Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Myth of Grit

By Patrick O'Connor

“Excuse me, Dr. O’Connor?  It’s Meredith’s mother, Mrs. Hart?”

“Of course.  How are you?”

“I’m fine.  I had just a quick question about our college plans.”

“OK, I can set up a meeting with you and Meredith.  How does tomorrow at 1 sound?”

“Actually, I’m hoping I can ask this now.  It’s kind of urgent.”

“I see.  OK.”

“Well, when we met with you in August, we reviewed our college list, and you mentioned we couldn’t get in to East Coast U.”

“Actually, Mrs. Hart, I believe I said that, given Meredith’s profile of grades, strength of schedule, extra curricular participation, achievements, and test scores, students with similar profiles would have a very modest chance of being admitted—“

“—unless she had some significant additional factor.”

“It seems you remember exactly what I said.”

“Yes I do, and I’m here to tell you she has one.”

“One what?”

“Significant additional factor.”

“I see.  Is this something you would mind sharing with me?”

“It’s grit.”


“Yes.  Grit.”

“I didn’t even realize Meredith was taking wood shop.”

“Oh no, it’s not about that.  This is a new intellectual trend, so I can understand why you wouldn’t know about it.  It was covered in this week’s New York Times.  It’s all about how the students who really go on to be happy and successful people are those individuals who learned how to learn from failure, and developed character traits like persistence, curiosity, and self-control.  It’s based on the work of.--“

“Angela Duckworth at Penn?”

“Why, yes!  I read the article and thought ‘Why, this is my Meredith!’”

“Meredith has grit?”

“Of course she does.  And that’s what’s going to get her into East Coast U.”

“It is?”

“Absolutely.  You just tell them in your letter about how gritty my Meredith is, and we’ll be in like Flynn.”

“Mrs. Hart, there’s certainly no doubt Meredith has learned a great deal about herself and the world around her in high school, through both her successes and her failures.”

“Oh, I know that, Dr. O’Connor, but her successes aren’t going to be the thing colleges are going to hook onto.  It’s going to be her failures, so we have to highlight those instead.”

“You want me to write about—“

“Her failures.”

“To show—“

“Her grittiness.  She’ll be one of the first students admitted to college on grit.  Daddy will be so pleased!”

“Mrs. Hart, have you looked at the supplemental essays for the application to East Coast U?”

“No, but I hear they haven’t changed in the last five years.”

“That’s true—they haven’t.  I have them here on my computer screen—can you read #1?”

“’Describe an experience where you had to overcome adversity.  Explain how you handled this situation, and what you learned from it.’  Why, Dr. O’Connor, that question measures—“


“And it’s been doing that for—“

“Five years.”

“Which means the campus of East Coast U has—“


“But that’s not possible.  How could students with grades that high have any grit?  They’ve been winners since the day they were born.”

“Maybe some of them.  The rest of them have only known persistence since the day they were born, success or no.”

“So you don’t have to be a flop to know about persistence?”

“It’s one way, but not the only way.”

“Well, how else could you learn it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. By leading a humble life, maybe.”

“Hmm.  Do you know of any essay coaches that specialize in humility?”

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

21st Century Skills are so Counselor Centered

By Patrick O'Connor

There’s good news and bad news on the education front.  For counselors, this creates yet another opportunity to show the importance of our work to teachers, business leaders, and the world as a whole, as long as we act quickly.

First, the bad news.  Education leaders have decided America’s students are lacking in key 21st century skills.  This recent criticism is yet another effort by elected leaders to try and “reform” education without really knowing what’s wrong in the first place…

…and how do I know that?  Take a look at the list of key “21st Century Skills” outlined by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and see if you see anything familiar:

*  The three R’s (reading, writing, and ‘arithmetic);
*  The four C’s (Critical thinking and problem solving, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity and innovation)

If you’ve been in education for more than 5 years, you’ll recognize these seven items as the key skills for the New Millennium.  If you’ve been in the classroom for just a little longer, you’ll remember these were the skills in the report called A Nation at Risk, way back in 1983.

