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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

We Must ‘See Our Students as Asset-Filled Beings’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 15, 2019 23 min read
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(This is the first post in a five-part series)

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?

Many teachers spend time talking about the “deficits” of our students instead of their assets. However, everyone can bring a ton of assets to the table. How can we build on them?

This five-part series will explore ways to do just that...

Today, Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., Dr. Larry J. Walker, Carmen Nguyen, Julie Jee, Shawna Coppola, Kevin Parr, and Andrew Sharos share 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.

You might also be interested in The Best Posts on Looking at Our Students Through the Lens of Assets & Not Deficits.

Response From Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D.

Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Read his new book, Culturally Responsive Education in the Classroom: An Equity Framework for Pedagogy, and follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:

When thinking about how to highlight our students’ assets, there’s a certain truth with which we are required to regularly contend, and that truth is: Assets are understood best in specific social and cultural contexts. What that means is that one’s perception of others’ assets is a function of one’s own indoctrinations; and therefore, we are more likely to see assets in others when their social and cultural background is familiar and agreeable to our own. The flip side of that truth is we are likely to perceive deficits more profoundly when there is also cultural difference. While most human beings think of themselves as the exception to this rule, the wisest know that there is no such thing as pure human objectivity—and thus the most objective observations are those which embrace human subjectivity.

But what exactly is an asset? In the economic sense, an asset is a resource or commodity—some form of capital—used for the successful participation in a financial transaction. Similarly, in the social-science sense, an asset is a resource, trait, disposition, or skill set used for the successful participation in a social transaction. It stands to reason that just as there are some economic venues in which certain types of currencies (i.e., the particular variety and also its form of expression) are preferred, so too the value of social currencies have more or less value in different cultural venues. The social-science construct of “assets” harkens back to the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and others who were among the first to explore the concept of Cultural Capital to explain how social advantage is passed from one generation to the next. Bourdieu and others argued that the knowledges of the upper- and middle-classes are considered valuable capital in a society where access to opportunity is a function of racial , ethnic, and class background. Yosso (2005), Moll (1992), and others have argued that there are also socially-specific funds of knowledge in marginalized communities, though these assets have not been recognized as positively as the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the middle- and upper-classes. It therefore isn’t that some communities are asset-impoverished while others are asset-wealthy; it’s that some cultural assets are seen as more valuable than others.

I especially appreciate the work of Tara Yosso, who has defined several different types of capital that live within Communities of Color. Among these, she describes Resistant Capital as knowledges and skills fostered through oppositional behavior that challenges inequality. This form of cultural asset is grounded in the legacy of resistance to subordination exhibited by Communities of Color.

Our goal as educators is to see our students as asset-filled beings and then to apply that awareness in classroom instruction. This requires an awareness of our own lens and a commitment to provide students opportunities to use their assets in the interest of school successes. For example, I was once part of a 3rd grade mathematics-learning experience where one of our students (a young Person of Color) frequently objected (sometimes defiantly) to her perceptions of unfairness in the classroom. We decided to think of this as Resistance Capital and we gave her a small white board and marker to raise any objections (which we hoped might reduce the interruptions to instruction). In the lesson, we gave each kiddo a plastic bag of colored popsicle sticks. As we were handing them out, she counted her own and then leaned over to count the number of popsicle sticks in the plastic bags of the kiddos siting around her. She seemed satisfied that we teachers were being fair after having counted that everyone had the same amount until we began to explain that each color had a different value in a classroom currency system we were introducing that day. Her mental wheels started turning as she briskly observed differences between her and other students’ popsicle sticks. Quickly, she picked up her marker and white board and feverishly recorded her objection, raising it high above her head for everyone to see: “NO FAIR BRO!”

All of us teachers performed shock and surprise at her claim. We commended her for using her white board to register her objection and called on her to explain her concern as we had agreed to do when giving her this tool as a way to honor her voice. She got up and pleaded with her fellow 3rd graders to see that the teachers were not actually giving everyone the same amount of currency and that they all should calculate the worth of their popsicle sticks giving attention to the differing values each color represented. This was, she emphatically demanded, not a fair distribution of popsicle sticks at all! As we teachers then chimed in with some additional tips for making the accurate calculations, our young social-justice advocate demonstrated a satisfaction in having identified this inequality that none of the other students had been able to perceive.

Though we thanked her for naming the discrepancy in the popsicle sticks, I am actually still not sure if she ever realized that she basically taught her class an introductory algebra lesson that day. What I do know is that rather than perceiving her propensity for interruption as a deficit, we leveraged her asset of resistance to engage 100 percent of her peers for the full duration of the learning experience. The work was less, however, about fixing our students’ deficit than adjusting our lens for the possibility of seeing her assets. If we hadn’t designed a learning experience with a lens of our student’s inclination to notice and resist instances and patterns of unfairness, we would have been unlikely to engage her so fully in the learning experience. When we give our kiddos the opportunities to use these aspects of their background and identities to support their learning, we better see them as the capable learners they can be, and they can view school as a space more worthy of their best investments of self.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, (31)1. 132-141.

Yosso, T. J. (2005). “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education. 8(1), 69-91.

Response From Dr. Larry J. Walker

Dr. Larry J. Walker is a lecturer in educational leadership at Loyola University Maryland. His research focuses on education, race, leadership, and policy. Follow him on Twitter: LarryJWalker2:

The focus on students’ deficits is an issue that educators have to confront. Far too often, students from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds must navigate teachers’ misconceptions and stereotypes. As a former educator, I witnessed administrators, auxiliary staff, and teachers make certain assumptions about students that impacted their well-being. For example, some teachers suggested students lacked the academic acumen, familial support, and/or motivation to succeed. Unfortunately, students recognize when teachers don’t believe they are capable of meeting certain benchmarks.

