As luck would have it, this year in my practice I have a number of eighth graders at the same school, which is also my alma mater. Although more than twenty years have gone by, there are certain things that haven’t changed. Most notably, the school still only has one set of final exams, which, oddly enough, are given in early March, before Spring Break. To this day, I have mixed feeling about the month of March, because I still associate it with exams.
Granted, after exams came Spring break, but there was always all the work of synthesizing the material and preparing for the tests, let alone actually taking them. The best part of exams was that the day ended early, and on the last day or two, I could walk home through Central Park. It was almost always “unseasonably warm” those days. And of course, this week is scheduled to be “unseasonably warm” too.
Today my eighth grade girls take their History exam. The History class is a World History survey class ranging from the discovery of the New World to Napoleon, with lots of interesting stops along the way. Yesterday was a marathon for me as I spent an hour with each of them in their final preparations for tomorrow. Right now I am feeling very proud of each one of them. I know they are prepared and I know they have worked hard. But, more importantly, they have taught me a lesson in persistence. As it just so happens, I really love tutoring this particular class. I’ve come to know the material pretty well, and I have
my own little anecdotes to help make ideas stick, like comparing Louis XIV to the character Regina George in the movie Mean Girls. I have also learned that the only way for my students to successfully get though the class is to be diligent and thoughtful along the way. This is not a class for procrastinators. Trying to get everything done in the last week won’t cut it when it comes time for exams.
However, that does not mean that each of my girls has handled the material in the same way. Some answered the homework questions every night. Others made full study guides for each test. Others wrote very complete outlines for their papers. In each case, the girls put in effort. But sometimes the material was a struggle. Even with a tutor, they did not get A’s all the time.
What struck me yesterday afternoon, however, was how much each girl had persisted in learning the material. As I looked at their thick notebooks, their study guides and the notes they had written in the margins, I was humbled. This is not an easy course— sometimes it has been really hard. Yet through it all, they have persevered. They have learned the material and I knew as each girl left last night, she would prove to her teacher and, more importantly, to herself, a good understanding of the material.
If I were their teachers, I would be giving them all A’s for effort. Whether they will remember what legitimized the Tokugawa Shogunate in 20 years I do not know. But I have a feeling they may still recall Louis XIV as the most popular King in class with an amazing palace called Versailles, which they visited on YouTube.
How did they come to persevere?
I am 100% sure that studying this History is not their favorite thing to do. (I can think of about 10 things
eighth grade girls would rather do, including visits to frozen yogurt stores and cake baking.) However, a couple of things are noteworthy. First, I have taken great pleasure in watching and helping each girl find her own best strategy to learn the material, if it was writing out answers to homework questions, or writing practice identifications. But I am only one small piece. Having the tools is essential, but also wanting to succeed is also important.
Sometimes I worry that the kids are too competitive. They are out for the grade and just the grade. Luckily, these girls and their parents are all very realistic, and understand that a grade is not the be-all and end-all. We watch for improvement and for comprehension. I try to promote the “growth” mindset of Dr. Carol Dweck’s model. while I cheer good grades, more often I salute hard work, because I know, and I want my students to know, that effort really is more important than a letter or number grade, and that the joy should come from “understanding” rather than “performing.” As I watched the girls last night, I felt that they have really started to grasp this message. Although I now they still want the grade, I hope the work we have done together has taught them that they have to work to earn it, and that the work comes from persistence. Also, every time they got an answer right or remembered something, I could see a glimmer of excitement in their eyes. Discovering that their persistence had paid off and they actually knew who the Enlightenment philosophers were made them happy and relieved. When I started this website, I thought persistence was going to be one of the hardest strengths to write about in adolescents. But today, in the middle of March exam madness, I was pleased to see it was out in full strength, and was serving my students so well. BRAVA!