01 February 2014

Grit Part 4: Abundance, Authenticity, and the Multi-Year Mentor

A number of us in the school central office I work in share a common thread from childhood. Whatever the circumstances of our lives, whatever the challenges, we were afforded a key luxury: we had in our lives some adult who stuck with us for more than a single year. We had a multi-year mentor.

Industrial education has many destructive effects, but one rarely focused on is the refusal of our school design to allow adult support to stretch beyond a single school year. We have sixth grade teachers and tenth grade teachers. We have middle schools and high schools. We have programs, and thus teachers, who only work with certain age kids. We sometimes even have separate coaches for different age-defined sports. And this is disastrous. By doing this we create the ultimate scarcity of support.
"Beside my father, Coach Conaway was by far the most important man in my life. He knew about my family and the struggles we had. He gave me a chance. When I spent time with him, I felt smart and supported. He asked me tough questions. He told me stories about his childhood. He let me know when he was proud of me and when he was disappointed, and I always came back for more.  He got the best out of me. He helped me go on to college, and when I became an English teacher and wrestling and track coach with my first job, I emulated his approach." - Matt Haas
If resilience is our goal, I suggest we need, at a minimum, three things: The abundance which allows children space, time, resources, and safety. An authenticity of task which makes effort relevant. And, I now want to add, the luxury of multi-year mentoring, multi-year adult support, in a deep and meaningful way.

For me these three things came together in one person, a teacher named Alan Shapiro. Alan offered me space - the ability to not be in a classroom, time - a lack of deadlines, resources - a city full of learning opportunities instead of those limited by school walls, and safety - the certainty that I would always be welcomed back. He offered me authenticity of task - I did real work, language arts at a radio station, social studies at city hall, with real audiences. And perhaps most importantly he was there for me for four years, long enough to allow trust to build, long enough to impact my habits in significant ways, long enough to alter my long-term thinking.

Outside Chicago's Fenger High School,
if we're waiting to fix this here, we are
way, way too late.
At its heart, the debate between Paul Tough and I about "grit" is about who the primary burden of change should lie with. Tough's book - How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character- is primarily about how to "cure" (I do not necessarily mean this negatively), how to change, children. In his follow ups, and apparently now in his book tour speeches, and yes, in the last chapter of his book, he argues for some social change - improved welfare systems, better "wrap around" services, increased funding, yet his book is - titled, if we remember, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, not, "What Children Need: The Supports Our Society Must Provide." This is one perspective.

As you know, my writings are primarily about how to change systems. (This is different than my argument with Angela Duckworth, which is about both imposing religious beliefs in schools and beliefs in Social Darwinism.) This is another perspective.

In this debate Mr. Tough believes me to be elitist and theoretical. He doubts my understandings of "reality." I, on the other hand, have to admit to seeing him as an elitist diletante, at best a reporter for an elite news organization with no commitment to fundamental change, at worst a person willing to use the misery of children for profit without even having the courage to tackle the big issues. Both characterizations are likely unfair, and yet, these characterizations expose the depth of the divide which separates the "character camp" from those of us opposed to that.

School not working? Cure the child...
A number of years ago, I can't believe I actually found these, at the beginning of our northern hemisphere school year, both The New York Times and the Guardian ran stories about the difficulties of children beginning secondary school. What struck me then - what still hits me in the face - was that The Times story was about what psychiatric medicines should be given to children traumatized by their schools, while the Guardian article was about how schools needed to change adult behaviors, class organization, and even architecture in order to make students comfortable.

So Tough and I have been working parallel stories, like those two news organizations were, one embedded in the North American myth of individual responsibility, individual fault, and an individual relationship with God, the other based in, OK, a more Catholic/Socialist, even European, vision of social responsibility. Yet the fact that they are parallel does not mean that they do not collide, and it does not mean that we're not entitled to make our own moral judgements on the argument.

