hands reaching out to each other

The word “grit” is the perfect buzzword to keep a faculty meeting going for 20 minutes after it could have ended.

Grit is usually defined during an early professional development session, and then coupled with “rigor” and “instructional scaffolding” until its true meaning is long forgotten. Then, just as grit loses its vigor, the word stamina appears to keep everyone interested. As a young teacher I ate these words up, and made sure every lesson plan I made had a section that tested student grit and built their stamina.

During years 3-4 of my teaching, however, I found myself having to wake up students during my “stamina building” lessons, and I would look around my classroom in vain to find one hand in the air during a lesson that was supposed to build grit. I was only 28 years old, but I was teaching as if I had learned how to do it in the 1950s. Still I persisted, and didn’t stray much from the traditional teaching structure I was taught. 

My fifth year of teaching was slated to be my first year teaching the same thing as the year prior. This meant I could perfect previous lessons. I could fix the errors from the past and improve upon the strong qualities.

With this plan in mind, I was greeted after summer break with a professional development workshop on Project Based Learning by PBLWorks/Buck Institute. 

I had heard of PBL before and was always a fan of throwing a project into the semester. The previous year I taught Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” with what I thought was a project-based unit. Students read the book outside of class, and created a visual representation of the novel during class time.

At the PBL 101 workshop, I realized within the first hour that my project wasn’t even close to Project Based Learning. It would be classified as a “dessert” project.  Our facilitator advised us to replace these with “main course” projects that were longer and more in-depth. This type of project thrived with an entire new set of buzzwords: authenticity, student voice and choice, critique and revision, and public products.

The facilitator asked us to “start by looking at your units and asking yourself, how can this be done in a more authentic way?” When she finished, I slumped down in my cold plastic chair and opened my laptop to see my neatly organized files from last year ready to be reused.

I smiled at my colleague sitting next to me, who was already mapping out ideas on a sheet of poster paper.

Inside I was cringing at the idea of starting over but said, “I guess we could do something with Romeo and Juliet.”

“We need to think of a way to bring Romeo and Juliet into modern times,” I said. “What about something to do with the news? Maybe something that builds media literacy?”

We envisioned the project functioning as a train that would move students toward a deeper understanding of the media industry, public mourning and the impact of tragedy. After three sheets of poster paper, we realized that although the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet happened many years ago, modern tragedies still occur daily. We used the project to show students how tragedies both large and small are covered by the news media and the extent to which they need to be mourned.

My 9th graders would study 9/11, the Challenger explosion, and Hurricane Katrina as examples. They would also read the play, Romeo and Juliet, and compare the tragic events in the Shakespearean plot with the tragic events of modern times. They would assess how the trauma in the play was mourned by the characters and how it influenced their subsequent actions, similar to the impact of modern tragedies on public lives. 

Soon we had also developed a driving question: To what extent do we need public mourning of tragedies?

The project would last six weeks and would start with the kick-off event of a Skype session with a friend of mine who grew up in New York City and was in fourth grade on 9/11. Other Skype interviews included a session with the Deputy Commissioner for the NYC Office of Emergency Management. 

Students spent weeks building an understanding of tragedies. They studied the often-conflicting nature of the news cycle and examined the timely mid-term election coverage. Weeks later, students completed the Public Product Simulation Day. During this day, students were expected to combine their understanding of the tragedies in the play with their new-found knowledge on the role of the news media during modern tragedies. On simulation day, students could choose either a media outlet to represent or a character to portray.

Once decided, the class worked together to develop news coverage of the tragedies in the play. The real-world task was to develop news coverage that adequately mourned the tragedies as they were displayed in live-action formats on televisions around the library. Students had gathered insight on the importance of the media during the public mourning process, and knew the responsibility they had in providing strong coverage. 

During the simulation, I soon realized I was watching my students exhibit grit and stamina.

I observed them hurrying to interview subjects and provide quotes while interpreting the images from the play around the room. They showed grit when their interviewee refused to participate, and stamina when they had to rush to meet the deadline while maintaining accurate reporting. They had combined the life skills of ethics, communications, stamina and grit with the learning objectives from the unit in ways I could not have imagined. 

In their reflections at the end of the unit, my students spoke highly of the project, but also discussed their initial reluctance, given the lack of a typical unit structure. As the unit progressed, many described a newfound appreciation with the “adjustability” of the structure. 

In my own reflection, I realized the importance of reinventing the wheel for my students. I now know the wheel of the future doesn’t look the same as the wheel of the past. I hope when the future arrives, my students realize, much like their teacher did, that stamina and grit are not things a person can learn from a lesson on a sheet of paper.  

Julia Boudreau, Teacher, Christian Brothers College High School, St. Louis, Missouri