On Rigor, Grit, Productive Struggle and What Our Word Choice Means

Word Choice Matters

As happened last year, many of the teachers, administrators and parents who left feedback on last month’s English Language Arts test at testingtalk.org pointed to what they felt were questions that focused on minutiae which, as Brooklyn principal Liz Phillips said “had little bearing on [children's] reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools.” Most of those questions were aimed at assessing the Common Core’s Reading Standards 4-6, which are the ones that look at word choice and structure. Having not seen this year’s tests, I’m not in a position to comment—though if the questions were like the ones I shared from some practice tests earlier, I can see what the concern was about.

Most of the practice test questions associated with those standards were, indeed, picayune and disconnected from the text’s overall meaning. But I don’t think that means that thinking about word choice and structure isn’t important—only that the test questions weren’t very good. Word choice and structure can, in fact, be windows onto a text’s deeper meaning. Or as my colleagues Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan have suggested, thinking about Reading Standards 4-6 can get us to Standards 1-3, which are all about meaning. And so this week, I’d like to apply Reading Anchor Standard 4—”Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choice shape meaning or tone”—to three key buzzwords attached to the Standards—rigor, grit and productive struggle.

Rigor DefinitionTo me, all three seem to have strangely negative connotations. And in that, I’m not alone. Many educators have pointed out that, if we look up the word rigor in the dictionary, we find definitions that suggest something downright punishing. That’s why some educational writers, such as Stevi Quate and John McDermott, the authors of Clock Watchersdeliberately decided to use the word challenge instead of rigor in their most recent book The Just-Right ChallengeOthers, such as former NCTE president Joanne Yatvin prefer the word vigor, which turning to the thesaurus this time, lists synonyms such as energy, strength, gusto and zing. Either or both of those words seem better than one connected to stiff dead bodies—i.e., rigor mortis. Yet rigor is the word that’s most in vogue.

The word grit is also popular today and is frequently touted as “the secret to success.” Yet it, too, has a whiff of negativity about it. Grit is what’s needed to get through something
Child Refusing Dinnerunpleasant, boring or even painful that someone else has said is good for you—like eating your vegetables or sitting through days and days of standardized testing. And as Alfie Kohn notes in his great piece “Ten Concerns about the ‘Let Them Teach Grit’ Fad,” grit seems connected to a slew of other terms, like self-discipline, will power and deferred gratification, all of which push students to “resist temptation, put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do—and keep at it for as long as it takes.”

Here, too, we could choose another word, like resilience, without the same connotations as grit, but we don’t. According to Merriam-Webster again, resilience focuses on “the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change,” not just the stamina or toughness to trudge through it. And as former principal and speaker Peter DeWitt notes in his EdWeek blog post “Should Children Really Be Expected to Have Grit?“, resilience “can coincide with empathy and compassion,” whereas grit seems more about sheer doggedness—and in the case of vegetables and tests, compliance, which may be the word’s hidden agenda.

And then there’s the term productive struggle, which I confess I’ve embraced in the past, as an earlier blog post attests to. I believe completely in giving students time to explore and wrestle with a text in order to arrive at their own meaning because whatever is learned through that process—about that text, texts in general, and the reader himself—will stick much more than if we overly direct or scaffold students to a pre-determined answer. But that word struggle comes with the same negative connotations as the two other words do. The thesaurus, for instance, lists battle and fight as synonyms for struggle, with pains and drudgery as related words. And while I think we can reclaim words—such as turning the word confusion into something to celebrate rather than avoid—I’ve recently started to wonder if we shouldn’t choose a more positive word to get at the same concept, as you’ll see in the twitter exchange I had with two teachers after reading a blog post by the wonderful Annie PaulTwitter Inquiry vs. Struggle

Merriam-Webster defines inquiry as “a systematic search for the truth or facts about something” and unlike the word struggle, which seems mostly connected to hardship and conflict, the word inquiry is connected to questioning, challenge and self-reflection. In fact, it seems to embrace the very habits of mind that NCTE has identified in their Framework for Postsecondary Success:

NCTE Habits of Mind Framework

So what does it say about our culture that the words we’ve chosen to latch on to the most all seem to carry connotations of hardship, toughness and forbearance? Some writers, like Alfie Kohn, see this as simply a new manifestation of the Puritan work ethic—in a time in which it’s become much harder to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Others, like P. L. Thomas of Furman University, sees in the “‘grit’ narrative” something much more insidious: “a not-so-thinly masked appeal to racism”, with students of color being tagged as the ones most in need of more rigor, grit and time spent struggling.

In addition to these troubling implications, these three words also focus on student deficits, not on student strengths. And they suggest that we, as teachers, should be like Catwoman with her scowl and her whip, rather than like the Cat Lady who invites children to get to know the kitties. And I can’t help thinking that if, as a society, we chose some of those other words from the NCTE Framework instead—such as curiosity, openness, creativity and engagement—students would engage in productive struggle, even with something deemed rigorous, without explicit lessons on grit. And that’s because . . .

