How to Create a History Lesson that Teaches Grit

By Mitch Brenner, Assistant Principal, KIPP Academy Middle School

Work hard. Be nice. The dual-purpose nature of KIPP’s mission in four simple words is that BOTH character and academics matter. But how do you make a great dual-purpose lesson that combines crucial content with the underlying ideas that give our students the character skills that they need to succeed in the competitive world? Why not start with a great hook? In this case a motivational quote:  “Once I spent two years in bed trying to move my big toe. After that everything else seems easy.”

The lesson was about FDR and the Great Depression; the character strengths were optimism and grit.

When I set out to incorporate character into my lessons this was exactly the combination I wanted. I needed my students to fully comprehend the grave nature of the American economy in 1933 when FDR took office. Things were bleak. Twenty-five percent of Americans were unemployed. People were hungry and American industry and agriculture were in dire straits. This was one of the most challenging times in our study of history during our eighth grade year.

The question I posed was simple. What character strengths would the nation need to get through this time period?

Because my students use the language of character strengths in their everyday school lives they led our discussion right to grit and optimism. The nation would need grit to complete the economic recovery despite obstacles. The nation would need optimism; it would need to expect a better future and it would need work to achieve it.

But it wasn’t just the situation that would require grit and optimism. Surely the economic obstacles of the Great Depression were daunting, but the leader who would eventually steer the nation through this time period faced obstacles of his own. Stricken with polio during adulthood and faced with life in a wheelchair, FDR could have chosen to step back into the shadows. He did not have to choose to run for president and lead a nation in desperation. But this was a man who, as we saw earlier, once struggled for years simply to move his toe. He had experienced struggle and was unwilling to turn away from challenge. He had grit and optimism in droves and was willing to use it to lead the nation during its most trying of times.

The key dual-purpose piece here is that both the historical situations as well as the individual in focus are key examples of both the effort and attitude necessary to overcome struggle. The connections that every dual-purpose lesson should make are to send the kids home understanding the content, in this case the history, and give them a connection to how these character strengths can help them in life.

We don’t need to focus on struggle and failure in life—but if we arm our students with tools to deal with these realities, we arm them for success. Optimism and grit led a nation out of economic struggle, pushed a leader to go from the struggle of moving his toe to moving a country forward, and, in combination with the rigorous academics we teach at KIPP every day, can help lead our kids to success in life.

Character and academics: bring them together in the classroom and we are one step closer to success for all our kids.

Learn more about KIPP’s approach to character. >>