Abundance: Space, Time, Resources, Trust (High School HackerSpace)
For me, it is essential that we first ask questions about our systems, that we first ask what we can do to stop damaging children. If we do not, as I've said in this series before, we create damaged children at a far faster rate than we can possibly help them. Whatever the merits of the interventions Tough's book champions, from poorly prepared principals and questionable chess coaches on one end of the spectrum to deeply caring, deeply involved support on the other, nothing he promotes will halt the damage going on daily. I think we must be better than that.

Focusing instead on those three essentials, abundance, authenticity, and adult long-term human support will change the damage equation. We know that. And since we know that, we need to do it.

Authenticity: If the task has inherent value to the child, they will persist
(Elementary MakerSummer School)
Abundance: the spaces, time, resources, and supports our children need. This does require things to change, from taxpayer/community attitudes to those of teachers and administrators who put adult needs above the needs of children. It may require changing structures - architectural, time, and curricular. It may require changing work days. It may require different school district divisions. It may require teachers to give up "ownership" of classrooms. It will require investment. It will require new professional learning.

Authenticity: One of the keys to persistence on anything in life is relevance. How long would most people stay in a job which did not offer some kind of direct reward? For most jobs that comes as pay which enables the worker to have many other things and to avoid many miseries. For some other jobs - long term volunteering, for example, this comes with somewhat less tangible, but still quite real rewards. But in school we expect children to work - in some cases to work really, really hard, for completely intangible rewards. If you are one of those students for whom As matter, there can be a reward to schoolwork. That's the wonder of school for those completely dependent on adult approval and extrinsic rewards - grades and behavior rules actually work. But for others, what might we offer? We cannot even offer any promise that "education" will be a successful path out for children in poverty, as Paul Thomas makes clear in his most recent post on "The Grit Narrative," the odds are against this being true. A child might be the best, hardest working, best grade-making student on the South Side of Chicago or in inner Cleveland, or even in Martinsville, Virginia and still walk out of his house and get shot. This is, as Thomas says, no meritocracy.

So, why would kids in poverty put in the effort? Hell, why would any kid? I say all the time, why would a child who struggles with reading - and a large percentage do - put in that effort if the only reward is the worthless literature of school "leveled reading" books? And we all know that math becomes a disaster when math teachers cannot offer any relevant reason why anyone would need or want to know any of that subject. But for children in poverty this divide begins to extend to everything in school.

Eric Juli, who leads an inner-city school in Cleveland, Ohio wrote - on the issues of "grit," "slack," and "abundance":
"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 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.
Why doesn't "life tough" translate to "school tough"? Because school, all too often, has not a thing to do with the lives of our students. And if school was bad about this historically - think of Mark Twain's documentation of this in Huck Finn - we make it worse every day. Two key fallacies of our Common Core are, (a) that age-based curriculum makes any sense at all, and that (b) localized curriculum - what Yong Zhao calls "mass localization" - is somehow bad. Only a person with no understanding at all of the diversity of America would think that its a "great idea" for Eric's tenth graders and those in Scarsdale, New York to have the same curricular and academic design.

It isn't just that it's OK for Virginia kids to get a different sense of history and literature than do New York kids or Michigan kids, it is that the very understanding of how we read and analyze text might need to change between Fairfax County, Virginia and Esmont, Virginia, between Shaker Heights, Ohio and Eric's school's neighborhood. Why? Because children begin in very different places and live in very different worlds, and the path to success is not made equitable by making it equal.

Now "relevance" does not mean "less," but it should mean "very different." We might need to alter the way we teach completely, the order in which we teach things completely. We might need to make our work much more hands-on for some kids, or connect the work to worlds we, if we're middle class adults, do not know very well.  We may need to read different texts, use numbers in new ways, consider science differently. And we're incredibly dumb about that in schools - we all know, for example - that once we put dollar signs in front of decimal numbers kids tend to understand them, but most American schools still refuse to do that first. I once saw a ninth grade biology teacher complain on Twitter that her students weren't interested. "Really?" I tweeted back, "you must be talking about the wrong bodies if you're boring 14-year-olds." I've had to fight with middle school teachers to use YouTube sports videos in speed and velocity lessons. I've seen hundreds of history lessons made completely uninteresting by focusing on dates and the adventures of long dead white guys. And that's what we refuse to do for middle class kids...