Word Choice Matters 2






Engaging with Engagement: Building the Need to Know

two girls

© Dmitry Vereshchagin – Fotolia.com

A few months ago I had a chance to hear Mike Schmoker, author of the popular ASCD book Focus, speak at a summer institute. In his keynote, he shared ideas from his book, which was subtitled Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, and some of these I wholeheartedly agreed with. He came down hard, for instance, on worksheets, which he described in his keynote as busywork and in Focus as “the archenemy of abundant purposeful reading, discussion and writing.” And as I’ve written about myself, he warned against reading instruction that sends students off on “treasure hunts” rather than actually reading. But when it came to engagement I paused.

Cold CallingMany of the practices he suggested were similar to those advised by Doug Lemov, the author of the widely read Teach Like a ChampionThese include training students to keep their eyes on the teacher, cold calling on students whose hands aren’t raised to keep everyone on their toes, and launching lessons with some kind of teacher teaser intended to spark interest. For several of us listening, this sounded more like compliance and fear tactics than authentic engagement, and in this we weren’t alone. Charlotte Danielson, for instance, whose Framework for Teaching rubrics are being used, along with test scores, to evaluate teachers in New York City, describes engagement this way:

“Student engagement is not the same as ‘time on task’ . . . . Mere activity is inadequate for engagement. Nor is simple participation sufficient. The activity should represent new learning. What is required  for student engagement is intellectual involvement with the content or active construction of understanding.

This ‘intellectual involvement’, she goes on to say, requires designing activities and assignments that “emphasize problem-based learning,” “encourage depth rather than breadth” and “require student thinking”—none of which is necessarily happens when we stand in front of a class to share an interesting fact or anecdote that we hope will whet the students’ appetites.

I’m also not convinced anymore that ‘intellectual involvement’ is really kick-started by practices such as Anticipation Guides, which I used to use myself. Here, for instance, is one I designed for some 7th and 8th grade special students as the kick-off to a unit on relationship, in which they read several short stories by Gary Soto, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Sharon Flake and watched West Side Story:

Anticipation Guide on Relationships

© Vicki Vinton, Literacy Consultant http://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com

And here’s another one a group of science teachers and I created for a unit on genetics that would eventually involve the students exploring some of the complex ethical questions raised by advances in that field:

Anticipation Guide on Genetics

© Vicki Vinton, Literacy Consultant http://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com

In both cases the students participated. They actively read the statements, circling A if they agreed or D if they disagreed in the Before Reading column, before they turned and talked with a partner. But in addition to the fact that only a few actually wrote any comments, the thinking they were doing involved little more than recalling what they already thought, not constructing some new understanding.

Better, I’ve found, are visual images, especially in the content areas. Here, for instance, is a set of images of Venice that a third grade class I worked with studied carefully, one at a time, before embarking on a social studies unit on Italy:


Venice Flooded

Venice Map

In the first image, students were intrigued by the place, in particular what many of them thought was a castle until one child noticed the cross on the dome and thought it might be a church. They also closely studied the tray of the family in the foreground, noticing the silver cups and spoons and the slices of lemon in glasses, all of which made them think that the place was not only beautiful but fancy. In the second, they were actually aghast at the transformation of the beautiful place they’d seen in the previous picture. And calculating the height of the water from the half-submerged tables and chairs, they worried about what might have been damaged in the castle-like church. And finally, the third image helped them develop hunches about what might have happened to create such as disaster—especially after some of the students began to think that the blue lines that criss-crossed the city weren’t roads as they first had thought, but water ways that might flood.

NeedtoKnow-450x254Compared to the students who were circling A or D in the Anticipation Guides above, these students were involved in much higher order thinking as they used what they’d noticed to infer and developed hypotheses that might explain what caused the difference in the two pictures. They were constructing new understanding, at least a provisional one. And feeling a burning need to know, especially about the fate of the buildings, they eagerly dove into an article about the problems Venice faced with the kind of intellectual involvement that Charlotte Danielson speaks about.

Those students’ engagement began with curiosity, which many scientists, such as John Medina, the Director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning and Research and the author of the best-selling book Brain Rules, think is intrinsically connected to our capacity to learn. And that initial curiosity led those students to think and to discover, which in turn fueled their engagement. That all happened because I think that thinking is actually exhilarating and discovery, as Medina writes, “brings joy,” which can become downright addictive—especially when the thinking and discoveries arise from our own noticings.

Unfortunately, though, curiosity and joy seems undervalued and underutilized in many schools settings, particularly in the upper grades where, as Medina also says, “Fascination can become secondary to ‘What do I need to know to get the grade?'” And this emphasis on grades instead of fascination—and performance instead of exploration—leaves too many students disengaged and at risk for checking out, as can be seen in a recent Gallup poll that showed that the percentage of disengaged students climb steadily as kids move up the grades, with eight-in-ten students engaged in lower school and only four-in-ten in high school.

