Where Can I Find This Rooster?
“Who is the best marshal they have?'
The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, 'I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He is a half-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cut for sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.'
I said, 'Where can I find this Rooster?”
― 'Mattie Ross', True Grit (Charles Portis)
“If you don't have no schooling you are up against it in this country, sis. That is the way of it. No sir, that man has no chance any more. No matter if he has got sand in his craw, others will push him aside, little thin fellows that have won spelling bees back home.”
― 'Rooster Cogburn, True Grit (Charles Portis)
Educators love false dichotomies, especially if they're rather dramatic. For some, Common Core arrived as Moses, ready to raise its #2 Staff and part the Red Sea of Low Expectations. For others, it was clearly Pharaoh, seeking to drag the Hebrew descendants of Horace Mann back into the Egypt of Standardized Testing and building Pyramids with Bloom's Taxonomy in bas-relief on each side. We fall into equally passionate camps if you bring up Teach For America, Charter Schools, Literacy First, or pretty much anything with the word 'Initiative' tacked on to the end.
Most recently, the subject of 'grit' has become a hot topic on Twitter, Facebook, and the other social media we old folks still use while feeling rather cutting edge about being online at all.
'Grit', of course, isn't an entirely new concept. You can't read anything useful about developing talent, attaining goals, or improving student mindsets without running into the research Carol Dweck did on this a few years ago, and of course we all remember British Prime Minister Winston "Eddie Lawrence" Churchill with that thing about never giving up on ships, which was apparently a pretty inspiring thing to say to British graduates in 1611.
But 'grit' is a thing again lately, and producing all sorts of interesting snark. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of snark, but if Twitter were your only guide, you'd believe there are only two basic ways to approach students in terms of overcomage:
(1) Students must be taught 'grit', and grit comes from enduring. Therefore, we must prioritize the brutal drill'n'kill-type instruction they apparently love on PD days in Chicago. Determination means overcoming suffering, and suffering we must therefore inflict. Joy must die and hope must wither, for only thusly shall they learn to blindly, numbly press on. No pain, no gain.
(2) Students must be perpetually free, invigorated, encouraged, loved, and understood. If we simply prance through the classroom flinging Inspiration Daisies, students will climb over one another for opportunities to pursue all essential knowledge and unleash their natural hunger for personal excellence. Any hesitation, momentary confusion, or weariness, is a failure of the teacher to properly shoot rainbows from his or her pedagogical orifice. Struggle means you're doing it wrong. Stop breaking the future!
I'm not sure either are useful extremes.
I love my kids, but I haven't found them to be particularly self-driven about anything tied to this week's state standards. There are important discussions to be had about whether we've trained them from an early age that under no circumstances will we allow them to fail at anything, ever - especially in school. "Throw your limp drooling bodies into the Slough of Apathy if you wish, but by god we'll keep remediating you and lowering that bar until you ooze over it whether you want to or not!" But those sound hard, and I don't feel like it.
Instead, I'd like to share a few clips I post on the "Required Viewing" section of our class website and refer to throughout the year. They all involve finding solutions rather than simply offering more vehement expressions of one's difficulties. I will of course editorialize endlessly for each.
Go. Around. The. Leaf. I show this the first week of school and it's a mantra throughout the year. I am not unsympathetic about life's complications - but bring me alternatives. Solutions. Make it work and I'll almost always accept your means of getting there, or of going somewhere else with it.
This is not nearly as touchy-feely as it sounds, and most of the time it saves me time and energy, while teaching my darlings some modicum of responsibility - without merely dropping the piano of inflexible expectations on their heads. (That's the state's job.)
Come on, this one's easy - looking at problems a different way, etc.? Yeah, I knew you'd get that one.
No, the moral is not "shoot them." I prefer something more along the lines of "don't overlook the obvious," or "sometimes you gotta cut through the drama to see the solution clearly.
This one is a classic. The lesson is rather obvious if you're not the people on the escalator. But of course we often are, more than we realize. Not you and me, of course, but everyone else on our Facebook wall. Those people are a mess. Why can't they just see it?
"The fences aren't just 'round the farm..." Need I say more?
I don't know if a few video clips will prove paradigm-altering for my darling students, but it's a place to start. The hard part is helping them practice it throughout the year. Teaching students to persevere really makes you want to give up, sometimes daily.
But I can't, because, um... the videos.
Curriculum Guru Ayn Grubb taught me a phrase that's stuck with me ever since, and which has evolved into an entire teaching philosophy. I combined it several years ago with a nifty graphic I found online and haven't been able to locate since, but I'm hoping it's like peanut butter and chocolate in those old Reese's commercials and that I now have something both legal and appealing to wrinkly aliens if condensed into pellet form:
Our darlings come to us at a variety of "Point A's", and we're trying to get them as close as we can to "Point B" - some combination of skills, content knowledge, etc. The skills matter, a great deal. And the content matters, despite periodic trends suggesting that anything worth knowing is just a Google away, so why bother?
But what is too easily forgotten is the value of the struggle in between - the value of getting confused, or frustrated, or getting stuff wrong, or even failing from time to time. And then figuring it out. And then getting back up. And then finding a way to succeed. And then doing it again.
So, I'm not sure which dramatic extreme to join in the arguments about 'grit', but I hope my kids develop at least a little of it while in my care. I certainly learn enough about endurance and problem-solving from being with them, so it seems only fair. Why should I be the only one to suffer?
Related Post: Hole in the Wall Education
Related Post: Teach A Kid to Fish