Helping Children Succeed: A Book Review

dsc00681The day after I posted my blog piece on the Maverick Launchthe program at my high school for at-risk freshmen, Paul Tough’s newest book, Helping Students Succeed, arrived on my doorstep. I read it in a single sitting and finished with a whoop!

This slim volume packs a big punch. Tough tells us what works to transform the lives of kids who are our biggest challenges: the unmotivated ones who can’t sit still—or pay no attention, don’t do homework, don’t use class time productively, disrespect adults, get into trouble. Constantly.

Yes. Those kids. The ones we suspect come from dysfunctional homes, from situations of poverty. In this book, Tough concentrates on the 51% of public school students in this country who are officially “low income.” Being poor makes it more likely that children will lack the nutrition and medical care they need to be healthy. Being poor means that books and summer camp and trips to museums will be missing from their lives. Being poor also increases the likelihood that these children experience extreme stress on a daily basis.

Tough is not talking about the kind of stress I experience when I am overwhelmed with papers to grade and lessons to plan and still have sixteen trips in the car for soccer lessons, swim meets, and parent conferences to make and have to stop at the grocery store, too. That’s temporary stress and I know it will end.

The kind of stress Tough is talking about is the stress of unpredictability: constantly changing addresses, shortages of food, abuse or neglect, a backdrop of drug or alcohol problems. He’s talking about traumatic stress, such as the markers delineated in the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACES) conducted by physicians at the CDC and Kaiser Permanente from 1995-1997 with follow-up that is ongoing to this day. What this study has found is that traumatic stress experienced as a child correlates strongly with health-related problems in adulthood (https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/).

That kind of stress has implications for learning, too. In children under the kind and amount of chronic stress in the ACES study, the development of the part of the brain responsible for “executive function”—things like memory, self-discipline, organization, impulse control—is disrupted. A child experiencing the stress of neglect or chronic hunger or the ramifications of divorce grows up processing life and school differently than children of privilege. If you are worried about food, scared of your dad, subject to the ill effects of your mother’s drinking, it’s hard to care about school. Life is grim and the future looks bleak.

To teachers, these kids seem unmotivated. They aren’t engaged with learning and they can’t seem to concentrate. They don’t plan ahead, so they don’t do homework, and if they do it, they forget to turn it in. Tests, to them at least, are confirmations of what they don’t know rather than demonstrations of what they do. They don’t respond well to punishment systems, but they don’t respond to positive incentive programs, either. They just don’t seem to care. No amount of pleading, cajoling, punishing, or rewarding seems to change them.

What Tough argues in his book is this: We have to change the environment. In fact, as he goes on to explain through examples of intervention programs that do just that, changing the environment is the best hope there is for changing the child’s trajectory.

Of course, as educators, we can’t change a student’s home life. The only environment we can change is the classroom.

Specifically, citing the studies of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, psychology professors at the University of Rochester, and the work of former teacher, Camille Farrington, an urban education policy expert, Tough discusses the elements that, when present, can turn these kids around, elements that—sustained long enough—can help these kids develop the character traits and positive mindset that the other 49% of the population developed by experiencing the stability of a safe home and a nurturing parent. In a way, the teacher has to become that nurturing parent—and provide a classroom environment that allows the student some degree of autonomy, a sense of belonging, a feeling of competency.

That means helping the child discover his own agency—that he is in fact in charge of his learning—and his life. That means providing a calm and predictable way of relating to the child and making him feel that he belongs in the classroom community. That means treating the child with respect—even when he’s out of line. That means fine-tuning instruction so that students are not defeated before they even start but at the same time are challenged—so that mastering a skill or learning a concept means something.

In other words, structuring learning for success but making sure it isn’t a hollow success. And then building on that success to achieve the next one. And the next one. Step-by-step, carefully and caringly taught, in the right environment these kids can thrive.

Of course, good teachers try to do these things every day, but, by the time kids growing up in adverse circumstances reach high school, attitudes have solidified. Learning problems may become behavior problems—if they haven’t already. That means dropping out is on the horizon and from there life only gets harder. Interventions like Maverick Launch (and the Raider Success Center at Harrison High School, our sister school) are literally life-savers. They’re worth every penny in terms of the individual students’ lives and they’re worth every penny in terms of averting probable future costs to the community, too.

