Chalk Talk: Michele Turner Bernhard The “True Grit” of “The American Dream”

Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Driving to Northampton High School on a cold, dark Monday morning in March, I heard an NPR story that began: “It’s become the new buzz phrase in education: ‘Got grit?’”

Through my car window I watched students from Hampshire Heights walking to school in the wind, while Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania said, “This quality of being able to sustain your passions — and also work really hard at them — over really disappointingly long periods of time, that’s grit.”

Her interview went on to proclaim “grit is actually a better predictor of success that IQ” — and she was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant for coining the term.

I found myself thinking, this is circular logic.

Education policy makers are wondering if “grit” can be taught in schools, and argue that kids are now being taught to “do school” but aren’t learning skills they need in life.

Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” says “a child’s success can’t be measured in IQ scores or standardized tests. Success is about how young people build character.”

I could not agree more, but I disagree with the premise that “grit” is lacking in our struggling students. A more level socio-economic playing field is lacking. In the meantime, a recognition of the positive character traits of all students in our public schools is crucial to encouraging students to engage in education.

My 50 junior English Language Arts students read “Nickel and Dimed” by journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who went under cover for a year to live on minimum wage jobs to see if it is possible to make ends meet. She exposes assumptions that people who live in poverty are not working hard enough, are “lazy,” or not working at all, with her stories of people working multiple minimum wage jobs just to survive. After close analysis of diction in “Nickel and Dimed,” students understood the negative judgment attached to the working poor. Many students argued that raising the minimum wage and providing affordable health care is needed for the dignity and survival of workers.

Students who live with privilege learned that socio-economic class changes the playing field. If your family has a car, something many of us take for granted, it is easier to participate in the American Dream of finding and holding a good job, and getting to school. Privilege doesn’t make us “bad,” it makes us lucky.

While reading “Nickel & Dimed,” and watching classmates’ reactions, students who live with poverty experienced validation of their experiences.

Most powerful was when students shared their own narratives about their families from the prompt: What does socio-economic class look like in your family? They did not label their class, but described it. One student wrote of eating only rice every night for dinner the last week of the month until a subsidy check arrives. Students wrote about living with disabled parents, or living with grandparents, about taking care of younger siblings, spending hours alone while single parents worked or working minimum wage jobs after school to contribute to the family income. The conversations were “gritty” and real. We are all faced with the reality of disparity in our own community, and of the mutual shame and pride we feel in our families.

Studying the rhetoric and diction of the multiple narratives in our public schools, a true representation of the diversity in our great country, is an excellent start to building character in our young citizens about to be launched into the workforce. What better skill than that of collaboration to solve domestic and global issues?

Most of our struggling students come from families living in poverty. These kids harness their “grit” to get themselves to school each day, where they are told that hard work is rewarded with good grades, college, and a successful job. But there needs to be more for them after graduation than a minimum wage job that doesn’t cover the bills, or impossible college loans.

The language we use as educators matters. The term “grit” implies something is missing in our students, not in our education system. Similarly, the term “achievement gap” implies that the education system can fix what is a growing socio-economic divide.

P.L. Thomas of Furman University writes on the blog, “The Becoming Radical:” “ ‘Grit’ is a mask, a marker of privilege and slack that suggests people who succeed do so because of their effort (and not their privilege and the slack of their lives) and that people who fail do so because of a failure of character (and not due to the scarcity that overburdens them).” Choosing texts that are relevant for all students illuminates the power and hope of democracy in our public schools.

Michele Turner Bernhard teaches ELA at NHS, and is a parent of two students at Jackson Street School. She presented a workshop at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project Spring Symposium “Social Justice in the Classroom” at Westfield State University April 12.