America Can’t ‘Grit’ Its Way Out of Poverty and Racism

Why are my students poor?

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist“- Dom Helder Camara [1]

Here are two hard facts about growing up in America:

  • 15 million (21%) of children grow up beneath the poverty line. [2]
  • The median White household wealth is $134,000 while the median Black household wealth is $11,000. [3]

As someone who has taught many impoverished and Black students, these two facts stay with me. On the one hand, as a teacher, I know it is right to push kids to persevere and be resilient no matter what life throws at them. On the other hand, I oftentimes feel like the game is already rigged.

I circle back to one question: why are millions of students subjected to poverty and racism everyday? I have already reflected on these issues in previous  posts. but I am still searching for answers.

Especially from White Republican acquaintances, the pushback I get is that underprivileged students need to work harder. “Yeah, it sucks what life has given them, but when will they stop making excuses?”

Urban charter school zealots take the “no excuses” mindset one step further; they immerse themselves in a magic world of pop psychology aphorisms and relentless positivity, seeming to focus solely on micromanaging every aspect of broken kids’ lives in order to cure them of their plight while somehow ignoring the ills of the world around them.

I am conflicted. I want to believe in the magic of the individual rising above abject poverty. But I am now a veteran witness to many kids getting expelled from school, I have found various former ‘good’ students becoming fathers and mothers soon after they leave my classroom, and I have gone to a funeral of one of the good kids- who did everything right and still found himself dead by a bullet at 18 years old on the East side of Detroit- wrong place, wrong time, they said. It is just so clear to me in my head that there is much more to student results and achievements than the individual merits or skills of the students themselves.

Thus, it was with cynicism and doubt that I entered Angela Duckworth’s book, “Grit” in order to grapple with my own wonder about how to inspire others to succeed. I wanted to read this book to see if I was missing something. Maybe there’s a part of me that wants to put aside inconvenient facts about society and believe in the cult of personal responsibility and meritocracy. Her book has been a staple of the corporate education reform package, utilized by magic factories such as KIPP and Teach for America.

What I like in “Grit”

The teacher in me loves Angela Duckworth’s “Grit.”

“Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another[4]
– Angela Duckworth

How can you not agree with that statement? I would encourage any parent, teacher, friend, or individual to approach their life or their inspiration on others’ lives with the mindset of unlocking potential through hard work and grit.

Duckworth defines grit as a mixture of passion and perseverance, essentially valuing hard work and dedication over raw intelligence. [5] “Grit” as she defines it involves a person working relentlessly to achieve a “unifying goal,” a life’s passion worthy of tremendous practice and dedication. [6]

What are worthwhile “unifying goals” for peoples’ lives? Duckworth peppers her book with stories of ‘gritty’ people such as Pete Carroll (coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks), Jamie Dimon (CEO of Chase Bank), Bill McNabb (Vanguard Investment Group), Judd Apatow (director of movies such as The 40 Year Old Virgin), and Wendy Kopp (CEO and founder of Teach for America…I’ll return to her shortly). Duckworth uses a plethora of name dropping and examples to allow the reader to imagine grit as an attribute that can justify pursuing anything you want to pursue.

So how does one become a ‘gritty’ person and join the ranks of Dimon, Carroll, and the others?

Simple: interest, practice, purpose, and hope. [7]

This formula seems easy, but the way Angela Duckworth describes it, practice in particular requires a lot of sacrifice and overcoming hurdles. To be a gritty person, you have to not give up, you have to stick with your pursuits, and you have to set specific benchmarks in order to achieve those goals.

Hard work, perseverance, resilience, hope, grit. These are all values I try to instill in my students on a daily basis. I totally agree with Duckworth that hard work and perseverance lead to better individual outcomes than just being naturally ‘smart.’

Duckworth ends her book by saying that genius should be defined as “working toward excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being.” [8] I so want that to be true- I want to believe that everyone’s actions represent their own identity, but I have seen too much to believe this. From my experience, the only way to force-feed grit to broken populations is through severe oppression.

Why should we accept poverty as a given?

As I was reading the book, so many questions popped into my head about factors that impact student achievement and peoples’ life outcomes. Where is the mention of systems of oppression? Poverty, racial segregation, War on Drugs? What about the impact of history on today? What about luck? What about ethics? What about the fact that some peoples’ individual ambitions and hard work may spawn morally reprehensible corporations or achievements? What about shared goals? What about sharing things? What about happiness?

