November 1, 2013

Teaching Perseverance

I have a poster up in my room that says, "It's okay not to know.  It's NOT okay not to try."  This week, I felt like maybe I need to put that quote on the desk of half my students--maybe even all of them.  Or maybe wear it around my neck on a giant sandwich board.  Do you ever find yourself working with a group of students in math or reading or whatever, asking them to do a task, and finding yourself ready to shake them because all you're getting is blank, helpless stares?  Yup, that was me this week.  I promise to always, always be honest and never sugar coat on this blog, so here it goes:

I pretty much LOST IT some of my kids this week.
*sad face*

We started a math intervention block where we break off across the grade level into ability groups for a half hour of intervention/enrichment, and I work with one of the most struggling groups.  Some days it can be a real challenge.  Tuesday was one of those days.  We have been working on finding factors of a number for about two weeks (maybe even more), and as a warm up, I asked my group to create a "factor rainbow" for the number 30 on their white boards.  My group got the factor pair of 1 and 30 down on their boards...then stopped.  Many of them knew 2 would be a factor because 30 was even...but then just gave up.  If it wasn't on their multiplication charts, they couldn't figure it out.  I prompted them to think about some of the strategies we've used (arrays, skip counting, drawing groups...), but still...crickets.  

Finally, my patience ran out.  I let them know in a Viola Swamp-ish way that I was NOT impressed with their efforts.  I found myself saying over and over, "It's okay if you don't know the answer.  It's NOT okay if you sit there, waiting for the answer to appear in your head, and not doing anything about it."  I was so frustrated that they were just sitting there HELPLESS!

Yikes.  Luckily I had my PLC right after the math group and had a chance to regroup and reflect a bit before our regular math class.  I know in my heart that teaching grit and perseverance to my kids is as important as any of my content, so I decided to start my shared math lesson by revisiting our math class norms:
Specifically, that second one and the word "PERSEVERE."  I use this word all the time with my kids, but I hit it super hard that day.  We gave examples of what it means to give up when a math problem is tricky and what it means to persevere.  I stressed that persevering doesn't mean always arriving at the right answer--it means working hard and using every tool in your box without giving up.  It means asking questions and taking risks to TRY SOMETHING.  It means refusing to shut down and quit.  We modeled the body language that goes with giving up and the body language that goes with persevering.  

My regular math lesson called for a partner problem-solving activity--the perfect opportunity to practice perseverance (and of course our ongoing goal of teamwork!).  I challenged them to work with their partners and persevere through the activity.  I was so pumped to see an immediate difference in the kids and their approach to the concepts.  This just reiterated to me the importance of taking time to teach those things we expect.  If I expect my kids to be able to persevere, I need to teach them how to do that.  They may never have had a chance to develop that "grit" at home; maybe they have become so used to shutting down that it's their default when things get hard.  I am doing them a disservice if I allow that to continue...

...but I'm also doing them a disservice if I just get upset and frustrated when they do shut down.  Like I did this week.  I decided to make a new affirmation for my classroom:
Edit: I realized after the fact that this poster is spelled wrong!  Whoops, teacher brain!  Oh well, if my kids notice I will give them a prize for spotting the teacher's mistake... ;)

This is our new classroom motto as of this week.  It goes for me, too--when teaching gets tough, I WILL PERSEVERE!  I've been referring to it every day and continuing to talk about perseverance.  One morning during our classroom community time (aka the 5 minutes before we immediately switch to groups) I had the kids visualize running down the street towards a destination and being faced with a giant brick wall--I asked the kids, what would you do?  They answered, climb it, jump over it, break it down, bulldoze it over!  We talked about what that wall might be in math or reading and what tools they have to help them bust them down.  It was some powerful talk!

After talking about perseverance the last few days, I really can say I've noticed a difference in my class!  I've noticed a couple of the kids giving themselves some awesome positive self-talk, like on girl saying, "Okay, I'm not going to quit!" when we were working in a math group.  Other teachers on the team have also commented that the kids have been talking about perseverance and saying similar things.  YES!  Amazing what taking the time to step back, explain, model, and teach my expectations can accomplish.  If they can carry this one thing with them into next year and outside my classroom, the ability to persevere in the face of obstacles, I will be able to rest more easily at night.
How do you teach your kids to persevere?


  1. Teaching can be so hard sometimes. When the kids who don't get it tune out or fidget and you don't know if they don't get it because you're just not hitting the right way to explain it to them or they don't get it because they're not listening...that's what drives me bonkers. I like your posters. My favorite one to use is "We can do hard things." Whenever they tell me something is hard, I tell them that it's supposed to be hard because it makes your brain grow.

  2. I hear that!!! I have actually found that using Kagan in my classroom has helped with this issue. If they have a shoulder or face partner that is asking them to work in order to achieve a goal, I find they aren't as likely to give up. I do still have about 2 or 3 kids who are very much accustomed to someone else doing all the work for them, and I have to do my best to visit their desk more than others to make sure they aren't just letting something else do it for them. It's a HUGE task I have to undertake every year to make sure student partners pace themselves for the person they are working with and to never let someone get away with letting them do it all.

  3. I'm not a teacher, but I just recently earned my bachelors degree in psychology and sociology. I found that perseverance was definitely something that kept me in the moment of my schooling and help me achieve my goals and keep them in the forefront. Now for my masters..


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