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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Focusing on What Our Students Are Doing Instead of What They’re Not ...

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 18, 2019 22 min read
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(This is the third post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What can teachers do to help highlight student assets and not their deficits? In other words, what can teachers do to help create that mindset for themselves when they look at students and what can they do to help students develop the same view?

In Part One, Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., Dr. Larry J. Walker, Carmen Nguyen, Julie Jee, Shawna Coppola, Kevin Parr, and Andrew Sharos shared their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Adeyemi, Larry, and Carmen on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Lisa Westman, Salome Thomas El, T.J. Vari, Amber Chandler, Michelle Shory, Ed.S., Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., Rita Platt, Cheryl Mizerny, and Adria Klein, Ph.D., contributed their commentaries.

Today, Elizabeth Stein, Beth Kobett, Ed.D., Carol Pelletier Radford, Dr. Noah Prince, Michael Hart, Ph.D, Jenny Edwards, and Keisha Rembert offer their answers.

Response From Elizabeth Stein

Elizabeth Stein’s career in special education spans beyond 25 years in grades K-12 along with undergraduate and graduate-level courses. She is a national-board-certified teacher currently working as a special education/Universal Design for Learning instructional coach in New York. Elizabeth is the author of books on special education practices as well as Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Her most recent publications include: Elevating Co-Teaching Through UDL (CAST Professional Publishing, 2016) and Two Teachers In the Room: Strategies for Co-Teaching Success (Routledge, 2017):

It all begins with the way we think about students’ abilities. What we think becomes the lens in which we see our students. That lens then translates into the instructional-design decisions and the interactions with students. It is really that simple. What is not as simple is being that teacher who is willing to become critically aware of his or her perceptions and the way these perceptions affect every single aspect of the teaching and learning relationships. So, let us set a strong intention to break through the deficit-model barrier!

Consider and plan with the boundless ways Universal Design for Learning can elevate any lesson—any classroom—anywhere! Stomp out any remnants of a deficit-model lens by becoming aware to view students through the lens of learner variability. Check out what David Rose (developmental neuropsychologist and co-founder of CAST) has to say about variability and amplifying strengths in schools. Shifting from a deficit model to a view of learner variability moves away from an unnecessary binary view of student abilities. It should never be about ability or disability. Human performance just cannot and should not be reduced to an either one is able or not able. Human performance is contextual and lives along a range of abilities. Just think about the possibilities that open up on as educators guide learners toward personal achievements and academic goals.

The bottom line of highlighting assets instead of deficits is all about humanizing our classroom practices. It’s about valuing every learner’s perspective and respecting the range of abilities that exist in every single individual in any given population of learners. The lens we see through is our choice.

Response From Beth Kobett, Ed.D.

Beth Kobett, Ed.D., is a mathematics educator and an associate professor of education at Stevenson University in Baltimore. She is a current member of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics board of directors and co-author of Formative Five: Everyday Assessment Techniques for Every Math Classroom and The Mathematics Lesson Planning Handbook: Your Blueprint for Success:

What if it were possible to capture all of the words that we said to and about each and every student and put them in a giant word cloud? Furthermore, what if the giant word cloud followed the student throughout the school day and accumulated year after year? What would those words look like? Sound like? Feel like? Unfortunately, the word clouds for many students might be full of negative, deficit-based words that drain students’ motivation and interest in learning. Teaching with a strengths-based mindset can be challenging because we have been taught to diagnose and eradicate students’ misconceptions. Rather than viewing our charge in this way, we can implement five Teaching Turnaround practices from the book, Teaching Turnarounds: Strengths-based Teaching and Learning for Students Who Struggle in Mathematics (Kobett & Karp, forthcoming) that can flip students’ and teachers’ mindsets and experiences to promote a positive and productive learning environment that illuminates the strengths, resources, and knowledge that students and teachers hold.

Teaching Turnaround One: Identify Your Teaching Strengths

Teachers are energized when they feel competent in their ability to promote their students’ learning. Through a process-oriented protocol called appreciative inquiry, teachers can engage in discovering their own strengths by answering particular questions about their teaching. For example:

Think back on a point in your teaching. Think about a peak experience when students were engaged in learning. Describe what was happening. In what ways was this experience meaningful, energizing, engaging, and valuable to you and your students? What are the things you value most about yourself in this experience?”

Through an intentional effort to uncover their strengths, teachers can strategically design and implement lessons that leverage these strengths, which leads to student learning.

Teaching Turnaround Two: Discover and Leverage Your Students’ Strengths

Next, teachers can discover their students’ strengths by carefully observing to uncover and record the moments when their students shine and asking students, “What are you good at in______?” Remarkably, once we hone our strengths-based observation skills, we find that the strengths spotting multiplies.