Teaching the structure of mythic storytelling need not be a lecture

Breaking the rules of outdated, honestly never particularly effective, pedagogy is step one, for every child, but a crucial step one for our most "at-risk" children. Breaking the boundaries of traditional school rules is step two. From attendance requirement to assignment due dates, we need to think differently to allow children a greater abundance of options which can offer authenticity. Rethinking control can help too. If your school has any WiFi at all, open it up, then go beg Verizon and AT&T to collect used Android phones for you and build your technology options that way. Contemporary technology builds relevance in ways textbooks and the walls of a classroom cannot possibly. Afraid that will open up drug-dealing and bullying? I've got news for you, you are not solving those problems by blocking technology use.

Your mission is to make every class, every day, worth your student's time and attention. Not worth it by your standards, worth it by their standards. Every day, every minute, every child makes the microeconomic decision to do the work of your class by comparing the apparent reward to the apparent cost (effort). For kids, all over, who spend an hour or more just getting to school, for kids for whom school attendance has a direct and immediate cost vs. not attending, your need for relevance goes way, way up.

But in the end, it's all about relationships. What keeps adolescents on track, as I referenced at the top, are adults who are there. "Look," President Obama said in July 2012 in Roanoke, Virginia - bizarrely controversially, "if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own... If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help." And that help works best when it extends across real time, not school time.

"somebody along the line gave you some help"

"School time," a class a day for even a year, isn't "adolescent need time" or "child need time." This is why kids usually do better in elementary schools than in secondary schools. Why they do even better with teachers who loop with them, why they do even better than that with long-term multiage environments. This is why high school graduates looking back are most likely to thank their coaches or the rare multiple year or multiple class teachers when they look back. 
"The term "mentor" has its roots in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. In this myth, Odysseus, a great royal warrior, has been off fighting the Trojan War and has entrusted his son, Telemachus, to his friend and advisor, Mentor. Mentor has been charged with advising and serving as guardian to the entire royal household. As the story unfolds, Mentor accompanies and guides Telemachus on a journey in search of his father and ultimately for a new and fuller identity of his own." (Anderson and Shannon, 2012)
Length of the mentoring relationship, even the perception at the start of the expected duration, can change everything. "[Y]outh may have experienced unsatisfactory or rejecting parental relationships in the past. Consequently, they may have developed internal representations of relationships that incorporate fears and doubts about whether others will accept and support them (Bowlby, 1982; Egeland, Jacobvitz, & Sroufe, 1988)," say Grossman and Rhodes, 2002. "When such adolescents encounter cues that relationships will not proceed, however minimal or ambiguous, they may readily perceive intentional rejection from their mentors." In simpler terms, ones we see every day, research supports what we know. The "at risk" ninth grader is far more likely to invest in the relationship with a sports coaching staff he expects to have alongside him for four years than in the relationship with an English teacher he knows will end in nine months. Why would we provide this kind of essential support for football, basketball, even cheerleading but not with academics? I think that's a question we must ask ourselves.

We could reorganize ourselves as faculties. We could assemble teams which might carry middle school or high school children across their time in our schools. That might make our work a bit harder, but it might begin to offer our students that abundance of time, support, and trust they most need.

Laura Deisley
wrote on Eric Juli's blog that 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."

Abundance offers opportunity. Authenticity offers that purpose. Relationship offers that support. And I do not care where we teach, or who we teach, I believe that we can alter our systems to provide more of those three things than we do today. And by doing that we can begin to change the equations which defeat our children.

- Ira Socol


tborash said...

Thanks for this post, Ira. I appreciate the opportunity to better understand your perspective.

