Needless to say, I need not even ask what I am about to ask. But I will ask it anyway.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed?
“Who? Me?” I just heard someone ask.
Yes. You. Maybe. But let’s edge our way in to this just a little more before you decide, lest you decide too hastily.
I’m not talking about the way you feel when that last straw is headed right toward you, and you know fully well that it’s the one that will break your proverbial camel’s back.
If that’s the mell of a hess you’re grappling with, I’m really sorry for your streak of bad luck.
The overwhelmed that I have in mind is when you have a mountain smackdab in front of you. It’s ginormous. And you have to move it, and you have no idea how you will ever get it done.
Maybe, in reality, it’s nothing more than a mole hill. But perceptions are perceptions. If that mole hill is a mountain to you, then it is indeed your mountain.
Aren’t we masterful at turning our mole hills into mountains?
I am. You are. We all are.
And, at the same time, let’s acknowledge that all of us face real life mountains, too, that we have to move.
It’s when we’re facing our mountains–the real ones and the mole hills that we have turned into mountains–that we feel overwhelmed. That’s when we sigh or cry or moan or groan because at that moment we just don’t see how we will ever move that mole hill. We just don’t see how we will ever move that mountain. We just don’t see how we will ever get it done.
To feel overwhelmed before the mountains of life–real or overblown–is to be human.
This week, I’m feeling superhuman. Overwhelmed is on my mind a lot: it’s the next to the last week before my summer classes end. Also, overwhelmed is on my students’ minds a lot this week: they have reading assignments and a final discussion board forum this week and a final reflection essay next week.
(A word to educators who would be wise: abandon those ridiculous final exams. Replace them with meaningful final reflection essays. Reach out to me using Contact, and I will share proven strategies that have worked for me during the last four years.)
My apologies for that digressory jab at defunct final exam practices that continue to plague the hallowed ivory halls of learning. I couldn’t help myself.
Where was I?
Oh, yes. My students are feeling overwhelmed by end-of-semester assignments and by final reflection essays.
I am, too. It’s a mountain of work right in front of me, so close that I can smell the virtual submissions, so close that I can hardly breathe. And I have to get it done.
Let me define the preceding “it.” I have to grade all of that student work that’s closing in on me and smothering me, because I have to submit final grades two days after those final reflection essays are submitted. My mountain seems even larger.
Oh. Yes. I understand how it feels to feel overwhelmed.
I know, too, that my students always feel overwhelmed at the beginning of the semester. They have so much to do before the end.
I do, too. I’m their learning coach. I’m their learning cheerleader. I’m there to help them move those mole hills. I’m there to help them move those mountains. I’m there to help them get it done.
I always suggest some strategies that they can use to see themselves through to the successful conclusion that they hope to enjoy and that they can enjoy if they work at it.
Ironically, the strategies are always the same whether it’s the beginning, or, as it is now, the end.
Ironically, the same strategies work for me, at my beginnings and my endings.
Ironically, the strategies will work for you, at your beginnings and your endings.
Following these strategies can help all of us–me, my students, and you–feel less overwhelmed as we tackle our mole hills and our mountains.
A good place to start is by realistically measuring our grit. Please tell me that you know about grit. You do, right? Sometimes I have to explain it to my students, so let me explain it here for everyone’s benefit.
And yes: after the explanation, you will have a quiz! Don’t worry. (1) It’s optional. (2) Anyone who takes the quiz will pass.
Grit has nothing to do with IQ. It has nothing to do with talent. It has nothing to do with luck. It has everything to do with your willingness to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work always required to achieve any goal, usually a long-term goal, but it applies as well to short term goals. Grit is all about perseverance and passion.
I have always known about grit, but Angela Duckworth is the one who turned me on to the power and awesomeness of grit. She has turned lots of folks on to it, too, and when you get turned on to grit, get ready to get it done, whatever you need to get done.
I start my semesters by having my students take Duckworth’s 10-question Grit Quiz. Why don’t you take it, right now? Hot Tip: Be honest. No need to fool yourself! Not now. Not ever.
After my students find out how gritty they are, I invite them to share their grit score with the class if they wish. I am always amazed by the fruitful and honest conversations that follow. I just heard someone whisper, “What’s your grit score?” Thank you, but no need to whisper. I’m proud of it. I scored a 5. Did you hear me? Let me shout it again. I’m a 5. I’m as gritty as they grit. My grit is awesome. When I start it–whatever the “it” is–I’m going to stick with it until I get it done. Count on it.
