In Defense of Grit for SIFE. (Plus Week 3 Book Study Resources)

Sigh.  Grit is getting a bad wrap. I was so excited about it and now haters are tweeting ugly tweets at me. Some colleagues are, however, being constructive and are making good arguments.  If you teach newcomers,  you might be dismayed because many of our kiddos are the grittiest kids in the building.

Grit has been a hot topic in education since the release of the book Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. In it, she explains that it is not a person’s IQ that predicts success in life. This thing called grit is what really pushes people to continue working toward success.

Her TED talk has been viewed over 8 million times and her research is being leveraged by educators around the world.  In her talk she even goes so far as to say that we all REALLY want our own children to have this grit but no one is quite sure how to cultivate it.  WOW! And as teachers of newcomers, we often see students that already possess it!

I tweet and write about grit in hopes that teachers realize what is possible for SIFE (Students with Interrupted Formal Education).  Just two weeks ago I highlighted Emily Francis in this post on what is possible for our students with an interrupted formal education. Emily is FULL of grit. She needed it to rise from under-schooled & non-English speaker to become one of the Teaching Channel’s Fab5 ELL teachers.

Well, now I am getting tweets with people telling me that I am putting the blame and responsibility on the learner.  (yikes!)  I can see where this criticism of grit narratives has merit.  I understand this argument as “If grit is the answer, then the people who are not succeeding must not have enough grit. Or they aren’t using it correctly. And/or teachers are off the hook, let’s just get everyone very gritty.”   Great points here.

I also have a new friend, Andrea Honigsfeld (author of ELL Frontiers – please read it, it is such a great book on tech for ELLs) who turned me on to a thought-provoking article written by Valerie Strauss for the Washington Post. I loved that Andrea sent this to me because it was sent in a constructive way. She asked my thoughts on it and she opened my eyes to some important things I had not considered.
Strauss makes a great case for rethinking our love of grit narratives and I need articles like this to inform my thinking.  Strauss challenges us to realize that kids of poverty already have grit. She explains that their home lives are full of grit and they don’t need more lessons about it in school.  She also argues that lessons on grit serve middle to upper class students more than our lower socioeconomic students.  Hmmmm. Also very good points! 

There is actually A LOT of criticism of teaching grit.  Here is one more. Andrea sent me this article Paul Thomas wrote for Alternet where he explains that  grit will never be the answer to overcoming poverty and racism.  He writes that instead, “the key to increasing the success of those students now languishing on the wrong end of the achievement gap is to address the inequity of opportunity they face in their lives and in their schools.”  Their plight is more of a systemic issue, according to Paul. 

Do a search on it, and youll find even more great arguments against teaching grit. And I can see their points, many of which can’t be disputed.

If you are like me, you might be thinking, ‘Ugh! Just when we thought our SIFE had a silver lining to their stories of hardship!’  

But here’s the thing.  

As a teacher of newcomers (many of which are SIFE), I’m not teaching grit as the answer to all of their problems.  I’m not.  I’m pointing out that they may already have it and I’m exposing them to the research that shows that it is a predictor for success in life.  I want them to have this knowledge as part of a repertoire of tools and metacognitive strategies that will hopefully spark intrinsic motivation about what is possible for them.  It is a character trait we can all use,  they should know all there is to know about it. Heck, they can go off and find some more research to help us all learn more about it.

Strauss is right. Our kids don’t need long lessons on how to be gritty.  But my newcomers definitely need to be aware that those middle and upper-class families desperately want this character trait for their children. Just letting them in on that little fact is powerful for their mindset. And while we are sharing research with our students, lets go ahead and use the Paul Thomas article as well. Our recent immigrants are well served when we give them the real facts about inequities.  I teach high school students who need to know what they are facing.  We can balance all of this with some great social justice lessons where we highlight heroes like Martin Luther King Jr & Nelson Mandella.

We want our youth to know that there are many of us working to change the inequities.  We want them to know that their teacher is working to optimize their learning experience across the building. But we also want them to know their own abilities to improve.  And that they can be agents of change themselves!

Nope. I’m not ready to give up on grit.

And I’m not the only one that thinks we can use grit to our advantage if we are thoughtful about how we use it.  The following is an excerpt from October 2015 Classroom Q & A article in Education Week Teacher written by Larry Ferlazzo:(follow him BTW. If you only follow ONE person on twitter, it should be Larry.)

So, when I talk about helping our students develop grit, it’s with the idea of encouraging them to apply qualities that many already have – the difference is that I want to help them develop intrinsic motivation to apply these attributes to academic pursuits.

