Itís Not About Grit: Trauma, Inequity, and the Power of Transformative Teaching
reviewed by Megan Blumenreich - August 30, 2018
Title: Itís Not About Grit: Trauma, Inequity, and the Power of Transformative Teaching
Author(s): Steven Goodman
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807758981, Pages: 208, Year: 2018
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Too often when we look at the challenges of educating children in high-poverty areas, we focus on the individual child or the classroom at the expense of everything else in the child's world that affects their learning. Its Not About Grit: Trauma, Inequity, and the Power of Transformative Teaching reminds the reader of societys responsibility for educating children. Goodman illustrates through the experiences of his former students and through evidence from current research how social issues (such as mental health problems, lack of medical resources, and substance abuse) and government policies (such as the war on drugs and the defunding of affordable housing) influence generations of families living in poverty and affect childrens school experiences.
Goodman is the founding director of the Educational Video Center in New York City. For the last 35 years, he has been teaching documentary workshops to students from underserved communities, and through his stories of these students and their documentaries (as well as links which readers can use to view parts of these documentaries), Goodman makes connections between the students experiences and larger systemic inequities. He calls this innovative book that integrates documentaries, stories, research, and pedagogical ideas a book-umentary.
Starting with a forceful criticism of the work of Paul Trough, Angela Duckworth, and Carol Dweck, who have popularized the idea that personal qualities like grit, or the perseverance towards long-term goals, are critical to student success, Goodman writes:
The trouble is, Tough, Duckworth, Dweck, and other writers in the past who have advocated pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps-type character-building approaches are promoting an essentially individualized solution to what is fundamentally a social problem. Limiting the focus on students character abilities to delay gratification, learn from failures, and become more gritty sidesteps the complex and often debilitating problems that structural poverty and racism create for students. (p. 2)
Its Not About Grit goes on to examine the relations between poverty, race, gender, inequity, and educational achievement (p. 12). The chapters cover the topics of health and housing, the police and juvenile justice, immigration, gender and identity, and foster care and child welfare. It concludes with a chapter on moving the students from trauma toward student activism.
In each chapter, Goodman not only describes his students experiences with a specific issue, but also cites literature, making connections between individual experiences and the challenges of urban communities at large. He then provides suggestions for pedagogical approaches that would tap into urban students knowledge of and interest in these topics. For instance, in the chapter, Unlivable Conditions: Health and Housing, Goodman addresses many issues related to housing in high-poverty areas. He describes a documentary created by Millie, who at the time was an adolescent, about her familys struggles in an East Harlem apartment that lacks hot water and heat and is infested by rats. Goodman helps his reader understand that Millies schooling problems were exacerbated by her familys high-stress living conditions. Millie struggled with illnesses, absences from school, and feelings of distraction. She eventually dropped out of school, and her unhealthy home environment was an important factor contributing to this decision.
Goodman also describes and provides a link to another documentary, this time by Raelene, documenting the mold in her apartment. After dropping out of high school because of sleep issues that led her to skip school in order to get more sleep, Raelene eventually attended a high school equivalency program. Goodman draws connections from Raelenes poignant experiences, and those of other children, to existing research on how poor housing can affect the physical, behavioral, and mental health of children, and how students poor health correlates with low educational outcomes. Asthma, which is especially high among Latinx and Black children in low-income areas, and which is associated with exposure to allergens such as mold, dust mites, and cockroach and rodent infestation, accounts for an estimated 14.4 million absences per school year. In addition, according to Goodman, a third of all homeless children miss up to 30 days of school.
Goodman explains how educators can use the documentaries he provides in their classrooms as powerful springboards to move students to critically discuss, research, and act on these problems and counter the stigma of students experiencing them (p. 33). Reading and responding to stories and poems about housing issues, conducting environmental justice research projects, and learning about the history of housing policies and practices that have created conditions of poverty and segregation are just a few pedagogical approaches Goodman suggests for using this topic as a catalyst for action. Goodman also thoughtfully cautions educators to be aware of the challenges of helping students learn about these complex issues while at the same time helping those who are struggling with them to feel safe and supported.
Although all the books chapters are instructive for educators seeking to understand the trials of children living in high-poverty households, the chapter on immigration is particularly relevant at this time when walls, detention centers, ICE raids, and the experiences of DREAMers all call into question the rights and the security of immigrant families. After describing the different ways immigration can impact childrens schooling, from how children handle the fear of a parents legal vulnerability to the emotional and financial cost of the deportation of a parent, Goodman describes how schools can support these students. He writes, it turns out its not about grit or endurance in practicing new skills. Research shows that most often, it is the quality of the relationships that the students develop in school that makes a difference (p. 76). In this regard, Goodman suggests pedagogical strategies such as translanguaging and providing opportunities for informal check-ins with students. Being aware of the students complicated relationships at home can help educators be better allies and advocates for immigrant students.
From a teacher education point of view, this book is a valuable resource for courses concerned with preparing educators to work with children in high-poverty areas, such as foundations courses, research courses that include participatory action research, or curriculum courses. This book makes important connections for educators, spelling out why its not accurate to focus solely on the inner resources of low-income students, and describing the history of systemic societal problems that influence this populations educational experiences, such as housing and immigration policy. The documentary clips that are provided as links throughout the book will help these issues come alive in the classroom, and the guide that is included at the end of book will support productive conversations.