False correlation, you will say, and you will be right. But my mind is nothing but a random connector of things, so here I am...
more than half an hour 38 respectable, law‐abiding citizens in Queens
watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew
the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights
interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought
her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned ‐ the police
during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead." - The New York Times, March 27, 1964
On a Saturday morning - I'll admit a Saturday morning at the end of a frustrated, angry week, I began to throw out challenges to educators on Twitter:
As a former New York City Cop, as a native New Yorker,, the name "Kitty Genovese" can begin a world of conversation and argument. Few stories seem more depressing about how people come to see others as statistics, simply because this story seems to have been - at least in legend - the beginning of something awful.
"The socio-psychological phenomena that were studied after the killing —
notably the “bystander effect,” by which individuals pass the buck to
other witnesses when present at an act of violence — are universal and
ongoing..." - John Anderson in The New York Times
And with these two streams connecting, I went back to my Tweet: "I've been a cop and an educator - and cops are more likely to turn in bad cops than teachers are to do the same."
When I first went to work in a high school I thought two things, or maybe it was three. First I thought - I even said it to people - "I think lighthouse keepers have more peer-to-peer interaction than teachers." Exaggeration certainly, but teachers seemed stunningly isolated to me. They locked themselves in their classrooms, never watched each other "practice their craft," rarely discussed what worked and didn't work. I'd worked in many fields on my way to education and I was shocked.
Second I thought, "I know who the great teachers are and I know who the terrible teachers are." And I knew that within a couple of weeks of hearing kids talk and walking the corridors looking into classrooms. Then I realized that pretty much everybody even slightly observant in the building knew the same. And then I said, "Forget that 'blue wall of silence' crap. Cops are more likely to turn in bad cops than teachers are to turn in bad teachers."
Drop a dime... the anonymous call
Cops do turn in bad cops you know. In the NYPD the phrase was (perhaps still is) "drop a dime" on someone (though phone calls had long, long before ceased to be a dime in my day - please). To turn them in anonymously to Internal Affairs. It happened, it does happen, quite a bit. There's something about working day to day with bad cops - people who hurt people - people who ignore people's rights - that gets good cops (in good departments) to break through that blue wall.
Cops are more likely to turn in bad cops than teachers are to turn in bad teachers
Why? Is it because the stakes seem lower?
The fourth thing I realized - back in that first school - was that bad teaching professionals do more damage every day than bad cops and bad doctors. Really.
"Now I know what you are saying, no school would ever do something like
this. I mean, we now know that emotional abuse is bad, and we know that
isolation, rejection, and public shaming is emotionally abusive, and we
would never allow our teachers to engage in it. Shockingly however,
emotional abuse is a problem in school. As a parent I have had to go to
bat for my kids several times. For example, my son’s teacher put his
name on a board and publicly humiliated him for not doing his work
properly. When I told her that her public humiliation was making him
feel bad, all she could say was that if he wanted to avoid the bad
feelings, he’d have to perform to her expectations." - The Emotional Abuse of Our Children - 2013
I know that teachers know teachers who do things like take away lunch periods from kids who haven't gotten work done. Teachers who reduce grades for kids who 'move too much' in class. Who take away outside play time because of minor non-compliance. Who yell and humiliate, or who just humiliate. Who strip adolescents of their evenings because they think homework is a great thing. Who will keep children uncomfortable for hours on end - day after day (wasn't that a CIA torture technique?). I know teachers who know teachers who are bullies every day - but we hide behind the ideas that they are simply "tough" and "old-fashioned."
I know something else - maybe many kids will survive those teachers, but in every school there are kids in the classroom next door who will be permanently damaged - whose allostatic load will be pushed into the breaking realm - by teachers like that. These children are usually our most vulnerable from the start, and they will be most damaged - for life. And I know that those kids are calling for help, just as Kitty Genovese was, and what are we doing?
Minimized or ignored by colleagues who remain silent.
Enabled by inaction of school systems.
Undetected by outsiders.
