Sunday, February 14, 2016

What Do We Mean When We Praise Grit and Resilience?

Grit. Mettle. Backbone. Spirit. Resilience. Pluck. Nerve. Tenacity. Fortitude. Toughness. Resolve. 

Grit. It's a quality I've been told that I have repeatedly in my lifetime. It was a quality that was praised in me as a child trying to climb out of a background of poverty and an abusive home. It was a quality peers noted in me as a first-generation college student, as someone who became labeled as tough, strong, and able to roll with the punches. It was meant as a compliment, and most of the time that's how I took it, but every once in a while, when said by just the right person, it felt more like a slight. And every once in a while, even when it was a compliment, it came with a little sting, a sense that something wasn't quite right, a sense that beneath the recognition of my grit came a more immediate but unsaid observation: I was damaged, broken, somehow flawed in my current environment.

Grit is a buzzword in education these days. It's a byproduct of an individualistic society trying to grapple with the reality of a collective existence marred by inequality. Grit is the answer to the problem. When someone needs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, it is their individual grit we call upon, which--yes--gives them the credit when they succeed but also (and perhaps more importantly) gives us a pass when they fail.

And fail they do. We often talk about building grit in students who come from underrepresented backgrounds of class and race, students who do not have a culture of educational attainment surrounding them at home and do not have a built-in support system for attaining it. And those students are struggling. Even when money is taken out of the equation through financial support programs, first-generation college students struggle to succeed in college environments. The reasons (as this Washington Post article explores) range from students feeling guilt over leaving their families behind to not wanting to go to office hours because they see it as a mark of academic failure to ask for help. What's left is a success gap that isn't closing. Underrepresented student populations continue to flounder, and we continue to blame them for it.

There has been some pushback against grit. Parul Sehgal's essay "The Profound Emptiness of 'Resilence'" explores some issues with the concept:
But where ‘‘resilience’’ can suggest new avenues for civic infrastructure — admitting that disaster can’t always be diverted and shifting the focus to survival strategies — it is indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character. ‘‘It’s pretty much the same message that’s drummed into us by Aesop’s fables, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, Christian denunciations of sloth and the 19th-­century chant invented to make children do their homework: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,’ ’’ the social scientist Alfie Kohn argued in an op-ed article in The Washington Post. ‘‘The more we focus on whether people have or lack persistence (or self-­discipline more generally), the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies.’’
Aisha Sultan tackles "The Limitations of 'Grit' in the Classroom" by similarly taking on the prevalence of individual solutions to structural problems:
I was reminded of this conversation during a recent presentation by Tyrone C. Howard on how student culture affects learning. Howard, the associate dean for equity and inclusion at UCLA provided a reality check to the heavy investment in skills such as grit that might help more students succeed. 
“We are asking students to change a belief system without changing the situation around them,” he said. It can be irresponsible and unfair to talk about grit without talking about structural challenges, he said, referring to the recent interest in interventions tied to the concepts of grit and perseverance.
Sehgal's piece has a powerful, painful example of just how awry notions of "grit" can become. He cites complaints about a too-coddled generation of college students who are whining about "safe spaces" and "minor" racial slights on campus. These people instead hold up images of individuals like James Meredith, the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi--a feat he had to accomplish under the protection of federal marshals. Sehgal points out that some have held up Meredith's bravery and tenacity in the face of hatred as a comparison point for today's "whiny" college students who don't know how to withstand emails about racist Halloween costumes.