My mind pans to the faces of students I have known through the years in Detroit. In particular, I think about some of the kids I’ve come across who have gone through so much and stood so tough from their experiences. Yet, they don’t qualify as ‘gritty’ by Angela Duckworth’s definition. They may take two public buses to get to school every day, but they forget to turn in assignments and regularly fall asleep in class. They babysit their siblings or work to feed their families, but they don’t stick with the same hobby nor practice for years. Worse, they give up easily, and they feel uninspired by their academic work due to crumbling school environments. They don’t have parents who support such ‘gritty’ habits because their parents are busy working multiple jobs to feed their families or were imprisoned in the War on Drugs. They eat unhealthy foods (in and out of school), they attend schools with inexperienced and ineffective teachers, and they go home to chaotic home environments (all of this caused by and reinforced by poverty). This is not to even mention the asthma , the lead poisoning from the walls , and the highest violence rate in an American city , or the White flight from the inner cities. No, my students are not hopeful for the world. Taking one look around Detroit and Donald Trump’s America, would you blame them?

Perhaps Angela Duckworth’s “Grit” has merit to a parent with stable financial resources and access to great schools, but is this really an instructive manual for a country where 21% of students grow up in poverty? Or the city of Detroit where 87%  of children know someone who has been killed or wounded by gun violence? Those problems are far more impairing of student success and achievement than a lack of hard work. To me, Angela Duckworth needed to address the systemic forces that intersect with personal ambition and achievement, and it’s very telling that she did not choose to do so (instead, she lionized bankster Jamie Dimon, the same Jamie Dimon who led Chase Bank to mislead investors in the buildup to the 2008 financial crisis).

Angela Duckworth’s ‘Gritty’ Educators: Teach for America and KIPP

Then, there’s Angela Duckworth’s fascination with the corporate education reformers. She highlights Teach for America Founder and CEO Wendy Kopp, calling her a “paragon of grit,” explaining how Duckworth actually studied TFA and found that optimistic teachers had more ‘grit,’ and in turn got their students to achieve more. [9] Furthermore, Duckworth highlights the KIPP charter school network, the nation’s largest charter network, which she highlights for praising effort and learning over natural talent [10].

In turn, corporate ed reformers have made grit a central part of their gospel. In fact, KIPP worked with Angela Duckworth to create a character development framework that they utilize in their schools.

Teach for America and KIPP are basically fighting for the same things I am fighting for in my public school classroom: so what is my problem with them?

Regarding Teach for America, I am just going to drop this Onion Article here.

Volunteer Teacher: My year volunteering as a teacher helped educate a new generation of of underprivileged kids!

Elementary School Student: Can we please, just once, have a real teacher?

Bleeding heart college kids dropping in for two years to become teachers only de-professionalizes the profession while leaving behind underwhelming results. Any true teacher knows that experience is an essential ingredient to effective pedagogy- by the time Teach for America teachers start to gain that expertise, they move on to law school or the corporate world.

As for KIPP, they have positive academic results…but…

“I’ve seen about four teachers have complete nervous breakdowns…After two years, you become physically ill. Your body breaks down- you can’t take it anymore.”[11]

“Students are managed largely through bullying, screaming, and personal insults. At my previous (traditional public) school teachers did not raise their voice ONCE during the course of the year. At (the KIPP school where this teacher worked) it was ubiquitous. “

“If you don’t tuck in your shirt, if you space out for a minute and don’t track your teacher with your eyes, if your binder is messy, you lose points. If you lose enough points, you are not allowed to go on field trips or be a part of the graduation ceremony.” [12]

This is oppression on the level of the Indian boarding schools of the early 1900s that sought to assimilate Native Americans into White cultural life, but ended up causing harm. I believe these stories of KIPP: I have also participated in charter schools (not KIPP) and seen the oppressive cultures that they instill on students. I wrote this article about my experiences.

Furthermore, according to a study by Professor Gary Miron at Western Michigan, some 40% of Black males from KIPP Schools leave between grades 6-8.

Miron found that about 15% of all students leave each year from KIPP , compared with 3% in the local traditional public schools; oh yeah, and KIPP students receive about $5,000 a year per pupil through private donations IN ADDITION to regular public funding. [13] This is not only oppressive, but it is an unscalable model for education turnaround.

Would Angela Duckworth be proud of that attrition? Do teachers and students who cannot and do not want to survive in such oppressive environments just not have enough grit?

We Owe it To The Future To Fight Poverty and Racism

My mind races back to the students I have seen fail. The students of mine I have seen expelled after letting their rage boil over into violence, the various students I have seen on the local news in handcuffs, and the previously mentioned former student who had his life taken from him on the streets of Detroit.