Undetected by outsiders because, as on that night 51 years ago in Kew Gardens, nobody picks up the phone, nobody makes the call. "Colleagues may know about the behavior through rumors or persistent complaints, but think there is nothing they can do. School officials may
have reason to believe it is occurring, yet fail to act. Almost without
exception, offending teachers mask their mistreatment of students as
part of a legitimate role function, using the rhetoric of “motivation”
or “discipline” to justify their actions."
Extreme, but... how many teachers in this school knew about this? C'mon...
Bystander Effect is Bystander Effect. Whether its a dark night on an urban street or in the bright lights of a middle school. And crime is crime. Is a pursesnatching ok enough that we don't call 9-1-1? Is simply abusing children over homework ok enough that we don't go to our principal? We either step up and hear calls for help or we choose to not do that. Stepping up has risks in every case, even calling 9-1-1 can lead to real issues down the road. "Dropping a dime" on a colleague seems as risky an employee behavior as possible. But do we have room in our schools who will not step up for children?
So no teacher in this school knew what this child was talking about?
Or only the kids?
That social fabric is what wraps our children and let's them grow into healthy, safe adults. It is really just that, and we cannot let that fabric fray. The SPLC notes that, "There is typically a high degree of agreement among students (and colleagues) on which teachers engage in bullying behavior," and that, "Teachers are perceived to bully with impunity; they are seldom held accountable for their conduct."
How do we finally begin to change that? What will you do?
Close your eyes... imagine one of your students... happy, sad,
engaged, frustrated, angry, excited... or see yourself in school at the
age of the kids you teach or lead...
Can you see that kid? Now, look out through their eyes. Feel every sense. What do they see, hear, feel, touch, smell, taste? What matters right now as they sit in your class? Walk through your halls? Eat in your cafeteria? Stare blankly out your windows? Play on their phone?
Writing can be hard. Writing from the point of view of another can be really hard. Writing to communicate emotion can be risky - even shame-inducing - Can I really describe what a seventh-grade boy is feeling right at that moment? - and let a peer see it?. Writing to communicate senses other than sight and hearing might make us look weird.
And writing from personal memory can just seem dangerous, especially among professional peers.
But, how else might we engage ourselves with our students? Truly engage ourselves.
"When I was your age..." "You were never my age."
- Rebel Without a Cause
We cannot build an effective, an empathetic, a working User Experience unless we build a User Interface that kids won't turn away from. And our schools are User Interfaces. Our schools are the "how" our children interact with education. Every door, wall, room, teacher, rule, chair, desk, window, digital device, book, hall pass are part of the User Interface, and that User Interface defines the User Experience.
And we cannot begin to understand the User Experience we need until we get fully into the heads of our users. That's true in web and programming design, its true in retail and restaurant design, and its absolutely true as we design our schools. This understanding can have complex analytical paths - and those are important, and it has a committed caring component - but it also has an essential empathetic underpinning, and maybe you can begin working on that underpinning in a serious way before this next school year begins.
We asked our building leadership teams, and we asked those Principals and Assistant Principals to ask their teachers, to experience a bit of "writing for empathy." Medical educators have discovered that when doctors write from the point of view of their patients, empathy increases and the quality of care increases. We thought it might be worth seeing if this applied to our educators as well.
So we began, and told them not to be limited by structure - choose any writing mode you'd like - or grammar or spelling or where or how to write - on the floor, standing up, on paper, on phone, on computer - to just find the emotional path and write.
We so often stop our students from writing... we tell them that everything from how they sit to how they spell is more important than communication... and we thus raise children who hate writing.
This became powerful. People not only chose every and any place to write, every and any device to write on, they chose modes from poetry to an email exchange between high school students in class, from narrative to internal monologue to dialogue in the corridor. From tweet and text to song.
It is remarkable what happens when you stop telling people how to write and start encouraging them to write.
"Our kindergartners and first graders are natural writers," one principal said, "and then we tell them to stop and worry about handwriting and spelling and punctuation, and they never really write again."
And then we asked these leaders to share with another, and it became magical. The excitement of reading to each other, of listening, of wondering. People leaned into each other, with genuine smiles - smiles of recognition - and heard. The room was filled with the kind of excitement that - yeah - is mighty rare at Principal Meetings, that is - sadly - often rare in Language Arts classes.