This book is compelling reading. It’s a short book, but it’s packed with research-based ideas, illustrative examples, and general food for thought. It’s beautifully written, logically argued and deeply felt. It’s an excellent candidate for a book study by a faculty and I’d argue mandatory reading for all educators. Paul Tough is so devoted to this topic—so deep into trying to understand how best to help these students succeed—that his book is free and downloadable from his website. Go there today: www.paultough.com .

Revisiting To Kill a Mockingbird

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A few weeks ago, I was asked to give a book talk to a women’s group in my  town about To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman. My only credentials for that talk are these: I’ve read Mockingbird at least 35 times and I taught the novel to 9th graders for 31 years.  Several of those 35 reads occurred before I became a teacher. In fact, my mother gave Mockingbird to me for my birthday just before my senior year in high school—the year that the book was published.  I read it start to finish in one big gulp and then read it again, under the covers with a flashlight.  Lee’s story captured me right from the start.

For all those 31 years of teaching, I began each class’s study of Mockingbird by reading aloud just a bit about Atticus and the small town of Maycomb:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began to summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t? We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist-fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said that we were both right.

And with that, Atticus is established as the authority, the hero, and even a god.  “Our father.”

And then this, the description of the small town of Maycomb:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the street turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes of sweat and sweet talcum.

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy, and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had just been told it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

I love this passage. In two short paragraphs reside lessons in dating the setting via allusion, the art of alliteration and metaphor, the inclusion of exquisite detail that brings a scene and the mood so indelibly into focus.  And the black dog: a tiny, tiny bit of foreshadowing.

Nelle Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama.  Her father was a successful and respected lawyer and for a time was one of the publishers of the local newspaper.  Her mother, Frances Finch Lee, was a strange woman—possibly she suffered from bipolar disorder—and she and Nelle did not have a close relationship. Truman Capote lived next door in the summertime (His parents were divorced and he spent summers in Monroeville with relatives), and Nelle and Truman were fast friends.  Legend has it that they spent hours writing stories together on an old Underwood typewriter.  Nelle went to college and even did a year of what we’d call today, pre-law.  But she wanted to be a writer, so at age 23 she went to New York City to live and work.  Working days, first in a bookstore and later for Eastern Airlines and later still for BOAC, and writing at night, she produced a draft of a book.  Her agent first made suggestions for revision—which Nelle dutifully made—and then an editor at HarperCollins, Tay Hahoff (who died in 1974) spotted the real story in what seemed like a string of short stories.  Hahoff saw promise in the prose, too, and encouraged Nelle to revise the manuscript. Friends gave Nelle a Christmas present of enough money to live on for a year so she could write full-time.  What resulted, two and a half years later, was To Kill a Mockingbird.

 Mockingbird was published on July 12, 1960—right in the middle of a decade that began in 1954 with the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court—ordering the desegregation of the public schools—and ended with the passage in 1964 of the Civil Rights Act and in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act.  That’s important because the Civil Rights Movement, as it came to be called, dominated the news.  To Kill a Mockingbird was—and still is—a stab at the conscience of America.

The setting of Mockingbird is Maycomb (read, Monroeville) in the 1930s. The trial of the Scottsboro Boys is often cited as the inspiration for the Tom Robinson story, but it wasn’t. A local and far less sensational rape case was the true model.  A.C. Lee, Harper Lee’s father, was, however, the inspiration for Atticus Finch.

Mockingbird—sometimes lauded for being a charming coming-of-age story (which it is)–follows two main plot threads. One is the trial of Tom Robinson, a humble black man who has been accused by a white man, Bob Ewell (the “mad dog” of the book), of raping his daughter, Mayella. She is a lonely young woman who has been sexually abused by her shiftless, alcoholic father.  She accosts Tom, and her father sees it.  Tom runs, though he’s done nothing wrong, and Ewell accuses him simply because he can. He thinks the town will thank him for it. Atticus Finch takes the case on principle: He couldn’t look his children in the eye—couldn’t make them mind him, he said—if he himself doesn’t do what is right.  But he knows he is fighting a losing battle: There is no precedent for acquittal in such a case, even when the defendant is plainly not guilty.  Speaking to the jury, Atticus memorably characterizes the case as being “as simple as black and white.”