If you put those same individuals with parents who had stable incomes, schools with nurturing and encouraging environments, and all the trappings of the suburban bubble, they would have a far greater chance to succeed.

We owe it to these students to not only instill passion and perseverance, but to create a society where grit is possible- where the American Dream is within reach. White, Black, Brown- we all deserve quality public schools. We owe it to our young people to abandon the myth that people have complete control over their lives; it is oppressive to victim-blame people into believing that they have full responsibility over their outcomes, and this mentality ultimately advantages the wealthy ruling class. It is good for individuals to gain responsibility, but that needs to be balanced with a hard look at systemic issues that prevent the poor and disenfranchised from being able to have the gritty success that Angela Duckworth idealizes.

Angela Duckworth dropped a James Baldwin quote in her book, so I will end this post with one of my own:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”- James Baldwin

For an individual looking to achieve something great, Grit is an extremely useful diagram of what to do, far more useful than the usual trope, “you’re so smart.”

But for our greater American society, this is no blueprint. And as Baldwin inspires us, we must face our own monsters (poverty and racism) in order to change them.


[1] https://cac.org/dom-helder-camara-2015-10-20/

[2]http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html

[3]Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017. Pp. 184-185

[4]Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner, 2016. Pp. 14

[5]Ibid. Pp. 56

[6]Ibid. Pp. 62

[7]Ibid. Pp. 91

[8]Ibid. Pp. 277

[9]Ibid. Pp. 176-177

[10]Ibid. Pp. 181

[11]https://cloakinginequity.com/2015/11/03/review-of-journeys-are-kipp-charter-schools-pathological/?utm_content=buffer2e8c7&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[12]https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/03/charter-schools-suspend-more-black-students-disabilities-test-scores/

[13]https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/04/06/27kipp_ep-2.h30.html

The Screen Wars

“What phone?”

In one of my early teaching experiences, a middle school girl (let’s call her Danielle) was looking down during a lesson, a slight blue hue reflecting up at her face. I cringed…this has become an all-too-familiar interruption in the 21st century school. I was faced with a decision, “Do I let this go for the sake of trudging on with the lesson?” or “Do I crack down on this student and make an example of this behavior?” For better or worse, I chose the latter. I gave Danielle the option of handing me the phone for the rest of the school day or getting a detention. She took the detention.

I called home and told Danielle’s mom that she had detention after school that day because she used her phone during class.

Silence.

“What phone?”- her mom responded to me.

It turns out that the girl bought a friend’s old phone in order to talk to guys online…without her parents even knowing. I accidentally peered into the world of teenage smart phone usage, a space that is filled with lots of connection, entertainment, distraction, and more critically, lack of supervision.

Sure, this particular example is a little extreme, but I have a bevy of other student smart phone cautionary tales, mainly accrued from several years teaching in urban schools. Some of these include: Snapchat and Instagram fight threats, anonymous Twitter accounts set up by star students to ethnically intimidate others, porn accidentally played in front of a guest speaker, and the student who put inappropriate videos of another student on Facebook .

More banal are the everyday examples of student screen addiction: the students desperately checking their phones at every spare moment during class or during class breaks, the obsession with using smart phones for academic tasks rather than thinking for themselves, the bathroom breaks to check their phones, hours spent on mindless iPad games, and the lack of sleep due to being up half the night watching YouTube videos.

Yes, technology is a powerful and useful tool. You don’t have to argue with me that the internet, phones, and computers are powerful tools in education…but only if they are balanced with other quality and proven pedagogical methods.

That’s the key: balance.

However, I and millions of teachers like me fight students all day for attention and for compliance away from their hidden-in-plain-sight addiction. This causes stress and tension between teacher and student, especially in schools that do not seriously address the problem at hand. The blunt reality is that, for an increasing amount of kids, time away from their devices is physically painful. This is a particularly frightening phenomenon in schools where parents have less guidance in their kids lives: our most vulnerable urban and underserved schools.

For students, teachers, and schools, the screen wars have taken their toll. Many schools have no idea how to meet this problem head-on. Many teachers simply give up on the fight.

Harms of Technology Addiction

In a high school that had a particular problem with cell phone distraction, I conducted an informal survey of my students about their habits.

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Despite being conducted on a very small scale in one school setting, these findings were troubling to me.

4 or more hours PER DAY on social media…kids get home around 3-4 pm. Does this mean that my students spend a large majority of their free time perusing social media? The fact that a majority of my students felt that they spent too much time on their phone made me think: who is helping them to deal with that problem? Who even acknowledges that this is a problem?

