First Person

Exclusive excerpt: Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed”

This excerpt is drawn from Chapter Three of Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” The chapter follows the chess team from I.S. 318, a public middle school in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as they compete in the National Junior High Championships in Columbus, Ohio, in April 2011. Much of the chapter’s focus is on the teaching techniques of Elizabeth Spiegel, the school’s chess teacher. This excerpt connects Spiegel’s teaching to the work of some other educators and scholars discussed in Tough’s book, including David Levin and Dominic Randolph, the leaders of KIPP New York and the Riverdale Country School, respectively, whose schools are working together to create a character report card.

In her chess classes at IS 318, Elizabeth Spiegel often conveyed specific chess knowledge: how to spot the difference between the exchange Slav opening and the semi-Slav; how to weigh the comparative value of your light-square bishop and your dark-square bishop. But most of the time, it struck me whenever I watched her at work, what she was really doing was far simpler, and also far more complicated: she was teaching her students a new way to think.

“Teaching chess is really about teaching the habits that go along with thinking,” Spiegel explained to me one morning when I visited her classroom. “Like how to understand your mistakes and how to be more aware of your thought processes.”

Before she was a full-time chess teacher at IS 318, Spiegel taught an eighth-grade honors English class at the school, and as an English teacher she was, she says, a bit of a disaster. She taught composition the way she analyzed chess games: When students turned in writing assignments, she went through each assignment sentence by sentence with each student, asking, Well, are you sure that’s the best way to say what you want to say? “They looked at me like I was insane,” she told me. “I would write them these long letters about what they’d written. It would take me the whole evening to do six or seven of them.”

Although Spiegel’s teaching style might not have been the right fit with an English class, her experience teaching English did help her understand better what she wanted to do in chess class. Rather than follow a set chess curriculum over the course of the year, she decided she would construct her academic calendar as she went, planning lessons based entirely on what her students knew and, more important, on what they didn’t know. For instance, she would take her students to a weekend tournament and notice that many of them were hanging pieces, meaning they were leaving pieces undefended, which made them easy targets. The following Monday, she would organize the whole class around how not to hang pieces, reconstructing the students’ flawed games on the green felt practice boards hung on hooks at the front of her classroom. Again and again, she would go over her students’ games, both individually and as a class, analyzing exactly where a player had gone wrong, what he could have done differently, what might have happened if he had made the better move, and playing out these counterfactual scenarios for several moves before returning to the moment of error.

Sensible though this process might sound, it’s actually a pretty unusual way to teach chess, or to learn it. “It’s uncomfortable to focus so intensely on what you’re bad at,” Spiegel told me. “So the way people usually study chess is they read a book about chess, which can be fun and often intellectually amusing, but it doesn’t actually translate into skill. If you really want to get better at chess, you have to look at your games and figure out what you’re doing wrong.”

It’s a little like what people ideally get out of psychotherapy, Spiegel says. You go over the mistakes you made — or the mistakes you keep making — and you try to get to the bottom of why you made them. And just like the best therapists, Spiegel tries to lead her students down a narrow and difficult path: to have them take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them without obsessing over them or beating themselves up for them. “Very rarely do kids have an experience in life of losing when it was entirely in their control,” she told me. “But when they lose a chess game, they know that they have no one to blame but themselves. They had everything they needed to win, and they lost. If that happens to you once, you can usually find some excuse, or just never think about it again. When it’s part of your life, when it happens to you every single weekend, you have to find a way to separate yourself from your mistakes or your losses. I try to teach my students that losing is something you do, not something you are.”

At the heart of Spiegel’s job was a complex balancing act. She wanted to build up her students’ confidence, to make them believe in their own ability to overcome stronger rivals and master an impossibly complicated game. But the exigencies of her job — and the particularities of her personality — meant that she spent most of her time telling her students how they were messing up. It’s the basic narrative of all postgame chess analysis, in fact: You thought you had a good idea here, but you were wrong.

“I struggle with it all the time,” she told me one day when I visited her class. “Every day. It’s very high on my list of anxieties as a teacher. I feel like I’m very mean to the kids. It kills me sometimes, like I go home and I play through everything I said to every kid and I’m like, ‘What am I doing? I’m damaging the children.’ ”

After the 2010 girls’ national tournament (which IS 318 won), Spiegel wrote on her blog:

The first day and a half was pretty bad. I was on a complete rampage, going over every game and being a huge bitch all the time: saying things like “THAT IS COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE!!!” to 11-year-olds for hanging pieces or not having a reason for a move. I said some amazing things to kids, including “You can count to two, right? Then you should have seen that!!” and “If you are not going to pay more attention, you should quit chess, because you are wasting everyone’s time.”