I appreciate the clarity of your description of the three-pronged minimum that learners need- abundance, authenticity, and the multi-year mentor- in order to promote a goal of resilience. One thing I'm wondering about is your use of the word "minimum" in reference to those prongs. Does that imply that "We can't take this on without these things?"

Because I feel like we can.

When I read your post, what I'm seeing in those three facets is: resource availability (including time & space), relevance in learning work, and feedback from someone who knows us.

It strikes me that "access to what's needed" (resource availability) is a lower threshold than "access to more than what's needed" (abundance) - does that mean that resilience cannot be a goal when necessary resources are available?

Also, the multi-year mentor concept sounds to me like a fantastic opportunity for any learner. What I'm wondering is, must it necessarily be a multi-year mentor in order to develop a relationship that involves a feedback loop that promotes development of resilience?

Finally, in regard to the distinction of "school-tough" vs "life-tough" aspect that connects the relevance of school work to something that feels authentic to the student, I think this facet is where we can make the most change the most quickly in terms of promoting resilience. When school work looks more like life work, the resilience is more likely to develop. I would argue that we make this the "lead dog" in your proposal, allowing it to pull the rest along the path.

In summary, I appreciate your thinking on this topic and how you've shared your story about your own learning. In terms of a "call to action" for others, I would propose a shift in the title from "Abundance, Authenticity, and the Multi-Year Mentor" to "Authentic Work, Available Resources, and Relationship-Driven Feedback," where Authentic Work becomes our key initial focus.

I welcome your feedback on this (and anyone else's, as well).

irasocol said...


I think any sense of "minimum" in terms of abundance is only a reality check. Some schools are so lacking in resources - many operating on under $7000/yr per student - that, well, we do what we can do. But as I said on Grant Lichtman's blog, for students with nothing, a little can seem like a lot. So I think that's always a place to begin. Until the pressure of total scarcity is removed, I'm not sure what else works.

But really, I believe that we can do all three, right now (or by September) in every school. It is simply a matter of shifting our personal priorities to match the needs of our students. Part of this - in high schools, even in middle schools, means dropping the professorial - narrow expertise - model. One might think about themself as a chemistry teacher, but it is probably far more important to think about oneself as a "science leader." That would take a bunch of work - I'm not kidding anyone - but it might be less stressful than the current shifts we ask our children to make year after year - actually, hour after hour.

Finally, I think "relationship-driven feedback" leaves out crucial components of mentoring. The feedback only becomes valuable when it is provided within a context of care and acceptance. I've found that to be true in every coaching experience I've ever had - really - in every effective learning experience I've ever had, on either side of the equation.

- Ira

Bruce Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Smith said...

I’m coming into this discussion in the middle and am new to this context for the terms "grit," "slack," and "abundance." I don’t yet know your background or context, and I haven’t read Tough’s book.

Here’s what I do know. The Sudbury model of education addresses most if not all of the points you raise here.

I've worked at Alpine Valley School since 1998. When I first heard of Paul Tough, I was surprised to encounter mainstream acknowledgement that there might be more important things in school than an emphasis on so-called academics—“so-called” because, in my experience at least, the real curriculum of conventional education is compliance.

What I particularly like about your post is that it redirects our emphasis as educators in a more potent direction. As you say, “it is essential that we first ask questions about our systems, that we first ask what we can do to stop damaging children.” Amen to that.

You say:

“If resilience is our goal, I suggest we need, at a minimum, three things: The abundance which allows children space, time, resources, and safety. An authenticity of task which makes effort relevant. And, I now want to add, the luxury of multi-year mentoring, multi-year adult support, in a deep and meaningful way.”

Sudbury schooling, which has been around since the 1960s but remains relatively small and unknown, puts these three components at the very center of its program. As for abundance, our students have all the time and space they could possibly want, within structures that guard their safety. We recognize that technology, restricted in many schools, represents the tools our young people need to master, and thus Sudbury students have free access to it (subject only to rules they create and enforce, rules intended to balance individual freedom and responsibility for the well-being of the community).

