"Grit" is all the rage. I'll review Paul Tough's book How Children Succeed and Scott Seider's Character Compass in a coming issue of Commonwealth Magazine. Most of you know the gist. Successful kids persevere. So could we teach other kids to do that, too?

Sarah Tantillo, author of The Literacy Cookbook, tells the same story with a twist:

After the third assessment, we looked at the results and were again disappointed. Overall, scores had not improved very much.

But when we looked more closely at the data, we noticed that several students had improved DRAMATICALLY. In particular, a 10th-grader named Najla had jumped from 35% on the previous assessment to 67% on this one. To put this in perspective, given the difficulty of the test, 67% was considered an A. Only two other students had out-scored Najla. What made this even more striking was that Najla was not an A student. At the time, she was not even a B student. But she worked incredibly hard and would do anything you asked her to. A classic example of what Carol Dweck would call someone with a “growth mindset,” she was determined to succeed.

So, burning with curiosity, we dug through the pile of tests and pulled out Najla’s.

It didn’t take us long to figure out what Najla had done: she’d annotated the HECK out of the test! She had written all over it, underlining main ideas, starring supporting details, noting questions that occurred to her….

We were convinced. In true North Star fashion, we vowed to teach annotation more aggressively in every subject, assigned annotation for homework every night, and REQUIRED students to annotate on the next assessment (if they didn’t, they’d have to stay after school for three hours and re-take the test).


This wasn't designed as a "character-changing" intervention.

Instead, it was noticing the "organic" study behavior of a gritty kid, and then creating an academic intervention for other kids based on that insight, and then building an accountability system, so a classmate with less determination would still do the same high-value action as Najla.

Sarah adds:

A quick sidebar: I was very proud of the posters I made and distributed with directions on “How to Annotate” until a few days later, when a history colleague came to me and said that when annotating for homework, her students had circled lots of words… but then hadn’t bothered to guess the meanings or look them up!

She solved that problem by instituting open-homework quizzes; students instantly realized they would do much better if they noted synonyms/definitions.

Sarah's follow-up thoughts on annotation are here.