Teachers can challenge their own deficit-based statements and beliefs about students by developing alternate beliefs to explain students’ learning or behavioral struggles. For example, we might say, “She is doing the best she can.” At first glance, this comes across as caring. However, the underlying belief is that the student can’t learn more. We can turn this belief around by stating, “She can learn math. We just need to find an entry point into her learning.”

Teaching Turnaround Three: Design Instruction From a Strengths-Based Perspective

Lesson design from a strengths-based perspective focuses on cultivating the many teacher and student strengths in the classroom to design and implement lessons that propel students to achieve more than they, or others, thought possible. These lessons are situated within students’ interests (e.g., sports, gaming, movies) or funds of knowledge (e.g., cultural knowledge, family and community experiences), include multiple opportunities for students to work together, and promote problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. For example, a teacher learned that nearly all of her students participated in a community yard sale the first weekend in May. The students were feverishly working at home to prepare for the event by making food and pricing items. The teacher launched two weeks of newly designed mathematics lessons by inviting the director of the community yard sale in the classroom to talk about the planning process. Students used multiplication and division to determine best buys, area and perimeter to organize the tables, and showcased their strengths in counting money, which was well beyond their peers in neighboring school systems.

Teaching Turnaround Four: Help Students Develop Their Points of Power

Educational philosopher John Dewey (1938) wrote that “the purpose of education is to allow each individual to come into full possession of his or her personal power” (p. 10), an idea that resonates with this teaching turnaround. A point of power (POP) is that “something” that the students do well in [a particular content area] and they can not only state but rely upon when they face a novel challenge or problem. Students may initially need help identifying these points of power, but teachers can strategically identify ways for students to identify and recognize their strengths, using an “I used to ____ , but now I _____” chart. For example, 3rd graders learning mathematics wrote, “I used to give up when I didn’t know how to solve the problem right away, but now I keep trying different strategies!” Teachers can also develop a Strengths Super Power List to highlight students’ talents in the classroom. Students can then consult other students to share and grow their points of power.

Teaching Turnaround Five: Promote Strengths Across the School Community

Leaders can bolster their teachers by highlighting their strengths, and thus, creating a collective efficacy of empowered teachers. School communities are stronger when all stakeholders feel valued, and these stakeholders feel valued when they have multiple opportunities to contribute their talents. Leaders must make a concerted effort to engage teachers in solving educational problems by focusing on and leveraging the school community’s successes. Understanding success through a deliberate dissection often reveals epiphanies that a problem-centered approach cannot divulge.

Don’t delay! Your strengths-based classroom is just a turnaround away.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Collier Books, Macmillan.

Kobett, B. & Karp, K. (in press). Teaching turnarounds: Strengths-based teaching and learning for students who struggle in mathematics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Response From Carol Pelletier Radford

Carol Pelletier Radford received her doctorate from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She is an author, teacher educator, presenter, and certified yoga teacher. She integrates mindfulness strategies into her life and includes them in her teacher self-care workshops. Visit her website, MentoringinAction.com, for meditations, resources, online courses, and to purchase her two best-selling books. For more information about Mindful Teaching: Refining Your Practice to Inspire Student Learning, see the course overview EDU 646 on the website:

Mindset is defined as, “The established set of attitudes held by someone.” Changing one’s mindset and creating a new way of looking at a situation or person is no easy task. We bring our opinions, points of view, biases, and prejudices with us through our lives. Sometimes we don’t even know where an attitude came from.

My current work includes a course titled, Mindful Teaching: Refining Your Practice to Inspire Student Learning. One goal for this course is to encourage teachers to take their students’ perspective. To get to that goal, I discovered I first had to begin with the teacher’s mindset. With the many competing expectations a teacher has in a school year, the students’ perspectives are often lost.

We begin the course with a module on mindful teaching. Mindfulness is defined as, “The quality or state of being conscious of something or focusing on one’s awareness on the present moment.” The purpose of this first module is to support teachers in taking care of themselves so they can be more confident in the classroom. The module offers teachers many ways to experience calm and peace. The goal is to practice ways to minimize anxiety and reduce stressful reactions to classroom situations. We do this through breathing exercises, walking meditations, and other self-care strategies.

After teachers have shifted their mindset to focus on their own self-care, they can more easily see their strengths and what they are doing right in the classroom. Instead of reacting to stressful situations with upset and stress, these teachers now can use a tool from their Mindful Teaching Toolbox and cope in a healthier way. This confidence opens the door for the teacher to consider student perspectives.

The project for this course is creating and administering an anonymous student survey. Teachers are required to select their most challenging class and ask these students to identify their strengths and how they learn best. The results are always revealing and sometimes quite surprising to the teachers. For example, one teacher shared that her students found her personal stories helped them to see her as a person, not just a teacher. In the final reflection for the course, teachers share that surveying their students is one of the most powerful insights they have had in their teaching career.

