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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Students Develop Grit by ‘Taking Charge of Their Own Learning’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 07, 2015 17 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series on “grit.” You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

Should we help our students develop grit and, if so, how?

Part One featured responses from Kristine Mraz, Christine Hertz, Ebony O. McGee, Ron Berger, Thomas Hoerr and Barbara Blackburn. In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Kristine, Christine and Ebony on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find also see a list of, and links to, previous shows.

Today’s post includes contributions from Bryan Harris, Ben Spielberg, Mike Anderson, Gravity Goldberg and Barbara Blackburn.

Response From Bryan Harris

Dr. Bryan Harris serves as the Director of Professional Development for the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona. He is the author of 3 highly-regarded books published by Routledge and is a popular speaker and workshop leader who specializes in helping teachers utilize effective student engagement and classroom management strategies. He can be reached via his website:

It seems “grit” is the current education buzzword of choice. Depending on who you listen to, grit is either an essential skill our kids need in order to be successful in life or it’s just one more thing to distract teachers from their role in educating kids.

The answer to the first part of the question is an unequivocal yes. We should absolutely be helping our students develop what is currently being referred to as ‘grit”. But, before we tackle the how part of the question, a little background is necessary.

Although “grit” is a catchy, trendy term, what we are really talking about is the concept of resilience. As educators, we owe a debt of gratitude to some amazing educators who have been researching and writing about resiliency for decades.

Without going into a primer on the research, my favorite definition of comes from Project Resilience. They define resilience as “the process of persisting in the face of adversity.” Is persisting in the face of adversity an essential skill our students should develop? Absolutely! Life is filled with challenges, setbacks, obstacles, and hard ships.

So, if we want to help our students develop some grit/resiliency skills and mindsets, how can we go about that? The following suggestions and ideas, gleaned from the research, will help to create a classroom culture and environment where students are likely to develop and refine their skills in this area.

  • Avoid labeling children as “high-risk” or “at-risk.” Instead, refer to high-risk environments or situations that present challenging conditions. All children are capable of learning given the appropriate support and they tend to live up to or down to the expectations we set for them. Think about it, students aren’t likely to develop grit when we personalize, lecture, or scold them. Most of us don’t develop skills just because someone told us to. We develop skills and ways of thinking when we have a caring, trusted person to guide us through the challenges.

  • The person who delivers the program is more important than the program itself. There are numerous effective programs available that are designed to increase resiliency in students and significant research about the effect of teaching students the skills and attitudes of resiliency. However, personal relationships and connections are the foundation of all effective programs (Werner & Smith, 1992). In other words, the characteristics of the people helping students develop skills are the most important factor.

  • View children not as problems to be fixed but as individuals with strengths, dreams, and opinions. Traditionally schools have focused on the identification, remediation, and correction of deficits. Indeed, schools need to know where students are lacking and work to help them master important skills and content. However, educators also need to focus on the strengths and abilities of students for them to truly thrive and overcome adverse situations (Henderson & Milstein, 2003).

  • Schooling can be cold and impersonal. The curriculum, the over-reliance on testing, the schedules, and even the instruction can sometimes lead children to believe that school is something that is done to them. Kohn (1999) suggested that educators take time to make personal connections with students, laugh with them, and share stories to make school warm, fun, and inviting. Grit and resiliency is developed through trusting and supporting relationships in an engaging and personal environment.

  • Resiliency is not constant. Resiliency tends to ebb and flow throughout a person’s life based on current situations and challenges. The resilient person is the one who understands and comes to terms with life’s difficulties and subsequently bounces back, learns, and even thrives through the tough times.

  • Be optimistic, caring, and empathetic. Educators need to model the very actions and beliefs that are desired from students. Students are unlikely to internalize a different set of values if they see a disconnect between the way teachers and adults act and the way they expect students to act. If we want to see grit from kids, they need to see us persisting though the tough times as well. And, they need to see us doing it without complaining, ridiculing, or demeaning the people or situations around us.

  • Create a high warmth and low criticism environment. Warmth, positiveness, and caring should permeate every aspect of the classroom atmosphere. Students should feel secure in the knowledge that they will be emotionally as well as physically safe in the classroom. Sarcasm, negativity, and a “my way or the highway” approach is unlikely to help students develop grit or resiliency.

  • Provide consistent, specific, positive feedback. This is among the most powerful tools teachers have at their disposal. Provide feedback to students about their academic achievement as well as their behavior, growth, and progress towards goals.

  • Celebrate successes. Take the time to comment, notice, and praise students when they are successful at navigating tough challenges. Acknowledge student success by sharing their stories, writing notes of congratulations, and expressing appreciation for their efforts.