Of course (and as Sehgal also points out) Meredith tells a slightly different story. Here are his comments from a 2012 Esquire interview:
My statue at Ole Miss is a false idol. And it wasn't put there for my benefit. It was put there for Ole Miss and Mississippi. 
Ole Miss kicked my butt and they're still celebrating. Because every black that's gone there since me has been insulted, humiliated, and they can't even tell their story. Everybody has to tell James Meredith's story — which is a lie. The powers that be in Mississippi understand this very clearly. See, I've been telling them for fifty years how insulting it is to me to suggest that I had to be courageous to confront some ignorant white folks. And recently, they told me they really understand, but they're gonna keep doing it. I can't figure a way to make 'em stop. They're gonna keep on doin' it because it makes it impossible for the blacks there now to say anything about what's happened to them. Because the comparison is with the idol.
And even if Meredith could look back on his experiences with respect and praise, is that an acceptable standard for us as educators? I hope not. I think here of Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend a New Orleans school and the subject of the iconic Norman Rockwell painting about desegregation.

This is a six-year-old. Six. Years. Old. She is a baby. And she was greeted with a mob of white people threatening to kill her on a daily basis. Sure, she had grit, but as an educator, a policy maker, hell, as a human being, that shouldn't be the focus of our story. The focus of our story should be that we were wrong. We were very, very wrong, and no child should have to test their "resilience" against such a backdrop. We hide our own shame behind grit, and that should shame us even more. We create a society in which a baby is threatened to death for wanting to go to school, and then we want to wash that truth away behind a feel-good story about facing down fear. Shame on us. Shame. 

There are beacons of light within this dark narrative of resilience that pierce it, though. Ruby Bridges remembers one friendly white face that stood apart from the mob, a teacher who risked her own life to stand up for what was right, Barbara Henry. And what does Barbara say about teaching in this environment? She says this: 
Many kids write letters to me expressing their appreciation for my kindness for Ruby. That’s so powerful for teachers to realize — how quickly children absorb the attitude of their teacher: the caring, sensitivity, and sense of worth and respect. The ripples are endless.
"How quickly children absorb the attitude of their teacher: the caring, sensitivity, and sense of worth and respect." That's a positive spin, but of course the opposite is also true. Students (children or not) are quick to absorb the attitude of their teachers, and that cuts both ways. If the attitude is one of caring, sensitivity, worth, and respect, that's excellent. But if the attitude is one of sneering condescension and disrespect, well, that gets absorbed, too. And sometimes messages of "grit" are much more likely to come with a cold, hard side dish of apathy or, worse, disdain. 

This is important because we're not just operating as individual teachers teaching individual students. We're operating within systems that expand well beyond those neat little boundaries of single people. When we consider the fact that the class gap in how parenting is handled continues to expand as people continue to move into more and more economically segregated environments and what powerful, all-encompassing ramifications that has on the education systems, we can't pretend it's just a matter of individual interactions. Further complicating that narrative is the fact that habits of poverty and the impact of oppression stick with us even if we manage to get rid of the actual conditions, apparently even having the potential to change our biological responses.   

Some educators understand this and are attempting to address it. Take, for instance, this school in Jennings, a suburb of my St. Louis home and a neighbor to now-famous Ferguson, MO. The superintendent there has taken a radical step to try to improve her students' outcomes by providing something beyond messages of grit and personal responsibility. She has, instead, tried to change the conditions of their lives in very tangible ways. As this Washington Post article outlines, Superintendent Tiffany Anderson restored previously cut extracurriculars and opened a shelter for homeless students as well as a food bank. She took seriously the conditions in which her students were operating and didn't leave it all on their shoulders to turn that reality around. 

It is with all of this in mind that I recently read Charlotte Kent's article about closing the skills gap in the Chronicle of Higher Education (link is temporarily available, but will likely be paywalled soon). Here, Kent does not use the word "grit," but she's clearly calling upon the same ethos when she brags about her classroom of "draconian-seeming rules that students often don’t believe and even many colleagues question." These include a strict policy on not accepting late work, not offering bonus opportunities, and otherwise creating a strict environment that teaches her students, in her view, responsibility. She justifies these actions:
We do our students a disservice when we provide them with extensions, lax lateness policies, and extra-credit opportunities. They could learn those values at home, in community service, or other groups, but colleges really do most closely replicate some of the demands of a life at work.
So, no, "grit" didn't make it into the printed article, but you can definitely feel its presence in the air, and it's no mistake that this is aimed at a gap in "soft skills" that is often most readily identified among that same population of students we've been discussing: poor students, minority students, students who are coming from environments where educational attainment was not sewn into the fabric.

