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Girls and Grit

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

For 4 years, Orchard House School has hosted an annual Saturday event to cultivate determination and a sense of self in 4th Grade girls. Let’s Get Gritty: a Meetup Designed for 4th Grade Girls leads groups of girls through a day structured to convey the Orchard House Experience. The emphasis on this program is GRIT.

But what exactly is grit, especially when you’re talking about fourth graders? Melody Imburg, Director of Admissions and Diversity, defers to psychologist and Mother of Modern Grit Angela Duckworth, who defines grit as “the quality that enables individuals to work hard and stick to their long-term passions and goals.” And while it can sometimes feel like a buzzword--what makes developing grit any different from character building, for instance?--part of the essence of grit is the ability to acclimate when presented with change, either in the form of adversity or a shift in direction. Grit is not about withstanding something miserable to prove you can--it’s about recognizing that failure is a necessary aspect of the process of achievement that enriches the final product.

Sometimes we encounter students who have faced no academic hardships, and these are the students most vulnerable to a lack of grit. When they’ve sped through subjects and concepts using sheer brainpower, it is doubly difficult when they encounter something that isn’t a breeze. Without the skills to acknowledge and accept gracefully the need for a do-over, it is a great leap to make it to the doing over part! “They don’t know how to pick themselves up,” observes Melody. “It devastates them.” Often, students will abandon a task they do not “master” on the first go, creating a habit of looking for tasks they feel confident they will complete with ease without much need for reworking.

“You have to have that learning moment,” says Melody. “ Let’s look at this whole thing and see what we learned. What’s another path? What’s a workaround? We still want to get here. That path didn’t work, but how do we get there? How do you continuously tweak and redefine what you’re doing to get where you want to get?”

When Melody proposed Let’s Get Gritty to the faculty, she told them the basics, and each faculty team developed their own activity within the program that they felt fit the structure and purpose and aligned with their area of expertise. This variety speaks to the concept that grit and its development will mean different things for different girls, including different manifestations of it in their work and lives. Let’s Get Gritty specifically tries to show how grit is spread throughout the disciplines of drama, science, leadership, and the written word.

One way to approach the cultivation of grit is to instill a comfort with risk-taking, which is a built-in characteristic of the Orchard House Curriculum. Besides traditional risk-taking in core subjects--especially when it comes to acknowledging uncertainty and discomfort--the Arts Block program requires that each student participate in every art subject offered. Every student dances, every student acts, every student gives vocal and instrumental performances, and every student produces a portfolio of visual art to exhibit. The push to take academic risks is backed up by Orchard House’s decision not to subscribe to traditional markers of academic success, such as an honor roll or awards ceremonies.

We are trying to get students used to setting goals, regardless of whether they achieve them on the first try. Melody notes, “Those dreams and goals can change, but it’s just that learning how to work towards a goal is important.” What are we using to push them toward settings goals? Each grade has a capstone project--the dream wall and dream poem, the class quilt, the sanctuary box, and the passion project--focused on naming a dream, which highlights the fact that dreams are dynamic, just as our girls are. “We’re always asking girls at OHS, who are you? Whether it’s a dream wall, your quilt square, or your sanctuary box. And we don’t ask them to stick to the same goal, but rather help them to figure out how to take steps toward achieving a goal, because as you grow, your ideas change and what you want for yourself changes, but you’ve been getting used to working towards things.”

When asked about a correlation between grit and the Courageous Conversations we have at Orchard House--all grades are participating in a year-long unit on diversity of identity and diversity of thought--Melody answered exuberantly and affirmatively. It’s more personal when we talk about goal achievement, but when it comes to the conversations with one another, “grit helps you to not stop just because the conversations get hard. You may have said something you’re embarrassed about or you may not agree with someone’s point of view, but if you’ve got the grit, you can say, You know what, I’ve got to stick with it. This is worth pursuing.

We’re talking about developing grit as a skill, as a craft. Discipline isn’t a lifetime of doing something you hate, but rather the practice of doing something that doesn’t come easily the first time. Grit is the widespread application of that practice.

In terms of milestones that let us know our students are developing grit, it’s not about the grades or even the completed projects. We begin hearing students moving away from asking, Is this what you want? Is this how I should do it? Instead, they say, Let me show you what I did.

What can we as a school and as parents do to help guide our daughters toward discovering their gritty selves?  “Let go of what every other person’s child is doing.” Remember that grit and success is a moving target--in a good way--and that it differs wildly among different students and different projects. Make a commitment to celebrate progress, not mastery.

Let’s Get Gritty is on Saturday, November 4 from 9am - 2pm. Register your daughter and treat her to a crash course in self-exploration and grit.