Grit Ruined My Saturday

Grit Ruined My Saturday

Saturday night and I headed out to one of my favorite joints for beer and pizza. Carb nirvana after a long day filled with all of the things that stack up and make a day off not so off.  

So there I am, jobs well done, with my tall one, and a nice thick book and all is right with the world. Until a kid walks by my table in a tee shirt with the words, “Got Grit?” shouting out above his school logo.  

I could blame my reaction on heavy carb consumption, but the pizza hadn’t been served yet. No, my idyllic beer and pizza afternoon was ruined by that dangerous tee shirt, and how ubiquitous and misused the grit narrative has become. I’m so tired of the grit solution as a simple answer for the complex challenges that so many young people and their teachers face in the classroom each day.

What’s wrong with it, you ask?   

Let’s start with what Grit is. In this instance, not a bird digestive or a Southern breakfast icon. The Character Lab, founded by the queen of Grit, Angela Duckworth, defines it as  “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

I’m in no way against persevering or long-term goals. I founded a non-profit that helps young people develop their life-goals and get the tools they need to achieve them. What some might define as gritty behaviors like revising an essay several times or slogging through to the end of a tough text a little at a time, are routinely things we help students do.

My issue with grit is that it puts all of the responsibility on the student who must demonstrate a very specific type of determination – on demand – without necessarily having the skills, conditions, or support to do so.

Hungry, exhausted students can’t concentrate. Reading assigned chapters of Moby Dick is understandably unimportant to a student who is the primary caregiver for younger siblings or a key breadwinner in his/her family. The consequences of frequent moves and school changes, excessive absences because of parental instability, or undeveloped reading ability are not the result of low grit. Not having the money to buy supplies for a take-home project or to put together an entry for the science fair has nothing to do with grittiness.

The troubling thing about grit mania is that too often, it facilitates the notion that those very real barriers are, conveniently, the fault of the student. They chose not to work hard, they chose not to persist. They just weren’t gritty enough. Which is ironic because for many kids in tough situations, they’ve already overcome tremendous obstacles- just to get as far as they are.

The problem with grit isn’t the idea that sustained effort through difficulty improves one’s chances for success. I totally agree. The problem is that grit is oversimplified and used completely outside the context of the barriers that must be breached to persist. As straightforward as we want it to seem, the complexity of success can’t be summed up in a tee-shirt. Realizing one’s potential is a complex recipe and many ecological factors—such as race, class, or family income affect access to the opportunities that Duckworth’s own grit manifesto says are crucial to getting it. Without acknowledging the conditions in which one is trying to succeed, or providing the tools to own one’s learning, grit becomes just one more thing that a kid can fail at. Grit has become an easy place to lay blame for their struggles; and absolve any responsibility for those who failed them.

If I could get myself on the grit train, it would be to explore grit in the context of systems rather than individual students. How do schools systems and communities show “perseverance and passion” in achieving their purpose? In my view, school districts that are destigmatizing free lunch or committing sufficient resources to train, support (and competitively pay) teachers to be persistent in their efforts to engage every student in their classroom are demonstrating grit. Communities that are investing in public/private partnerships that wrap services around students and their families are showing grit. 

But as it relates to individual student achievement and predicting student success, I would like to see grit returned to its alternate definitions and embracing the complexity and very personal nature of how students succeed. Perhaps I can sum it up in a tee-shirt? “Grit: For birds and breakfast only.”

Never Given Up

Never Given Up

Today is my mom’s birthday.  Even though she passed away 27 years ago, I still miss her. It is a rare day that a memory doesn’t come to me, or I wish that I could ask her about something.

With an election year upon us, I am reminded of her political interests and how passionate she was about fairness, freedom and integrity.  These values were “hard-baked” into our upbringing, and every conversation we overheard about politics or politicians was ultimately about them. Oh to be a kid in our house during Watergate.

Her absence was deeply felt during the recent House impeachment hearings, and as I watched I imagined her sitting with me, taking notes and writing out the questions she would then dash off in a letter to someone on the committee. Mom took participation to its best level!

