on struggling

Over the last ten years, I’ve witnessed a growing inclination among not only my students but their parents as well. More and more during conferences and parent phone calls, I hear the complaint that school is “too hard” or requires “too much homework.” Honestly, I expect to hear these comments from students but to hear it from parents baffles me. I don’t know where the disconnect lies exactly, but I find it sad that we are so quick to release our kids from work that might be difficult. I’m equally concerned that we are releasing young adults into the world with this mindset.

The idea that nothing should be too difficult has become so prevalent in society that many schools are now battling this thinking by incorporating ‘grit’ into their daily curriculum.  In her Teaching Channel video, 2nd-grade teacher Maricela Montoy-Wilson explains how she motivates children to believe their brains have the capacity to grow.  It’s the idea of teaching students how to struggle with difficult ideas using a growth mindset.

Teaching students to believe they can grow their minds is complicated, especially when considering the diversity in motivation, interest, and background knowledge of each student.  On one end of the spectrum some students want more challenging work, while on the other end, students lack confidence and are paralyzed by a real fear of failing. One way I maneuver around this is to level the tasks I give students.  Those who are ready receive more complex tasks than those who are struggling, but all are accountable for core concepts.

There are times though when I must assign all students the same difficult work.  For example, every year my high school students read Shakespeare.  I do not assign Shakespeare because it’s a state standard, or because his themes are timeless, or because they will need it in the working world. I assign Shakespeare because the language is difficult. Every line is filled with literary devices and wordplay.  I assign Shakespeare because he is the Einstein of literature and I want students to have the chance to appreciate his literary and political genius.  Even more, I want students to know the satisfaction that comes with overcoming the struggle of reading this difficult text. My experience tells me they can and they do.

There are so many reasons to teach rich and demanding literature, but in the end, the ultimate reason is knowing students were given an opportunity to rise to the challenge. It builds their character and their self-esteem.  This prepares them for the future, more than any text I could put in front of them.  It is teaching the life skill of struggling.


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