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Amherst schools urge students to ‘work smart’

  • Amherst Regional Middle School principal Betsy Dinger watches students share an activity on stage in the auditorium during the early Friday morning "pep talk".<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst Regional Middle School principal Betsy Dinger watches students share an activity on stage in the auditorium during the early Friday morning "pep talk".
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Regional Middle School interim principal Betsy Dinger plans to return to the classroom.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst Regional Middle School interim principal Betsy Dinger plans to return to the classroom.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Paul Tough talks describes the theory he promotes about student achievement in his new book "How Children Succeed," at Amherst Regional High School last week.

    Paul Tough talks describes the theory he promotes about student achievement in his new book "How Children Succeed," at Amherst Regional High School last week. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Paul tough talks about his new book "How Children Succeed," at Amherst Regional High School Wednesday afternoon.<br/><br/>

    Paul tough talks about his new book "How Children Succeed," at Amherst Regional High School Wednesday afternoon.

    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Paul tough talks about his new book "How Children Succeed," at Amherst Regional High School Wednesday afternoon.<br/><br/>

    Paul tough talks about his new book "How Children Succeed," at Amherst Regional High School Wednesday afternoon.

    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Regional Middle School interim principal Betsy Dinger, right, yields the floor to art teacher Tara Kuzmeskus about four minutes into her early Friday morning "pep talk".<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst Regional Middle School interim principal Betsy Dinger, right, yields the floor to art teacher Tara Kuzmeskus about four minutes into her early Friday morning "pep talk".
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Regional Middle School interim principal Betsy Dinger watches students share an activity on stage in the auditorium during the early Friday morning "pep talk".<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst Regional Middle School interim principal Betsy Dinger watches students share an activity on stage in the auditorium during the early Friday morning "pep talk".
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Regional Middle School interim principal Betsy Dinger holds assemblies twice a week, in part to give students tips on how to succeed..<br/>KEVIN GUTTING<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst Regional Middle School interim principal Betsy Dinger holds assemblies twice a week, in part to give students tips on how to succeed..
    KEVIN GUTTING
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Regional Middle School principal Betsy Dinger watches students share an activity on stage in the auditorium during the early Friday morning "pep talk".<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst Regional Middle School principal Betsy Dinger watches students share an activity on stage in the auditorium during the early Friday morning "pep talk".
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Regional Middle School principal Betsy Dinger watches students share an activity on stage in the auditorium during the early Friday morning "pep talk".<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Amherst Regional Middle School interim principal Betsy Dinger plans to return to the classroom.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Paul Tough talks describes the theory he promotes about student achievement in his new book "How Children Succeed," at Amherst Regional High School last week.
  • Paul tough talks about his new book "How Children Succeed," at Amherst Regional High School Wednesday afternoon.<br/><br/>
  • Paul tough talks about his new book "How Children Succeed," at Amherst Regional High School Wednesday afternoon.<br/><br/>
  • Amherst Regional Middle School interim principal Betsy Dinger, right, yields the floor to art teacher Tara Kuzmeskus about four minutes into her early Friday morning "pep talk".<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Amherst Regional Middle School interim principal Betsy Dinger watches students share an activity on stage in the auditorium during the early Friday morning "pep talk".<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Amherst Regional Middle School interim principal Betsy Dinger holds assemblies twice a week, in part to give students tips on how to succeed..<br/>KEVIN GUTTING<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Amherst Regional Middle School principal Betsy Dinger watches students share an activity on stage in the auditorium during the early Friday morning "pep talk".<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

Betsy Dinger, interim principal of Amherst Regional Middle School, strolls around the auditorium stage, microphone in hand.

“Good morning, Class of 2018!” she says to the seventh-graders, gathered there at 7:45 a.m. “Here’s the scoop. I’m telling you how to make things work for you. What it takes to be successful here in this school and in your entire life. ”

The subject of this 20-minute assembly is “The Myth of Intelligence and Effective Effort.” On a big screen up front Dinger displays what she calls the common belief that if a student performs poorly, the reason must be low ability. Conversely, she says, “If you’re smart, you’re smart, and that’s the way it is, right?”

But then she counters that with this: “Smart is not what you are; smart is what you get by working hard and working smart.”

She presents a list of what that means: spending time, focusing, asking for help, persisting. Next on the screen is the Thomas Edison quote about genius being “1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

Character wins

Dinger has been holding two of these assemblies a week since September, with all the seventh-graders on Tuesdays and all the eighth-graders on Fridays. They have included not only tips for achieving, but also announcements, student exhibitions and high school students giving advice. Mostly they convey a message many schools forget to teach, Dinger says: Students can learn how to be successful.

Her work is one manifestation of a philosophy that is influencing many of Amherst’s teachers and administrators this year. The key idea is that perseverance can be more important in determining success than IQ test scores. It’s leading middle school teachers to explicitly teach students how to work, and at Amherst Regional High School a campaign is under way to influence the culture of the school, said Principal Mark Jackson.