Welcoming students’ perspectives instead of seeing them as an evaluation of the teaching process shifts the teacher’s perspective from one of fear—that they will be criticized by their students—to one of curiosity—where they can see the possibilities and new ways to inspire their students to be more successful. Curiosity promotes professional growth.

I believe one way to discover our students’ strengths is to find our own. Teachers who take care of themselves model for their students to do the same. Students who learn how to react to stressful situations in healthy ways will use that strength to support their own learning. Mindful teachers inspire mindful learners.

Response From Dr. Noah Prince

Dr. Noah Prince is an operations producer at Art of Problem Solving, where he has taught and written curriculum for highly motivated math students. Noah is a national-board-certified teacher who previously served on the faculty of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and coached the scholastic bowl and math teams to multiple state championships. Noah loves teaching students harder math than they think they can handle:

As a teacher, I have been part of any number of meetings about common assessments. One of the most frequent questions has always been how many points to deduct for various types of mistakes. Is a simple sign error worth a full-point deduction? What if the students don’t label their diagrams or they use the wrong variable? With time, I noticed that we were spending all of our energy thinking about what our students weren’t doing instead of what they were doing.

My colleague Vince Matsko satirized this mindset in a blog post that imagined students as blocks of cheese. The teacher was a meticulous cheesemonger trimming off imperfections. A dropped minus sign may only require a corner shaved off, while a more significant arithmetic error might call for more of a grating. An error as grievous as a misremembered formula would cause a slice to be removed. At the end of the semester, the remnants would be weighed and graded, with the full trust by all sides that the scale has ruled justly.

The problem with this scenario is that it misses entirely what students need from teachers. They are not overgrown trees in need of pruning; they’re saplings that need encouragement to flourish.

So how do we, as teachers, do that? How can we stop seeing students for what they lack and perhaps start seeing them for what they are? Matsko offered one solution by changing the way he graded. Instead of using a point-based system, he graded every problem on a three-tiered scale: Completely Correct, Essentially Correct, or No Credit. (Note the lack of an “Incorrect” designation.) An exam was scored based on how many CCs and ECs the student earned, ignoring any NCs.

By grading more holistically, Dr. Matsko engaged with the students’ overall depth of understanding rather than listing shortcomings. I got to witness Vince’s grading system in action while he and I were teaching together at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, and it definitely was effective. His students began to see him less as an adversary and more as a partner in their learning.

For those looking for a less radical change, I’d suggest simply turning around the questions we ask ourselves. When we build our rubrics, rather than ask, “How much should we take off for this mistake,” ask, “How many points should we award for a student demonstrating this knowledge?” Compare the student not to your answer key but to the blank page they started with. How did the student improve that page? Did she write an equation to model the problem? Did she draw a diagram to make sense of it? Did she use her arithmetic tools to solve the problem? All of those are steps that represent learning worthy of credit. And if a student did all of those things but made a numerical error along the way, I’d report her score as a +6 out of 7 rather than a -1.

Response From Michael Hart, Ph.D.

Michael Hart, Ph.D., has more than 25 years of experience as an international literacy expert, entrepreneur, and consultant. Dr. Hart’s unique background provides him with the authority and expertise to challenge the status quo of global literacy initiatives and lead the charge in providing new solutions. He is the founder and president of www.drmichaelhart.com and www.trueliteracy.in. Follow Dr. Hart on Twitter @drmichaelhart:


Building a school culture that highlights students’ assets rather than deficits starts with leadership. When teachers know that their leadership team values a focus on assets, it makes room for the educators to embed those values in their everyday curriculum. It does not mean that teachers replace the normal core curriculum but rather augment and integrate the exploration and growth of a child’s strengths in your daily activity.

With so many pressures and demands on teachers these days, it is too easy to fall into a trap of focusing on student deficits. But, if school leadership communicates a positive, growth-centered vision on a regular basis, teachers are empowered to focus on the positive and do their best work.

And what is the key role for teachers?

Knowing Your Students’ Assets

In the simplest sense, it all starts with getting to really know who your students are beyond any challenges or deficits. For instance:

  • What do they love to do?
  • What are they really good at?
  • What makes them proud?
  • What kinds of skills and strengths can they share with their classmates? (e.g., music, athletics, art, building, etc.)
  • Who are the most important people in their lives? Who is in their family?

And for the teacher, the question becomes: How do I capture and integrate that information into our daily work and play? In the simplest form, just ask! Create classroom activities that urge your students to share about something they do well, a favorite possession that means a lot to them, or tell a story about a special family member. The key is for this type of programming to be ongoing and normalized in your classroom or school.

Having this information allows us to look beyond any test scores or grades (which are of course important as well) and use what you know to build a foundation for future learning. Bring “who they are” into the classroom.

