One of the most important things you can focus on with your secondary students is developing grit through persevering and embracing a growth mindset.
Bonus: you can do this in the context of language arts and not sacrifice anything in terms of teaching content. Here are a few tips (and then scroll to the bottom for a complete open-and-go lesson for examining grit in the secondary English classroom).
What does it mean to have grit?
Grit is about having strength of character in the face of hardship. Although it’s great to develop a sense of perseverance and grit when facing academic challenges, the concept goes far beyond the classroom. There’s incredible value in guiding students in working past frustrations and seeing a goal come to fruition.
What is a growth mindset?
Hand-in-hand with grit is a growth mindset. It’s about having dedication and utilizing hard work. Students should know that they are more than the skills they have right at the moment. Can your students see a goal and the steps to get there? We want students to see that talent can be developed and skills can be learned.
Focusing on having a growth mindset means our students can walk away from our classrooms with strategies to use when they inevitably come up against the hard realities of life, whether that’s in school or anywhere else.
Essentially a growth mindset says, “I can do it, I just have to figure out how,” whereas a person who lacks this mindset develops a sense of learned helplessness and tends to get stuck and frustrated often and easily.
How do you teach grit and a growth mindset?
The fantastic thing about developing grit is that a person can grow in this area no matter what age they are, and our high school students are ripe for these conversations because they’ve seen enough about life to know it gets hard. Most of them have never truly thought about developing grit and perseverance as a value, but it doesn’t take much discussion to help them embrace the idea.
What’s also great is that the English classroom is wonderful place to have this conversation. Here, we can go deep into the stories of others whose grit and perseverance can challenge, inspire, and motivate our students.
Tip 1: Start teaching grit and growth early.
This is really a subject to bring up at the beginning of the year. Grit and a growth mindset is a perfect topic to set a tone for your classroom culture and gives students a starting point for expectations in your classroom. Give your students the opportunity to discuss what it means to have grit and a growth mindset. This can be open discussion or small groups. You can have students create a class definition of grit, or discuss quotes that are inspiring for a growth mindset.
If you need a starting point, I have a print-and-go quotation activity. Students will examine different quotations and keywords in order to create a class definition of grit and growth mindset. By hosting a class discussion, students can develop and refine their own ideas of grit and growth. Having a personal and class definition developed means your students will have a reference for the entire year. It’s a perfect opportunity for them to think deeply about what it means for grit and growth in terms of their own success.
Scroll to the bottom of this blog post to download this exact lesson.
Tip 2: Model and brainstorm.
Let students see you with grit and a growth mindset. This doesn’t have to be part of a lesson. Share your goals with students in casual conversations. Before class, tell them you took up running because you want to participate in a marathon. As the weeks go by you can mention how much your time has improved, or that you found a great book about running techniques. Talk about the best trails you have found or how far you ran over the weekend.
Maybe you mention how much you have wanted to learn to crochet like your mom did. Bring a scarf from your first get-go. Show off the hat you made for the upcoming winter months.
Allow your students to read several stories from others who have persevered in everyday challenges as well as objectively tough circumstances. We have a fantastic list of stories like this all with clickable links inside the English Teacher Vault.
Tip 3: Create safe circumstances to fail.
The truth is, people fail. Sometimes in big ways, often in several small ways. Students come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Some will handle failing in stride, but you may have students that are really uncomfortable with the idea of “messing up”.
The best way to combat that isn’t to avoid failures and obstacles but to purposefully give students ways to fail in a safe environment and low-key circumstances. Small victories overcoming failure will develop their grit and growth mindset. When it comes to writing a paper, have students focus on the areas they struggle with. Tie into the previous tip, and brainstorm with them how to overcome and be successful. Address personal “failings” privately, such as with teacher meetings or one-on-one notes with the student as they learn to do better or improve a specific skill.
You can also put together group activities. This allows for the students to build community and either succeed together or fail together. Having those peer relationships and examples is a good way to solidify a student’s personal idea of grit and a growth mindset. Think about goals the whole class can have. An English class may have a book wall with a certain number to reach by semester. I had a history teacher who often played “Stump the Chump” as a review. As a class, we wrote review questions on the topic we were to be tested on and we asked our history teacher. He also had questions written that he asked the class. We did not tally our correct answers, we tallied our “stumps”. The least stumps won. It was a great way to review but also, sometimes we failed. But in a lighthearted game, we had the opportunity to fail without a lot of pressure, and we still got something out of it (really awesome review sessions) even if we didn’t win.
Tip 4: Show students there’s often more than one way to succeed.
Sometimes I find that students become fixated on finding the “right” answer. But often in life, there are multiple ways to address a problem. Having grit means you can power through the options even if they’re hard. A growth mindset allows students to consider all options and pick what will work out best given the circumstances. Very few times is there only one way to achieve a goal. Even when students lay out a plan, they need to show flexibility when things go wrong or circumstances change. Therefore, we need to teach students to see multiple points of view.
A very easy way to begin is by having students answer open-ended questions that don’t have a clear answer. Anticipation guides before reading a work is one such activity that many of us already use. Small group discussions or Socratic seminars are another tool. The goal isn’t to have the “right” answer but to discuss and support opinions.
Building on that, give students activities where there are multiple solutions. Build confidence in finding their own way of solving a problem. You can begin with small groups and work to more independent answers. It isn’t what they come up with, just that they found a workable option.
Tip 5: Praise the effort and not just accomplishments.
This is sometimes really hard when you’re the teacher. So much of what we do is tied to grades and data that must be submitted. It then becomes difficult to tell a student that their effort is important when it isn’t reflected in the “accomplishment” of a good grade. At times, this feels like it reverses our work in developing grit and a growth mindset.
But there are still ways to focus on the effort, and you may be doing some of these things in your classroom already. If you use participation points, that means you are rewarding the fact that they are involved in the lessons, trying their hardest, completing work, and being present. Students may look at those as “free points”, but you can stress the importance of those participation moments and the effort it shows, even if that doesn’t translate into grades the students like. This includes focusing on discussions throughout a lesson. Rather than a worksheet, hold conversations. Create a rubric that does reward the effort.
Speaking of rubrics, I sometimes gave students a “pass” on certain areas of the rubrics. For example, if you have your rubric divided into spelling, content, sentence fluency, and word choice – and you want a student to be proud of the effort spent in improving but not feel like there wasn’t an accomplishment. Students would be allowed to remove one area of the rubric from their final grade on that assignment. A student with great ideas but a terrible speller might forgo that part of the rubric. We can still discuss improvements, but the shortcomings won’t hurt a final grade. Often I can even see improvement because the students don’t feel the weight of having to be perfect in an area they struggle with.
How do you incorporate grit and growth mindset in your classroom?
I love hearing suggestions and tried-and-true activities from other teachers. What great ideas do you have that help your students develop grit and a growth mindset? Do you have great reads that help foster a good class culture? You can always leave comments and questions here in the blog, or follow the latest on Instagram and Facebook.