Adversity by Design

My daughter is a kindergartener. I enrolled her in baseball. She opposed the idea. I wanted her to learn how to work as a team member with others and build her physical and hand-eye coordination skills. She refused to participate the first practice and watched from the sidelines. My resister hid her sneakers before the second practice, so she couldn’t play. I found said sneakers. She participated most of practice and even had some fun, but got upset when she didn’t catch the ball. Third practice she was game-on-eye-on-the-ball-in-it-to-win-it. She still has much to learn, but now she’s having fun and seeing growth in her skills. Had I not persisted and let her struggle and fail, she would never have started playing or quit right away. I’ve learned my six year old needs the following in order to succeed: a growth mindset that she can improve, persistence through the face of adversity, and a supportive environment where failure is part of the learning process and a step towards achievement.

I see the same needs in my students. One of my greatest challenges teaching ninth graders is helping them overcome fear of failure. Some students who’ve achieved high grades in middle school often avoid challenges. They choose the easy way out or a familiar path over taking intellectual risks and facing fear of failure. Some students who’ve struggled in middle school can’t always see the value in persistence if it hasn’t worked in the past. My job as a teacher has been to help each and every student build skills in persistence, resilience, grit and taking intellectual risks. My job is to create a culture where failure is part of the process, otherwise students “check out” and don’t challenge themselves. It takes persistence and a supportive environment on my part to help many students and parents overcome a fixed mindset and embrace a growth mindset about adversity and failure.

I recently attended the Deeper Learning Conference at High Tech High in San Diego, California. Every year over 400 educators and leaders from around the world gather in the name of equity, personalized learning, deeper learning and innovation at this conference. I was fortunate to attend this conference with Partnership for Change Fellows Amy Dickson and Sarah Bertucci, so we could return with new learning to share with the district, as well as build relationships with other districts across the country doing similar work. It’s clear we all struggle with helping students overcome a fear or failure and building skills of resistance, persistence and grit.

High Tech High is one of these schools. This charter school represents the entire zip code of San Diego and includes all learners, including ELL and students with special education needs. The school system has grown to eleven schools: two elementary schools, four middle schools and five high schools. It continues to grow. Part of their success stems from their commitment to high standards, having a growth mindset about the capability of all learners and helping students build persistence and grit in the face of adversity through project based learning and teamwork. High Tech High is one of the most innovative high schools in the country and 99% of their graduates go onto college. You will often hear the High Tech High system praised by notable figures like President Obama, Tony Wagner and Bill Gates.

I had the chance to take a workshop on Adversity by Design with ninth grade physics teacher Scott Swaaley at the original High Tech High. Scott is a former engineer who’s been teaching at High Tech High for two years. His approach to adversity intrigued me. Embracing and seeking adversity seemed an interesting approach. The philosophy at High Tech High is that students and teachers must be taken to an uncomfortable place or they will check out and not be challenged. Students participate in semester long interdisciplinary projects. Projects by design need to be perceived as difficult in order for students to develop tangible skills. Projects should not be “dumpster” projects, meaning posters or disposable products. Projects should have a sense of permanence or sustainability that can be displayed or shared. Scott’s students create these kinds of projects in what  he calls the GRIT Lab: Growth, Resilience, Intensity and Tenacity.

One example is a project where Scott collaborated with a Humanities teacher. Students interviewed residents at a local senior center about their lives and favorite memories. Students then furbished and created mechanical toys using tools and engineering knowledge from physics class that represented a favorite memory of each senior, which they then gave to the seniors to keep. Another example was a physics and humanities project based on student interest with the Mayan Apocalypse called Apocalpyto. Students created a large working clock made up of mechanical representations of cycles from different civilizations throughout history. Walking the halls of High Tech High and Middle School I saw the products of student projects everywhere. The students feel a sense of pride in the permanent objects they’ve created, which continue to bring joy and new learning to others long after the students leave. Some projects even bring in further funding for the students and schools for future projects.

I also had the opportunity to engage with a student panel during the Adversity by Design workshop. It was clear that the students valued and embraced this adversity. They had learned to persists and see failure as common and part of the process on the road to success. They would rather face adversity than take the easy way out. Talking with these students showed me that we do a disservice to our students if we don’t embrace adversity. Like my six year old, high school students need the following in order to succeed: a growth mindset that they can improve, persistence through the face of adversity, and a supportive environment where failure is part of the learning process and a step towards achievement. These are the skills our students will need in order to be college and career ready. We need to continue to set high expectations, teach students how to be collaborative and stop assigning dumpster projects. The graduate expectations adopted by Burlington and Winooski High Schools, shift to proficiency based learning and personalized learning plans mandated through Act 77 is a good start.

Click on the links below for more information on High Tech High, growth mindset, grit and success, and Scott’s presentation on Adversity by Design from the Deeper Learning Conference.

Link to Apocalypto and Scott Swaaley’s GRIT Lab Blog

Link to Adversity by Design Workshop Presentation

Video of sample projects from GRIT Lab

Link to High Tech High

Link to Deeper Learning Conference 2014 and Resources from Workshops

TED Talk by Angela Duckworth about the Key to Success: Grit

TED Talk: The Power of Belief (Mindset and Success)

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