By the end of round three I was starting to feel like an abusive jerk and was about to give up and be fake nice instead. But then in round four everyone took more than an hour and started playing well. And I really believe that’s why we seem to win girls’ nationals sections pretty easily every year: most people won’t tell teenage girls (especially the together, articulate ones) that they are lazy and the quality of their work is unacceptable. And sometimes kids need to hear that, or they have no reason to step up.

Spiegel often defied my stereotype of how a good teacher, especially a good inner-city teacher, should interact with her students. I confess that before meeting her, I had a vision of the ideal inner-city chess teacher that bore a close resemblance to the character played by Ted Danson in Knights of the South Bronx, an inspirational 2005 A&E original movie in which Danson leads a ragtag band of kids from the ghetto to victory over a bunch of stuck-up private-school students, handing out hugs and motivational speeches and life lessons along the way. Spiegel is not like this. She does not hug. She clearly is devoted to her students and cares about them deeply, but when a student gets upset after a loss, Spiegel is rarely the one to go over and offer comfort. John Galvin, the vice principal at IS 318, who often came to tournaments as Spiegel’s co-coach, was better at that sort of thing, she said; he had more “emotional intelligence.”

“I definitely have a warm relationship with a lot of the kids,” Spiegel told me at one tournament. “But I think my job as a teacher is to be more like a mirror, to talk about what they did on the chessboard and help them think about it. It’s a big thing to offer a kid. They put a lot of work into something, and you really look at it with them on a non-condescending level. That’s something that kids don’t often get, and in my experience, they really want it. But it’s not like I love them and mother them. I’m not that kind of person.”

Researchers in neuroscience and developmental psychology have demonstrated that for infants to develop qualities like perseverance and focus, they need a high level of warmth and nurturance from their caregivers. What Spiegel’s success suggests, though, is that when children reach early adolescence, what motivates them most effectively isn’t nurturing care but a very different kind of attention. Perhaps what pushes middle-school students to concentrate and practice as maniacally as Spiegel’s chess players do is the unexpected experience of someone taking them seriously, believing in their abilities, and challenging them to improve themselves.

During the months when I was most actively reporting at IS 318, watching the team prepare for the tournament in Columbus, I was also spending a lot of time at KIPP Infinity, tracking the development of the character report card. And as I shuttled back and forth on the subway between West Harlem and South Williamsburg, I had plenty of time to contemplate the parallels between Spiegel’s methods of training her students in chess and the way that teachers and administrators at KIPP talked to their students about day-to-day emotional crises or behavioral lapses. At one point, KIPP Infinity’s dean, Tom Brunzell, said he considered his approach to be a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy. When his students were flailing, lost in moments of stress and emotional turmoil, he would encourage them to do the kind of big-picture thinking — the metacognition, as many psychologists call it — that takes place in the prefrontal cortex: slowing down, examining their impulses, and considering more productive solutions to their problems than, say, yelling at a teacher or shoving another kid on the playground. In her postgame chess analyses, Spiegel had simply developed a more formalized way to do this. Like students at KIPP, IS 318 students were being challenged to look deeply at their own mistakes, examine why they had made them, and think hard about what they might have done differently. And whether you call that approach cognitive therapy or just plain good teaching, it seemed remarkably effective in producing change in middle-school students.

This technique, though, is actually quite rare in contemporary American schools. If you believe that your school’s mission or your job as a teacher is simply to convey information, then it probably doesn’t seem necessary to subject your students to that kind of rigorous self-analysis. But if you’re trying to help them change their character, then conveying information isn’t enough. And while Spiegel didn’t use the word character to describe what she was teaching, there was a remarkable amount of overlap between the strengths emphasized by David Levin and Dominic Randolph and the skills that Spiegel tried to inculcate in her students. Every day, in the classroom and at tournaments, I saw Spiegel trying to teach her students grit, curiosity, self-control, and optimism.

First Person

If teachers aren’t equipped to help trauma victims, students suffer. Learn from my story.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

It took one of my kindergarten students, Andrew, to help me figure out how to handle my toughest teaching challenge.

My classroom wall was full of pictures that Andrew had drawn for me. He often greeted me at the door with a smile. But Andrew would also scream, act out, and even hurt himself in my class.

For quite some time, I thought that if I could find a different way to ask him to get back on task, maybe he would not become so aggressive, not bang his head on the floor. But regardless of how tactfully I approached keeping him engaged or redirected his behavior, Andrew would implode. And with little to no support, I quickly grew weary and helpless.