The other thread in Mockingbird is that of Boo Radley, a strange and reclusive man who lives in a house down the street. Boo befriends the children—though they remain “spooked” by him–and ultimately saves their lives when Ewell attempts to kill them on a dark Halloween night. The two stories are thus brought together and Scout articulates the meaning of the title when she assures her father that prosecuting Boo Radley would be like shooting a mockingbird; that is, persecuting innocent and helpless individuals—like Tom Robinson and Boo Radley—who “don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.”  Thus, a string of short stories is woven together by the symbolism of mad dogs and mockingbirds.

Atticus is the quintessential epic hero.  A little aside here: I also taught The Odyssey and directed my students’ attention to the epic tradition.  The students drew the comparison easily—because it is there. Harper Lee won a Pulitzer Prize and the book was translated into 10 languages within a year of publication—ultimately, into 40—and has never been put of print.  In the 1962 film version, Gregory Peck portrayed Atticus. The book is still the most widely taught novel in schools across the country (a few attempts at banning it notwithstanding—in fact, those attempts only increased its readership!).  Atticus Finch was elevated to the status of a god—one who looks just like Gregory Peck.

Then came Watchman in 2015.  The publishers provided a trigger warning—and many people declined to read the book.  (Me included, even though I’d preordered from Amazon.) Atticus, we were told, turns into a racist.  It was a year before I read Watchman because each review was worse than the last.  Like a lot of other people, I didn’t want to be disillusioned.  Eventually, I gave in.  I’d written extensively about teaching Mockingbird on my blog. It seemed like chickening out not to read Watchman.  Now I’ve read it twice. That will probably be enough.

People usually mark the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement with the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. On the heels of that decision came two momentous events: the murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 and the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and initiated when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the end of a long, hard day. In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled again, ordering the desegregation of the Montgomery buses.

Emmett Till’s funeral was portrayed in a photographic spread in Life magazine. The bus boycott ended after a year with another Supreme Court ruling, this one ordering the desegregation of the Montgomery, AL buses.  Those two events are the backdrop for Go Set a Watchman.

The book opens with Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout, returning to Maycomb from New York City for a visit. It appears at first to be a love story involving a boy who had lived across the street when Jean Louise was young, a boy whom Atticus has mentored and taken into his law firm.  In the book, Jem has died and Dill has gone missing. Two characters of major importance in Mockingbird aren’t in Watchman: the “ghost” Boo Radley and Mrs. Dubose, the harridan who lives down the street and menaces the children but turns out to be a dying woman trying to get out from under a morphine addiction. Uncle Jack plays a much more important role in Watchman; Aunt Alexandra is still a foil for Atticus. Calpurnia, the black woman who raised Scout and Jem, makes an appearance, but it’s a cold one.  And Atticus—well, Atticus at 72 is the same man in many ways, but there’s this disturbing thing about his stance on civil rights.

Indeed, in Watchman, Atticus is portrayed as a man with deep reservations about the events of the 1950s. In the book, he has joined the White Citizen’s Council in Maycomb—organizations like this had sprung up all over the South in response to those Supreme Court rulings.  In conversations with Jean Louise, Atticus espouses the policy of gradualism.  His remarks reveal not only a paternalistic attitude toward African-Americans, but downright racist ones.

I was prepared for Atticus.  It was Scout who appalled me.  Her outrage over her father’s attendance at the White Citizen’s Council meeting culminates in a scene full of excess, a confrontation with so much invective and vitriol that I was shocked.  Yes, Jean Louise is shocked by what she has learned about her father, but she screams at him, calls him names, and carries on beyond my ability to believe.  She’s also brutal in her attacks on her aunt—rude, profane, and frankly, unforgivable.  She knows better.

I told him in detail about our trip to church with Calpurnia. Atticus seemed to enjoy it, but Aunt Alexandra, who was sitting in a corner quietly sewing, put down her embroidery and stared at us.

“You all were coming back from Calpurnia’s church that Sunday?”

Jem said, “Yessum, she took us.”

I remembered something. “Yessum, and she promised that I could come out to her house some afternoon. Atticus, I’ll go next Sunday if it’s all right, can I? Cal said she’d come get me if you were off in the car.”

“You may not.”

Aunt Alexandra said it. I wheeled around, startled, then turned back to Atticus in time to catch his swift glance at her, but it was too late. I said, “I didn’t ask you!”

For a big man, Atticus could get up and down from a chair faster than anyone I ever knew. He was on his feet. “Apologize to your aunt,” he said.

“I didn’t ask her, I asked you—“

Atticus turned his head and pinned me to the wall with his good eye. His voice was deadly. “First, apologize to your aunt.”

