Grit Matters


Walking through the halls of my school, as testing season is in full swing, I hear words and phrases such as your best effort, stamina, and perseverance.  It is not the skills that we are remediating and reviewing as much as becoming coaches to help students dig deep to find their strengths. How do these traits fit into testing?


Pure and simple–STAMINA.  Students must have stamina to be successful on testing. Stamina is often referred to as GRIT. which is a “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”  


In my opinion there are three main reasons that our standardized testing require stamina training.

  1. The length of text students are required to read.
  2. To create synapse a person must engage in a task and create connections with other material.
  3. Self-monitoring while reading and application of skills while reading requires active engagement.


The first obstacle requiring stamina is the length of text students are required to read. Passages for third through fifth grade are two to three pages in length.  Each passage has 6-8 multiple choice questions.  To make this obstacle more difficult it is on varying levels of difficulty which range from grade level to above to test the student’s ability to read and comprehend complex text. Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary, varying text structures and text features continue to deepen the complexity and challenges of our readers for four hours.


Synapse and self-monitoring are ways that the brain can utilize GRIT to engage during testing.  A brain must take knowledge and utilize this information into one of the 100 billion neurons or brain cells in the body.  The brain cells have the primary job of receiving information and signally other neurons using electricity or chemicals to stimulate messages within the body..  Learning happens when neurons are activated and a message is sent along the axon and when repeatedly stimulated a process called synapse is created. Synapse is created when two neurons are connected from the end of the dendrite. Remember dendrites? When this action happens in the brain, it is relating to the brain the information, action or event is important to remember or retain.  If students do NOT stay engaged during the receiving of information and the signaling of neurons–learning stops!  


Self-monitoring helps students stay aware if they are gaining information.  Sometimes our students begin to daydream or allow their thoughts to wander which stops the self-monitoring and in turn–stops synapse and comprehending.  Grit is the characteristic which keeps students engaged and applying strategies when their comprehension breaks down.


Taking time to have students reflect on their stamina and self-monitoring allows students to begin noticing when learning stops. How often do you get to the end of a task and not remember anything?  Have you ever driven somewhere and not remembered the drive?  Have you ever rotely completed a task and at the end think–I don’t remember doing it?  This is what happens when students read for long periods of time without a “recheck or reflection.”


Teach students to stop periodically and think about what they are reading.  Can they retell or recall basic information?  If not, they are not engaged–if so, they are ready to begin looking at comprehension questions. Perseverance and reflection keep learning happening and creating synapse.
Most of all we must teach students reflection To encourage GRIT and the ability to persevere when things are tough. These are the qualities that determine success.  A mediocre reader with GRIT can perform as well as a stronger reader who is reading on automatic pilot.  It is not always the ability that predicts the success but the effort that is put into the task.  Grit Matters.

What Standardized Tests Do Not Measure

With four hours (times two) to ponder  this week, I have thought about many of life’s questions including:  What do standardized tests measure?  We know that these tests give a “precise number or score” that allows us to sort and label (creating data points), providing a way to compare students, classes, schools and districts.  They provide reliable, fair and valid results of mastery of information or curriculum.  This data helps us decide if our instruction has been effective and the next steps for students’ learning.  The need for “Accountability” for our schools and teachers has deepened the level and need for our standardized testing. However, is that what they really measure?

Watching my test taker, I thought, “What is this test going to tell me about this child that our school does not already know?  I watched his determination and the stamina he showed as he progressed hour after hour. He worked meticulously, repeating the procedure he must have spent daily learning with his teacher.  My mind began to drift to other students that I worried about—would they be able to give the same effort for this duration? Would students with anxiety shut down? Would students who lacked confidence begin to feel sick and worried?  Was this test showing their capabilities?

My thoughts then turned to a memory of a young boy with clear dancing blue eyes. This fifth grader’s standardized tests told me that he was above proficient and had the knowledge base for the next school year and on track to being career and college ready. What the standardized test score did not measure but that I knew was that his family life was unstable, he had an extreme need for peer acceptance and a long history of absences and tardiness. The test score could not predict that I would again look at that child, ten years later. His blue eyes, which had become cloudy as he sat inside of a correctional center with his head hung low. He shared his story with me of stealing from cars to keep up his meth habit and I remembered his need for acceptance and belonging, even in fifth grade.  How did the standardized test miss that?

Another child’s face that flashed in front of my eyes was Carissa. She worked so hard and gave all she had during her fifth grade test.  In fact, she had showed up for tutoring three times a week all year but had not passed one single test, she took in elementary school. She had continued to struggle with basic reading even with intensive interventions.  What her test score did not show was the determination she possessed and that she would exceed far beyond her abilities. Twelve years after her 5th grade standardized test scores, her sweet voice and calming spirit held the hand of my frightened grandmother in the hospital.  Despite the data of her testing, she was making the world a better place and succeeding as a nursing assistant.

