Sunday, February 2, 2014

Grit: Context Matters

Have you ever seen the children’s book Zoom by Istvan Banyai? The book is only images, beginning with what is essentially an ant’s eye view, and slowly, page by page, panning out to become a five mile high view, all of the same place. Each page, our perspective changes, given the details of the image we can now see. The book reminds me that perspective and context matter. They especially matter in the eclectic and wonderful educational-blogosphere where so many thinkers contribute a myriad of perspectives and contexts to the conversation.

When I posted my thinking around the Tough/Socol et. al Grit/Slack Debate, (we should have t-shirts made by the way; it’s very catchy), I was attempting to offer my perspective as an inner city principal, working with the very population that the discussion focused upon. After I posted, there were several really interesting outcomes.

First, there was the last line of my post. “Are you in?” Now, what I intended and what happened were two totally different outcomes. I was really trying to say, are you in on action in general over just using words? Not, are you in on my school right now? I was so surprised to see that readers thought I meant are you in on my school. Thanks so much to Jill, Bo, Laura, and Grant, who in one way or another said they were in on me, and my school. It’s awfully kind, and I so appreciate the heartfelt “inness” you offered.

Chris Thines, upon reading my post, felt that I was devaluing anyone who wanted to discuss what can, should, or ought to be done about poverty. For others of you who perceived my post in that way, that certainly wasn’t the spirit in which it was intended. But here’s where my context and my perspective begin to come into the picture. An overarching theme in this ongoing discussion has been about poverty; poverty through the lens of socio-economic status, race, and educational potential, expectations, and outcomes, have all been part of the discussion. And I was struck when Chris compared my shutting down the conversation to teachers who shut their doors to their classrooms because the discussion doesn’t relate to what they will teach on Tuesday. This was a particular gut shot, because teachers actually shut their doors in the hopes that I’ll go away. So it got me to reflect on my own progression of my thinking. You see, I fell in love with the Philosophy of Education, long before I decided to teach. Nell Noddings', The Challenge to Care In School, Paulo Freire’s, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and of course Dewey’s Experience and Education remain guiding references on my bookshelf in my current office. I was an undergraduate Philosophy major at Syracuse, and I loved grappling with ideas in general. 

But, at some point in these last seventeen years in schools, poverty stopped being an entity, an idea, a status or a condition. Instead, at some point without my even realizing it, Poverty started being students’ faces and names. Poverty is now grandmothers that sit in my office and crying and asking for help. It’s the coffin I saw at my murdered student’s funeral, and the baby’s cries at namings and events I’ve attended after my students’ have babies of their own. It’s this context, this perspective these names, faces, and events that have me falling squarely in the context of action oriented and not words oriented. It isn’t that I want to dismiss the dialogue, discussion, or thinking aloud. It’s simply that from my perspective, in my context, I want to take action now (Right Now!) on behalf of my students. I love words and ideas. Always have, always will. But I also have shame, frustration, and anger about graduating students who aren’t ready for the world. And my desire to make change as quickly as possible guides my current thinking about actions over words.

It’s so interesting to me how a word or an idea can be so different depending on the context. When I used the phrase “pushing my staff” on twitter, in the context of my desire to move towards Design Thinking, Dr. Lee-Anne Gray equated “pushing teachers” with teacher abuse.

Here’s an example of how vital “pushing teachers” on behalf of students is at my school. It has taken me two full years to ensure that teachers having unlocked doors to classrooms, is part of what we do. Let me try to be clearer still. When I arrived at Design Lab three years ago, and through the start of this year, every time a student tried to enter his or her classroom, they found every single door locked. So last years’ graduates spent all four years of high school, never having the opportunity to walk into a classroom without a teacher explicitly opening the door and inviting the student in.

Please take just two minutes after reading this to imagine the implications for learning, culture, relationships and every other key part of a school when every classroom door is locked to students all the time. So I pushed. And I pushed, and I pushed. And here we are in year three, and doors are unlocked for all but two teachers all the time. But we fall into bad habits still. When teachers are annoyed with students and annoyed with me, doors are still sometimes locked. That’s one example. I could offer a thousand. Should I have pushed? Or should I have waited for teacher readiness around unlocking doors? When I arrived in Cleveland, my teachers were very clear. “This [locking doors] is what we do here.” Context and perception both matter.

Control is another word that is interpreted in a variety of ways. I said in my post, “I want to focus only on what we have control over.” Chris Thinnes and others interpreted control, I think, as a synonym for power. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead my version of control is about focusing on the teaching and learning that occurs in our four walls during the school day. Too many of my students come to school hungry and angry, and dirty and cold. There are so many opportunities to use those circumstances as reasons why those students cannot learn. We are in charge of the hours the students are in our care. What can we do right and better for and with them? To them happens also, unfortunately, but it isn’t the intent.

