Why this movie? First, because Kat and Daisy (the two on the left in this photo***) definitely share two of the three "'adversity indicators'" identified by David Laude, the former University of Texas chemistry professor and current U.T. administrator who is among those profiled in Tough's article: according to Laude, students with two of the following--"low SATs, low family income, less-educated parents"****--had a relatively good chance of failing his introductory chemistry course--and not finishing college. Second, because the movie happily wraps up before Kat actually becomes a Yale student, and Tough's article is very concerned about the actual freshman year experiences of college students who are statistically more apt not to graduate than their freshman peers. And third, because Kat's not the only smart Araujo sister, though she's the only sister going to Yale: Daisy is wilder and academically lower achieving than her sister, but the script offers every indication that she is plenty intelligent if differently focused than Kat--or perhaps not very focused at all.
And that's what really has me thinking about this movie. Tough's article is all about what needs to happen right before and during the freshman years of students who are statistically "at risk"--what words they need to hear, think about, discuss, even write. As I read about the David Laude programs and the David Yeager and Greg Walton orientation interventions that have helped lower- and working-class University of Texas (U.T.) students***** make it through the notoriously challenging first year of college and then complete their four-year educations, I kept thinking of a lot of non-matriculating eighteen-year-olds: had they just made it through the front door of either a two-year or four-year college, they might have similarly benefited from those programs/interventions.
Whenever I start to contemplate who no longer is or never was a member of the freshman class of some college, I begin to think about all the "not you" and "you can't" messages that kids routinely absorb, often from people who are trying to communicate the opposite messages. During my many years as a high school teacher, I dealt with the Daisys as well as the Kats. And I witnessed many educational initiatives that had unintended negative consequences for the very students they were intended to benefit--for example, remedial programs that segregated underachieving students from their higher-scoring classmates, solidifying their negative perceptions of themselves as learners and effectively denying them opportunities to take elective courses that might have responded to other important needs that they had as learners and people.
But it's not just schools that can inadvertently discourage kids from striving and risking; families can, too. Early in his article, Tough reports on a conversation between struggling U.T. freshman Vanessa Brewer and her mother. Having called home in search of her mother's "reassurance" that persistence would get her through a temporary crisis of confidence, Vanessa was further deflated by her mother's response: "'Maybe you weren't meant to be there, . . .. Maybe we should have sent you to a junior college first." Vanessa explained that she "'died a little bit inside . . .'" when she heard her mother's words because "'moms are usually right.'"
Not every eighteen-year-old would share Vanessa's view about mothers' wisdom. But Vanessa's comment reminded me of two potent and defining forces in kids' lives: family members' words and judgments and family members' achievements. Over the years, I've had students confidently assert that "My brother is in the one in our family who's good at English; I'm the one who's good at math," or "My sister's the smart one in our family." Luckily, I was often able to challenge the parts of the statements that seemed potentially limiting of their speakers' learning and achievement: "She's not the only one in your family who's smart; you're pretty smart yourself," or "What makes you think you're not good at English? Yes, you have stuff to work on, but so does everybody else." Sometimes, my responses began longer conversations about ways to learn and achieve despite the "family assessment." But not always: when the kids willingly embraced the familial and learning identities their families had assigned them, tethered by the strong sense of reassurance and acceptance that came with those identities, my suggestions often met with pleasant but firm resistance. In these cases, I couldn't talk my students across the achievement gap.
The problem is acute in a different way when there's an academic high achiever in a family to whom brothers and sisters--or even uncles and parents--don't "measure up." An uncle of a former student who was admitted to an Ivy League school warned him "not to think you're better than the rest of us." And in Mystic Pizza, there's a poignant, difficult conversation****** between Daisy and her mother that begins with Daisy's angry, negative summation of herself--a projection of her assumption of her mother's disappointment in her--and ends in uneasy agreement between mother and daughter:
Among kids who have two or three "adversity indicators," some accept the intellectual and achievement limitations others have assigned to them. But others struggle against the perception, their own or other people's, that they aren't particularly smart and academically able, often while insisting simultaneously on their right to be accepted and valued just the way they are. Daisy is one of these frustrated strugglers. But Daisy's
- Daisy: I curse, I'm stupid, I'm a slut.
