their bed to someone else in the apartment. I know students who travel two hours to come to school; a place where they don’t feel valued, respected, cared for, and accepted. I know students who leave work all night, and then come to school in the morning… and then all the money they earn goes to the rent or to keep the lights on. My students know more about being tough as teenagers than many people learn in a lifetime.

But I want to make a key addition to Vicki’s definition. Vicki talked about tough. I want to posit that there’s a difference between life-tough and school-tough. When Ira talked about the grittiness of kids in poverty, I think he’s referring to life-tough. My students have life-tough down. They know how to handle life-tough. Most don’t know anything other than life-tough. What they don’t know how to deal with is school-tough.

Ira talked about traditional school success in the context of compliance. I’m not sure I agree with that. To be fair, inner city educators have turned compliance into an art form. And we’re fairly focused on it at our school as well. But if grit has school-tough in the definition, I can point to some specific indicators, aspects or skills that my students do lack. For me, I don’t use grit or slack. I call them Habits of Mind. But the words don’t matter. Essentially, these are the skills and tools we need to do school well. And let me say, in no uncertain terms, that my students and students in poverty across the country do school terribly.

For example, I have plenty of students who are below grade level. But I have plenty of students who are at or above grade level too. Regardless of how they read, write, or do math, most of my students are currently failing. And yet they are the toughest kids I know. If grit is just being tough, and persevering, then why are my kids struggling academically so much? Here’s what I think. The toughness my kids exhibit in life does not transfer to school. Academic perseverance, academic stick-to-it-ivness, academic courage, academic behaviors, academic skills, academic dispositions, do not transfer just because a student is “gritty” outside of school.

My students with one shirt, no food, who travel two hours to get to school, who give up at nothing in life outside of school, give up all the time, a thousand times a day, in academic settings. I don’t really know Ira, but I think I can hear him say at this point, that this is what white middle class conformity expects of them and it isn’t right. To that I say, of course it isn’t right. But it’s the world. It also isn’t right that my students are in poverty to begin with. But they are; so we deal with it. I can only address what we have control over. To get out of poverty, my students need to be successful in school. I’ve built a career believing that education is the ticket out. To be successful in college and careers, my students need school-tough. And they just don’t have it. What’s right has very little to do with what is.

There’s plenty more to say, but I want to get this posted so I can get into the conversation.
And that brings me to an important point I want to make. If this grit/slack conversation is about what we do to help kids, then I’m in until the end. If this is really a conversation about what ought to be different in the world, then I’m out after this post. I want to talk about what we have control over. Poverty is bad. Okay, but it ain’t changing anytime soon. And I have to go work with kids tomorrow, who aren’t expecting poverty to go away anytime soon. We still need to figure out how to help them be successful; poverty or not.

Here’s an important piece: I haven’t figured out how to teach my students school-tough. I don’t know how to teach them all academic-courage and academic-perseverance. I know how to do it with individual kids. In that arena, I can claim success. But I’m the principal of a school now, not a classroom teacher. I haven’t figured out how to teach an entire school how to do school well. And I certainly haven’t figured out how to help my teachers teach my students how to do school well. Is that a conversation you want to have? Can we shift away from whether or not this is a middle class expectation, or a conversation about compliance to one of what we do to help students like mine develop the toolbox to help themselves? That’s what I want to talk about. Do you want to talk about word choice or actions? My students, and all those like them, don’t need a debate about word choice. They need actions. Are you in?


  1. Hi Eric,

    I’m in! While I think word choice is critically important, there are others chewing on that. The sentence that stick for me is when you write I know students who travel two hours to come to school; a place where they don’t feel valued, respected, cared for, and accepted. That is in our power to change. Let’s change that first. How might we intentionally embrace, accept, and love every child as a member of our academic community?

    Academic perseverance, academic stick-to-it-ivness, academic courage, academic behaviors, academic skills, academic dispositions, do not transfer just because a student is “gritty” outside of school. I wonder if this isn’t the same problem independent school and middle-class schools experience but in reverse. Academic grit does not always transfer to necessary grit in life either.