“I’m sorry, Aunty, I muttered.

“Now then, he said. “Let’s get this clear: you do as Calpurnia tells you, you do as I tell , and as long as your aunt’s in this house, you will do as she tells you. Understand?”

I understood, pondered a while, and concluded that the only way I could retire with a shred of dignity was to go to the bathroom, where I stayed long enough to make them think I had to go.

That scene, a lesson in courtesy that couldn’t have failed to stick, is from Chapter 14 of Mockingbird, shortly after Aunt Alexander, the children’s nemesis, arrives to supervise Jem and Scout during the long, hot summer of Tom Robinson’s trial.

Watchman, to my mind, is more autobiographical than Mockingbird—in this way: It is far more revealing of Harper Lee’s state of mind in the 1950s.  The years of Watchman are the years that she was living in New York. She’d come back to Monroeville on the train for a visit—and undoubtedly she’d hear the rhetoric of the white families in her hometown.  At one point, early in the story, Atticus even asks her what the New York papers make of what’s “going on down here.”  It seems likely to me that in Watchman, Harper Lee was working through her own emotional responses to the events of the day and her reactions to the reactions of her family and community to these same events.

When I finally approached the book, I was already braced for Atticus. I expected to read amateurish writing—I did—but I also hoped I’d see a text that would make the power of revision clear to young writers, to my students.  With Mockingbird, I’d taught them more than how to read a novel, more than how to discover theme.  I’d opened their eyes to the elements of style.  So I hoped for early indications of that style in Watchman.  I found them.  Words, expressions, a proclivity for allusion, humor—though not much irony.  But the story seems thin to me—and disjointed.  There are some treats: a flashback to Scout, Jem, and Dill playing—not Boo Radley, but “Evangelist.” A long chapter featuring the loquacious Uncle Jack, as usual, circumventing a topic and making allusions to British history. A nice picture or two of various neighbors from Scout’s childhood days. It’s just that the richness, the fullness of Mockingbird isn’t there. Too much talk and not enough weaving of story line.  It’s as if the book had been stripped of its best parts—and it probably was. For Mockingbird.

Few critics like Watchman.

Some make a mistake that’s easy to make: It’s the same mistake I made by thinking Scout should know better than to be so rude to her father and her aunt.  The chronology of the two stories can be confused with the order in which they were written.  Watchman came first.  Atticus is 72 years old and the backdrop is 1956.  Mockingbird was written second—presumably as a revision of Watchman—and the backdrop is the 1930s.  In their responses to the publication, some people called Watchman the sequel—as if the two were intended one to follow the other.  Looked at that way, Atticus is indeed a disappointment.

Others knew something of the revision work Harper Lee had done and took the statement from the publisher at face value: Watchman was a draft and Mockingbird was the fruit of revision.  These reviewers looked at the “new” text for the seeds of Mockingbird and noticed that the story of Atticus and the rape trial is presented in just a paragraph and as a flashback. They noticed the shortcomings of a novice writer and expressed the opinion that Watchman should never have been published. The second publication tarnishes the first.

Many questioned the motives of Lee’s lawyer in providing the book to HarperCollins and HarperCollins for publishing it. They speculated that Lee, hard of hearing and poor of eyesight, ill and in a nursing home, had been manipulated into publishing the book.  There’s been so much confusion that we still don’t know the provenance of the book for sure.

Some said, and I agree, that in terms of producing literature, Harper Lee’s editor, Tay Hahoff, was brilliant: Here’s your story—the rape case—now run with it—and somehow, make all these short stories into a coherent piece.  Which Harper Lee did, producing, to the benefit of readers everywhere and especially to the benefit of English teachers who know the book is a cornucopia of lessons in narrative arc, character development, symbolism, irony, and style, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Long, languid sentences and hilarious scenes of children at play evoke the best of a time and place gone by.  Short, direct, blunt utterances, a scene when Atticus shoots a rabid dog, and carefully crafted court scenes carry the message that prejudice is a disease and reveal the hard truth that the justice system is imperfect. The climax—when Scout meets Boo Radley at last and discovers his humanity is a touching depiction of the moral imperative to treat everyone with dignity and compassion.

