Like a lot of teenagers, Anna Sarol enjoyed school — but she was looking forward to graduation. On your first day as a freshman, it’s easy to put yourself in the seniors’ shoes — to anticipate the day when your family and friends gather in a great crowd to celebrate your achievement.
Like a lot of teenagers, Anna had the rug pulled out from under her. But unlike last year’s seniors, it wasn’t COVID that got in her way. It was a terrible gymnastics accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors told her that she’d never walk again. But Anna was a gymnast and an optimist; she was tough and tenacious; and she had incredible support from her family, her friends, and her community.
For four years her classmates watched her navigate life in a wheelchair. And then, at graduation, they watched her stand up and walk across the stage to receive her diploma. In front of her entire class, Anna took the first unassisted steps she’d taken since the accident. The crowd went wild.
Today, Anna still uses a wheelchair. She still requires support to walk. But there is no doubt that her life will be filled with success. Her disability does not define her; her courage and her character do. Anna is a person with grit.
We love it when people triumph against the odds — the tale of success in the face of obstacles. Those moments resonate with our deepest sense of what it means to be a human. This year, our classrooms are filled with more than their share of heartbreak and adversity. This year more than ever, our students need grit. But how can we cultivate that perseverance? What concrete steps can we take to make our students more resilient learners?
Grit is not something that can be shouted into someone. If all you do is demand persistence, you’re not building grit — you’re building compliance. You’ll get persistence in the moment, but once your charges step into the broader world, they’ll need motivation that comes from within.
Fortunately, researchers know how to build that intrinsic motivation — and the key is surprisingly simple. Angela Duckworth, who literally wrote the book on Grit, identifies passion as the key characteristic undergirding human persistence. Through practice, we learn to harness that passion — but passion is the necessary foundation. Students need three key dimensions of passion. Combined, they constitute the character traits that students will need to be driven, resilient humans.
The Three Passions
1. Passion to Learn
When a basketball player spends hours in the gym, she does it because she loves the game. When a concert pianist keeps practicing after everybody else has left, it’s because of his deep passion for his craft. Intrinsic motivation comes from a deep love for your work — so if we want passionate students, we need to help them fall in love with school.
We can do that by helping them experience the thrill of discovery. Instead of telling students how to do a task, let them figure out how to do it themselves. Let them discuss and debate; let them construct and collaborate. Praise not only success, but also effort.
We can cultivate persistent passion by allowing them to pursue their interests with intention. Genius Hour projects, where classroom time is set aside for students to engage in sustained projects connected with topics they love, allows you to help students structure their passions into a formal proposal, to let them pursue their interests deeply and with purpose, and to have them share their learning with an authentic audience.
When students learn to love discovery and to structure their passions productively, they become grittier, more passionate learners
2. Passion for Self
In order to persist, students need to view themselves as persistent people. Encourage this confidence through rituals of hope: sing a song or write in a gratitude journal to remind students to stay positive. By helping students see the light instead of the tunnel, you help them endure.
You can also support persistence by changing the conversation in your classroom. Instead of praising ability, praise effort. Be intentional about praising persistence, even when that persistence has led to failure. And make sure to remind your students that whenever they can’t do something, it’s only temporary: they just can’t do it yet.
3. Passion for Purpose
The deepest way to imbue your students with passion is to help them see that they learn for a reason. You can drive this home by reminding them of the good they will do one day in the broader world; make this understanding concrete by connecting with real-world experts.
Even more importantly, you can empower your students to make a difference — today. Engage them in powerful projects that allow them to impact their communities and their world. By connecting them with a purpose that’s bigger than themselves, you inspire the most potent form of passion.
Go Forth and Be Awesome
By instilling passion in your students, you give them the foundation that they’ll need for persistence. You’ll help them to persevere through difficult times. And you’ll make the world a little better place.