Dozens of faces and stories flood to my mind when I think that standardized tests do not always measure what good teachers already know.  Teachers see the compassion that will make them nurses, teachers, and social workers. They see the character traits that will help students aspire to greatness or the traits that will cause them to struggle with life and their peers.  It takes teachers knowing and understanding the whole child, including their personality, likes and dislikes and helping them to build on weaknesses and gain strength from their success.  Success of a child requires teachers knowing and helping them to mold their character, which ultimately affects their performance, relationships and outcomes.

As we move through this testing season, keep in mind that numbers are real but only tell part of the story. What traits do you see that will make this child make the world a better place?  What traits do we need to work on to ensure their success? At some point, as they continue through life, it is not the test score that will hold them back and keep them from attaining—it will be themselves.  Somehow, in this age of testing, we as educators must find a way to use this data but keep in mind the “rest of the child.”  Keeping a focus on the traits, they are developing to become a strong, vibrant citizen that will make our world a better place.

Think about these traits. Not one is measured by a standardized test.


Each child has a story that is being written daily by the experiences they have, knowledge that they gain, the people they know and interact with  and most of all the events  in their lives.  I challenge you to look at your data over the weekend and begin to think of the untold story behind that data.  We, as a school,  will continue to help write each child’s story.  What do we want it to say?  What can we control?  What do we, as individual educators need to do to help ensure success of this child? How can our school build the traits and pieces of the story that are worn, broken or missing?  As a school, let us focus on the WHOLE STORY and build students who have the traits that will make them successful. The reading, math and writing are certainly part of the story and a focus we need to have. However, don’t you think there is SO MUCH MORE?

De-Stress Yourself!

With the testing season in full swing, we are reminded about the term STRESS!  Stress is a growing part of our everyday lives for teachers and students.  According to Stanford School of Medicine, the number of children, ages of 7-17, treated for depression has more than doubled between the years of 1995 and 2001.  Based on a report from the National Institute of Mental Health  in 2014, “11.4% of population or 2.8 million adolescents, ages 12-17, have reported a major depressive episode.” Shifts in the home lives and finances of our students’ families, increase in testing, issues with peers and other factors have increased our need, as teachers, to be aware of this growing concern and how it affects our children. Even a small amount of stress produces a shot of adrenaline that can increase alertness and increase engagement such as a competition or struggling with a tough task.  As educators, we must keep a good balance of productive stress while teaching our students to successfully manage stress to keep learning conditions optimal.

Your brain contains 100 billion neurons or brain cells.  These cells have the primary job of receiving information and signally other neurons using electricity or chemicals to stimulate messages within the body. The hypothalamus is the regulation center of the brain which keeps your body at a constant; including temperature, heart rate, etc.  Learning happens when neurons are activated and a message is sent along the axon and when repeatedly stimulated a process called synapse is created. Synapse is created when two neurons are connected from the end of the dendrite. Remember dendrites? When this action happens in the brain, it is relating to the brain the information, action or event is important to remember or retain.


See Image of a Neuron Below:



When the brain is exposed to stress the body begins to release cortisol which is the primary stress hormone. This chemical affects your heart, lungs, skin, immune system and circulation.  In addition, it stimulates the hypothalamus and when it reaches the neuron, it shuts off the impulses of the dendrites which halts learning.  This is a temporary response and the dendrites will grow back UNLESS there is a long term period of stress.  When stress is repetitive the brain will respond by short circuiting that pathway which will stop impulses and result in the lack of input and messaging.

Many of our students are in a constant state of stress from instability at home, lack of confidence in a subject, poor self-esteem, and relationships with their peers, etc. This constant state of stress causes inability to stay on task, inattention, and lack of self control.

The AHA Moment—students in a constant state of stress not only struggle with attention but their brain is actually inhibited from learning due too much or little cortisol.


Symptoms of Chronic Stress:

Symptom Examples 
Physical fatigue, headaches, muscle and joint pain, grinding teeth, stomach problems
Cognitive inattention, lack of concentration, blaming others, poor problem solving
Behavioral loss of appetite, withdrawal, acting out, tantrums
Emotional anxiety, guilt, irritability, uncertainty
Physiological Increase in blood pressure, breathing, heart rate and muscle tension


Looking at the chart above, do you recognize any of your students?


Here are Five Ideas. Try to implement one this week!

  1. Get Active:  Integrated movement where you cross the midline of the brain hemispheres will promote a better emotional state. 2-5 minutes before a test or activity where students need to have a clear mind try this site called Go Noodle (  It is free and provides active online videos to help your students get moving AND de-stress.  By crossing the lateral line of your brain with movement helps to remove the survival reaction of your brain to a more focused state.

Example of a video found on Go Noodle:

  1. Breathing:  Remember when someone is under stress, they produce cortisol which is impeding the brain’s ability to learn. By adjusting a person’s breathing while under stress, signals reaction and stops or shifts the production of cortisol. You can pair deep breathing activities with a calming visual which deepens the body’s ability to calm the mind and emotions.  The benefits of deep breathing includes more oxygen circulating to the body, cleanses the body of toxic stress chemicals such as cortisol, and begins to refocus attention and clear thinking.