Authenticity and relevance are ensured because it is up to them, each individual student, to decide what is worth their time, what they want to learn and tackle and get better at. Sudbury believes in making schools scaled-down versions of real life, and so we operate as democracies in which students not only direct their own learning, but also have a controlling voice in how each school is run. They participate fully in making and enforcing the rules, they have a vote equal to any adult’s in deciding how to handle budgetary and personnel issues. I can't imagine a schooling model more likely to be relevant to each student.

As incredible as this might sound, relationships and connections—multi-year mentoring, as you put it—is where the real value lies. Not only with adults, but with young people of all ages, our students learn from, teach, and support each other. Talk about the antithesis of age-based curriculum! What could be more localized than allowing each school and each student form their own program of study (which is to say, to learn from life in all its rich abundance)?

Yes, kids are “yearning for relationship and purpose.” And empowerment. My only critique of your post is its emphasis on what we as concerned adults need to and might do. WE might alter how we teach and in what order? WE need to rethink control?

I say, rethinking education will go nowhere unless it both involves and gives over as much control as possible to the learners themselves. We adults do must course live up to our role as mentors and guides; but until we trust the powerful curiosity and drive to mastery innate in young people, any changes we make will necessarily be limited. In the end, authenticity is in the eyes of individual students, and is not ours to fashion or hand over to them.

It's impossible in a blog comment to do justice to each point, to tease out each nuance. So I would encourage you to look into Sudbury schooling and see how it relates to your work. Please let me know if I can help at any point.

irasocol said...


Thank you for bringing up Sudbury. As a graduate of a high school created by Neil Postman, Alan Shapiro, and Charlie Weingartner at the same time http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2009/05/great-schools-1-changing-everything.html and http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2011/02/chris-lehmann-alan-shapiro-and-sitting.html with the same philosophies, I am a firm believer. It isn't a "Sudbury" model to me, its a "Summerhill" model and is based in both democratic ideals and trust in students, and, in the versions created in New Rochelle and Philadelphia and White Plains (et al) around 1970, a belief that children are fully capable of participating in and supporting the life of their urban communities.

But here is the challenge - though schools like the "3Is" "Parkway" and "Alpha" were public schools, Sudbury-style schools are not. That's an advantage - testing, regulations, political oversight - and a disadvantage - funding for Sudbury schools, with tuitions much lower than most private schools - is even lower than that of many public schools in the states in which they operate.

But the public/private issue is critical in terms of modeling. Over 45 years the Sudbury model has spread to include far fewer students each year than one median-size American school system educates. In two decades from, say, 1967, the "open classroom/high schools-without-walls" model spread to a far larger audience than that, but, because of the politics of the public realm, almost all of that was rolled back during the "Bush I/Diane Ravitch" time at the US Department of Education. A nightmarish counter-revolution from which we are still trying to recover.

So the question is, how do we change the essential paradigm of education to create fundamental change throughout public education - change which redefines education in the public mind?

Sudbury, for all of its accomplishments has never done that, any more than Summerhill changed English education, or, for that matter, the Brooklyn and Manhattan Free Schools have impacted New York City public schools.

One of my deepest criticisms of the Charter School Movement in the US is its complete failure to be the "laboratory for change" that our public schools need. There is simply very little conversation between the realms - even if 95% of charters weren't conservative replications of school in 1940.

There are those attempting to bridge the public/private divide - I urge you to follow @CurtisCFEE if you don't already - and if your school is not actively engaged in this effort I urge you to join in. Public schools can learn a great deal from Sudbury - but we must start by acknowledging that it is very different to change an existing system of schools with between 10,000 and 100,000+ students of every type - who come and go - who often lack any parental commitment to the schools' ethos and goals - than to build a school from scratch for a small group. http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2013/10/seven-pathways-to-new-teacher.html

So once we set the "rules of understanding," lets get the cross-learning going.

- Ira