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?