As well meaning as our policy leaders may be, they’re coming a little late (and ill prepared) to the party if they think they’ve discovered some new problem with education that needs to be remedied.  These skills have been identified as missing in action for a long time.

Why is this good news for counselors?  Because each of the 4 Cs is an essential life skill, or “soft skill”, that can easily be taught by counselors, either in the classroom as part of a team teaching effort, or in counseling seminars before school, after school, or during lunch.

The possibilities here are endless.  By teaming with a Language Arts teacher, you could take a problem from a classic book—say, Moby Dick—and brainstorm alternative ways the conflict could be resolved.  After teaching some basis problem solving skills, students could use their creativity to solve the problem, and come up with a creative way to communicate the solution.  Have the students work together in teams, and you’ve created a lesson plan that touches on all 4 Cs at once, thanks to your counseling insights and your co-teacher’s literary expertise.

The same thing exists with current events, story problems, and more—there is no classroom that couldn’t benefit from your counseling touch in helping students hone their 21st century skills.

What if you can’t find a willing classroom to partner?  Go it alone.  Even brand new counselors can think of enough real life examples from case studies or past experience to put together a brief workshop that highlights each of the 4 C skills.  If you can create a number of these workshops, you can package them as 21st Century Skills workshops that could be modified for adult learners, presented to outside school groups, and shared with the school board—and each of these audiences gives you the potential to demonstrate the value of counseling in your school and in the future of your students.

It seems politicians always want to find a way to try and make education look bad.  By responding (not reacting), counselors are not only modeling behavior for students at a time of criticism; we are showing internal and external audiences a new level of important for counseling in the curriculum of the new classroom.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dialing Up a Lesson on Effective Counseling

By Patrick O'Connor

There’s something to be said for a different point of view.

I opened my Facebook account last night (for five minutes only—really, I swear!) and came across a film posted by a high school friend of mine.  This vintage 1954 piece, complete with an on-screen Donna Reed look-alike host and background music from a full symphony orchestra, was an educational film teaching America…

…how to use a dial telephone.

“Your service is changing” the narrator announces, adding that the days of picking up the phone and waiting for an operator to place your calls are over.  The narration goes on to tell us engineers (pictured in full suits) have designed the change to dial phones with the unique needs of each community in mind. 

The narration goes on to show us line workers stringing the cable that will make this conversion possible (full disclosure—I got a little sentimental here, since that was my grandfather’s line of work, and my father’s first job).

The narration goes on to talk about how to use the dial phone—and then it goes on and on, and on, for nearly ten minutes.

We’re talking about how to use a dial telephone.

My high school chum isn’t a school counselor, but her posting was as thoughtful as anything Carl Rogers said:

  • Her commentary asked if this video (sorry—film) could help adults understand why we are impatient with our children and students when they are impatient with us in understanding the new technology of today.  I got antsy after three minutes of this film, so doesn’t it make sense a 13 year-old would their eyes a little when they show us how to send a text message for the third time?

  • How much internal eye rolling do I do when I’m telling the fifth parent today many colleges would prefer at least three years of a language other than English?  Is it really their fault everyone seems to be asking this same question today?

  • When I put together a lesson, newsletter, or social media post—or when I’m simply talking with a client-- about an important issue, does my message match my audience? Am I designing my communications so the more thorough learners get a couple of chances to soak in the material, while also giving the “one and done” learners a chance to know and go?

  • What about the look of those newsletters and presentations?  Am I taking the time to format newsletters with shaded boxes and graphics that will separate and direct modern readers’ attention to different items?  Are my Power Point slides fast becoming the 21st century version of Aunt Martha’s slideshow of the family reunion (too many, too repetitive, too bland)?

  • Then again, are my presentations so slick people view them as works of art or a technological light show, rather than a counseling presentation?  Am I working so hard at being “all that”, students leave the classroom with visual impressions rather than something new to think about?