For a while after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Harper Lee herself spoke of trying to write a second book.  It was going to be about race. Presumably, the setting would be Maycomb, or at least Alabama.  Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, ventured this idea: Did Lee return to the original Watchman years after Mockingbird was published?  Did she revisit her first draft when she was older and struggling under the pressure of success to write a second book?  Is Watchman actually a post-1960 revision of the original first draft?  Gopnik points out that Watchman is confusing without a prequel, without Mockingbird. He points out that the shock of Watchman is only felt if the reader already knows Mockingbird.  If not, he posits, who would care about Atticus’s “fall from grace?”

But we are not going to know the whole story. It remains a literary mystery.  Or at least it will until another manuscript is “discovered.”  The best we can do now is enjoy Watchman, if we did, for what it is: the incomplete work of a novice writer.  Or, if we hold with Gopnik, the unfinished work of an extraordinary writer faced with an impossible task: producing another book that could hold a candle to her first.

And, this of course: We can continue to relish Lee’s enduring masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Forty Chances

If we’re lucky, writes Howard Buffett, we have about forty chances in our working lives to “get it right.”

Howard Buffett is the son of Warren Buffett—not as well known as his father, but a man who is also making his mark upon the world. For Buffett the son—and for his son, too—the “work” is primarily  agriculture and the arena is the world. Buffett’s foundation funds projects related to food and water security, conflict resolution in developing countries, and a few other projects of special interest such as cheetah and mountain gorilla conservation. For Howard, getting it right means using the 26.5 million dollars his father gave to him for philanthropic purposes wisely, strategically, and effectively.

Fundamentally, Howard G. Buffett is a farmer—he lives and farms in Decatur, Illinois. He’s an accomplished photographer, too, so 40 Chances is illustrated with photographs he’s taken all over the world. He’s also the author of Fragile: The Human Condition, a collection of photographs of and essays about vulnerable places he’s been in the world—130 countries—and the people he’s seen there. Published in 2009 by National Geographic, the book is immense, beautiful, and eye-opening. So Howard Buffett’s commitment to issues of food insecurity is long-standing and substantial: He’s not a celebrity flirting with a cause.

The title—and the concept—of 40 Chances originated from a spiel Buffett heard at the farm implement company in Decatur. The owner was showcasing a new line of John Deere equipment; the pitch was that the company realized their clients had about forty opportunities to perfect their business before their working time was up. The company wanted to supply the farmers with the best possible equipment and advise them on how to use it to advantage.  The idea of “forty chances” stuck with Buffett and brought not only his farming but his philanthropic efforts into sharp focus.

The stories in the book (forty of them) are about the problems he’s witnessed in specific countries, other problems that are more general, and the specific solutions that have worked in those countries—and some that haven’t and why. From these experiences, Buffett has evolved his ethic of funding.  He’s careful about the projects he funds and the people he invests in, and he’s learned to pay attention to these principles:

  1. What we think we know doesn’t automatically transfer to other parts of the world. You have to pay attention to the local geography, customs, and culture.
  2. Policy matters. You can’t get the right results if you don’t have the right policies.
  3. Dream big—but be realistic. Set reachable goals.
  4. Believe in people. Find amazing people and fund them to do the work they propose.

I took the wording of those principles straight from Buffett himself. I heard him speak at the Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa, in October 2013.  The book provides amplification of these guiding principles and sets forth a few others.

Buffet writes in his book about ineffective practices—such as funding projects that aren’t sustainable—and he goes into detail about some that are just plain wrong-headed—like  monetization. That’s the practice, authorized by the 1985 Food Security Act, of NGOs or recipient countries reselling a percentage of direct food aid to generate cash for other development projects. Sending our food surpluses to food insecure countries for monetization drives the prices down for locally produced food and creates a marketing problem for farmers in the country that the food was supposed to help. Food that is monetized may even end up on the plates of tourists rather than in the stomachs of food insecure individuals.

In emergencies—such as natural disasters—or in situations where procuring food locally is cost-prohibitive—situations, for example, where transportation costs make local purchases uneconomical—direct food aid is critical. However, sending direct food aid often removes the incentive for local solutions to long-standing problems of food insecurity. In many cases, Buffett favors direct cash aid in the first place; he believes the US should at least reexamine its policies about the mix of cash and food we send to food insecure countries.

More of Buffett’s basic beliefs:  Good governance in developing countries is critical to success in solving issues of food insecurity.  Land ownership motivates good stewardship—so he’s in favor of land rights for farmers and reform of land laws in countries where women especially are marginalized. He stresses the importance of the value chain—everything from farm to market has to work or the project may fail. Farmers might harvest an improved crop due to technical assistance, but if the roads are so bad they can’t get their crop to market, what has been gained?

