Adventures in Guest Teaching

Info & Opinions, Fresh from the Trenches of Substitute Teaching

How to encourage persistence July 2, 2013

Sometimes, kids give up when a subject’s too hard.

Sometimes, we encourage that, even if we don’t mean to.

Several months ago, I read an NPR story which basically says that in the U.S., we compliment kids when they’re naturally good at something, whereas in some eastern cultures, children learn persistence is a mark of intelligence.

I believe it’s important to teach kids about metacognition, or the art of watching our own brains at work, so I sometimes share this story with students. Fourth-graders seem just about the right age for this, although it was also well received in a 3rd grade gifted class. Here’s the kid-friendly version:
3-d cube pic

Once upon a time, there was a man who wanted to be a teacher. So he graduated from high school and went to college. When you graduate from college, you get a bachelor’s degree. Then when you go to school some more to get a master’s degree or a doctorate, this is called grad school.

So this man was in grad school and he thought, “I’ve seen how we teach school in America, but I wonder how they teach school in other countries.” 

He got on a plane, flew over the ocean and went to Japan. One day he was sitting in a classroom of fourth-graders, just like you guys, and the teacher was teaching kids how to draw a 3-dimensional cube (at this point, I draw a 3-D cube on the board).

For some kids, it was easy. For other kids, it took a little longer, but they got it. But there was one boy who tried and tried but still just couldn’t get it.

The teacher made that boy go up to the board and stay there until he could figure out how to draw the cube.

The man started sweating, and worrying. He thought, “Oh no, this boy must be so embarrassed. What if he starts to cry, or the other kids make fun of him?”

But the boy didn’t cry.

He stood there and tried, and tried, and tried, and tried, and tried, until …. (hushed, dramatic pause…) he finally figured it out.

And guess what? All of the other kids started clapping for the boy, they were so proud that he did it!

So the man started to understand that in America, when we’re naturally good at something, sometimes our parents and our teachers say, “Good job!” or “You’re so smart, you figured that out right away!”

And that’s great! We all love to hear that, right?

But in Japan, you show you’re smart when you keep trying and trying at something that’s hard for you. That’s called persistence, or resilience.

So we all have things that we’re naturally good at ─ that’s one way we’re smart ─ and we all have things that we have to work really hard at. When we keep trying and trying until we get it, we show we’re smart that way too.

It always surprises me how kids respond to this story. It’s new information for them (just like it was for me the first time I read it), but it doesn’t go over their heads. Many times it motivates them to keep on trying.

I had one fourth-grade class in particular who took this to heart so much it nearly made me cry.

My day with this class started on a chaotic note.

I was subbing for a 4th-grade math/science teacher. His wife, a 5th-grad teacher, was supposed to drop off his lesson plans and worksheets. The kids were already streaming into the classroom when she arrived, breathlessly apologizing and explaining she’d had car trouble.

I’m pretty sure those math worksheets were duplicates of ones meant for her 5th-graders, because all the 4th-graders looked confused, saying they’d never done this kind of math before. I explained a few fundamentals and although they tried, I could see they were a little frustrated. It was at this point I shared the story about persistence.

After hearing the story, those kids kept trying and trying, and pretty soon, some of them got it. But what really yanked at my heart was this: Several kids actually asked to stay in at recess to work on it some more!

Anyone who’s ever subbed knows there are lots of discouraging moments, but this stands out as a keeper. Not all students respond this way, of course, but I figure that if it motivates just a few to keep trying, it’s worth it.

Here’s the link to the original NPR story, “Struggle for Smarts? How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning,” (Alix Spiegel, Nov. 12, 2012).

What stories do you tell your classes? Please share your comments!