Here’s another place where context and perspective matter. In this great ongoing discussion about what we do about poverty, here’s my contribution: I’m purposefully trying to turn around an inner city public high school. I think if I wanted to that I have the skill set to go start a Charter School. But I want to be part of a system of schools. I want to prove that we can grow a successful inner city high school as part of a district of schools and make it replicable. I want our school to be a school that any of us would send our children to, while being part of a system of schools. If we can do that, we’re showing that “these” students, my students, our students, can be successful despite their circumstances. That’s how I address poverty; the institution. Or at least that’s how I’m trying to address it. I’m not even close to being successful yet.

But there’s a gigantic catch to what I’m trying to do. And it’s vital to understanding it as you try and understand the context in which I write and make decisions. None of my teachers; not one, has ever taught in a school that works. None of my students’ parents have ever attended a school that works, and none of my students have ever attended a school that works. So as I push us towards innovation, towards learning outside our four walls, towards relevancy in learning, towards design thinking and making, towards authenticity; I’m doing it without any common ground, save one frustrating commonality. My teachers, students, and parents all connect around our state exam. Everyone gets that they need it the state test to graduate. That’s it-no other common ground exists. How I lead us towards what school can be and should be without anyone having ever seen a working school before is the hardest, scariest, most terrifying part of my daily work. Context and perspective absolutely matter.

Anyone reading this post is always welcome to come visit our school. Ask my students what they think about grit and their future, and you’ll hear what I hear every day. My students who are interested in the law say they want to be paralegals. My students who are interested in medicine, offer you “radiology technician.” My students inevitably pick jobs that don’t require a college education, because they can’t imagine themselves getting a college education. Too often, my students can only imagine themselves working within service industry at McDonalds. How would you talk about grit in that context? How would you address slack given that perspective? Some days I think I know how. Others, significantly less so.

The conditions that exist among my teachers, parents and students reminds me of Plato’s Myth of the Caves. Do you know it? In it, these men are only able to look forward and all they can see are the shadows of men, women, children, and animals, cast from a fire. One person escapes, and sees the world as it actually is, and when he returns to the cave to tell his colleagues what the world is really like, they think he’s insane.

My teachers, parents, and students only see the shadows. And everything they know and have experienced tells them the way we “do” school is not only the right way, but the only way. Oh, by the way, I’m the insane guy, saying things can be different in this particular allegory.

So what does the myth of the caves have to do with Grit? In my mind, it means there’s so much work we have to do before we can even get to the school-tough I discussed in my last post. Asking my students what they want. Asking my students’ parents what they want, and asking my teachers what they want means we have to learn to see more than shadows first.

I didn’t write about it in my first post, but I should have. In 1998, Ron Suskind, a writer for the Wall Street Journal gave a name to the foundational work we have to do to even get into the conversation about Grit. He discussed a belief and a faith in having something better despite the words of those around us that “we can’t” or “we won’t” or “why bother” as a “hope in the unseen. (Suskind, 1998)” In his book, A Hope in the Unseen, Suskind retells the true story of a young man’s journey from the inner city to Brown University. Cedric, the main character defined the unseen as “a place, a place I couldn’t see yet, up ahead… an imagined place that I’ll get to someday (Suskind, 1998, pg. 330).”

I think about that hope in the unseen regularly. At my school, in our context, from my perspective, our work begins with making the unseen visible. I ask students regularly, “What do you want?” “What’s your plan?” “What happens next?” We need to name the unseen, and then develop the necessary grit to make it happen.

I love the ongoing discussion about grit and slack. While I can’t agree with any of Ira Socol's beliefs about Paul Tough, I loved his Grit Part 4 post and I highly recommend you read it. Just know that while I agree with virtually everything he said, we’re a long way from implementing any of it at my school. And when I ask for ideas on twitter or in this blog related to how you would start, I really mean it. There isn’t a clear roadmap for the work we’re doing at our school. And sometimes I feel just as confused as my teachers must feel when I ask them to “do school” differently.

Context and perspective really matter. There’s so much that happens at our school that matters towards making teaching and learning better. There are so many posts I either don’t write or am nervous to write. As we try and do school better, does context matter? Twice this year, I’ve had to sneak into my house, so my children didn’t see that I had other people’s blood all over me. I think that matters. I think that speaks to the learning environment we have, and the one we need to create.

Does it matter that in my twenty minute drive home from work, I go from inner city Cleveland to beautiful Shaker Heights? And that plenty of days it takes me much longer than twenty minutes to decompress and let go of what I’ve seen and done at school. I think it matters.

I’m definitely focused on action over words. I hope this post helps you to see the why of that purposeful decision. I also hope that you will understand that when I ask for suggestions, advice or starting steps, the question isn’t rhetorical. I’m in the weeds far more often than I’m not. I’m taking my grit, both school and life, along with the slack I’ve gotten over the years, and heading back to my own personal battleground tomorrow. School as battleground… what a terrible analogy. But context matters...


  1. Thank you, Eric, for your profoundly candid and inspiring response. I appreciate your brave transparency -- about your background, about your school community, and about the many tensions your are navigating.