There are far too many people telling counselors and teachers how to improve education who simply don’t know what they’re talking about, so it’s especially important to appreciate the times a genuine teachable moment comes our way.

If you want to take a stroll down Memory Lane—or for others, see a documentary on ancient civilization—the 1954 film can be seen below.   Since I’ve learned my fill from that ten minutes, I’ll be looking at the other phone company film that’s online—from 1927.

Who knows what I’ll learn from that one?

Patrick O’Connor will be signing complimentary copies of his new book, College is Yours 2.0, at the NACAC conference next Friday, September 23.  For more information, contact Patrick at

Thursday, September 8, 2011

School Counseling for September 12th

By Patrick O'Connor

The tenth anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001 seems to be everywhere.  Talk shows are devoting the entire week to interviews and remembrances of those who were lost in the attacks.  Teacher Web sites are bursting at the seams with lesson plans for students of all ages.  With the day falling on a Sunday, the road side signs of churches promise sermon after sermon devoted to the context of the day from a larger view.

It would be easy enough to assume these activities won’t stir the memories of our students, or impact their daily lives.  This year’s high school seniors were seven years old the day the planes landed in New YorkWashington DC, and Pennsylvania, and the sixth graders of 2011 were barely walking in 2001.  Combined with the excitement of starting the school year, getting used to a new school, and applying for college, it would be an honest mistake to think the students aren’t touched by the events or memories of that day, and won’t pay much attention to the events of this weekend.

But it would still be a mistake.

Students may not have vivid memories of what happened ten years ago, but their parents will—and given the dynamics of that Tuesday morning and all that has happened in between, it’s understandable if parents aren’t able to be as objective as they usually would be when explaining complex issues to their children.

At the same time, some high school students may have very vivid memories of that day.  Their memory of the event may not be clear, but it’s likely they will remember some of what happened, and exactly where they were.  How many baby boomers will begin their discussion of the day John Kennedy was shot with “I was seven, and it was the end of lunch period at school…?”  Why would we expect dimmer memories of 9/11 from their much more tech-savvy children or grandchildren?

Some children may indeed not be impacted at all by the events of this weekend, but as is the case with all good counseling, the best plan is to have a plan.  If you haven’t already done so, take a minute to put together some tips for parents on how they should talk with their children about 9/11, and how to be prepared if the guest speaker in the church, synagogue, or mosque surrenders to the emotions of the moment. It’s not too late to send out a last-minute e-mail with this information, and many parents will thank you for it (a Google search of “talking to your children about 9/11” yields some mighty fine resources.)

Remind parents of the importance of monitoring TV and computer time this weekend.  It’s always a good idea to keep technology in check, but all of the commemorative events being broadcast can quickly turn an interest in history into an obsession with security.

Give parents the skills and words to use to make sure their children end the weekend with as strong a sense of safety as possible.  That is always a nuanced task, but parents will welcome any ideas you can lend, as long as they are presented as options, not recipes or dictums. Support their innate abilities to know how to love their children, and all will go well.

Finally, be prepared for business as un-usual September 12.  It’s unlikely any students will walk up to you and say “I’m having some real concerns about 9/11”, but there’s always a chance one or two may have a concern that is being acted out at school instead of being asked in your office. A gentle reminder to your colleagues that you (or someone else) has a fairly open calendar on Monday, combined with a little CWA—Counseling by Wandering Around—can reassure students and faculty alike that a listening ear and helping hand awaits, should the need arise.

This is indeed a busy time, with students starting new years and building bright futures.  Those plans need not be dimmed as our nation takes an appropriate pause this weekend to look at what has passed.  With the right words and an open office door, we can show our students how to do both with poise, respect, and an egoless sense of self.

As a modest effort to honor those lost in the 9/11 attacks, all proceeds from any copy of College is Yours 2.0 purchased during 9/11 weekend will be donated to the Twin Towers Orphan Fund, devoted to supporting the educational and healthcare needs of the children who lost one or more parents in the 2001 attacks.  More information can be found under the Weekly Column at<>