Of course things have changed, and I wonder if my parents’ generation would recognize the political or social landscape of today. Most of the electoral choices they made were formed without the 24 hour news cycle, “newstainment” and social media and many of the major fault lines that divide the political parties of today, like abortion, had not yet fractured.

Don’t stop reading, because I’m not headed where you think I am.

I’m bringing up the abortion debate and its increasing prevalence in politics today, because it inevitably churns up the subject of adoption.

It seems that everyone knows a story of someone who was “given up” for adoption by their birth parent or parents, or knows of a parent who “gave up” a baby. Giving up is often accompanied by the assumption that the reason was simply because the baby was unwanted. Yeah, people actually say that. Just Google the word adoption and see how often “give up” shows up in the search headlines. And not to put too fine a point on it, more than once, along remote stretches of highway in certain parts of the country, I’ve seen billboards with pictures of babies captioned, “Don’t give in to abortion, give up to adoption.” Give in and give up. Have you ever seen language more clearly define a lose-lose scenario? To be fair, people on both sides of the Roe-v-Wade divide use this language. And both sides should stop.

Adoption is an ultimate expression of love. It is another way to build a family – not the last choice in a no-win scenario. As with our actions, the words we use define what we think and value. When you talk about adoption, you’re talking about a human being; not an object or habit you’re trying to eliminate like vowing to give up carbs or getting rid of clutter.

My own adoption was never a secret. I always knew I was adopted, and the way my mom talked about it, I thought Adopted was a life status – just one small station below Princess. Membership in my family came from the greatest gift that could ever be given and I will be eternally grateful to the mother who gave it, and the mother who received it.

I have never felt like a throw-away, or unwanted, even when people talk about my birth and those of other adopted children, in those terms.

I wouldn’t say that I was insulated from the hurtful assumptions and heartless language that suggested I wasn’t a gift, but a cast-off. In second grade I reached my artistic zenith with a Halloween pumpkin art project that was a masterpiece of macabre. Unlike the other kids’ pumpkin creations, with perfectly curved smiles, even teeth and an overall cheerfulness that looked just like the teacher’s example, my pumpkin was much more “inspired.” Imagine a smashed and lopsided head with a mouthful of rotting, jagged teeth (hey – my dad was a dentist) protruding aggressively from a mouth shaped like a howl. It was genius. It was also not displayed with the rest of the class’s pumpkins during parent-teacher night. When my mom asked why I did not complete a pumpkin, the teacher replied that she had consulted the Principal and was given permission to withhold it from the display. My pumpkin was then retrieved from her big wooden desk and handed to my mother along with the words, “I understand she was adopted.”

My mom saved that pumpkin and we got a lot of laughs about it over the years – probably because I continued to dance to music only I could hear. The pumpkin though, was a pivotal memory, as it prompted one of my first talks with my mom about this sometimes cruel world and how to navigate it.  As an educator now myself, it’s one of my life experiences that I actually hold close, as it is a visceral reminder to constantly examine the limits of my experience and avoid wrongly judging or interpreting a student’s self-expression.

The great pumpkin incident was not the last time I would be confronted with ignorant comments about my birth, and although it was a long time ago, I still frequently hear and see “throw-away” language.

I’m certain that some readers will now assume that I’m going to rail on about politically correct language. Nope. I’m also not trying to make you feel like a villain if you’ve said or thought about adoption in this way.

I do want to pay the tremendous gift that I received forward, and I’m asking for your help.

I recently attended a large holiday cultural event and what a great evening it was. There were guests of all ages, exploring the cultural richness of our community. Students in their teen years are my favorites and I was delighted to see so many of them taking part. One young man was wearing a hoodie that caught my attention and I made my way through the crowd to talk with him about it. It had a Superman logo and the caption: “Strong, Resilient, Adopted.” He said he wore a lot of what he called “message hoodies” but the Superman image was chosen for the evening because it described “where he came from.”

That this young man could so proudly and positively share his adoption story, with a humble hoodie as a conversation starter no less, was a very powerful thing.