So, is the data of my own personal teaching experience generalizable to the public at large? Common Sense Media released a comprehensive, nationwide study in which they studied the tech habits of 2,600 young people (the full report can be found here). What did they find?

The results are extreme: American tweens (ages 8-12) average 5 hours and 55 minutes of entertainment media per day. American teenagers average 8 hours and 56 minutes. A key point: this entertainment media usage EXCLUDES time spent in school and for homework.

The averages don’t tell the full story: while just 6% of tweens don’t use screen media at all in their free time, 27% spend between 4 and 8 hours of time on screen media, and 11% use it for more than 8 hours per day. As for teens, 6% don’t use screen media at all in their free time, 31% spend between 4 and 8 hours of time on screen media, and a full 26% of teens spend more than 8 hours per day on screen media.

The findings are clear: there are approximately 11% of tweens and 26% of teens who use almost every waking moment of their free time on screen technology.

It is not just my students: young people nationwide are susceptible to the constant allure of the blue screen.

Digital Natives

So what?

I can hear the shouts from the army of (well-funded) tech consultants and ed tech corporations reading the first half of my post. They would respond with some jabs about all the tech jobs that are opening up in the 21st century, and that young kids are wired today to learn differently than you and I did. We adults just don’t understand- “adapt or die.”

The problem with this mentality is that the reality does not match the tech utopia: Common Sense Media found that just 3% of tweens’ and teens’ time on entertainment media involves content creation. Tweens and teens are largely using screen technology to rot on social media or mindlessly watch shows.

Sure, school should push students to have power over their technology by learning to code, create videos, and create digital art. The problem, however, is that many schools choose to use screen technology as a direct (and more costly) substitute for already effective pedagogical methods, and they intend to reduce teacher-to-student contact.

Take Carpe Diem Schools in Arizona. According to their own website, Carpe Diem employs a model of schools where students sit in cubicles all day and complete school work on computers (with the occasional rotation of real teaching to supplement the online masters). I can see the corporate education reform leaders licking their chops, just thinking about eliminating teaching jobs (and thus labor costs).

Take a look for yourself. Is this a school you want your child going to?

Although most schools do not go to the hardcore lengths of Carpe Diem, many schools are pumping millions and millions of dollars into flashy new devices and software that they have no effective plan to implement. Just look at Los Angeles Public Schools’ failed $1.3 billion iPad initiative. Even more isolated away from human interaction, more and more young students go to online school at home. As of 2013, some 315,000 k-12 students enrolled full-time in online public schools. Furthermore, as of 2013, 275,000 k-12 students enrolled full-time in cyber charter schools.

On the other hand, some Silicon Valley executives send their children to technology-free Waldorf Schools . These are private schools, of course; they emphasize human interaction, engaging lessons, and teacher-student connection at the early levels of education. These same tech executives who sell tech products to kids make sure their own kids grow up without screen dependence.

What is this doing to our kids?

For one thing, there is a significant mental health crisis among teens in the United States, and it is clear that smart phones and social media play a large role.

After decades of decline, a record number of teenagers died by suicide from 2010-2015. What changed in teenagers lives from that time? Researchers led by Dr. Jean Twenge, relying on data from the CDC and many other findings, found that 48% of teenagers who spent more than five hours on their phones per day have depression, think about suicide, or die by suicide. This was a far higher number than students that had under two hours per day on their phones.

This alone merits intervention by parents, schools, and the government.

Kids who spend way too much time on their devices lose out on in-person social interaction, exercise, family time, hobbies, and being outside in nature. In addition, from talking to my students, I often find that the sleepy students in class were on their phone and “lost track of time” and suddenly it was 3 a.m. Young people, with their raging hormones and instant gratification mindset, are ripe for late-night binges of YouTube, Netflix, and far more inappropriate content.

It’s not just me being a hater- two major Apple investors who own $2 billion in Apple stock released a letter saying that iPhones were a public health crisis for young frequent users and that this warrants significant action from Apple.

The kids who are most vulnerable to screen addiction are our society’s most vulnerable; African American teens average almost three hours more of digital media time per day when compared to White teens [1]. Children of the wealthy have seventeen times the amount of adult interaction when using technology as poor kids do, so poorer youths spend their time on technology unsupervised and unregulated [2]. It is clear that there is a “tech addiction” gap among children, and disadvantaged students require society’s intervention most.