I've seen these kinds of policies first-hand. Students have come to me literally crying because they were five minutes late and got locked out of their classroom by a teacher with a strict tardiness policy. I've seen students fail online quizzes for the first month before getting the courage to ask how to navigate the computer system well enough to start doing the work they have to do. I know students who have simply not turned in assignments because they were worried about the kind of comments they would get on what they considered inadequate work. The zero was easier to swallow than the expected insult.

Some of this is, of course, on the students. Of course they should come to class on time. Of course they should ask questions if they don't know how to navigate the online system. Of course they should learn to take constructive criticism without perceiving it as a personal attack.

But we don't get the students we think we should have; we get the students we have. And the truth of the matter is that, for whatever reason and for whoever is to blame, many of our students do not have these habits and perspectives. And I don't believe that locking the door and making them retake classes they have the skills to take because it took them a few extra weeks to learn the rules is doing anything to change that.

Kent believes otherwise, and maybe her experience is different from mine. She writes that "Most students today have been raised in an environment of endless second chances, so my policies surprise them — and many don’t like me for it." And she believes (probably sincerely, for what it's worth) that a failing grade on an early assignment because of these missteps is enough to put a student on the right track. 

That's not my experience. My experience tells me that most of my students have not had second chances built into their situations. And most of my students will not take that first "F" as a sign to work harder. Most (not all, but most) will take it as a sign that they don't belong in college. They will take it as a sign that their internal monologue (or, sometimes, the external dialogue with unsupportive friends and family) was right all along. This isn't for them. They should quit. They should give up. 

I know that I represent a problematic system of authority as an educator, especially as a white educator in predominantly black classrooms. I am aware of the system in which I operate, and I can't wish it away with messages about grit and resilience. The realities are more complicated than that, and as comforting as that narrative can be, it just isn't complete. 

I want to talk more about how I try to walk the line between having firm standards that prepare my developmental students for stricter college classrooms while still building in flexibility and the room for early mistakes and missteps, but I'm going to save that for another day. 

Instead, I want to end here by momentarily switching gears to what has made all of this crystalize for me recently. 

I'm not just an educator, and I'm not just someone who has been labeled as resilient for overcoming some obstacles in my own background to reach educational attainment. I'm also a parent, and I think it is here that the message of grit has come to a screeching halt for me. 

I have a very sensitive, tough, spirited, fragile little girl. Those terms seem at odds with one another, but they aren't odd at all in her lived enactment of them. She's gifted, a twice exceptional child whose strengths and weaknesses are often starkly present in moments of seeming paradox. After years of trying to figure out how to best parent with these contradicting sets of qualities, I have found that the best success has come not from instilling grit, but from empathy. A meltdown is only prolonged and intensified by attempts to discipline her into better behavior, but recognition and respect can bring her back to the center. Discussions about how to address her behavior have become discussions about how to quell anxiety, and those tactics are rooted in patience, flexibility, and understanding more than they are rigidity and rules. 

It's hard. I mess up. I try to fix it. Sometimes I mess up again. It's an ongoing dance that has woven its way into steps I didn't know I could take. 

But it's had a profound impact on my teaching. So many of my students' behaviors that once angered me now give me pause. Could the same motivations be at work? Could this be a test to see how I will react, to find out if I am a trustworthy ally in their attempts at education? What if I respond with understanding instead of discipline? What if I don't let them use me as an excuse to quit? 

It's hard. I mess up. I try to fix it. 

In the end, though, I'm more and more convinced that the story of grit is not the one I should be telling myself. The story of grit makes it much too easy for me to erase myself and all I represent from the equation, and that's an unforgivable erasure. I am there. I should own my responsibility to act. 