- Daisy's Mother: All I want is for you to make something of yourself!
- Daisy: Yeah? Well, I'm not gonna go to Yale. You're just gonna have to deal with that.
- Daisy's Mother; I don't expect you to go to Yale.
- Daisy's Mother: I'm just so worried about you.
- Daisy: Me too.
mother doesn't know how to talk Daisy across the achievement gap. She doesn't expect Daisy to be Kat, but she also doesn't know how to advise Daisy about next steps that might allay the worries about Daisy's future the two of them share and that might create opportunities for Daisy beyond Mystic, Connecticut and beyond Mystic Pizza******* (even though the movie firmly establishes that Mystic Pizza's chef-proprietors' work ethic, treatment of their employees, and high standards for the pizza they serve are to respected and admired).
So I concur with Paul Tough and his colleagues that students' mindsets are potent factors in students' learning, achievement, and success. In 1995, I advised a student whose Senior Project examined the academic experiences of her fellow African-American classmates. From a survey she designed and administered, she learned that many of her classmate respondents did not seek individual help from teachers for fear that those teachers would view them as "stupid" or as incorrectly placed in challenging courses. In sharp contrast, her fellow white students asked for individual help without fear of teachers' negative opinions. More than fifteen years later when I returned to the classroom to teach AP English Literature & Composition, I quickly became aware that the students in my class who met two or more of Laude's "adversity" criteria, a number of whom were students of color, seemed more hesitant to ask for individual help with their writing than their non-at-risk, often white classmates. The old problem was persisting, and I needed to respond.
|Writing Conference Sign-Up Sheet|
When I met with those students who tended not to seek individual help, we began by speaking about their ideas (they always had thoughts and ideas!), not about their grammar and organization, although that was almost always where they assumed we were going to start, because they were certain our time together was going to focus on what they were doing "wrong," not what they were doing "right." Sometimes, we spent some time crafting sentences that needed to convey the complex connections among several ideas. Always, I took a moment to reiterate my belief in the helpfulness of individual conferences and one-on-one work sessions in learning--and encouraged my students to share their thoughts about being reluctant to ask for help even when they felt some guidance or support could help them. Sometimes, when students were hesitant to speak up, I shared reasons that past students had given for not wanting to schedule individual conferences.
Ultimately, we all breathed easier; everyone felt like a visible individual; no one felt singled out as "really doing badly" and "not being right for AP" (what the article labels as fears related to "ability" and "belonging"); and the writing of all of my students (I think!) became argumentatively stronger and personally more significant, from their perspectives and from my own.
This final result is important because a number of my students had already decided that they were or weren't good writers before they entered my class. As a result, one subset of students initially believed they didn't need to work at their writing because they had always been "good writers," while another subset believed that no amount of effort would significantly improve their writing abilities.******** Tough's article discusses the particular challenges faced by the high proportion of at-risk students who "believed in what Carol Dweck had named an entity theory of intelligence--that intelligence was fixed quality that was impossible to improve through practice or study." But I believe that many high school students, struggling and not struggling, are disadvantaged by similar beliefs. Fortunately, students can explore these beliefs in advisory programs; in individual conversations with teachers, mentors, and advisors; and even in writing conferences mandated for all. But students must be given the opportunity to explore these ideas.
In 2007, my then principal and I were among those asked to speak at one of several Cambridge School Committee-sponsored events intended to demystify and help close the achievement gap. In a joint presentation entitled "Exploring 'The Gap,'" each of us spoke about different aspects of students' lives and thinking that might help to explain the significant differences between student groups in the achievement data. As a someone who was often in other teachers' classrooms, thus in the company of students, I spoke about student attitudes and beliefs that made learning and achievement difficult.
Specifically, I spent some time talking about things that students said in class that created "teachable moments," opportunities for teachers to help students examine their beliefs and assumptions about school, learning, and themselves, particularly those that
might negatively affect their academic effort and performance. Certainly, Jennifer Hogue had to respond to the comment made by one of her students (at the left) before it demoralized the students in her class who did trust that working hard on challenging assignments was not only "normal" in a "college prep" class, but necessary for learning and achievement. Perhaps even more importantly, the comment opened the door for a potentially enlightening conversation with the individual student, or even with the whole class, about the purposes and value of challenging assignments--and the purposes of school. What's the value of successfully doing challenging work, even if you would rather not have to do it? Just maybe, that conversation would have a positive effect on the speaker's future efforts.