To build the school our children need we must understand the User Experience they need. And in order to create the User Interface that makes that User Experience possible, we must begin to look at school not through our eyes, but through the eyes of those we serve.
A thought as the start of our school years looms once again.
"They were poor because they were lazy, they were lazy because they were Catholic, they were Catholic because they were Irish, and no more needed to be said. This was the transatlantic consensus about Irish Catholics, and it was preached from the finest pulpits and most polite salons in London and uptown Manhattan." - Golway, Terry (2014-03-03). Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics . Liveright.
I've been reading Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politicsin the aftermath of presenting "Breaking the Grit Hammer" at EduCon in Philadelphia. It is a fascinating book which turns many of the staples of our textbooks on 19th Century American History on their heads. It's not just turning cartoonist Thomas Nast into a well deserved vicious villain, not just making us all doubt Walt Whitman, but it forces us to rethink the concepts of "political boss," "reformer," even "abolitionist," in essential ways.
But a critical part of what the book forces is a historic consideration of "Grit" - a consideration that dives way back - before the antisocial imaginings of Angela Duckworth's favorite author, Thomas Galton.
The Irish Catholics who began to arrive in America in the 1820s, who flooded in during the 1840s when British actions turned a potato blight into a "Great Famine," were the first "Gritless" folks to come to the United States voluntarily. The first "Gritless" people to arrive with the power to vote. And thus the first "Gritless" challenge to the Protestant/Puritan myth of excess labor as a moral good in the history of the American Republic.(1) This lack of the so-called "Protestant Work Ethic" - the willingness to trade wealth for stability, and wealth for a different concept of family and community, can still be seen - when the OECD measured weekly parenting time, Ireland came out at the top when both parents were working, and close with stay-at-home moms.
You'd prefer to listen to your friends' stories than do math exercises. 5 4 3 2 1
So that Irish "laziness" - a British and American description - has a history which is deep and complex, and not at all without benefit. Though Angela Duckworth may see herself as a gritty success and the Irish cop patrolling the area outside her Philadelphia office window as a failure without aspiration, others might see it differently.
"Within Irish literary modernism, originating with Wilde and further
developed, especially by means of formal experiments in narration, by
Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, lies an alternative version of
modernity which gives to an historically complex concept of idleness the
centrality that capitalism and nationalism give to work. Other writers,
Yeats and Eimar O’Duffy among them, elaborated a role for the
intellectual in the formation of the State, but this was consistently
challenged by the notion that labour and work have an oblique and often
sterilizing impact on creativity and emancipatory politics." Gregory Dobbins, Lazy Idle Schemers: Irish Modernism and the Cultural Politics of Idleness, Field Day Publications, 2010
Is a disbelief in that "Protestant Work Ethic" a moral failing? An academic failing? A national failing? Or is the commitment to 'working hard' simply for the sake of 'working hard' - as expressed in Angela Duckworth's "Grit Test" - not the only path to success in life?
A good meal with friends is a worthwhile way to spend an evening. 5 4 3 2 1
"This was a battle that Tammany’s Irish voters recognized as a variation on a conflict that, to a greater or lesser extent, drove them out of their native land. Ireland’s Catholic majority had long been engaged in cultural and political conflict with an Anglo-Saxon Protestant ruling class that viewed the island’s conquered masses as victims of moral failings and character flaws that encouraged vice, laziness, and dependence and rendered them unworthy of liberty." Golway (2014).
That "moral failing" - that eugenicist belief that disconnects between institutions and humans always suggests a failure of the humans - lies at the heart of Duckworth's beliefs, and the "Grit Narrative" as a whole.
"Probably the finding that most surprised me was that in the West
Point data set, as well as other data sets, grit and talent either
aren't related at all or are actually inversely related.
"That was surprising because rationally speaking, if you're good at
things, one would think that you would invest more time in them. You're
basically getting more return on your investment per hour than someone
who's struggling. If every time you practice piano you improve a lot,
wouldn't you be more likely to practice a lot?
