One of the new buzz words in education is “resilience,” and even though this notion of helping students build inner strength to deal with the obstacles, failures, and disappointments of life seems like a good idea, I wonder why it has become packaged and bullet pointed. Our school invited Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg, a pediatrician and researcher in the field, to speak to our faculty and parents. His work in intriguing, and worth thinking about. Like the work done by Angela Duckworth on “grit,” [see Ted Video below] Ginsberg proposes that “grit” or resilience can be taught, practiced, and measured. Grit or resilience — either term stands in for one’s ability to manage response to failure, disappointment, or hurdles to overcome on the way to an intended goal. Children should be learning toughness and tenacity simply by living their lives, but the recent interest in finding ways to foster students’ development of grit suggests otherwise. Like other trends in educational philosophy and pedagogy, this emphasis on helping students develop resilience makes me wonder why tenacity is not something that develops out of normal life experience.
I’ve had significant contact this year with the parents of my students to discuss this very issue. Perhaps this is just a fluke, but the parents who have requested meetings to discuss their child’s progress have universally come with an overt and a hidden agenda. On the one hand, they are concerned about helping Johnny or Susie “do better” in my class. On the other hand, they express dismay that this is the first time Johnny or Susie has earned less than “perfect” grades. In my discussion with these parents, I explain that 7th grade is challenging for many reasons, and that for some students, the more abstract critical thinking pushes on their developmental processes. I explain that getting a B, or even a C, in a tough and demanding course shows effort, progress, and developing skills. All the parents say that they don’t care about the grades, they just want Johnny and Susie to achieve to their potential. Then they point out to me, again, that they have always been “straight A” students. Despite the buzz words, these parents seem to want their children to experience no challenge, no “failure” — however small — that might help them to develop coping mechanisms or strategies to get back on track that would serve them well into adulthood.
When my students were dismayed about grades on a group project that was challenging, I shared with them a story of one of my husband’s runners. Jack was a star at the Illinois State Cross Country meet as a sophomore, placing 11th overall, and everyone expected him to place in the top five as a junior the next year. Jack was under some pressure, from himself, but also from teammates, parents, and coaches, who recognized his talent and potential, and who hoped for the best for him. Jack had several great races that fall season, but when it came time to qualify for the state meet, he ran poorly, and didn’t even make it to state. His team, his parents, and his coaches were deeply disappointed. Jack was devastated.
When his coach tried to give him an “out” by telling the team he had been sick the week before the meet, he replied, “No, I want to take responsibility for this. Don’t tell them I was sick; don’t make excuses.”
Jack could have blamed his coaches for not running well at the qualifying meet, but instead, he took it upon himself to dedicate the rest of the year to listening to the coach, doing what was asked of him, focusing on the goals, and recovering from the disappointment. It was not an easy road, and Jack had moments of doubt and worry. However, he persevered, and with steady progress, dropped his times, got stronger, and raced harder. Jack is poised to be a top contender at the Illinois State track meet this weekend. Jack’s dad noted that not making state for cross country might have been the best thing to happen to his son because it taught him to overcome adversity, to persevere in the face of failure, to regroup, hold on, and take responsibility for his actions, his hopes, and his dreams.
The stresses of this spring have tested my grit. I’ve had to overcome loss and other obstacles in my life, and often, I have managed those times by sheer force of will. I suppose one might call that grit. However, unlike riding a bike, grit seems not necessarily something one knows how to do indefinitely. When I consider the stresses in my current state, they seem minimal compared to the setbacks I’ve survived already. Despite this, I feel overwhelmed, and that my reserves have plummeted. Maybe I’ve softened and become less able to manage the small frustrations that litter my day to day life. When survival is not in question, when I’ve been living a life of relative ease, perhaps I’ve forgotten how to respond with grit, with resilience, with tenacity.
When we reached my favorite part of seventh grade, reading Lorainne Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, this spring, I remembered again about grit. We read aloud, act out scenes from the play, watch some of the original movie, and read and discuss several historical pieces about the Great Migration to Chicago. Because the issues are so close to home, geographically speaking (if not historically speaking for my students), we enter into challenging, but also worthwhile discussions about justice, race, the American dream, and the “promises” of America. Reading Hansberry’s work reminds me again and again that my students and I are the lucky ones, the ones to whom much has been given. Walter, Benetha, Ruth and Mama — Hansberry’s unforgettable characters — have struggles deep and profound, and they stand as testaments to tenacity, grit, and hope despite the odds stacked against them. Hansberry herself is a testament to grit as well, as we learned in this NPR story about the first production of the play.
Perhaps this question of resilience has been on my mind because I know that Gorilla Girl and Monkey Man will have many years ahead of them in my school, a school that seems to shelter students from the realities of small failures, small hurts, and small obstacles so that when they reach the real challenges, they are bowled over by doubt, fear, and immobility. Perhaps I worry that my own resilience is being worn away by the soft nature of my current existence — when the struggle is not about life and death, but rather about feeding a family, managing a household, working at a job.
My anxiety was assuaged today, when after weeks of trying and falling, bruising and scraping, Gorilla Girl mastered the two wheeler without training wheels. On her face: determination, and in her limbs: tenacity. Gorilla Girl was proud of her accomplishment, but also proud that she had worked so hard to achieve it. Ed explained to her that the greatest thing about learning to ride a bike is that you never forget.
As I prepare to face the challenges of 7th grade camp in the wilds of Kalamazoo, Michigan, I hope that like riding a bike, resilience is something that once learned, one never forgets. Maybe the gears need oiling, the seat needs dusting, but the framework should be in tact. I just need to stamp harder on those pedals, push up that hill, and remain steady on the road ahead.