The quotation from one of my own students illustrates the ambivalence that too many of our "at risk" students--the Daisys of the world--have about sounding and seeming smart. When their learning success is new, many of them hesitate to give up their identities as "the ones who aren't at school to learn" and the social capital that accompanies those identities. But they know "the word"--not only what it means, but how to say it. Given the high correlation between academic language usage and high achievement, I have but one choice in situations like these: insist that the students say the word. The minute they invoke the word in any way, it must come out of their mouths, even if they need me to say it again so that they can repeat it. Academic language is a valuable tool for talking one's way across the achievement gap.
|First Light, Last Light by Debi Milligan|
In the quest to devise programs that will "fix" all of our students who are at risk not to succeed academically in high school, not to complete college, and therefore not to make a middle-class wage, let alone participate in an "innovation" economy and contribute to America's national well-being and international competitiveness, we forget how strongly our students' beliefs and identities shape their performance in those carefully envisioned programs. And we forget that by listening to what our students are saying not just about what we are trying to teach them, we're apt to pick up on those attitudes and beliefs, allowing us to reinforce some, challenge others, and simply come to understand yet others that might have a strong effect on how our students tackle learning and achievement.
That's why I love Yeager and Walton's "U.T. Mindset"-focused online freshman orientation. It's not just the topics of the assigned readings that normalize and then suggest possible effective responses to difficult freshman experiences; it's what the students do after they've read: they "write their own reflections on what they'd read in order to help future students." In less than an hour, Yeager and Walton turn anxious freshmen into mentors, requiring them to talk future freshmen through some common difficulties--and potentially across the achievement gap. Needless to say, the exercise is helping the new freshmen lay the emotional/ideological foundation for coaching themselves through the difficult moments they're bound to encounter. They're beginning the process of talking themselves across an achievement gap that may just never have to materialize.
When it comes to jumping from stone to stone, a frequent requirement in the hills of water-abundant western Massachusetts, my husband and I couldn't be more different. Having lived near a rocky inlet on the South Shore and summered in the Berkshires, Scott bounds from rock to rock spontaneously, unconsciously, and confidently. I, on the other hand, grew up in Boston with little opportunity to wander relatively unsupervised in natural, nearby places that invited leaping and climbing. Consequently, Berkshire stream crossings paralyze me, set me to planning, induce shortness of breath. It takes Scott's clear, kindly delivered strategic advice--and often his extended hand--to make me screw up my courage and take the plunge, which I'm always a little fearful will be just that.
So I can relate when students--especially anxious "at risk" students--teeter uncertainly on the brink of new learning experiences, even--or perhaps especially--the ones they've been dreaming of and working toward. But in addition to creating programs for them and mandating their participation, we need to listen to them and to speak with them. Around those perilous rocks, the sun is shining and the water is reflecting. Good coaching can help one get across those gaps: there are definitely some better ways to get from rock to rock, and even some safer ways to slip and fall should one lose her footing.
As far as Mystic Pizza is concerned, I think Kat does fine at Yale and Daisy finds her way, too. Or maybe that's what I hope! It's certainly what the movie wants me to believe!
* Tough, Paul. "Who Gets to Graduate?" The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 May 2014. Web. 26 May 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/magazine/who-gets-to-graduate.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0>.
**** Note: we are not provided with information about Kat's SAT scores, though we know she has distinguished herself academically.
***** Screen shot of web page: http://www.utexas.edu/campus-life/getting-involved
******** The majority of my students did believe that hard work and commitment would elevate their writing skills, regardless of how they assessed their skills.
********* Screen Shot from http://davisortongallery.com/previous/
********** New graphic created using following image: http://www.principalj.net/wp-content/uploads/blogger/-QrdNJpqLmcI/T-aU6qod4vI/AAAAAAAAAYE/AAp_LdfX25E/s1600/rigor%2Brelevance%2Band%2Brelationshih.jpg