A Frequent Missing Ingredient

There is another key factor in the success of this model. And that is: With all of the tension and stress of being an educator these days, taking care of oneself is critical. The old adage is true. One needs to take care of themselves before they have the wherewithal to take care of others. From a process perspective, self-care is something that needs to be in the forefront of your planning and behavior consistently over time. It is far too easy to backslide and ultimately burn out.

The Asset Model and Parental Involvement

There is another significant value to be gained from supporting and implementing the asset-based model as teacher mindset.

The research indicates that a student-asset focus significantly improves the likelihood of positive relationships with parents and parental involvement. Rationally that makes sense. No one wants to hear only negative feedback from schools about their child. For parents to know that the school team values and appreciates who the student is as a whole person is a very powerful dynamic.

Nurturing parental involvement is another “piece of the puzzle” for creating broader community support for a positive school culture. Shared commitment from both within and without of school strengthens the overall community and increases the probability of better outcomes for our students. (Scales, P. C. (1999, March). Reducing risks and building developmental assets: Essential actions from promoting adolescent health. Journal of School Health, 69(3), 113-119. doi: 10.1111/j.1746- 1561)

Response Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards teaches doctoral students in the School of Educational Leadership and Change at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. Edwards is the author of Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? (ASCD), Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students (ASCD), and Research on Habits of Mind (2014, Institute for Habits of Mind International):

Our students are precious gems, and we, as teachers, have the privilege of showing them just how special they are. Some ideas for highlighting student assets are below.

We could make a list of each student’s assets and add to it as we discover more. We will have the information readily available so that we can point out assets to each student. We could also give the list to each student.

We might invite students to make a list of their assets and turn them in to us. We might photocopy the lists and return the lists to the students. We could even add assets we have noticed to their list before returning their lists to them. Students could keep the list available, perhaps in their desk.

We could ask students to do tasks that are aligned with their assets. For example, we could ask a student who is kind and caring to help make a new student feel welcome.

Sometimes, students behave in ways that are different from what we might prefer. When they do, how might we put a different frame about what they are doing? For example, if students are always making jokes, they might be a stand-up comic in the future. We could invite them to do a comedy sketch after lunch for five minutes to entertain the class.

When we are talking about students with our colleagues, whether in passing or in the faculty lounge, we could make it a point to emphasize the assets students have. We might start the conversation by talking about something special a student did. Then, we could invite colleagues to share assets of students who are in their classrooms.

We could tell students what other faculty have said about their assets. “Mrs. Davis mentioned that last year when she had you in class, you helped her a lot.” “Mr. Crown said he saw you comforting one of your classmates who was crying.”

We could make a practice of pointing out student assets when talking with them. We might say, “Noticed that you turned in your assignment on time.” “Noticed that you helped your friend who was having difficulty completing the assignment.” “Noticed that you came in today with a smile on your face.”

To get students to agree with us, we could use tag questions at the end of comments about their assets. “You seem to enjoy playing kickball, don’t you?” “You got 100 percent on the test, didn’t you?” “You came on time today, didn’t you?”

We could give students identities related to their assets. This involves saying, “You are . . . .” We might say, “You are an inquisitive scientist.” “You are a talented athlete.” “You are a kind friend.” “You are a responsible person.” “You are a creative writer.” “You are a voracious reader.”

We can link student assets with what they did to create them by using words such as “because,” “by,” and “as.” “Because you spend a lot of time reading, you are learning a lot.” “By studying a lot for the tests, you are ensuring that you are making 100 percent on them.” “As you are spending time on this assignment, you are learning the material.”

By developing a mindset of affirming students and pointing out their assets, we can help students live up to what we are saying about them and build relationships with them.

Edwards, J. (2010). Inviting students to learn: 100 tips for talking effectively with your students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Response From Keisha Rembert

Keisha Rembert is an 8th grade English and U.S. history teacher at Clifford Crone Middle School in Naperville, Ill. Keisha feeds her love of learning by continually refining her craft and has been the recipient of several grants affording her the opportunity to take courses at some of the world’s most renowned universities. She has recently been named Illinois’ History Teacher of the Year for 2019:

Acknowledging student strengths is all about relationships and understanding the students I teach. Saying these kids don’t want to learn is just another way to say I have not invested the time necessary to find out what moves my students, and I am not willing to change for the betterment of the students. Actually, I must admit I am reticent to completely join the growth-mindset movement. I am still trying to ensure that growth-mindset ideology will cause no harm to black and brown kids. While I believe there is value in students’ belief in their own ability, I also want to ensure that we are also acknowledging that even with all the belief in the world, when systems and structure operate against the best interest of students of color, their success is constricted regardless of the expansion of my self-belief.

Thanks to Elizabeth, Beth, Carol, Noah, Michael, Jenny, and Keisha for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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