RosesI’m aware, of course, that it may seem much easier to tap into students’ curiosity with a compelling image than with a complex text (which Chris Lehman’s latest Close Reading Blog-a-Thon post painfully illustrates). But I’ll tell you when those 7th and 8th grade special ed students really got engaged: not when they filled out the Anticipation Guide but when they read the first short story, “Dozens of Roses,” by Virginia Euwer Wolff, which I looked at last month. I invited them then to simply wonder, which I said could consist of something that confused them or something they were curious about. And with that and time to talk, they were filled with questions: Who sent Lucy the roses? Why didn’t she want them? Why doesn’t she have any pep now? And those questions built the need to know that naturally led them to read closely with their full mental engagement.

So what are you doing to build your students’ intellectually involving engagement—which, as Chris, also rightly points out “isn’t a thing, it’s the only thing” that counts?

Building Better Teachers

By R. Kikuo Johnson for The New York TImes. Used with permission of the artist. http://www.rkikuojohnson.com

We Interrupt the Regularly Scheduled Program to Bring You this Important Message

For a few days last week I sat at my desk working on a blog post about reading poetry as New York City’s third through eighth graders sat at their desks, aligned in rows, to endure the three-day marathon known as the New York State English Language Arts Test. What happened on one of those days made the headlines after hundreds, if not thousands, of New York eighth graders took to their cellphones and computers to trade jokes, bewilderment and facebook postings about one of the reading passages and the multiple choice questions that went with it. Social media, it seems, was causing another uprising.

For those of you who don’t already know, the passage in question was a parody of an Aesop fable called “The Pineapple and the Hare,” which was taken out of context from Daniel Pinkwater‘s book Borgel and, according to the author, “edited out of any resemblance to what I wrote.” Pinkwater, who’s also the author of any number of hilarious and anarchic books, says that the story was meant to be nonsensical. He describes it as a fractured fairy tale told by an old man to his young nephew to prepare the boy for the even greater absurdity of discovering that God is an orange popsicle. In this way, you could say the story had a purpose within the bigger context of the book. But losing that context, it became even more absurd as it morphed into an exam text—or as Pinkwater puts it, “It’s nonsense on top of nonsense on top of nonsense.”

The nonsense was furthered by Pearson, the testing Goliath responsible for the exam, who reused the story in at least seven states over seven years, despite the fact that it left most everyone in those states as dumfounded by the story’s pointlessness as it did in New York. Pearson has said that it included the passage “as a way of comparing student performance among states.” But how do you compare meaningless answers to meaningless questions about a meaningless text in a meaningful way? Beats me—though I have to wonder if the passage wouldn’t have been recycled if school children had the kind of lobbyists Pearson has.

On the positive front, though, what all this has done is shed light on the insanity of judging students, teachers and schools by a standardized test. And it’s sparked a loud outcry among parents and educators. Brooklyn Prinicpal Liz Phillips, for instance, wrote a letter to the New York State Education Commissioner to urge him to review the tests because she believes the pineapple passage wasn’t just an aberration but an example of exams that are “deeply flawed.” Others have been making the argument that given how much rides on these tests—student promotions, teachers’ careers, and in some cases a school’s very survival—they should be made as public and transparent as the scores that are published in the papers, so that everyone can judge the tools being used to judge so many lives.

Of course, for many of us this is nothing new. For years we’ve known the limits of standardized tests to measure anything of real, lasting value. And we’re all too familiar with the way they can zap the joy out of teaching and learning. But I want to believe that the tide might be turning. Over the last few months, for instance, I’ve read any number of wonderful articles that both pre-date this latest fiasco and speak to the need to reclaim the teaching of reading and writing from the clutches of standardized test makers. And to keep the momentum of this tide growing, I share below links to four of my favorites in the hopes that they’ll inspire and empower you in the face of the deadening tests—or at least let you feel that you’re not alone, which is what good writing can do.

First up is “Dear Governor: Lobby to Save a Love of Reading” by a New York City couple who, in their attempt to turn their third grade son’s practice ELA test homework into a New Year’s Eve parlor game, discover the limits of multiple choice questions to capture what a text is “mostly about.”

The same couple, Anne Stone and Jeff Nichols, also wrote “A Lesson in Teaching to the Test, From E. B. White.” Drawing on a wonderful passage from White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, their piece reminds us that ultimately questions are as important as answers and that true teaching is about supporting and nurturing a child’s curiosity and thinking.

Coming from the Washington Post‘s blog The Answer Sheet, “Teacher: Dear Students, I’m sorry about the test I made you take,” is a letter of apology from veteran teacher Ruth Ann Dandrea to her 8th grade students who she applauds for answering an either/or question on a test with “Honestly, I think it’s both.”

And finally, from Education Nation’s The Learning Curve blog, there’s “Is ‘Accountability’ Undermining American Education?” by Carol Dwek, which looks at the dangers of fixed versus growth mindsets. She also shares the priceless wisdom of an Indian educator who, after hearing about our high-stakes testing culture, sagely explains that in India “when we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don’t weigh the elephant.”

Now go feed the children in your care with real reading and writing. I’ll be back next week with that post about poetry.