    In these attempts to harness the wisdom of the crowd, we are debating vocabulary to build common understanding. Important. What if we parallel this conversation with question generation as you have started?

    I volunteered at EduCon. I am in.

  2. Eric,

    Thank you for sharing your school's culture as it relates to Grit and Slack. Your blog posts/tweets continue to reflect vulnerability rarely seen in school administration.

    The vulnerability you describe is helplessness. It's extremely difficult to tolerate the helplessness that comes with poverty. While you may not think you are in the poverty business, I suspect you are. Education is a means of empowerment, when successful. You have the power to elevate each and evey student by giving them some knowledge tools and social skills to take survival to thriving. This is no small task.

    Have you considered an all school challenge to find food and/or coats? You can use Design Thinking to do it and let the experience serve as a learning opportunity for Ps&Ts.

    The Connect Group pledges support for your cause. Please let me know if I can be of assistance in bringing food/coats/DT/empathy to your Cleveland inner city school. I'll pack up coats from California and send them your way, if your Students organize the distribution.

    May you find connections worldwide to help the students in your charge.


    Dr. Lee-Anne Gray
    Founder & Executive Director, The Connect Group

  3. Eric,
    Thank you for bringing the conversation back to the key points for many in schools- the children. There are those who can and should focus on the bigger picture issues of poverty, etc. But for many who live working with children and the effects of poverty each and every day, the most important point is what to do each minute.

  4. Eric,

    I truly appreciate your view. I see the same, especially with our students from the depths of rural poverty. Where I disagree... well, let me advance a few thoughts.

    First, the reason "life tough" doesn't translate to "school tough" in my experience - both personal and professional - is that school rarely proves relevant, there is no possible transfer between the life these kids know and the school we typically offer.

    That's the authenticity piece that I am trying to write about next (along with multi-year mentoring).

    I think we can offer more authentic learning. I know we are trying to. I know a highly successful program like Philadelphia's Parkway Program of the 1970s did this very well, but it is a battle with state, federal rules and with teacher training.

    On the other hand, offering abundance and thus "slack." Yes, this seems impossible without the shared resources we'd get by redistricting, reconfiguring student populations, without increased resources. And yet, we might be able to do some things. We might be able to reconfigure scheduling to give kids more time in certain ways. We might be able to stretch out the optional school day - might teachers and students choose differing schedules - start later, end later? We might re-think our policies toward missed classes, late arrivals, late assignments. We might re-imagine our student scheduling to better match students to teachers. We might allow and expect more varied responses to assignments.

    As Angel says above, what we do each minute matters. Each minute, every adult in our buildings can either stretch to create some "slack," or they can not. Abundance is a relative term. For kids who begin with nothing, a little can go a long, long way.


  5. The "Grit" Narrative, "Grit" Research, and Codes that Blind

  6. You know I am in. I finally have a meeting with folks at the and will use your efforts as a metaphor for the challenge to expand "great learning" to a much wider and more challenging population. I know they and others, like our friends in Atlanta, are thinking along these lines as well.The grit issue is a good coalescing discussion, but like you, I want to focus on learning outcomes, providing tools for these students to raise themselves up in very tangible ways. I expect there is no one answer. Great, passionate writing.

  7. Eric,

    From my independent school life, and lifelong upper middle-class existence, in Atlanta, GA, it seems pretty cheap and easy for me to say, "I'm in" on your blog. That costs me nothing, and it helps you none, except for maybe some feeling of connected, moral support. But you know you already had that.