I will not minimize the impact of adoption on birth parents, adoptive families and adopted children themselves; a life-changing dichotomy of pain and joy. Yet in the adoption journey, we have an amazing window into the meaning of self-less love, and the best angels of our nature.

While the adoption of infants (birth to age 2) has declined there were still around 18,000 adoptions last year. In addition, a staggering 100,000 children in foster care are awaiting adoption.

Change does not happen by words alone, but using positive adoption language and educating others to do the same is a powerful place to start.

Today is my mom’s birthday. Happy Birthday mom, from the daughter who was not given up, but lifted up.

Fast Flight Friday – August 30, 2019

Fast Flight Friday – August 30, 2019

Labor Day and Girls?

A lot has changed since that first Labor Day weekend way back in 1894. The technology-driven  workplace, worker and environmental safety, and a global marketplace are just a few. One of the biggest changes? Working women.

It’s a long way from the days when women were restricted from participation in the workforce; with more barriers falling every day. In fact, today nearly half of the workers who drive the American economy are women. Yet in 2019, gender inequality is still a significant challenge to overcome.

I could cite a mountain of statistics to illustrate unequal opportunities and wages, but when I think of our role as teachers, mentors and parents to inspire and empower, my thoughts turn to preparing young women to persevere, pioneer, and change our world (including the equity gap) for the better.

There are a lot of ideas about how to help girls and young women discover and exercise their power, so for this Fast Flight Friday I am excited to introduce you to some truly wonderful places to start the conversation. A few of my favorites:

I hit this website almost once a week for inspiration.  The site bills itself as “The world’s largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls” It delivers on that account and more with thoughtful blog writing on a broad range of topics – from famous women spies to how to help your daughter express anger appropriately. They regularly feature girl-centric literature with comprehensive reviews and interesting groupings of titles, and it’s hard to  resist collecting them all!

Targets girls (and boys) 10-14 with profiles of exceptional women who have achieved success while overcoming obstacles. The range of women and careers profiled is broad and includes many women of color. Like A Mighty Girl, the site has added sources presented in their blog where they introduce modern and historical women and perspectives. In addition to videos, SheHeroes offers a weekly podcast. This is definitely one to check out.

The idea here is that girls should have access to “diverse and accomplished women role models to learn from their experiences and discover their own path to empowerment.” It’s friendly, well-organized and has an accessible, high quality,YouTube-style presentation. The site also has tools for exploring college majors and preparing for careers and themed activity ideas.  Bookmark? Yes!

This one is STEM specific but the wacky host, Sophie Shrand, really keeps it engaging with her focus on the science that is all around us. Set up in an episode format so viewers can browse and find something that hits their mood. One of the great features is that you can often “experiement along” with easy to find materials and instructions. A favorite, and definitely worth a visit, or two.

Be fearlessly you,



The one thing I will do this new school year

The one thing I will do this new school year

School bells and backpacks certainly bring out the advice. My email and newsfeeds are crammed with articles about how to make this a great school year: healthy lunches, organizational hacks, how to find a tutor, budget school supplies, and lots of homework tips. Including the thousands of offerings about grit, mindset and mindfulness, that’s quite a list. Is it possible to get it all right?

You can’t and you won’t.

There is one thing though, that every teacher, parent, mentor and friend can do: Encouragement!  There is a lot of stress for students today (which is a whole other article) and with it comes an abundance of negative thoughts, feelings and talk.

When in a “negative space,” our brains are not at their best.  In science-y terms, negativity and stress ramp up the amygdale, preparing the body for crisis. When this happens, the prefrontal cortex does not function at full capacity, lessening our ability to concentrate, think creatively, and process information.

Positive emotions generally do the opposite.

Positive words are like a rich, internal reservoir from which a person can sustain their motivation. They become a part of the narrative that guides their development and, impact the brain’s neuroplasticity. Given this amazing power, it’s not surprising at all, that often we can recall words of encouragement we’ve received for years to come.

Let’s be clear; I’m not talking about heaping doses of empty praise. In addition to all sorts of negative effects, kids can see right through that.

I do mean making an effort to offer genuine encouragement; sharing observations that help children understand themselves, and how their strengths drive their success.

