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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


'Grit' in the Writing Classroom

"Grit" is good, but it isn't vital.

June 16, 2014

My “grittiest” composition students are simultaneously among the easiest and most difficult students to work with.

The “gritty” rarely, if ever, struggle with sporadic attendance or failure to meet deadlines, things that often derail others. If drafts are due, drafts are done. They come to office hours, they ask questions, they are generally respectful of authority (perhaps overly so). They can immediately articulate their goals and dreams and the path they intend to take along the way.

I admire their focus and diligence and marvel at their ability to grind themselves through days and weeks of all-consuming work in pursuit of these goals.

At some point they express great frustration with my unwillingness to tell them exactly what they should do to “fix” (their words, not mine) their essays. I tell them that my goal is to arm them with knowledge that they can apply to the challenge of writing and that struggling is just part of the deal.

The “gritty” students almost always get a B+ in my class.

I don’t doubt their ultimate success in school and life. The “grittiest” students are “win or die trying” types.

While I don’t worry about their future success, I do sometimes worry about their happiness because my “gritty” students often appear stressed-out and miserable, driven by forces that appear to be outside their control, but forces that they also feel are necessary for success. The source of their grit seems to be as mysterious to them as it is to me.

My theory for a long time was that “gritty” students were driven by their parents, but I can report that my anecdotal experiences don’t back this up. Many of my “gritty” students say that their parents tell them to lighten up.

Almost all of my “gritty” students view those B+’s as something approaching failure.

In a class of 20, I’ll only have 2-3 truly “gritty” students per semester. Others declare themselves “gritty,” but this is usually more like wishful thinking than reality.

I believe one of the reasons “gritty” students struggle to get above B+ in my class is because of what Angela Duckworth has identified as one of the key behaviors to “grit-based” success, “deliberate practice,” which is “defined as practice activities designed to improve specific aspects of performance.”

What I see is that my “gritty” students have a harder time making what I think of as “leaps” in their writing, an unplanned and unbidden jump from one idea to another, the kind of thing that happens without deliberation when you’re walking the dog or staring at the waves in Charleston Harbor.  The deliberate nature of their practice seems to mitigate against the likelihood of an “a ha!” moment, the sorts of things that I think are vital to solving the particular puzzle of a specific piece of writing.

My “gritty” students work is usually “correct” at the sentence level, but they often have a hard time getting it “just right.” This is where these students and I experience the most frustration in working together. I’m often pushing them to put more “life” or “energy” into their writing and they don’t see the point as long as the message is clear.

I realize as I say this that I’m expressing a particular, possibly subjective aesthetic value, that I privilege prose that reveals the human being behind the ideas on the page.

This is where my leap happens.

I realize I find the “grit narrative” of student success so distasteful because it is in fundamental opposition to my values. The notion that we should drive ourselves single-mindedly towards a specific destination strikes me as anti-education, anti-human even. It is a privileging of training over exploration, of diligence over creativity. It suggests our lives are meant to be mechanized and efficient.

I realize that I value something else more.

Grit is useful in a composition classroom, but curiosity is essential.

If a writer is curious they will write something interesting, interesting to themselves above all. It may be sloppy, or even incomplete, but it will be alive. As the work continues, the need for “grit” dissolves as the desire to be correct is overwhelmed by the need to get it “just right.” They experience that, at its best, writing can be a living thing. Rather than a machine to be fixed, it is an organism into which we breathe life.

The best thing about curiosity in the classroom is that at some point, every single one of my students has been curious. They know that feeling because we are hard wired for it. It’s possible that school has gone a long way to making them incurious, but somewhere in their experience we have access to their passions. If I can tap into that, we’ve won a victory, even if the ultimate grade is less than a B+.

The “grit narrative” is a convenient fiction that serves to keep students without grit either compliant, or demoralized, or both.

Maybe we’re afraid of the questions students will ask of us if we let them be curious.

Maybe we should be.


I appreciate everyone who follows me on Twitter and do my best not to waste their time.


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