    In my heart, you've bothered me. In the best sense of the word "bother." I long to do something that helps -- and in a way that builds capacity and sustainability, not just fleeting assistance from afar. I don't yet know how to do that. But since we met years ago, at EduCon I believe, your story has bothered and inspired me. You inspire me. So, I'm in. But in my most honest self, I have to admit to you that I don't know what that means yet. Years ago, a school and a community of people in Nieri, Kenya bothered me. And I've been involved with them. I've even visited and broken bread with them in Kenya. But I've returned to my relatively easy existence here, and I don't intend to relocate my family to Africa, even though I feel such a deep connection to my friends in Nieri. I feel the same sense of connection to you, your school, your students, and your vision. But I have not yet really DONE anything about that. So, I guess I need to employ more of my grit. Despite not knowing yet what my "I'm in" means, I do in fact mean it.

    For now, one of the things that comes to mind is Lamon Luther. Brian Preston was bothered. Bothered by homelessness. He wanted to do more for the community of fellow humans that he was interacting with more and more. But he did not want to fall to "hand outs," so he used design thinking to collectively build something with these men.

    I wonder what opportunities might exist for making, creating, entrepreneur-ing -- in efforts to do something akin to Lamon Luther. To use meaningful work to both integrate learning and shine light on new possibilities for existence.

    Maybe my connection to Lamon Luther makes sense only to me right now. But it's a start. It helps me feel better about saying I'm in from the comfort of my easy existence.


    1. I echo what Bo says and use of word "bother". And I echo his breaking of bread with friends in Kenya. I did the same thing 33 years ago in the Philippines and it took me 26 years to figure out how to actually "do". But now I can "do"; so there is no statue of limitations on good intentions. I don't know what doing something in this case looks like, either, but I feel a collective tug.

      I finally got a meeting with David Kelley and Susie Wise at the D.School and plan to use Design Lab as my metaphor with them of the current limits of design thinking in K-12. In a very real sense I don't think any of us can claim that we have designed a better system of education until it is one that is exportable to not only Eric's school, but schools that don't yet have an "Eric".

  8. Eric,

    What seemed so poignant to me, and what I felt I wrote so sensibly last evening, now appears a tad lost to me. But, I promised a response to your passionately and beautifully written post, and so I shall try.

    About Ira. I did not really know Ira (other than his virtual self) until this past Monday and Tuesday when we spent two exceptional days together exploring schools in his district. (I am now a huge fan of a smart man with a huge heart and a lot of grit.) We observed in both low-income and high-income areas, witnessing bright spots and communities of learning and of care. And we talked about this notion of grit versus slack, and I pushed him a little. I don't love the word "slack" for it might connote something that I don't think he/we are suggesting here. Words and language do matter in creating culture, and personally I think the word "abundance" is a good one. And, I wonder if the word "scarcity" might be valuable here. For as much as this does not help you come tomorrow (and that is critical), we cannot ignore the systemic issue that is very much a poverty question. Abundance and scarcity--and not merely socio-economic-- cause one to behave in relationship to oneself and to the world at large in quite different ways. Whether in your school's context or mine (independent school), we have students yearning to be a part of a community of care, a place where they feel loved and accepted, a place they can trust. Chris Lehmann speaks so eloquently about the Ethic of Care that is essential in schools and is so defining and might be overlooked when we talk about SLA and its inquiry, project-based learning design. Taken together, care and purpose, and we have a "school" that provides the right balance of grit/slack you're seeking.

    It seems to me that the "come tomorrow" stance has to acknowledge that your kids (and my kids) are coming to us from different and very real contexts and yet equally yearning for RELATIONSHIP and PURPOSE. What your kids learn outside of school, and we are associating with "grit," is driven by both relationships and purpose. It is not their choice, and God knows they should not have to be in that situation. And, you're right we cannot change their immediate condition. However, if we too narrowly define outcomes--academic "success" as you call it--then they aren't going to see a purpose that is worth expending any more effort. They are coming from a place of scarcity--they don't have anything left in many cases to give. But, we can offer them abundance through the community of care and the sense of purpose for school with meaningful work that is worth the effort.