Howard Buffett will make some American farmers uneasy. He favors no-till methods and doesn’t believe in subsidies the way they currently work. He’s not opposed to genetically-modified seed. He practices what he calls “conservation farming,” but that doesn’t mean organic farming.  He doesn’t think organic farming can be practiced on a large enough scale to feed the world.

And that’s his mission: To feed the world.

Right now, according to the organization “Feeding America,” one-sixth of the people in the USA—50 million Americans—are “food insecure.”  That means they don’t  know for sure where the next meal is coming from.  According to the United Nations, that number worldwide is 870 million people.  It’s no surprise then that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization projection for 2050 is grim:  Food production will have to increase worldwide by 70 percent to feed us all.

Whether you agree with all of Buffett’s views, you have to give the man credit. He is the recipient of many awards—for example, he’s been named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Against Hunger; he was the recipient of the World Ecology Award and the Triumph of Agriculture Exposition Agri Award. ColumbiaUniversity honored him with the Global Leadership Award. And that’s just the beginning of the kudos and accolades. He’s doing about as much as anyone can in his crusade against hunger, in his effort to feed the world. Money well spent, a life well lived, forty chances not gone to waste.

I started out, as I sat down to write this, to apply the “forty chances” concept to us as teachers. It does apply, of course. Forty years is about the span of our working lives, too, and most of us are still perfecting our art, polishing our skills, trying “to get it right,” right up to the very last day.

But I couldn’t stop writing about the book. 40 Chances, now on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list. It is an unusual book to have fallen into my hands. I am usually reading literary classics or recent fiction, even literary non-fiction, but not a book about agriculture.  However, my interest in international issues is deep—especially international education efforts.  I heard Buffett speak at the World Food Prize Conference I attended in October, the conference also known as the Borlaug Dialogue. And the obvious struck me: If children are food insecure, if they’re hungry literally, their hunger for learning can’t be fed.

So I’m impressed with what I’ve read and I am recommending 40 Chances to you.  Let us hope that Howard Buffett continues to use his remaining chances wisely and that he has many more. As for us, the same: We have forty chances. Let’s use them well.

How Children Succeed

I saw her in the high school library on a Tuesday afternoon at the end of the day. She was bent over her books, head in hands, her long black hair a kind of curtain around the pages that were open on the table.

“How are you doing?” I asked, interrupting her study. “It’s so good to see you!”

She lifted her head, brushed back her hair. “Mrs. Powley!”  Then she smiled and answered the question. “I’m fine—but kind of stressed now, to be honest. My classes…” Her voice trailed off.

“What are you taking?”

“Pre-cal, College Comp. Chemistry, Government. You know.”

Yes, I do know.  Kids are sometimes surprised that senior year is stressful. So many of them confuse arriving at senior year with finishing senior year and have the mistaken notion that the last year of high school will be a slide. A lot of them give up when the pressure becomes intense.

But not her.

“I thought you were going to have early dismissal this year,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“I do. But I only work three afternoons a week—40 hours, but only 3 afternoons.”

“Forty hours?”

“I work all day Saturday and Sunday.”  Her parents own one of the small Hispanic grocery stores in the area. I got the sense—last year when she was in my American lit class and from this conversation in October—that her family is working hard to make a go of it. “If I go home,” she continued, “I get distracted. If I stay here, I get my work done. I’ve got to.”

She wants to go to college. She’s not a A student.

I’ve just finished reading, for the second time, Paul Tough’s riveting new book, How Children Succeed. It confirms everything I’ve known for years—from experience and by  instinct—about why some kids are successful and why some aren’t. It isn’t about IQ; it isn’t about money and family resources. It’s about character.

It’s about having the discipline to make yourself study when you’d rather be playing video games or texting or driving around town with your friends on a fine spring night. It’s about persistence—about seeing a teacher after school to get something explained, about giving up a lunch period to visit the math lab, or revising that paper when the assignment to do so is optional. It’s about memorizing the formulas and going over the study notes. It’s about setting a goal and moving toward it, step by step by step.

Character counts.