"We've found that that's not necessarily true. It reminds me of a study done of taxi drivers in 1997.*
When it's raining, everybody wants a taxi, and taxi drivers pick up a
lot of fares. So if you're a taxi driver, the rational thing to do is to
work more hours on a rainy day than on a sunny day because you're
always busy so you're making more money per hour. But it turns out that
on rainy days, taxi drivers work the fewest hours. They seem to have
some figure in their head—"OK, every day I need to make $1,000"—and
after they reach that goal, they go home. And on a rainy day, they get
to that figure really quickly.
"It's a similar thing with grit and talent. In terms of academics, if you're just trying to get an A or an A−,
just trying to make it to some threshold, and you're a really talented
kid, you may do your homework in a few minutes, whereas other kids might
take much longer. You get to a certain level of proficiency, and then
you stop. So you actually work less hard.
"If, on the other hand, you are not just trying to reach a certain cut
point but are trying to maximize your outcomes—you want to do as well
as you possibly can—then there's no limit, ceiling, or threshold. Your
goal is, "How can I get the most out of my day?" Then you're like the
taxi driver who drives all day whether it's rainy or not." - Angela Duckworth, The Significance of Grit: A Conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth, ASCD Educational Leadership, September 2013 | Volume 71 | Number 1
Notice that the cab drivers Duckworth discusses are not shirking any responsibilities, but they are still failing in her description because they are not working regardless of need. "Calvinism does require a life of systematic and unemotional good
works (interpreted here as hard work in business) and self-control, as a sign that one
is of God's chosen "elect." Thus, ascetic dedication to one's perceived
duties is "the means, not of purchasing
salvation, but of getting rid of the fear of damnation."'
In the fall of 2014 I was in a cab in New York City and the driver and I were discussing a neighborhood we had both been young in - I in my 20s he as a tween - and how we'd survived the crime-ridden time, and then, this was the opening day of the United Nations General Assembly amidst massive climate protests, I asked what he would be doing after he took me and my colleagues from Brooklyn to Queens. "I'm going home to play with my kids," he told me. "If I drive and someone gets in and wants to go to Manhattan I'll have to go, and the traffic will be a disaster. That's just not worth the money."
A man with 'no Grit,' I laughingly thought, tipping him very well. But a man I respect all the more.
You make time to play often during each week. 5 4 3 2 1
Like the Irish of the mid-19th Century - or perhaps the 20th Century - the mostly African and Caribbean taxi drivers of contemporary New York are neither "white," nor "Anglo," nor "Protestant" in fact nor disposition, and Angela Duckworth and "Grit" advocates, like the "reformers" and moralists of the 1840s-1850s, are troubled by a different set of moral imperatives. If the Irish chose "limited opportunities," municipal jobs which were secure and held guaranteed pensions over riskier entrepreneurship with potentially larger payoffs, this was disturbing to the power elite. If African and Caribbean cab drivers choose to go home to their families rather than amassing additional wealth, this disturbs Duckworth. If students choose to "get by" in school rather than chasing the "As" and pursuing Duckworth's Ivy League path to success, this disturbs the Grit advocates in American schools.
"No Irish need apply," was a common employment advertisement tag line in the 19th Century It is a peculiar thing that we limit opportunity for those we then criticize as lacking motivation.
Back in the last century - long ago I guess - a classical literature professor, one of the very best, told us that the most important dividing line in Europe was the old Eastern/Southern Boundary of the Holy Roman Empire. "Americans know nothing because they ignore the historic realities," he said (or something like that) as he explained why Czechoslovakia had split, why Yugoslavia had shattered, why even Italy was hopelessly divided, north and south.(2) The divide, created centuries ago, remains an essential reality of culture, an essential reality of understanding. Those perceiving themselves as having "been included" see themselves as "right." They see those on the other side as "lazy," or to use our current terminology, "lacking Grit."
Czech Republic, in - Slovakia, out. Slovenia and Croatia, in - Serbia and Bosnia, out. Northern Italy, in - Southern Italy, out. The Holy Roman Empire created a cultural divide lasting to this day, as the England/Ireland divide remains.