    So, I'm wondering. How might we--this community developing of people saying "I'm in"--broaden the relationships and sense of purpose for you and your students? And, I think it works both ways: how might you broaden the relationships and sense of purpose for our students?

  9. I've been trying to figure out why this post -- offered so articulately, and so plainly with such sincerity, in an effort "to positively contribute to this Grit/Slack debate" -- left me so very resentful. And I've been hesitating to respond because I don't care to disrupt, so much to contribute; I'd prefer not to shout, but to listen. But honestly -- not to interfere with your preferred call to action, but to offer another honest perspective -- there's something about the dismissal of others' efforts to explore the farther-reaching implications of these ideas (and words) in our society I find infuriating; something about the articulation of our shared purpose with the language of 'control' I find saddening; and something about the generalizations about how children 'do school,' as distinct from how school might 'do children,' I find demeaning of both. At the end of the day, I hear in your insinuation that those who aren't "in" on your terms -- "to teach [our] students school tough" -- are somehow, in your mind, "out" of line in the debate to which you refer, but which you seek to redirect or curtail.

    I find myself responding to this contribution to the "Grit/Slack debate" the same way I might respond to a teacher who shuts the door of his classroom on the claim that he doesn't have time or reason to explore matters of school culture that might not immediately effect his lesson plan on Tuesday. I respond the same way I might to a student who says she doesn't have time or interest to explore the farther reaching implications of her ideas in the world, because she just wants to know what she needs to get a good grade. I would hesitate to model or to support that kind of thinking in my leadership, if one of my goals is to offer more expansive perspectives, choices, opportunities, and goals in a learning community.

    To reduce this to a choice between "word choice and actions," defined by the comfort, capacity, or faith to control their consequences, is to suggest both that there's no relationship of others' contributions to this dialogue to "the business of teaching and learning," and that our shared aspirations as educators should be framed by guarantees of their success. To that I'd venture the suggestion of a wise person whose reminder I remember, but whose name I forget: "We should not confuse the likelihood of attaining a goal, with the urgency of fighting for it." And I would venture, more suggestively and cryptically, that the reasoning you use with reference to socioeconomic status, is reasoning you might hesitate to use with reference to race.

    But yours is a call for action, rooted in your conclusion that your "students, and all those like them, don't need a debate about word choice. They need actions." My suggested "in" would be to share your views, as you have articulated them, with your students; to provide some context for the debate; to see if they agree with your assessment of their current capacities, and your school's goals; to ask them about their goals, now and into the future; and to ask them: Does word choice matter? Am I asking the right questions?


    Chris Thinnes | @CurtisCFEE

  10. I enjoyed your article about the notion of grit and slack and I have seen how socio-economic grit does not necessarily foster academic grit. My observations are based on two different perspectives, as I teach at an affluent independent school and volunteer at an urban organization that helps at-risk high school students. On the surface, it might appear that middle- and upper-class kids have both types of grit. I’m not so sure. It is relatively easy for them to focus on school because they generally have a stable home with an abundance of “slack” (food, clothes, and shelter). Doing the “right thing” academically only requires going with the “flow.”

    For student with a more challenging home and school environment, the organization where I volunteer works hard to create a safe place where the kids feel valued. We provide support in the form of soft skills, like job preparation and interviewing techniques, as well as, conversation and other social skills. We also provide academic tutoring and opportunities to share their stories. The discussion groups help them inventory their current situation and chart a future course. The discussions are segmented by sex and center around making sense of their day-to-day struggles (not sure more affluent kids spend much time reflecting). The discussions include important (and pragmatic) topics, such as aspirations and goals, definitions of success, obstacles to success, and so on.

    Students voluntarily come to the organization and it is not known as some sort of counseling service. It has the feel of a casual social club. It is a place where students and a similar number of coaches (volunteers) help figure out life and shore up academic progress. At the same time, students that commit to the community receive the benefit of taping into the social-economic network of the coaches. The organization does a lot of good, but I would never ask a school to take on a task that requires a different vision and operating plan.