Rather than rolling my eyes when the kid who wants to talk about nothing but soccer approaches, I’m going to say (and think)“Your passion for soccer brings me joy.”

In the midst of an argument, a carefully placed “It takes courage to stand up for what you believe in” might send the discussion in a new direction. And conversely when someone listens to my point of view, “Thank you for respecting my thinking.”

When a young person demonstrates kindness, or an appreciation for another human being, I won’t let it go unnoticed by calling out the action with a simple, “Thank you for your kindness, What you did was very generous, I appreciate how you put yourself in someone else’s shoes….”

We tend to measure life with the big benchmarks; the final grade, the championship game, the diploma or degree earned. Those successes are not a single moment, but a compilation of perhaps thousands of small wins, incremental achievements, and daily actions or behaviors that together, add up to a life of accomplishment.

In her diary, Anne Frank reminds us that “Everyone has inside of them a piece of good news.” If there is one back-to-school tip you adopt this year, let it be to highlight that news: little triumphs, the quiet wins, and above all, the actions and habits that lead to a lifetime of success.

Encouraging people, and lifting someone else up is far from easy. Finding the positive amidst an overly busy and sometimes negative world – and being present in that moment to notice it – takes intentionality. But the benefits are far-reaching, and valuable beyond any measure.

We can!

Week 4 Strategy: Organization

Week 4 Strategy: Organization

The college process is a multi-month exercise of taking in and managing a lot of information. And all that information that matters in getting the money you need and making a solid college choice, not to mention saving time – which is at a premium senior year.

Staying on top of deadlines and paying attention to detail are essential, and having an organization system specific to your college journey is best tackled before classes start, or within the first two weeks of school. You need a planner, too but that’s a post of its own!

I’m a fan of a hybrid system: an old-school binder AND electronic docs well organized into folders. Why not just make it all electronic? You definitely can, but hear me out on the binder thing.

Here’s what works best in electronic folders:


Drafts of your application essay(s) and personal statement(s). You don’t have to write here if your composition process works best on paper, but when you get the draft close to completion, it is worthwhile to transfer it into electronic form. This will smoothly accommodate last inputs and edits and, you’ll have it all ready to cut/paste when the deadline nears.

Bonus One. Typing your essay is anothe rofrm of editing and revising.

Bonus Two.  You’ve got a changeable piece of writing you can use again for similar prompts in scholarship apps.


Brag sheet. You can create yours electronically or manually – whatever works. For ease of customizing it for your recommenders, and sharing via email or Google, electronic doc is the way to go.

These things are efficiently managed in paper format:


Usernames and passwords for each college. Also notate challenge question answers etc. (This could be captured in a spreadsheet also)


Your school transcript. You’ll be referring to this quite a bit when you’re filling out applications. Paper is less distracting than toggling back and forth between sites and increases accuracy as you manually input numbers and info from one source into another.


FAFSA information. Usernames and passwords. Misplacing user credentials for the FAFSA can end in major frustration so make sure you’ve got it all together. Also, note the email address and phone number you entered. Best practice – write all of this down as you are doing the FAFSA! 

Print copies of FAFSA generated reports (like the SAR) because they provide info about your federal aid and are an early baseline of the $ you have available to you. Some students print out a copy of their completed FAFSA. 


Entrance and placement exams info. Yes, this is generally handled electronically. Still, having paper copies of score reports makes them easier to digest and to share with coaches or counselors. Ditto on storing your user credentials.

Depends on your style:


Your college list will be fluid over time.  Pencil-Eraser or Cut-Past metholds both work.


Scholarship lists. Do consider electronic spreadsheets so you can save links for quick access when you’re ready to apply.


Letter of recommendation tracking.

Also in the binder:


Materials and letters you receive from colleges or acquire while on a visit.  Organize according to college.  Later, you’ll add acceptance letters, financial aid offers.


Written instructions provided by your high school counselor. Most schools have procedures/policies for transcript requests and letters of recommendation. All in one place will be a time saver.

Hope you find these organizational suggestions useful. If you have a system that works for you, by all means, continue on. Just make sure you’re taking control!

Organize on!

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