“Their means of resistance —conspiracy, pretense, foot-dragging, and obfuscation —were the only ones ordinarily available to them, ‘weapons of the weak,’ like those employed by defeated and colonized peoples everywhere,” wrote historian Robert James Scally in his masterful re-creation of Irish townland life." Golway (2014)
You are fascinated by new things you discover. 5 4 3 2 1
How many American history textbooks celebrate the work of political cartoonist Thomas Nast? I don't need to take "someone out of their era" to know a vicious racist, anti-Catholic nativist, and to wonder why his work is used, without caveat, in our schools... (Irish were always portrayed as apes in his work, Catholic Cardinals sometimes as crocodiles)
Taking Duckworth's test I got a "Grit Score" of 1.25, or "grittier than 1% of the population." Ah well, perhaps I have other attributes, attributes worth valuing. It's possible, right? As it is possible that our "ungritty" kids might have other attributes, or might need other things. After all, as I asked at EduCon, "if I managed to get thrown out of your class every day, wasn't I exhibiting grit by Duckworth's measures?" I mean, if it isn't just compliance, as I've suggested more than once, than that kind of commitment to a task demonstrates grit? right?
You enjoy books and stories that have little to do with your daily work. 5 4 3 2 1
"Protestant areas of the island [of Ireland] because “we are a painstaking, industrious, laborious people who desire to work and pay our just debts, and the blessing of the Almighty is upon our labour. If the people of the South had been equally industrious with those of the North, they would not have so much misery upon them.” Golway (2014).
If the 'Grit Narrative' isn't about compliance it is false. If it is about compliance, if all Angela Duckworth wants is for poor kids to behave like her, it is racist and classist and Calvinist (in a political, not a religious, way).
But if our narrative is a question of a lack of abundance, it suggests different tools for our use within our schools. If the British government had stepped in during the 1840s Potato Blight and stopped the massive exports of food from Ireland - stopped the exports so that the Irish could eat rather than letting 1.5 million people starve to death - then the Irish communal memory might be very different, and the aspirations of those who left Ireland and crossed the oceans might have been different. If those nations outside the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire had not been treated like colonies to be pillaged, the history of the Balkans in Europe might look different. Had African-Americans actually been liberated - liberated from enforced poverty and powerlessness - at the end of the Civil War, the African-American communal memory might be different, and hopes might look different in many communities.
If the poor in America actually saw a path to possibility, then community vision today might be different.
You are willing to shift from one task to another based on interest and value. 5 4 3 2 1
So the only role schools might have today is to offer abundance, not training in grit. We can offer what people have not had, offer 'wealth' of resources, and offer possibilities. And at the same time understand that differing cultures value differing things, and the 'Protestant Work Ethic' is just one path, and not the only path, not necessarily the best path, not necessarily the one moral path.
We offer kids the abundance of choices and that offers an abundance of possibility.
- Ira Socol
(1) If you've ever been to Europe (besides the U.K., the Scandinavian countries,
protestant Germany, and Switzerland), or if you’ve been to Mexico, or Central
or South America (or most of the rest of the world), you've probably noticed
that these cultures have an entirely different orientation to work and leisure
from that of most U.S. people. Residents of these other countries are usually
baffled by the frantic "workaholism"
typical of the U.S. (and parts of Northern Europe). These people can put in
grueling hours, as U.S. citizens commonly do. Unlike U.S. residents, though, if
they work tremendously hard, it's because they need to do so -- the job requires it,
they need the money, or some such thing. They make a conscious decision in
favor of it. Most U.S. people, on the other hand, seem psychologically impelled to
work much too hard for no obvious reason. Many of us actually feel guilty if we aren't
working much too hard. And
we tend to think very highly of people who hate what they do; that is
irrationally seen as somehow more virtuous than having a job one loves! This workaholic attitude is often treated (by people in the U.S.) as just
common sense, just part of human nature. It's not. It's a distinct phenomenon,
only a few centuries old (that is, very, very recent in terms of human
history), localized to a few areas of the globe, and with specific causes in
(2) Years later, in this century, I was faced with Robert Putnam's work on the divide in Italian democracy in a research methods class. I earned the undying enmity of a brittle MSU prof by challenging this Harvard publication. "He never considered history before the 19th century," I argued, "he never looked at the inside/outside of the Holy Roman Empire." How could I doubt the Ivy League author of the famous Bowling Alone? I could for the same reason I doubt Angela Duckworth's work. I find that both ignore the facts of history and culture.