As Barbara Henry said, the ripples are endless, so which way are we going to send them?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Musings on the Room of My Own

When we first moved into this house, it was billed as a three bedroom. It is not. That was a lie.

It is, more accurately, a two bedroom with a "bonus room" or (perhaps most accurately of all) a two bedroom with a large storage space that happens to have a window.

We were only into the second year of our marriage when we bought the house. We were still a year away from becoming parents. Our previous living arrangements, which we'd been sharing for the past six years, had included at various times roommates, single bedroom apartments with kitchens too tiny to fit us both, and living rooms used for sleeping. The house seemed infinite.

"It can be an office," we said. He still had a year left of law school, and I was embarking on the very beginning of my PhD program. Writing, reading, books. These were our habits and our tools. A space dedicated to the craft seemed like a dream. We put a desk in it.

Then we put boxes in it. The basement of the century-old house proved inadequate for the safekeeping of anything that might mold or dampen. Off-season clothes, crates of old syllabi, these took over the tiny space that we'd envisioned would be our "office." They grew, as boxes do, until the room became not just a glorified closet, but one we could envision as nothing else.

Then came the baby. Clothes that were too big, clothes that were too small, toys that were too loud, board books that could be cycled in and out of rotation. These joined the boxes. The room became so packed that we could only just open the door and precariously perch something new atop the stack.

Sure, we cleaned it. There were annual purges and piles of donations, but somehow the room inhaled deeply and sucked most of the stuff back to where it had been. You could no longer even see the desk.

We wrote at the kitchen table. We set a card table in front of the couch in the middle of the night. We transformed communal spaces into private ones for brief intervals. He graduated. I graduated. We got by.

"We'll move," we said. We'll get a place with a real office. We'll have bookshelves lining the walls and a desk for each of us. It will be beautiful.

Soon there will be another baby.

The room called to us again, but this time with more urgency. We unpacked it all. We Marie-Kondo'ed the books and took down the sagging bookshelves with their busted walls. We dismantled the desk. We consolidated the boxes and crammed them into corners elsewhere.

We filled the room with toys. With games. With a space where my older daughter can escape the tyranny of a newborn.

And now there is a trampoline in my living room. There is a plastic playhouse in my dining room that takes up as much room as the table. There is a bin of toys in the front hallway. There are stuffed animals in my bed and plastic boats in my bathtub.

The only room that has avoided an invasion, the only space in my entire house I can enter as my own, is the kitchen.

And it strikes me as quite funny.

After all, the kitchen is the symbol of oppression. It's where the women stand, barefoot and pregnant (as I was earlier this evening), trapped in their domesticity, chained to the demands of gender roles.

And I don't even like baking. It does not calm me or please me. And while cooking can be gratifying, most days it is another chore, another to-do to cross off a list a mile long. And no writing gets done between those walls, and it is not, it is most definitely not, the room of my own that I thought I would have by now, by 30, by career, by doctorate, by now.

But it is mine. And there is something calming about saying "no toys in the kitchen" and meaning it. There is something peaceful about stacking the dishes in the cabinets and being able to close them. About clearing off the counter and seeing it shine. About putting on a podcast and sweeping the floor. About existing in a space for a moment that feels centered, roughly organized, gently guarded.

I can hear my 22-year-old self scoffing. I can see her roll her eyes and call me a sell out, but she doesn't understand the compromises that led to claiming this space or just how many things can go a little off the list of plans or just how fast those little changes add up to a different set of rules entirely.

And maybe in eight more years, my 30-year-old self will be the one who couldn't see what it would all be like. Maybe I will sit down in my private, well-stocked, brightly-lit upstairs office and laugh about the time I thought lighting a candle while listening to neo-soul as I did the dishes was the pinnacle of claiming my space. But maybe not. And I think it will be okay.

Photo: Alan Cleaver