    I'm sorry my comments registered as a 'gut shot' -- and I can only hope they didn't strike you as a 'cheap shot' -- and/but my suggestion wasn't rhetorical: I can't help but wonder (however presumptuously it might be on my part) if inviting your students -- and your teachers, for that matter -- into this very dialogue might itself help to "push" in all the right ways, and to unlock even more doors than you have so admirably opened in your learning community.


    Chris Thinnes | @CurtisCFEE

  2. I"m still in. Because it is about your school--sure--and more importantly, about every student. I don't know how many students we are graduating, anywhere, who are really prepared for what's ahead. I loved Ira's Grit 4 post as well, and I do believe we must offer relationship and purpose to a community that goes beyond what one can see right in front of him.

    I"m in. For whatever that means.

  3. Eric,

    I want to thank you for this deeply considered response, but I will suggest that you might begin to consider your agency is new terms.

    I do welcome your belief in Design Thinking, but I think you and your school will benefit if you could bring the true nature of design thought to your faculty. Maybe I'm unsure of what Design Thinking means to Stanford's D-School (I have no experience at all with that), and I have to admit to being frustratingly disappointed in what I've seen of IDEO's design thinking for schools, but I know that for me, design thinking begins with getting every one to first ask the question, "What is the User Experience we want our children to have?"

    It is that question which has, in my experience, allowed not just schools but many organizations to alter practice in significant ways, even when the systems were working against us.

    I guess I can think back to The Bronx's 47th Precinct in the NYPD of the 1980s, and how, despite pressures from City Hall and One Police Plaza, despite a disastrous shortage of police officers for the needs of that community (we could be backlogged over 100 9-1-1 calls on many summer nights), we constructed - we, the cops and sergeants on the street - as much of what I now call "abundance" "relevance" and "relationships" as we possibly could. That might have just been giving a homeless vet rides to the hospital for meds every week, or fighting with social services to find places for kids and their families to sleep. That might have meant Police Athletic League sports in the parks. That might have meant getting out of the cars whenever we could to talk to people on the street. It just might have meant trying to be as consistent as possible with who worked which sectors, so we'd start from a point of knowledge. I know it included ignoring the "one city" nonsense from above and policing our communities the way our communities wanted/needed to be policed.

    Now that was incredibly minimal, I guess I'd have to say that we were not particularly successful all-things-considered, but we worked every day to create that "user experience" the people in our precinct needed rather than whatever One Police Plaza expected.

    So that was both a humbling experience but one I am proud of being part of. Just as I remain proud that it was NYPD cops who, for 12 years, led the fight against Michael Bloomberg's Stop-and-Frisk tyranny. New York cops know the constitution and know their communities. They usually know right from wrong. And they are constantly trying - in ways big and small - to design a better policing experience.

    If cops can do that, teachers can do that. I think of getting your teachers to unlock their doors as akin to getting radio car cops to roll down their windows and listen to the street. And once you've done that, the next move for cops is to get them out of those cars to walk. What's the equivalent for teachers? Is it rescheduling? probably not yet. But it might be beginning to collaborate so tasks/assignments are tied to a greater web of support. It might be finding an old computer and free software (our music studio began just that way, with a 6-yr-old desktop), or to beg for old Android phones with cameras, to allow tasks to be completed via different media. It might be making the library or cafeteria more comfortable with found furniture. It might be a million different things, but "push"? Yes, "push" for every move to be followed by another - not your moves now, but moves generated by every faculty member in pursuit of that desired "user experience."

    This all might seem hopelessly beyond the reach of your school right now - I don't know, maybe it is. But right now in America the rich kids get all the cool new experiences, and the poor get the least pedagogical innovation. And I think that has to change.


  4. Thank you, Eric. I don't have any suggestions for you, but I so appreciate your openness and honesty. You inspire me with your passion for your teachers and your students, with the deep, kind heart from which you lead. I'm proud to call you my friend. Keep on sowing hope, Eric. Keep on.

  5. Once again, a wonderful essay that, unlike so many bloggers, allows me to see clearly into your world and needs. For me, the "I am in" was more metaphorical than "your school", but it was action -oriented. I am "in" to addressing an admittedly narrow part of the problem. I don't know how to tackle poverty, so not "in" there. What I think I can do is help frame the discussion of how schools get much better than they are now, and not leave schools like yours out of the discussion. I don't have the answer, but I know one does exist; it is a question of getting the right people together with the right resources with a sense of urgency. That is the windmill that I am going to tilt at, as are others.

  6. An amazing discussion about the reality of working in an inner city public school!

    I really like Ira''s comment: design thinking begins with getting every one to first ask the question, "What is the User Experience we want our children to have?"

    The dilemma that Eric has here, between wanting so much for the community he serves, and serving a community that is blind to their own potential power is frustrating and challenging to all of the helpers who work with populations in American inner cities. I saw this as a Child Social Worker in South Central Los Angeles. I also asked the parents of my clients- What do you want to see happen? And I know that when you ask that question, many will look at you and say that no one ever asked them that question.

    Eric- you are the lead learner- and you can set the culture. G-d bless you with success!