Guest Blogger: Brandi Berry
When I began teaching at a university, I thought I had an idea of how the student would respond to my classroom environment. I suspected that the achievers would care, the underachievers would not, and those in the middle would have a mixture of good and bad days. My prediction seemed to be spot on until the last three weeks of the semester. I observed a phenomenon that I call “The Hustle.” The hustle to get extra credit, make up missed days, turn in late work and produce documentation for excused absences. I asked myself, “Why would they work so hard to catch up? Why do they care now? Did they always care?” The catching up that they are no doubt doing for multiple classes is ten times harder than staying on track. First, it's time-consuming. Meeting with each professor, prepping a story, begging several times and falsifying documents is stressful. If the student is granted a “yes,” then they have to pull all-nighters or cheat to submit work. All this while also preparing for final exams. It's illogical. Why not drop out and go home? Why work so hard each semester to play catch up and be disappointed in their GPA? How come they weren't learning from their past mistakes?
One night I was watching a series of Ted Talks, and Angela Duckworth’s presentation came on. As she talked, I stood as if I was listening to the National Anthem and said, “That’s it.” At this time Duckworth’s research on Grit was fairly new. Her April 2013 Ted Talk is only six minutes. In it, she defines Grit as having the perseverance to stick with a goal day in and day out. Grit is seeing life as a marathon, not a sprint. The way I connected these six life-changing minutes with my students was by realizing as first-generation college students they already met their goal. Their entire life people repeated the statement, “You are going to college.” So now they made it. Tada, goal achieved! For them, the momentum has slowed down. They can't go home because that equals “not going to college” which means goal not met. But without a new long-term goal to sustain them students were going through the motions. I believed that my students already had Grit they just didn't know how to focus their ability to stick with a long-term goal. So I decided to teach my students how to harness this Superpower.
The next semester I started using the Add/Drop period to teach Grit. I began with a lecture that explained college is a short-term goal. I touched one wall in the class and said, “This is the day you were born.” I pointed to the other wall and said, “That is you. 100 years old, happy, fulfilled and surrounded by loved ones.” Then I took one step away from the wall, point to the floor and said, “This is college. This is not the place to slow down if you want that ending.” I taught them about the brain, saying “Not Yet” instead of “I failed,” and how this practice allows them to see that failure is not a fixed condition. Not Yet is a concept mentioned in Duckworth’s Ted Talk and she credits Carol Dweck's research. In other lectures that week I taught about being addicted to cell phones, the power of meditation to strengthen the brain, and Amy Cuddy’s faking it until you become it research.
My Grit lessons have grown to include the psychological impact that stress can have on attendance, being high functioning depressed, delayed gratification (Marshmallow Test), and top-level thinking. Top level thinking is my newest addition. In the documentary, “The Distracted Mind” Dr. Adam Gazzaley explains why people lose focus. I learned from Carol Dweck's Ted Talk if you teach a student how the brain works they are more likely to succeed. So I like to teach students everything from “why they are addicted to their cell phones” to “why they oversleep” but always in relation to the brain. Referencing the brain means I am not attacking their character. It also gives them ownership of their behavior, the ability to change and how to change. I always see immediate changes in my students, and I am not surprised. I believe they want to be successful not only in my class but for the long term. With these lessons changing their behavior becomes the new long-term goal which puts them back on track. Practicing the changes results in improving as a college student.
Do you think higher education should incorporate mental well-being and self-care into the curriculum?
If you Google “Grit is bad for black students” you will find a variety of articles that contradict my enthusiasm. How do you feel about Grit at the HBCU?
Distracted Mind (Not the documentary but same lecture)