Superintendent of schools advises us to find the force within us

Passion and perseverance are one key to success.


“The Force Awakens,” the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise, was released last week. I watched the movie with my 13-year-old son, 38 years after seeing the first movie, “A New Hope,” when I was the same age. I was struck by the fact that many of the characters were back, and the plot was amazingly similar. The premise of both movies is generally the same — deep within each of us exists a “force,” and by tapping into and controlling this power, we can accomplish almost anything. In the Star Wars movies, this means facing and defeating the dark side, which manifests itself in the form of Darth Vader and Kylo Ren. The protagonist in each film — Luke Skywalker and Rey — struggles to control the force. Yet by confronting his or her greatest fear, each learns how to effectively employ the force to defeat the dark side.

The force has been characterized in many different ways. Obi-Wan Kenobi described it as an energy field created by all living things — something that binds the universe together. Others have defined it as a level of assurance in one’s ability, a confidence borne from experience and self-reflection. I would venture that the force is a combination of all of these ideas, along with many others.

Essentially, however, the force is something that, when effectively harnessed, will allow us to tap into an internal spring of strength and self-confidence. Our aim in the public schools is to assist students in finding this innate capability, the understanding that through hard work, inquiry, commitment, and experience, the sky’s the limit. But how is this possible?

Youth today are peppered with endless external stimuli. Social networking sites, cell phones, and video gaming encourage them to hastily jump from one topic to another without any real reflection. They have little opportunity to look inward and find internal stimuli, something that engenders self-awareness, a belief that one has the resources to confront and conquer any of life’s challenges.

Current educational studies have sought to answer the question of what is the recipe for achievement. Angela Duckworth, a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, addressed this in her TED Talk, “The Key to Success? Grit.” Her research set out to answer the question, “Why do some individuals accomplish more than others of equal intelligence?” She explains that the one defining element that separates success from failure is grit. Ms. Duckworth defines grit as “having passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Having stamina. Sticking to your future day in and day out, and working hard to make that future a reality. Living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Those with little or no grit, according to Ms. Duckworth, will quit at the first setback, while individuals with a high level will persevere through even the most challenging obstacle until an objective is achieved.

The Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools have recently embraced two initiatives to assist our students in finding their inner grit.

STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) education integrates these disciplines to foster the 21st century skills students need in order to compete in today’s economy. A STEAM curriculum engages students in real-world projects that require them to work independently or in teams to find solutions to difficult questions and/or situations. Our science teaching staff, along with support from central office, arranged for Dr. Yvonne Spicer of the National Center for Technological Literacy to visit the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools to speak with educators about developing a comprehensive K-12 STEAM curriculum. The visit was the first step in MVPS participating in the Gateway Project, a Boston Museum of Science program that will culminate in the development of a K-12 STEAM plan to coordinate our resources throughout the curriculum and provide our students with an extensive STEAM education.

Additionally, we have partnered with the Island-Wide Youth Collaborative and the Youth Task Force to bring Ms. Lynn Lyons to the Island. Ms. Lyons is a child psychologist who specializes in helping students learn how to confront and overcome anxiety. In early December, Ms. Lyons presented her ideas to school staff, students, and parents. Her message is simple: Anxiety is a part of life, and we all need to learn how to effectively tackle the challenges that it brings, and experience the benefits of successfully navigating through anxiety-inducing situations.

For our students to grow into the individuals we want them to become, we aim to help them find their inner grit, the force that enables them to face and conquer obstacles that stand in the way of achieving their goals. We strive to do this by helping them to develop the proficiencies necessary to compete in today’s world — skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration. Moreover, we encourage them to meet their fears, the Darth Vaders of the world, and create experiences that compel students to attempt something new and difficult, such as public speaking, trying out for a sports team, or writing for the school newspaper. We seek to inspire our students to find the force that lies within, and rise up to a new level.

Challenges in life are endless; however, the rewards are great for those who dare to confront these challenges. We must foster in our students the ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and accomplish anything that they envision.

May the force be with you.

Matthew D’Andrea, a former school principal, is the Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent of Public Schools.