You can access this handout (calm_breathing) for ways to teach deep breathing with your students.  Here are basic guidelines:

  • Take a slow breath in through the nose (for about 4 seconds)
  • Hold your breath for 1 or 2 seconds
  • Exhale slowly through the mouth (over about 4 seconds)
  • Wait 2-3 seconds before taking another breath (5-7 seconds for teenagers)
  • Repeat for at least 5 to 10 breaths

*You can access a calming visual through

3.  Model and practice the “Take 5 Technique.”

When students are filled with frustration due to anxiety the “Take 5” strategy is a easy visual to say—STOP and Think.  This strategy allows you to help the child begin an inner dialogue about how to calm down while de-escalating the situation. Breathing or counting is a way to help regulate the brain and stop the focus on the anxiety or emotion that is stopping the dendrites to fire. Students truly do “stop thinking” when in a state of stress or reaction.  Helping them to learn ways to handle this stress will help them learn how to regulate the body.  Click here for a printable version of this technique from:

4.  Ball Toss or Silent Ball:  Tossing the ball or even the movement of watching someone else, will lower cortisol levels.  This movement increases a student’s ability to focus and concentrate.  As a teacher you can use the ball as part of your instruction during the question and answer part of your lesson. The movement of the ball helps to refocus all students and the unknown of where it will be thrown increases concentration and engagement.  You can also play a ball toss game or Silent Ball for a few minutes (recommendation no more than 6 minutes) before a difficult task to heighten “good stress” by increasing the adrenaline of your students but not overwhelming them.

Click here for directions on Silent Ball:   silent ball

5.  Lazy Eight:   A figure eight pattern will increase thinking and eye movement across the midline of your brain and create coordinated movements. These movements activate the entire brain and the repetition resets neural connections.You can have students take a scrap piece of paper and draw a figure 8 (see diagram below) for 30 seconds continue to retrace.  Have students switch to the other hand and continue to draw and trace the pattern for 30 seconds. Continue to switch hands and draw for a total of 2 minutes.  Another version of the Lazy Eight is for students to physically stand and use their arms extended to move in a figure 8 pattern and move from side to side as you would if you were drawing the pattern.

 Demonstration here at Youtube


In days ahead, we are faced with the challenge to keep students as free from stress while learning. Remember, for the brain to function, the hypothalamus must be regulated in a stable or regular state.  Deep breathing, active moving, and using calming visuals will help the brain stop making cortisol which impedes learning and thinking.  Learning how to manage feelings of stress is a life long lesson and if we model and practice these skills for our students—they will become healthier AND more engaged in our classrooms. Who knows—maybe we will learn a thing or two along the way!

Resources accessed for this article:

Article by Marian Wilde accessed on March 15, 2016:

Statistics accessed on March 15, 2016:



Make “IT” Stick


This time of year, we are engaging students in many activities; trying to review information, create new connections and most of all MAKE “IT” STICK.  Helping students to find wonder, graphics, student interaction, and movement all help increase student engagement and increase the ability to process information.  Using what we know about the brain helps us plan lessons to optimally produce student learning.

Two Facts about the Brain

  • Learning engages the entire body and physiology. Increasing active movement will increase engagement and neural activity.  Increase student to student interaction to increase listening and speaking while reading and writing which will boost sensory input. Engaging students in movement, gestures, games, etc. will increase their neural input and increase the brain’s ability to put the information in long term memory.
  • Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat. We must challenge our students with complex text and content but remember that scaffolding them and supporting them will keep the threats limited and engagement guaranteed.  (Keep the carrot dangling in front of them)

Explicit instructions and modeling help to lay the foundation of learning. Providing students a chance to interact and talk helps to make the concepts make sense.  The use of graphics, movement and games will increase the brain’s ability to remember and retrieve the information.  Increasing the challenge or layering new ideas upon patterns of learning helps students develop connections and deepen learning so that it is processed to long term memory and becomes automatic.

10 review games to MAKE “IT” STICK.

10.  Attack

9.  Stinky Feet

Stinky foot page template for you to use.


8.  Use Board Games or Task Cards


7.  Swat It!

Here is a template:  4 x 4 Grid

6.  Review with a BALL!

5.  Showdown!

These next two games use the 4 answer multiple choice format. They are a bit structured but do not take any preparation to play.  The first game is not competitive but does give the opportunity for students to move and talk which help engagement. In addition, the teacher can formatively assess the class and individuals. The second version has a competitive spirit.

4.  Travel Time

3.  Stand Up!

2. Chair Race

1. Trashketball 

Happy Reviewing and remember—movement = engagement which will ultimately lead to “making “it” stick.”

**These activities were taken from Blogs I wrote last year and ideas from colleagues. Thanks to each of you for sharing!

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