After our class discussion of grittiness goes wherever it goes–and wherever it goes is always exactly where it ought to go: learning is always spontaneous, and spontaneity is always all right with me–I get my students hooked on Duckworth’s TED Talk: “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” It’s powerful. It’s motivational. It makes you want to get down and get gritty. Go ahead. Watch it. It’s had 26,997,225 views. With any luck, this post might take it up to 27 million views! So come on! Let’s gr!t ‘r done.
As my students and I get deeper and deeper into the semester, I am always mindful that the journey that I am trying to make a fun and fulfilling one for them might start looking more and more like a mountain. Then I love to share with them little proverbs as little reminders that a little strength applied consistently and for a sustained period of time can bring staggering results. Maybe it’s as simple as “The man who would move mountains must begin by carrying away small stones” (Confucius, The Analects). Or maybe “Little Strokes Fell Great Oaks” (Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac).
Then as research papers start to loom on the horizon, I up the ante still more and share with my classes the backstory for Anne Lamott’s classic book on writing and living, Bird by Bird. In the introduction to her book, she tells the story of her brother who had waited until the last minute to write his paper that was due the next day. Interestingly enough, the paper was about birds. Lamott’s father told him to write the paper bird by bird. Looking at the component parts and completing one part of the paper at a time made the whole project seem less intimidating and less overwhelming.
What Lamott and Franklin and Confucius and a gazillion others are offering up as a pearl of wisdom is a lesson in incrementalism: progress comes gradually, in small steps.
It works for my students. It works for me. It will work for you.
As the semester progresses and end-of-semester fatigue raises its nasty and unnerving head, I can see in my students’ faces the reflection of their mountains right in front of them. Then I know that I have to up the ante once again. I play for the class one of my favorite poems by Rita Dove–“Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967. It’s an incredible tribute to learning and to libraries and to librarians and to getting it done. It has an even more special meaning for me because Rita Dove read that poem at the White House on May 11, 2011. Former President Obama–who believes that poetry and the arts matter (and they do)–provides a masterful introduction to the power of poetry, with wry, charming humor as only he can do. Afterwards the poet reads her poem. Both the former president and the former United States Poet Laureate are genuine charmers. I’ll provide the link in just a second. Watch the video, please. (But not until you finish my post, or, if you insist on watching the video before finishing my post, go ahead. Just come back. I’ll be lost without you.) Rita Dove: 2011 White House Poetry Evening — introduction by Barack Obama.
Without exception, my students always love watching this video. Sometimes they even applaud. Sometimes they even applaud without mention of extra credit. The video inspires. It motivates. It makes them know that they can get it done.
Here’s how Dove empowers my students–and all of us– to come to that understanding. The stanzas that follow are directly from her poem. They recount the poet’s journey home, as a 15-year-old, carrying six volumes of knowledge–six books that she selected on her learning journey:
“I carried [the books] home, past five blocks of aluminum siding
and the old garage where, on its boarded-up doors,
someone had scrawled:
“I can eat an elephant
if I take small bites.
“Yes, I said, to no one in particular: That’s
what I’m gonna do!”
Overwhelmed? My students? Me? You? All of us?
Of course, we are. To be overwhelmed is to be human.
Thankfully, we’re not overwhelmed all of the time. But when we are, isn’t it great to know that we have wisdom as our ally–all the way from Confucius to Franklin to Lamott to Dove? Isn’t it great to know that we have wisdom cheering us every step of the way? As we carry away our stones. As we fell our oaks. As we write our birds. As we eat our elephants. As we get it done.
Isn’t it great knowing that a little gr!t will gr!t ‘r done?
It certainly calms me. And just as soon as I finish grading end-of-semester assignments and final reflection essays, I’m going to polish that nugget of truth as I face my next mountain: gardens (right here on my mountain) overtaken by a gazillion weeds, all reaching for the stars.
And guess what else? I will pump myself up just as I try to pump up my students–just as I have tried to pump you up here, so that you can face your own mountains, whatever they might be–and believe you me: I will tackle my mountain, and I will gr!t ‘r done.