  • Communicate positively with caretakers. Parents and families of struggling students typically get very little positive communication from school. Parents and students alike expect all the news from school to be focused on problems and deficiencies. Reverse this trend and communicate positively with families about their children. Do this on a regular basis to build trust and relationships.

Response From Ben Spielberg

Ben Spielberg has worked as a math instructional coach for middle and high school teachers and has taught middle school math and science. A Teach For America alum and former member of the Executive Board of the San Jose Teachers Association, Ben currently works on economic and fiscal issues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He holds a B.S. in Mathematical and Computational Sciences from Stanford and blogs at 34justice.com:

As Paul Thomas notes, the emphasis on grit “is primarily directed at...high-poverty African American and Latino/a populations of students.” Implicit in this emphasis is the “assumption...that relatively affluent and mostly white students...are distinguishable from relatively impoverished and mostly African American and Latino/a students because of the effort among those populations (as well as stereotypes that white/affluent parents care about education and AA/Latino/a parents do not care about education)--instead of the pervasive fact that achievement data are more strongly correlated with socioeconomic status than effort and commitment.”

I share Thomas’s concern that the popular focus on grit can sometimes be racist and classist; the gap in test scores between low-income and high-income students is not a product of differences in personal characteristics, and we need to be very clear about that. There is a lesson we can still take from grit research, however: teachers should remember that character and skill development are more important than academic content knowledge. To the extent that helping students develop grit means helping them build perseverance, critical thinking, and other “soft” skills, it deserves educators’ attention.

Helping students develop these skills is significantly more difficult than teaching content knowledge, though there are some techniques that hold promise. I’m a big fan of “discovery” lessons, for example, in which a teacher, instead of providing rules and definitions upfront, poses questions and guides students through an activity in which they uncover rules and definitions for themselves. In general, asking students open-ended questions, pushing them to challenge each other, and focusing on problem-solving processes rather than end results can be expected to help students develop productive mindsets.

Modeling may actually be the best way to help students build soft skills. If we want students to persevere through challenges, they need to see us doing the same. We must model the traits we want students to emulate outside of the classroom as well as inside it - whether we’re interacting with them, parents, our colleagues, school administrators, or anyone else, our actions set an example. I’d argue that the success of character-building efforts are especially dependent on modeling; students are nothing if not astute observers, and they’re quick to discern the difference between hypocrisy and integrity.

Every student grows in different ways, and there’s no silver bullet for helping students mature as people and thinkers. But if we remember that effort and character matter more than academic knowledge, experiment with a variety of techniques, and embody in our own lives the attributes we’re trying to teach, we will likely help many of our students become the people they want to be.

Response From Mike Anderson

Mike Anderson is an educational consultant. A Milken Award winner, he taught 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades in public schools in New Hampshire and Connecticut for 15 years and was previously a Responsive Classroom® consultant, presenter, and developer. His books have been released by leading publishers, such as ASCD and Heinemann, and include The Well-Balanced Teacher: How to Work Smarter and Stay Sane Inside the Classroom and Out (ASCD, 2010) and The First Six Weeks of School, 2nd Edition (CRS, 2015). Learn more about Mike’s work at www.leadinggreatlearning.com:

Yes! Grit should be taught and nurtured just like other learning habits, skills, and competencies. Just as we do with areas such as reading and writing, we can demonstrate, model, and give students the opportunities to practice grit. I would also argue that grit is an incredibly important life skill--one which can help people succeed in whatever work they choose.

But before we explore what I consider to be the most important strategy for helping students develop grit, we’d better define the word. I think for many, grit involves pushing through something hard (and unpleasant) with dogged persistence. Picture a student slogging through a book report--forcing themselves to read a novel they don’t like and craft an essay they don’t want to write. This working definition of grit might read as follows: “reluctant perseverance in service of compliance.” And yet, it’s hard to argue with the idea that hard work and persisting when the going gets tough isn’t a critically important skill for students to develop.

For me, grit is not about forcing yourself to work hard at something you don’t like. It’s about pushing through challenges when engaged in something you do. Let’s define this version of grit as “persistence in pursuit of a passion.” Consider this same student who gets to explore a book of their choice and share about that book in a way they find meaningful and compelling. Now we have the context for true grit to be practiced. When the student gets stuck on a tough passage of the book, they are more willing (and even able, I would argue) to slow down, reread, and think deeply about the text, since they are interested in the book. Similarly, they are more likely to devote the time, energy, and persistence needed to craft (and recraft) a thoughtful and compelling reflection on the book if it can take the form of a blog entry, published book review, or A Facebook page of the main character.

So, how can we, as teachers help our students develop grit? I think the most important strategy we can employ is to give students meaningful and appropriate choices about what they learn and/or how they learn it. Through offering students choices about their learning, I’ve seen students beg to come into school on a weekend to work on research projects and initiate their own high-quality revisions of work, fueled by their internal drive to meet their own high standards. By empowering students to take charge of their own learning, we can lay the groundwork for students to practice grit.