Encouraging the use of metacognition, learning strategies (sometimes greater effort will lead to de-motivation if we don’t know how to adjust what we’re doing – and that could include asking for help), and the positive attitude of a growth mindset (particularly teacher feedback focused on effort instead of intelligence or ability) are important ways teachers can support students using grit and resilience in the classroom. Applying these concepts in our classes will reinforce what researchers  David Yeager, Gregory Walton and Geoffrey L. Cohen have defined as “the fuller formula for success: effort + strategies + help from others.”

At the same time, however, I am wary of pushing the “grit narrative” too far, as some have done already by proclaiming what I call The Let Them Eat Character strategy.   It is in the self-interest of many in our society to use the “all it takes is hard work” mantra as a public excuse for perpetuating political and economic policies that thwart the dreams of many because of their race or economic class (see The Washington Post article, Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong).

I fear this blogpost has officially become way too long. But part of the reason I blog is to synthesize my own thinking. So I have just a few more things to say on this.
One, I am ALL about growth-mindset.  Grit is one thing, if you have friends in education that don’t agree with growth mindset…find other friends.
My main goal as a teacher is to help my students develop intrinsic motivation so they can take off and learn without me.  For SIFE and newcomers, just knowing about all this grit stuff helps them develop their ideas about what they bring to the table.  PLEASE give your students credit that they come to you as critical thinkers and we can give them more critical thinking opportunities around this and other topics.
Here are a few resources I suggest for further study on motivation (which is where I see grit being important)
  • Drive by Daniel Pink – not exclusive to education but you’ll learn what really motivates people and that is like gold for any educator.
  • This “Best of Posts & Articles on ‘Motivating’ Students”  by Larry Ferlazzo.  He has interviews with Dan Pink and many other posts that are specific to working with ELLs. SO many! greatness.
  • I just picked up Larry’s book Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers to Classroom Challenges He has a lesson on grit in this book and I trust it is something appropriate for our demographic based on the excerpt above and other resources by Larry.
  • I also want to get Navigating Common Core with ELLs. This one is also by Larry Ferlazzo. I think I need it. I don’t even teach Common Core! But I know I can generalize here…We all have content standards so I can apply the learning to my reality.  My big reason is that I hear that he includes a lesson on resilience! Excited to see how he makes the idea powerful for students who are likely already resilient.
  • Last week bought Alan November’s Who Owns the Learning.  Got it signed by Alan himself! I have followed Alan for years and just attended & presented at his Building Learning Communities conference in Boston (#BLC17).  Alan was the one that turned me on to Dan Pink many years ago.  It is why I try to inspire students with lessons that offer autonomy, purpose and mastery.  With today’s tech, and a solid PLN, we can ensure that our ELLs own their learning!

Thanks for taking that Grit vs. No Grit journey with me. Writing this certainly helped me think through some things and I obviously still have a lot to learn on this subject.  I’m excited to do that learning with my PLN!  Join me on Twitter if we are not connected there already!

Thanks for reading!




You can find a lot of resources by visiting our Book Study Landing page.  Check out Emily’s notes on last week – Week 3! She is one to follow as she is giving the world the cliff notes on this book!

Boosting Achievement Week Three Questions (Part II in the book)

3Q1)  p. 33 Watch the video with the QR Code or at Hamsa taught his teacher a lot that day. Did he teach you or reinforce anything for you?

3Q2) p. 34 references Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk on “grit”. In her talk, Duckworth describes grit as passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Most SIFE have persevered through something. How can we help them realize the strength, the perspective and the advantages they already possess?

3Q3) p. 33-34 Passion. Persistence. Motivation: many of us have activities that put us in “flow” just like Hamsa from the video. We can all lose track of time working toward a goal when we have a passion for it. Maybe it is running, or crafting, or blogging about education.  If you can relate to this, reflect on it.  Share your “flow” activity and why you think you show so much grit when working toward the goals of it.

3Q4)  p. 38 & 39: We often say that every child brings gifts.  These pages outline a few specific advantages of having newcomers in your classroom. How can you share this message with your staff, with your parents, with the world?

3Q5) How are you planning to leverage growth mindset?  Do you have ideas for  your students with limited education?  How can we leverage all of this to build the growth mindset of the rest of the class, school or community?

3Q6)  p. 40 -44: Breaking down the walls of your classroom: Our SIFE need more than grit and skill building if we want to grow leaders. How do global learning experiences level the playing field for SIFE? How do they propel them beyond grade level expectations?

3Q7) p. 45-47 The idea of a Social Contract (vs. “Rules for my Classroom”) is included in this part of the book. How does your classroom culture impact the mindset of the students.