Eventually, I did learn how to help students like Andrew. I also eventually realized that when you teach students who have been impacted by trauma, you have to balance ownership and the reality that you cannot solve every problem. But the trial and error that it took to reach that point as a teacher was exhausting.

I hope we, as a profession, can do better for new Memphis teachers. In the meantime, maybe you can learn from my story.

I grew up in a trauma-filled household, where I learned to mask my hurt and behave like a “good girl” to not bring attention to myself. It wasn’t until a high school teacher noticed how hard I flinched at being touched and privately expressed concerns that I got help. After extensive investigations and professional support, I was on the road to recovery.

When I became a teacher myself, and met Andrew and many students like him, I began to see myself within these children. But that didn’t mean I knew how to reach them or best help them learn. All I knew to do when a child was misbehaving was to separate them from the rest of the classroom. I didn’t have the training to see past a student’s bad behavior and help them cope with their feelings.

It took a while to learn not to internalize Andrew’s attacks, even when they became physical. No matter what Andrew did, each day we started over. Each day was a new opportunity to do something better, learn from a mistake, or work on developing a stronger bond.

I learned to never discipline when I am upset and found success charting “trigger behaviors,” using them to anticipate outbursts and cut down on negative behaviors.

Over time, I learned that almost all students are more receptive when they feel they have a real relationship with the teacher. Still, each case must be treated differently. One student may benefit from gentle reminders, private conversations, or “social stories” that underscore the moral of a situation. Another student may respond to firm consequences, consistent routines, or reflection journals.

Still other students sit in our classrooms each and every day and are overlooked due to their mild-mannered demeanor or their “cooperativeness.” My childhood experiences made me aware of how students mask trauma in ways very unlike Andrew. They also made me realize how imperative it is for teachers to know that overachieving students can need just as much help as a child that physically acts out.

I keep a watchful eye on students that are chronically fatigued or overly sensitive to noise or touch, jumping for minor reasons. I encourage teachers to pay close attention to students that have intense hygiene issues, as their incontinence could be acting as a defense mechanism, and I never ignore a child who is chronically withdrawn from their peers or acting out of character.

All of this took time in the classroom and effort processing my own experiences as a student with trauma. However, many teachers in Memphis aren’t coming from a similar background and haven’t been trained to see past a student’s disruptive behavior.

It’s time to change the way we support teachers and give educators intense trauma training. Often, compassionate teachers want to help students but don’t know how. Good training would help educators develop the skills they need to reach students and to take care of themselves, since working with students that have been impacted by trauma can be incredibly taxing.

Trial and error aren’t enough: If teachers are not equipped to help trauma victims, the quality of students’ education will suffer.

Candace Hines teaches kindergarten for the Achievement School District, and previously taught kindergarten for six years with Shelby County Schools. She also is an EdReports content reviewer and a coach and facilitator for Teach Plus Memphis. Hines serves as a fellow for Collaborative for Student Success and a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow.

First Person

As historians and New York City educators, here’s what we hope teachers hear in the city’s new anti-bias training

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio just committed $23 million over the next four years to support anti-bias education for the city’s teachers. After a year in which a white teacher stepped on a student during a lesson on slavery and white parents used blackface images in their PTA publicity, it’s a necessary first step.

But what exactly will the $23 million pay for? The devil is in the details.

As current and former New York City teachers, and as historians and educators working in the city today, we call for the education department to base its anti-bias program in an understanding of the history of racism in the nation and in this city. We also hope that the program recognizes and builds upon the work of the city’s anti-racist teachers.

Chancellor Carranza has promised that the program will emphasize training on “implicit bias” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.” These are valuable, but insufficient. Workshops on implicit bias may help educators evaluate and change split-second, yet consequential, decisions they make every day. They may help teachers interrogate, for example, what decisions lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for black children as early as pre-K, or lower rates of referrals to gifted programs for black students by white teachers.

But U.S. racism is not only split-second and individual. It is centuries deep, collective, and institutional. Done poorly, implicit bias training might shift disproportionate blame for unequal educational resources and outcomes onto the shoulders of classroom teachers.

Anti-bias education should lead teachers not only to address racism as an individual matter, but to perceive and struggle against its institutional and structural forms. Structural racism shapes the lives of students, families, and communities, and the classrooms in which teachers work: whether teachers find sufficient resources in their classrooms, how segregated their schools are, how often their students are stopped by police, and how much wealth the families they serve hold. Without attending to the history that has created these inequities, anti-bias education might continue the long American tradition of pretending that racism rooted in capitalism and institutional power can be solved by adjusting individual attitudes and behaviors.