“This is a new way of looking at education,” said Superintendent Maria Geryk. “We need to break out of the traditional ideas. Education is not about sitting in rows and filling out tests. That doesn’t produce brilliance.”

All of these efforts dovetail with a talk here last week by Paul Tough, the bestselling author of “How Children Succeed.” Tough is a leading exponent of the view that in schools, character is more important than intelligence.

As a journalist, Tough decided to take a close look at why some children succeed while others fail, why children from low-income families are less likely to achieve, and how to steer children in the right direction. In his research, he visited schools, pediatric clinics, neuroscience labs and chess tournaments.

“The conventional wisdom that has guided our thinking about education the past couple of decades is misguided,” Tough said in his Amherst talk. The kind of intelligence that’s measured on an IQ test is less important to a student’s success than qualities like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, self-control and optimism, he said.

The liberating message for struggling students, and those who teach them, is that you can’t change your IQ but you can build character.

Tough described a visit to the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) School in the Bronx that started issuing “character report cards” to each student four times a year and tries to instill a “growth mind-set” rather than a “fixed mind-set.”

“They’re using the language of possibility and change, not the language of blame and failure,” he said.

The school set a goal to have 75 percent of middle school graduates graduate from four-year colleges within six years of their high school graduation, Tough wrote in his book. While the class of 2003 hit only 21 percent, that number was up to 46 percent for the class of 2005, he wrote. For the class of 2007, 26 percent were on track to graduate from college and another 18 percent were enrolled, he wrote.

Tough described a test in which students read a list of adverse experiences in personal or family lives and check the ones that apply to them. Students who have encountered a lot of adversity tend to be worn down by chronic stress, he said, but the highest-performing ones aren’t the ones who haven’t had adversity. That distinction goes to those who have had challenges, he said.

“Affluent kids don’t have enough adversity and need exposure to more,” he said. “In trying to protect our kids, we’re doing more harm than good.”

Some of Tough’s conclusions are based on research done by Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s done tests of West Point cadets, finalists in the National Spelling Bee, novice teachers and salespeople to measure the impact of grit in enabling people to unlock their talents and become high achievers. For example, one of her studies showed that the best of the best spellers were more likely to score high on the grit test than on IQ tests.

Applying the principles

ARHS Principal Jackson asked the entire ninth grade to attend Tough’s speech. Tough’s ideas are a big part of the school’s improvement plan, he said.

Katherine Appy, who chairs the Amherst School Committee, is a psychologist who is familiar with the importance of resilience. She said the committee has a role to play in expanding the schools’ vision of success.

“We can look at ways the district is helping kids develop some of the character traits Tough talks about, and make sure that some of our resources are going to those efforts,” she said.

Appy said the Amherst schools should continue with a program that emphasizes positive approaches to behavior and concentrates on catching students doing things right rather than punishing them for doing things wrong.

“I also hope to keep the concepts about character and resilience in the public eye and make clear that they should be a part of our educational mandate,” she said.

Kip Fonsh, who chairs the Regional School Committee and was a teacher for 30 years, also attended Tough’s talk. He said he has always thought the Amherst schools concentrated too much on standardized tests and didn’t do enough to challenge students.

“It comes down to the relationships between teachers and students, and convincing them they have the capacity to do hard work and rise above that fixed mind-set,” he said. “That’s not naive or overly idealistic.”

M.J. Viederman co-chairs the Amherst Regional High School Parent Council and was responsible for bringing Tough to town. She had heard a lot about the gap in achievement between ARHS students from different socio-economic backgrounds, and after reading some of Tough’s articles, she decided it was time to try something new.

“We need to make sure we’re not missing opportunities to value more curiosity or zest or optimism,” she said. “What are the ways we can do that intentionally? We have a great diversity of offerings, and are we really encouraging kids to take one?”

Administrators attended a workshop last summer on how they can help students develop the skills to be successful, and Superintendent Geryk said it is a priority this school year.

Marta Guevara, the director of student achievement, said that the talk confirmed her belief that genes don’t dictate what a child will become. “This challenges some of us who believed that some kids are born smart,” she said. “We’ve done damage to children not knowing this earlier and have to coordinate our approach to teaching families so they can inform their child-rearing practices. Now that we have this information, it’s our duty to move forward and share it with families.”

‘Phone a friend’

Back at the middle school auditorium, Interim Principal Dinger is telling students that while working hard is important, working smart is key. But how do you do that?

One student suggests asking for help when stuck, another talks about using the Internet. Phone a friend, another says.

“You guys are full of strategies to get smart! I love it!” Dinger says.

She has put up on the screen two imaginary statements from students who have bought into the myth of intelligence. One says, “If the work is hard, I must not be smart enough to do it, so why should I try?” The other says, “I have always found math to be easy for me, but now it’s hard. I must just not be smart enough to do this.”

Instead, she tells the seventh-graders, approach it this way: “Man, if I don’t get it the first time, I’m gonna keep working at it.”

The bell rings and she sends them off: “Now think about how to work smart, and have a great day!”

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