3Q8) If we are trying to encourage a growth mindset, real SIFE, migrant or newcomer success stories are perfect resources. We can use them as mentor text, read-alouds or for units of study. Examples are &  Please share other success stories you know about to our padlet here:

Who Are S.I.F.E? Plus Week 2 Book Study Resources

The Youtube LIVE Hangout for Week 2 should be viewable here on Tues Jul 18 @ 7:00pm Central.  Participants in the book study who wish to talk to each other live are using this platform as a way of collaborating beyond the Twitter slow chat:

The weekly Youtube Live Hangout is fun and worth watching to help sythesise the information in our 5 week study of Boosting Achievement.  The rest of the links for the book study are at the bottom of this post.

Below are two videos to consider as we attempt to answer the question: “Who are SIFE?”

(Resources specific to Week 2 of the Book Study are at the end of this post.)

These are two videos of the same Student with Interrupted Formal Education.  Nabil had no native language literacy and even after weeks of choral reading and foundational literacy practices, he refused to believe that he could read anything. His own fixed mindset was our biggest obstacle.

Watch the first 3 min video to see how we got literacy off the ground with Nabil.

All of these students are SIFE.  Watch this 5 minutes to see how much Nabil could read a few months later and learn more about who Nabil REALLY is:

So again… Who are S.I.F.E?

The Jargon

Last week we defined S.I.F.E. as students who have interrupted or minimal education.  But there are many other labels that can be confusing for people new to this demographic. Here are a few key terms and a short description of each:

Teachers know how important it is to understand this vocabulary. Some of the labels carry special provisions or legal obligations for accommodations. Undoubtedly, we should know which of our students are identified as SIFE. One reason is that it would be wrong to assume that all non-English speakers are SIFE, or somehow below level. This is a common problem because the lack of language causes a person to be perceived as having less knowledge than those who can speak about a given subject.


And what about the words in the acronym S.I.F.E? The word “Interrupted” doesn’t quite cover it if I was born in a refugee camp and arrived in a formal school setting at the age of 15.  The words “Limited” or “Minimal” evoke strong feelings for some English Learner (EL) advocates who feel that they are detrimental to the students. These feelings have merit as studies are showing that labels are affecting how some teachers perceive language learners.  This EdWeek article goes further into that:

Inspiring International Students

I tried calling these learners “International Students” for a while with teachers. We still do that in our larger school setting because they are absolutely international students and that is how they should be regarded by their peers! For example, p. 5 of the Feb 2017 Stratford High School newspaper. Ms. Robayo, a journalism student, did a flattering piece on our newcomers. Of note is that one of these students highlighted in the article spent 11 years in a refugee camp with no running water or electricity.  (That student passed the Algebra End of Course exam her 2nd year in US  schools, by the way, but I digress.)

I love identifying the students this way but teachers need explicit terms to understand what interventions and support a SIFE student might require. If we take the words limited or minimal out of descriptors, we run the risk of confusing education professionals that seek support to serve ESL students.

While I think there is value in finding labels that lift students up vs. bringing them down, I don’t think the answer for our SIFE lies in changing the acronym (again). In fact, to play devil’s advocate, a challenging circumstance can be the very thing that propels a person to achieve MORE.

For example, many of my refugee students (some who are SIFE) take strength in the label of “refugee.”  A mantra in our class is “We can do more BECAUSE we are refugees” or “We can do more BECAUSE we are immigrants.”  Consider that Albert Einstein was a refugee.  Heck, both Jesus and Mohammad are included as “famous refugees” on this list.

As educators, we have the power to offer alternative ways of dealing with challenges. I don’t advertise who is SIFE in my class but I do conference with students individually and I make sure they know that every cloud has a silver lining. What they were learning when they were away from school will benefit them and benefit our class.

We can inspire our students to draw upon the strength and optimism of others. They can benefit from Nabil’s story above and from that of Emily Francis & Tan Huynh who are education heroes who prove that you can become more than your label.

In fact, the label can be what propels you.


Think back to the introduction of the book. You remember the chaotic class of African refugees at the middle school?  Nabil, mentioned above, was in that class and the videos above are from that class as well.  Below are photos (Scroll all the way down for pictures) of just a few more of the many successes realized by those scholars later that school year.  Ask anyone who was employed in my district that year.  The group had a reputation of being unteachable, unmanagable. Their situation seemed almost hopeless. Looking back, it seems that quite the opposite was true. They not only learned to “do school” their stories have become the hope for so many!

PHOTOS!  Who Are the SIFE & Refugee Students I Describe in the Introduction of the Boosting Achievement Book?  

We are still finding out!