Response From Gravity Goldberg

Gravity Goldberg is author of Mindsets and Moves: Strategies That Help Readers Take Charge (Corwin, 2015) and co-author of Conferring with Readers: Supporting Each Student’s Growth and Independence (Heinemann, 2007) as well as the author of many articles about reading, writing, and professional development. She holds a doctorate in education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is a former staff developer at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. She leads a team of literacy consultants in the New York/New Jersey region. Gravity and her colleagues blog at drgravitygoldberg.com:

As someone who teaches and writes about reading instruction, I see huge benefits in developing gritty readers. Duckworth’s definition of grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (Duckworth et al, 2007, p. 1087) sheds light on why some students flourish as readers and some don’t. Developing readers with grit means first setting up classrooms where students feel ownership and passion for what, why, and how they read. Grit, as I am using the term here, does not mean forcing students through texts they do not want to read or are much too difficult for them to understand. This is not grit because grit involves pursuing your own goals that you choose.

When students are young, say in first grade, they can read 10 short books (of about 12 pages each) in a single sitting. They devour books and can’t wait to turn the pages and see what will happen next. They only need to maintain their focus on the book for a few minutes. As students grow older and begin reading chapter books they need something more: stamina to sustain interest and engagement with a text for a few days. By the time students are reading complex novels in middle and high school their texts require sustained attention over a few weeks. Without passion for the books students hold in their hands they likely don’t understand why they should persevere and stick through until the end. In other words, if I don’t care about the characters or the topic why would I keep reading?

Stamina and grit are two sides of the same coin, yet in the reading classroom, to take hold, they each depend upon a high degree of student choice of books. If we marry reading instruction with student interest and passions then grit is a natural part of the process of working through a text we actually want to finish. Grit is developed by understanding that struggle is normal, needed, and helpful for growth towards goals. And it is also a normal part of reading a text. No one fully understands any book when they first open it up. Who are these characters? Where are they? What are they seeking? We are filled with questions we cannot answer at the start. It is our job as readers to give time and effort into figuring it out.

In addition to student interest and passion grit entails feeling ownership. Without ownership no real and lasting learning can occur. Gritty reading takes will and muscle, so to speak. For example, when I sit and read an article on my desk, no one is there to tell me what to do and how to read. Or when I’m reclining on a couch on a Sunday, trying to untangle a complex mystery novel, I’m setting the rules for how long I read, if I flip back or forward for clues, if I take time to read the details about the physical landscape or not.

As teachers we can foster ownership and therefore gritty readers by making a few important moves:

  • offering choice of texts and topics that students feel are worth their time and efforts
  • getting to know our students’ interests and strategies so we can build upon what they already are able to do
  • modeling how we work through a text, normalizing struggle, confusions, and perseverance as part of the reading process
  • honoring our students efforts and offering feedback that acknowledges how their effort is paying off

Response From Barbara Blackburn

Barbara Blackburn is an educational consultant and author of 13 books, including the best-selling Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word and her latest, Rigor for Students with Special Needs. She writes a blog and can be reached through her website:

First, I think we should recognize that many of our students, particularly those labeled as at-risk in schools, have grit, just not in academics. I found with my students that they had the persistence to move forward in very difficult home situations. However, they did not translate that over to schools. There are two steps for teaching grit in the classroom. First create a climate that encourages grit. This includes modeling grit, such as how to persevere during the revision process of writing. We can also provide role models for grit, either through children’s and adolescent literature, and bring in community members who can address grit.

Second, provide structured opportunities for students to demonstrate grit. Thomas Hoerr in his book, Fostering Grit, describes an effective process to use when presenting students a learning opportunity to develop grit.

  1. Create Frustration

    1. Before they start, ask students to anticipate how hard the assignment might be and to think about something else they have done at the same level.
    2. Next, ask them to think about a task when they were successful and how grit played a role.
    3. Then, have students work on the assignment with 5 minutes of full force effort. When they struggle, they should stop and breathe, reflect, and try something else.
    4. Remind students that a good failure is one where you learn. What are you learning?
  2. Monitor the experience

    1. Gauge how frustrated they are using a simple scale (numbers or just up and down).
    2. Ask how they respond to frustration. Place them in groups based on the strategies they used for a response. Ask the groups to discuss.
    3. Create checklist to monitor progress. You may want something like a two column chart with headings of key points in the lesson on the left and a place for notes on the right. For younger students, you can keep this as the teacher (based on your observations); for older students, they can self-assess.
  3. Reflect and learn. Discuss the lessons learned. Then celebrate progress!

Thanks to Bryan, Ben, Mike, Gravity and Barbara for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. Reader’s comments will be included in Part Three.

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