A few years ago, Paul Tough wrote Whatever It Takes, a book about the Harlem Children’s Zone in NYC. It was while he was researching that book that he became interested in issues of success and failure. Research shows, he found, that character is a better predictor of success in college than GPA scores. In his book, Tough identifies a handful of character strengths that can be taught in school if they haven’t been cultivated at home.

Most of Tough’s book is focused on the children of poverty. He summarizes a number of studies conducted by psychologists, neuroscientists, and even an economist that point to character strengths such as determination, resilience, conscientiousness, self-control, and what Tough calls “grit” as being the reasons some kids, against all odds, succeed. But where does it comes from, this thing we call “character”?

To begin with, children who are nurtured when they are young are more likely to develop these character strengths than the children who are not. Why?

There is a physiological explanation. The conditions of poverty, under which twenty to twenty-five percent of our children live—conditions of family dysfunction like violence, anxiety, abandonment, alcoholism, abuse, frequent relocations—cause stress for kids. The stress of living in poverty causes changes in kids’ cognitive functioning—and that means these kids can’t sit still, can’t pay attention, can’t control their emotions. They do poorly in school. “When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings,” writes Tough, “it’s hard to learn the alphabet.”

The preventative—and the antidote—is a strong, nurturing relationship with an adult. Ideally, in childhood, with a mother—but not necessarily a birth mother. Tough makes the point that it is the rearing mother that has the impact, so a child raised by grandparents, by an adoptive family, by another relative who gives the child the love and guidance and support she or he needs can become a young person with these crucial character strengths. The role of the mother—whoever she or he is—is to soothe, guide, counsel, and support the child in learning to deal with adversity. She’s the teacher, if you will, of a home school course in stress management.

That might lead you to think that it is only the children of poverty who lose out on early character training, not the children of privilege. But Tough points out, in observations based upon the reflections of teachers and principals as well as research he cites, that parents who rush in to rescue their children whenever they are in a tight spot—those we call “helicopter parents”–are just as likely to be disabling their children as the neglectful parent living in poverty. Increasingly, even at the college level, teachers know the kind of parent I mean: those who contest every poor score their child receives or seek accommodations no other student will have. (Surely there is a retest? Surely the extenuating circumstances I am telling you about excuse the fact that he didn’t pay attention in class, didn’t come in for help, didn’t study? Surely he can do a make-up because his outside commitments—sports or 4H or whatever—had him just too busy for your test?)  Or, parents whose relationships with their children are “distant,” but whose expectations are nonetheless high—sometimes impossibly high.

By never allowing their children to learn how to manage a disappointment or a setback, these parents, too, are handicapping their children. If a child is never allowed to fail, he or she will lack resilience—the ability to bounce back after a defeat. My grandmother used to say: Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. She had a point.

But it won’t work to throw up our hands in despair and write off such children. We can’t just chalk up their failures to “lack of parental support” or “helicopter” parenting and be done with the matter. Tough goes on to say that the character traits he enumerates and explains in his book can be taught in school. Using examples of whole-school programs, classroom initiatives, and extra-curricular clubs (such as a chess club in an impoverished school community that has led to amazing accomplishments for some middle school students), Tough shows how teachers and principals can make a difference, can instill those character traits even in students who have lost out at home. Furthermore, character can be shaped, the examples show—even as late as during the teenage years. It’s not ideal, it’s not easy, it’s not the same—but it can happen.

What it takes is a mentor, a teacher, who believes in that student, teaches that student well, expects the best—and gets the best. Remember that Tough specified a strong, nurturing relationship with an adult, a specification that has implications for turning these kids around even as late as high school. It could be a pastor, a 4H leader, a surrogate mother—but because kids go to school, it is often a teacher. Every good teacher I know has had at least one student like this, often many more: a student in whom the teacher invested an amazing amount of time and energy and effort, one they know they reached, one they know they turned around, one who will forever be changed.

 

Back to my girl in the library: I remembered how, last year in late May, when she came in after school to make up a quiz, she stayed after that and asked me for help with vocabulary. She wanted to learn more roots. I gave her one of my books and a huge list of Greek and Latin roots and their derivatives.

Who knows where her determination, her discipline comes from? I think she must have the kind of continuing parental support that breeds success. Consider the work ethic of her family. She herself works 40 hours. It seems too much for a 17-year old. But in this case, she’s the lucky one.

So in the library that day last October, I told her not to worry. “Keep on like this and you will be fine. Determination and self-discipline are what make for success in college. You’ve got what it takes.”

And she does.