At the end of the introduction, I describe a conversation I had with Francies. He is the student who tells me about losing his mother.  Francies ran in the AAU Jr. Olympics that Summer and came in 17th in the nation. (Thank you Family Point Resources Outreach Center!)


Francies now runs for our High School track team.  (The Stratford High coaches support literacy efforts by having him read before training!)

The class attended African iXchange and met Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter pictured here with the students and other African dignitaries.

Seven of our SIFE scholars won scholarships from the YMCA for the writing they did in the video above.  Our class won 1/3 of all scholarships awarded that year.

Noella reads another 500 word essay to thousands of people at the Junior League in Houston in support of Young Audiences and Arts in Education.

Young Audiences partnered with our school to offer lessons from Impande Ye Africa and the students performed with them in the Carnival Houston Street Parade that summer.

We had a great year.  More of it can be seen here:  To be sure, we had many, many challenges and sometimes I felt like literacy was not moving at all.  But they did begin reading and many skipped several years in reading levels.  These scholars taught me and my partner teacher, Ms. Dierschke, that getting to know them… really getting to know them.. was key in valuing who they are as people and then helping them realize what is possible.

Also, an update on Osama, from p. 22.  He was not SIFE but he was being mistaken for an off level learner because of his initial testing scores when he arrived this school year as a refugee non-English speaker.  He is the one in the cap & gown with me here:

I’m excited for parts 2-4 of the book where we get into specific strategies that boost achievement for SIFE. But I bet you can see many here already.

Whether you have the book or not, the post above, the way the questions are phrased, and these resources should help you interact quite a bit with our online book study happening July 9 – August 12th.

Here are the week 2 questions but you can also find them on the BOOK STUDY LANDING PAGE along with the questions for every week of the study.

WEEK TWO QUESTIONS  (Answer some of these, all of these or none of these. We welcome all ideas, reflections & insight!)

  • 2Q1)  p. 12 “…not all refugee students are SIFE.” Do you think this is a common misconception? How can we help change that perception?
  • 2Q2)  p. 13 “…teachers need to be prepared to teach language, in addition to content, to maximize English language development.”  What is your best advice for content teachers who are new to SIFE?   
  • 2Q3)  p. 15 Every Student Has a Story: These are just some examples of a newcomer backgrounds. Are your students’ backgrounds similar or different than these?
  • 2Q4)  p. 16-p.18 What are additional ideas for making students feel instantly welcome? Or why do you like some that are mentioned here?
  • 2Q5)  Use the QR Code on p. 18 or visit to analyze the 2-minute video of Carol’s newcomer classes. There are brand-new classmates, SIFE and also students with special needs in these classes.  That said, it took only 15 minutes for the class to be able to rearrange desks in under 30 seconds.   Why is this video important? (ie: implications for cooperative learning, classroom culture, expectations for diverse learners, or anything that is significant to you.)
  • 2Q6) p. 19-21 only scratch the surface of Culturally Responsive Teaching, a very hot topic in education right now. What would you add to this? Or what part resonated with you and why?
  • 2Q7) p. 22-23 Osama is a refugee in his 1st year in US schools. He was not SIFE but he appeared delayed in math, initially scoring at a 7th grade level in placement tests. Update: His math teachers used sheltered instruction, he finished the year passing Pre-Calculus, graduating, and he received scholarships to attend college this fall.    How can you use Osama’s story? Could it guide you in your role as you work with ELs, other professionals or any type of learner?
  • 2Q8) p. 25 – 31 offer examples of different methods a district, a school or a teacher might use to gather information about newcomers and learners who are SIFE. Are any of these realistic in your role?  If not, what other means can you share?

Please message me to participate in this week’s Google Hangout. I will add the link here when it is recorded.

Be sure to add to the Boosting Achievement Padlet and read through it to get a sense of how folks are synthesizing what they read.  It should deepen learning for all of us!

BE BRAVE and record 90 seconds of reflection to the flipgrid! Just hearing thoughts from others and adding your own will boost our own abilities to serve SIFE students.

What is Possible for S.I.F.E? Plus Week 1 Book Study Resources

Yes, the book study is starting! Questions are at the bottom of this post and this post ties directly to Week 1!

For the next 5 weeks, I will publish a post that will have new content for anyone serving English learners and will also offer more information and resources to go along with our Boosting Achievement #ELLChat_BkClub book study. I will include specific book study information at the end of each post (scroll to the bottom for specific questions).

What is Possible for S.I.F.E?

