Tag Archives: grit

Opportunities to Iterate

My teaching partner and I have been working with our students on coding this year (see here and here and here).  We’ve figured out how to make coding a regular part of our week…and our students are having success with planning, creating, and debugging.  We’re planning a “winter scene” challenge for next week to celebrate the Hour of Code…more about that next week.

Related to this coding effort is our goal of helping students to cultivate “grit” and to see mistakes as learning opportunities.  (See It’s the Little Things for more on grit.)

So this week in addition to our digital work as programmers, we have given students a design challenge…making snowflakes.

These southern CA kids have limited experience with snow (as do I), but learning about snowflakes is fascinating.  We started by reading Snowflake Bentley about Wilson Bentley–a man obsessed with photographing snowflakes using a camera attached to a microscope (back before the technology was very developed).  He showed a tremendous amount of tenacity and grit in his efforts…and finally published his book of snowflake photos when he was 66 years old.

We knew that creating hexagonal snowflakes (by cutting paper) would be challenging for our students, but we decided that this purposeful opportunity to iterate…study mistakes and learn from them for their next attempt, would be a perfect platform for helping to build grit and tenacity.

And then to add to the challenge, inspired by Zoo Flakes ABC, our students are creating hexagonal snowflakes in the shape of animals.  Yesterday they learned to fold and began drawing their animal to cut.  Today they tried out their design by cutting out their animal. There were many failures–unconnected pieces that looked nothing like animals or snowflakes, whiny “this is hard” comments, and requests for help cutting (we deferred, reminding  them it was a perfect opportunity for practice).  There were some semi-successes with 6 intact “arms” of something like an animal shape.  And there was lots of concentration and studying of the results.

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We studied our successes and failures…and then looked at some more “expert” attempts online.  We considered ways to improve even those attempts that were “successful” (in the sense that a snowflake-like shape resulted).  And students are ready to try again tomorrow.

But best of all there were no tears and everyone gave it a try today.  Our students were focused on their design and their cutting…and desperately want their snowflakes to work out.

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We’re excited about this project…and all that our students will gain from these iterative efforts.  I’ll let you know more as we progress through this project!

What do you do to help your students study their mistakes and try again?

It’s the Little Things

Yesterday I dug out my macro lens and started playing with it again.  It’s one of those things that I love, but I have to stop what I’m doing, take the cover off my phone, unscrew the macro lens from the wide angle, attach it and then lean in to photograph my subject.  Using the macro means coming close, taking time to steady myself and my breathing, and holding still for the perfect shot.  It’s easy to get the focus wrong and come away with a blurry shot.

And in spite of all of that, I love the vantage the macro lens offers.  I get to see small things in new ways.  Things that are easily overlooked suddenly come into focus, creating a stunning new way of understanding the subject.

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A familiar TED talk also crossed my Twitter feed this morning.  Angela Duckworth talking about her research about what makes students successful…was it intelligence or something she calls grit?  She found in case after case, holding all other variables steady, that grit made the difference.

This 6 minute video is well worth your time.  But it’s also important to think about not just students and how hard they work, but also how teachers view persistence and effort.  A growth mindset, as described by Carol Dweck, means that errors are seen as part of the learning process.  Mistakes are an opportunity for learning, not an indicator of lack of effort or lack of intelligence.

So back to the macro lens and the little things.  With the help of the macro lens I can appreciate the beauty of things I hadn’t paid much attention to before, like this half blown dandelion in my yard.

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And with a growth mindset I can also appreciate the little things about my students as I notice how they approach a math problem or understand a science concept or even where their struggles are with decoding.  Instead of seeing what they can’t do, I pay attention to the beauty of what they do know and help them use their strengths as tools to make progress where things seem hard.

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Like these tiny, ethereal dandelion seeds, learners can take the seeds of understanding from one subject and plant them in others.  And as teachers paying close attention, we can help our students identify their strengths and repurpose them in other situations.

When I went outside this morning the cactus flower blossom in the pot near my front door was closed…looking droopy and like it might be ready to fall off.  But since I was playing with my macro lens, I leaned in and got close…and captured this.

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Without the lens, my eyes did not capture the beauty and colors that my camera could see (all of these photos are unedited originals).  I noticed later in the day when the sun had reached the door that the blooms opened, yellow and vibrant.

I’m glad that I took some time with my macro lens today…and with Angela Duckworth’s TED talk.  Tomorrow I return to my classroom after a week away for the Thanksgiving holiday. And I’ll be looking closely and leaning in to notice all that my students bring to the learning…even when it seems hard…to appreciate their strengths and re-view their mistakes. We’ll be developing our grit…together.