We have experienced teacher professional development that takes this approach. Before moving to New York, Adam taught in Portland, Oregon and participated in several anti-bias trainings that presented racism as a problem to be solved through individual reflection and behaviors within the classroom. While many anti-racist teachers initially approached these meetings excited to discuss the larger forces that shape teaching students of color in the whitest city in America, they grew increasingly frustrated as they were encouraged to focus only on “what they could control.”

Similarly, at his very first professional development meeting as a first-year teacher of sixth grade in Harlem, Brian remembers being told by his principal that neither the conditions of students’ home lives nor conditions of the school in which he worked were within teachers’ power to change, and were therefore off-limits for discussion. The only thing he could control, the principal said, was his attitude towards his students.

But his students were extremely eager to talk about those conditions. For example, the process of gentrification in Harlem emerged repeatedly in classroom conversations. Even if teachers can’t immediately stop a process like gentrification, surely it is essential for both teachers and their students to learn to think about conditions they see around them as products of history — and therefore as something that can change.

While conversations about individual attitudes and classroom practices are important, they are insufficient to tackle racism. Particularly in one of the most segregated school districts in America, taking a historical perspective matters.

How do public school teachers understand the growth of racial and financial inequality in New York City? Consciously or otherwise, do they lean on tired but still powerful ideas that poverty reflects a failure of individual will, or a cultural deficit? Encountering the history of state-sponsored racism and inequality makes those ideas untenable.

Every New York City teacher should understand what a redlining map is. These maps helped the federal government subsidize mid-twentieth century white suburbanization while barring African American families from the suburbs and the wealth they helped generate. These maps helped shape the city, the metropolitan region, and its schools – including the wealth or poverty of students that teachers see in their classrooms. This is but one example of how history can help educators ground their understanding of their schools and students in fact rather than (often racist) mythology.

And how well do New York City educators know and teach the histories of the communities they serve? Those histories are rich sources of narratives about how New Yorkers have imagined their freedom and struggled for it, often by advocating for education. Every New York City teacher should know that the largest protest of the Civil Rights Movement took place not in Washington D.C., not in the deep South, but right here. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school and marched through the city’s streets, demanding desegregation and fully funded public schools. Every New York City teacher should know about Evelina Antonetty, a Puerto Rico-born, East Harlem-raised advocate who organized her fellow Bronx parents to press for some of the city’s first attempts at bilingual education and just treatment for language minority students in school.

Even if they don’t teach history or social studies, educators can see in the 1964 boycott and in Antonetty’s story prompts to approach parents as allies, to see communities as funds of knowledge and energy to connect to and build from. The chancellor’s initiative can be an opportunity to help teachers uncover and reflect on these histories.

Ansley first taught at a small high school in central Harlem, in a building that earlier housed Junior High School 136. J.H.S. 136 was one of three Harlem schools where in 1958 black parents protested segregation and inequality by withdrawing their children from school – risking imprisonment for violating truancy laws. The protest helped build momentum for later educational activism – and demonstrated black Harlem mothers’ deep commitment to securing powerful education for their children.

Although she taught in the same school – perhaps even the same classroom – where boycotting students had studied, Ansley didn’t know about this history until a few years after she left the school. Since learning about it, she has often reflected on the missed opportunities. How could the story of this “Harlem Nine” boycott have helped her students learn about their community’s history and interrogate the inequalities that still shaped their school? What could this story of parent activism have meant for how Ansley thought about and worked with her students’ parents?

Today, teaching future teachers, Ansley strives to convey the value of local and community history in her classes. One new teacher, now working in the Bronx, commented that her own learning about local history “taught me that we should not only think of schools as places of learning. They also are important places of community.”

The history of racism and of freedom struggles needs to be part of any New York City students’ learning as well as that of their teachers. Some of the $23 million should support the work of local anti-racist educators, such as those who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action last February, in developing materials that help teach about this history. These efforts align with the chancellor’s pledge for culturally responsive education. And they offer ways to recognize and build on the knowledge of New York City’s community organizations and anti-racist education networks.

Attitudes matter, and educators – like everyone – can learn from the psychology of bias and stereotype. But historical ignorance or misrepresentation has fed racism, and history can be a tool in its undoing.

That would be a good $23 million investment for New York and all of its children.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former New York City high school teacher.

Brian Jones is the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and a former New York City elementary school teacher.

Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and an organizer and curriculum writer with the Zinn Education Project.