Imagine that a non-English speaking student arrives at your middle or high school campus.  This student has little or no literacy in their native language because they lack formal education.  This young person has social emotional needs because they have had to endure war, displacement or a life of mobility. Their age dictates that they must attend school with peers regardless of their limited educational background.  Your district has no “newcomer center” or the center is full so they will be enrolling at your comprehensive middle school or high school.

These students are known as SIFE (Students with Interrupted Formal Education) and their educational background may be minimal at best.

If this scenario seems overwhelming, we have good news.

It is true, due to events in our world, this demographic is growing in public schools around the globe and they need special attention for their circumstances. But these students can not only survive in regular secondary schools, they can thrive! And our pedagogy can grow to better serve the entire class because of researched based strategies we will employ to address their needs.

All we need to do this week is realize what is possible for these students.

Check out the Introduction to the book.  **Do not skip the introduction**  It is written by Tan Huynh.  He is arguably one of the most influential  educators sharing on Twitter and his story will frame what we can expect from this book.  It will also likely move you on an emotional level.  The questions at the bottom of this post align to his writing.

In addition to the book’s introduction, we can look around our world today.  Let’s just reflect on just ONE of the many examples of SIFE who are having success today.  This story goes a long way to help our mindset and that of our students.

Emily Francis

Emily Francis was a SIFE student who entered high school in New York with a 6th grade education from Guatemala.  At 15 years of age, she was a recent immigrant, a non-English speaker who was far below her peers in literacy and content learning. She was also helping to raise her siblings because mom was working all hours to support 5 children on her own.

Today, Emily lives and works in North Carolina as an ESL teacher (yay!).  Among other accolades, she was the Teacher of the year for W.M. Irvin Elementary in 2015 and Teacher of the Year for Cabarrus County in 2016.  Incredibly,  Emily is an ELL #FAB5Squad Teacher for the Teaching Channel. 

Just a few of her press appearances & mentions here:

2018 update!  Emily is on the Ellen Show!

Emily is an amazing example of how our Students with Interrupted or Minimal Education CAN overcome obstacles and they CAN succeed in life. They can, in fact, become some of our most important leaders.  Please check out Emily’s blog if you’d like to know more about her journey.  You can also listen to a recent podcast where she is interviewed by Derek Rhodenizer on Beyond the Staffroom.

Here is a 3 min video of how I met Emily & her students:

If you are reading Boosting Achievement, you can skip to p.41 to read about it. It is also detailed in this blog post.

Next week we will look at who our SIFE students are and what basics we should know to help serve them.


Week 1 Questions & More Resources

To support teachers of these students, Anna Matis and I have written Boosting Achievement; Reaching Students with Interrupted or Minimal Education.  It outlines best practices for serving Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (sometimes referred to as SIFE or SLIFE).  It is full of practical techniques that are resulting in success for SIFE and newcomer students in my current classroom. It is the result of our combined years of teaching experience as well as professional ESL and ELA consulting.


During Week 1, you may want to listen to Tan Huynh’s interview on the Rolland Chidiac Connects podcast. He wrote the forward that we are reviewing this week and he tells his story at the beginning of the show.  Tan is another ESL education leader so his perspective, coming to America as a refugee, is another important narrative for us to consider.


Participants are free to deviate from the following questions and post reflections, #BookSnaps, add insight and advice to the group over the current section.

WEEK ONE  Where we Are, Forward and Introduction

1Q1) Roll call: introduce yourself, name, role, grade levels, country/state etc. Are you a returning participant or a new to this group?
1Q2) What makes you interested in this book/topic?
1Q3) How is your school addressing the needs of SIFE (students with interrupted formal education)?  What are your desires for systemic solutions.  What are your concerns?  What are some things that you are proud of in terms of supporting SIFE?
1Q4) Please reflect on the forward by Tan Huynh (@TanELLclassroom). Tan is a leader in ESL education. What are your reactions to his story? His thoughts on the book?   How does his story inform what we do as teachers?
1Q5) Carol writes a reflection about her first experience with a large group of refugees. She has several years of experience as a specialist with a background in ELA, Bilingual Education, ESL and Special Education.  She was still worried that she would fail these learners.  How can teachers overcome self-doubt?
1Q6) Without romanticizing the situations of SIFE, every circumstance has something that can be used in a productive way.  One example is brain research showing that there are possible cognitive advantages when a person is not immersed in technology for years.  What are your take-aways from the work of Nicholas Carr & Jane Healy (found on p. 11)?

1Q7) As you flip through the Table of Contents, what section are you most looking forward to discussing? Why?

Thank you to everyone reading this blog.

I’m inspired by how many educators want to spend time reflecting on our SIFE. I feel strongly that as we get better at serving them, we get better at serving all students.

Stay awesome,