Developing a Practice

One of my favorite weekend morning activities is the opportunity to lounge in bed and read. It’s such a luxury since even on weekends I often have to be up and about and out of the house early.  This morning I was reading Natalie Goldberg’s latest book, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life With Language.  I’ve read most of her books–and while this one doesn’t rank as my favorite–the chapter I read this morning on the importance of developing and committing to a practice struck me.  Here’s what Natalie says about practice:

…we established a different slant to practice other than “practice makes perfect”: It’s something you choose to do on a regular basis with no vision of an outcome; the aim is not improvement, not getting somewhere.  You do it because you do it.  You show up whether you want to or not.  Of course, at the beginning it’s something that you have chosen, that you wanted, but a week, a month in, you often meet resistance.  Even if you love it, inertia, obstacles arise: I can make better use of my time, I’m tired, I’m hungry, this is stupid, I need to listen to the evening news.  Here’s where you have the opportunity to meet your own mind, to examine what it does, its ploys and shenanigans.  That’s ultimately what practice is:  arriving at the front–and back door–of yourself.  You set up to do something consistently over a long period of time–and simply watch what happens with no idea of good or bad, gain or loss. No applause–and no criticism.

To get myself blogging, I gave myself a challenge (maybe that is one variation on a practice) to write and post a blog daily for 30 days.  That short term challenge felt doable.  I didn’t create the challenge for myself because I hoped to become a professional blogger (or writer), but because I wanted to feel what it would be like to consistently blog.  But, I am on the verge of establishing a blogging practice.  I have continued to write and post daily on this blog, well past the 30 days of the challenge…but I am sure as the school year begins on Tuesday that this daily practice will need to morph to a regular practice that is more like a three times weekly practice.  But what I love about the practice is that I have written and posted every day–even when I was tired and couldn’t seem to think of anything interesting to write.  I have pushed past my comfort zone and figured out how to generate ideas and get something composed each and every day.

And I can authentically share my experience of developing a practice with my students.  I can help them develop a regular writing practice.  It doesn’t have to be my practice–writing and publishing a daily blog post–but the act of developing a practice and “showing up” on a regular basis help us each learn something about ourselves.  It also helps us to develop those valuable traits of persistence and grit–hanging in there even when things seem hard.  Because ultimately it’s our drive that determines success and learning.  Talent is great…but effort over time is everything.

This reminds me of my time working for McDonald’s Restaurants before I decided to go into teaching.  Ray Kroc, McDonad’s founder, was inspired by this quote by Calvin Coolidge…which I kept for years on the bulletin board in our home office.

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

Natalie recommends keeping a log of your practice–even if you skip–and rather than giving up when you miss a day, just make note of it and resume the next day.  I like this recommendation…and I like that my blog keeps track for me.  I can easily see which days I have “practiced.” What practice will you develop?

Neverwhere and more: a book(s) review

In the last few weeks I read two books written by Neil Gaiman.  I finished Neverwhere last night and read The Ocean at the End of the Lane a few weeks before that.  I read Coraline a few years ago…and remembering some picture books I bought last year, I reread The Wolves in the Walls and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish today.  In some ways I’m surprised that I like these books, they are a little bit fantasy with some parable-type qualities woven in.

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So what do I read, you might ask?  That question seems to become more and more complicated.  If you follow me on Goodreads you may notice that I have binged on several YA series.  I’ve read the Hunger Games series followed by a number of dystopian novels including Blood Red RoadDivergent and InsurgentThe Water Wars, and the Maze Runner series (that was not my favorite series).  I’ve also read some series more in the fantasy category including The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas FlamelThe Mortal Instruments (City of Bones…), The Infernal Devices, and Graceling Realm.  Interspersed were murder mysteries by Gillian Flynn and Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen…and then there were the 4000+ pages of The Game of Thrones (haven’t gotten to A Dance with Dragons yet).  I’ve also read other odds and ends, novels and plenty of books for kids, especially graphic novels for the younger crowd.

But back to Neverwhere.  I read a lot.  Fiction and non-fiction, fantasy, mystery, realistic fiction, historical fiction and everything in between.  And some books stay with me longer than others. I liked Neverwhere.  Some reviewer described it as an urban fairytale.  In some ways I think that most of Gaiman’s books are fairytales of sort…maybe in the Grimm tradition.  When I think of Richard (of Neverwhere) and the unnamed narrator in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, they are both those anti-heroes who learn powerful life lessons as they interact with supernatural beings from somewhere other than the world of humans that you and I live most of our lives in. They are flawed, often seen as weak pushover types as the story begins.  They find their strength in unusual ways.

These are stories about overcoming difficulties…in many cases difficulties that the adults around them just don’t get.  When I think about Gaiman’s books I find myself thinking about the qualities of grit and resilience that we look to cultivate in our students…and that teachers need too in our current educational climate.   Neverwhere is a story about trusting your gut, learning from close observation, and hanging in there even when the going gets tough and things are scary.  It’s about feeling invisible and doing what is right anyway and finally about realizing that what you thought you needed and wanted for your life might not really be what you were looking for.

Gaiman’s books are richly layered, both readable and complex.  There are books for kids (The Wolves in the Walls and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish), for older kids (Coraline) and stories for adults.  And I haven’t read them all yet.  I think The Graveyard Book is up next for me.  What’s your favorite Gaiman book?  What else do you recommend?