What to Do About All This

If you are reading this blog and think I hate technology, then I have missed my mark. I love technology. Heck, I am spending way too much of my free time writing on this blog! I often use some level of technology in my lessons, and students have created some really awesome projects on iPads and computers in the past. However, it is clear that there needs to be action taken in order to help balance students’ usage of technology. 9 hours a day at home plus 7 hours a day at school on a screen is not going to cut it.

Here are a few of my “solutions”:

1. Teachers: use technology when it helps, don’t use it when it doesn’t

This may sound simple, but I can’t tell you how many times I have personally used technology in a lesson that has ultimately hindered my lesson or distracted from the learning objectives. Selectively use technology in order to help students learn valuable lessons, but shy away from using technology as a lazy crutch or a shiny attention-getter. The reality is that widely-used technology products are made to be intuitive. You would be far better served by focusing on critical thinking skills and problem solving, with or without technology. Examples of great technology in the classroom include teaching coding, media production, and teaching media literacy (fake news from real news). These should be balanced with activities that push students to communicate with one another and engage with learning in a hands-on way. Oh, and do not be soft on your “no cell phones” policy. Continue fighting the screen wars when you need to lay down the law.

2. Parents: monitor your kids’ technology

In a survey to my high school students, just over half said their parents would be horrified if they knew what they were doing online. Yeah…parents, you probably want to know what that means. If your kids are young, restrict their technology usage to a minimum. If they are teens, monitor what they are doing closely and make sure that your kids aren’t always replacing activities and social experiences with mindless screen time. If they are spending hours and hours per day on their phones, this could also correlate with depression-related symptoms. Also, maybe keep the phone out of the hands of the student when they go to bed.

3. Government: study the problem and take necessary action

The CDC should directly study social media and smartphone usage among young people and take any necessary precautions to help decrease screen dependence. How young is too young for smart phones or social media? What lengths need to be taken to keep tech companies accountable for their products? We need a government to protect our kids, in particular low-income and minority youths.

4. Schools: Be skeptical of the flashy, shiny new gimmick 

Schools should focus on doing what is best for kids, and that includes providing for students’ mental health well-being and academic focus. Schools should take a hard look at banning cell phones from classes, and elementary teachers should be very careful of how much screen-time they are allowing for their students. In grades 6-12, schools should be careful of not over-loading tweens and teens with screen-time because that’s exactly what they will do when they get home.While we’re at it, bring back recess, music, real world excursions, and art. Finally, Mental health services should not just be a reactionary after-thought for students in direct crisis; schools should provide direct help for students and promote positive mental health through programs such as this one through the University of Michigan Depression Center. This mental health prevention should acknowledge the link between mental health crises and screen addiction. Thus, schools need to engage students, but they also need to mitigate against digital extremes.


 

[1] Clement, Joe and Miles, Matt. Screen Schooled. Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2018. Pp. 173.

[2] Ibid, pp 173.

View from the Inside: Why I am Doing This

1280px-Johann_Peter_Hasenclever_-_Die_Dorfschule
My Life

 

Ask most teachers and they will tell you the same thing: they are sick of people from non-education professional backgrounds making huge decisions about the future of education.

I am sick of these people too- and now I am doing something about it. I will use this blog to respond to mainstream views about education, about teachers, and about our future. Of course, there is an intersectionality between education and a multitude of issues, so my blog will touch on politics, gender, race, class, economics, current events, and a variety of academic disciplines.

To give a broad overview of my educational views, in general, I am in favor of strong and robust public schools, I want to give all students the opportunity to succeed in education regardless of their parents or zip code, and I am in favor of elevating the teaching profession. Things I am skeptical about are charter schools, school of choice, high-stakes test scores, college-for-all, factory-style k-12 education, vouchers, blended learning, replacing teachers with technology, and politicians making callous decisions for schools and children that should be made with the help of stakeholders such as teachers and students.

I am doing this to shed light from within; I have experience teaching several subjects in various urban and suburban schools; simply put, I have taught at some of the worst schools in America and some of the best. I have given much of myself to be a teacher: physically, mentally, and spiritually. Early mornings, late nights, breaking up fights, being there for broken youths, helping future doctors and lawyers, you name it. I am whatever my students need me to be.

Why do I do it?

Simple. To change the world, to inspire others, and to help create a world worth living in.

But I don’t want to be a teacher forever- I am young and I am already feeling some of the burnout symptoms. Being an intellectual teacher, I eventually hope to tackle education from a more systemic level, and this blog will serve as a springboard for my intellectual pursuits.