Countering years of systemic racism requires an honest conversation among educators in P-12 settings. Although some school districts have taken steps to address this issue, frequently they don’t provide consistent professional development to determine if teachers are utilizing various reflective techniques and frameworks. This is a topic I have researched throughout my career. Previously, my colleague Dr. Goings and I co-authored a book chapter titled, “Disrupting the Myth of Black Male Inferiority” in which we utilized an asset-based framework developed by Dr. Whiting (Vanderbilt University). The Scholar Identify Model has nine constructs including, 1) self-efficacy; 2) willingness to make sacrifices; 3) internal locus of control; 4) future oriented; 5) self-awareness; 6) need for achievement; 7) academic self-confidence; 8) racial pride and 9) masculinity. The framework is important because of the emphasis on black and Latino males’ strengths. Focusing on their deficits reinforces inaccurate societal portrayals that some groups aren’t capable of excelling.

Throughout the chapter, Dr. Goings and I contend that society embraces the idea that certain students can’t succeed. However, we provide concrete examples that highlight why black and Latino males can exceed societal expectations when given the opportunity. Changing the narrative is personal. As a black male, I am aware that far too many students can’t excel because some educators have low expectations. Some students internalize teacher’s perceptions that could impact their career trajectory. For this reason, more school districts have to adopt frameworks that center learning around student’s strengths. Implementing progressive practices and policies will encourage students with untapped potential to become future engineers, physicians, scientists, and teachers.

Response From Carmen Nguyen

Carmen Nguyen is a professional-development specialist for ELs. Her passion for advocating for English-learners and their families stems from her own experience as an immigrant and language learner. Carmen supports educators by providing professional development that is founded on research-based instructional strategies to help ensure educational equity for all students:

In a nation with ever-changing demographics and political ideologies, it is critical for educators to reflect not only on their educational practices but also on their cultural beliefs, expectations, and cultural bias. Each experience, interaction, and relationship has the power to affect our attitudes, values, and behaviors. In order to create and bridge relationships within the different cultures of our students, we must first understand who we are as individuals. We must understand the factors that affect our behaviors, statements, and philosophies. More simply stated, we must understand why we do the things we do, why we say the things we say, and why we value or place importance on certain aspects of our lives and not others? To develop an asset-based mindset, we must first begin within ourselves.

When we engage in self-reflection, it is easy to lie to ourselves, but the true challenge lies within our ability to be honest. We must be courageous in our efforts to understand the dynamics of our culture, speak our truth, and be open-minded to others’ perspective when they do not correlate to our own. Just as it is important to be honest, it is equally, if not more important, to be kind. To be kind to ourselves when we feel that our beliefs do not coincide with the “norm” or acceptable practice.

Self-Reflection Questions:

Who are you? What is your identity? What cultural group/s do you identify with? Why are you proud to be part of this group/s? Are there any challenges that come with being a member of this group/s? How has this cultural group had an impact on your behaviors, statements, philosophies? What do you expect from others who do not identify with a cultural group that is similar to yours? How do you feel about others when their philosophies go against your beliefs? How do your cultural values and beliefs impact your expectations in the classroom? How do you react when the values and beliefs of your students are not similar to yours?

As educators, we all aspire to have a positive influence in the lives of all of our students. Each student has his or her own cultural identity, which may or may not be similar to ours. To view students’ assets, we must see them for who they are, for what they can do, for the experiences they have lived, for the dreams they have conquered, and for the goals they have achieved. Our cruel reality as educators is that we are not celestial beings; we are human beings. In all of our “humanness” and day-to-day classroom responsibilities, we are aware of deficits, we are aware of what our students cannot do, the experiences they have not lived, the dreams they have not conquered, and the goals they have not achieved. We must be self-reflective in our biases and identify when our deficit radar is in range. Being aware of our biases is similar to the old adage, “When we know better, we do better.” When we are aware of our biases, we are able to control them, reflect on our beliefs, and do better.

As educators, we have the power to mold the minds of students and create the future. You get what you give! If we want students to respect each other’s culture, see the strengths in their differences, and maximize on their potential, we must begin with ourselves and value who we are, in order for our students to see who they are and the value they bring to our learning community.

Response From Julie Jee

Julie Jee has been an English teacher at Arlington High School in New York since 2001. She teaches 12 Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition and sophomore English at the regents level. Julie loves to read, run, take photos, and spend time with her husband and three children:

Getting overwhelmed by insecurity is common for many. In a classroom setting, the pressure to remain silent and share very little can be immense, especially if the environment doesn’t feel safe. Over the course of the school year, I strive to build my students’ confidence and affirm their identities, interests, and passions. A student who feels out of sorts when called to discuss a scene in a play at length might expound at length about climate change. Another student might sit quietly during a grammar lesson but animatedly talk about the latest concert he attended. And yet another student might come in late on occasion but share about her latest adventures at work. When I create assignments, I try to give my students opportunities to look within and learn writing skills along the way.

Boosting their sense of self helps students highlight their strengths, which, in turn, gives me a chance to learn from them as individuals with valuable contributions to the classroom environment. Seeing what students are curious about or love to delve into is wonderful. Watching them learn from each other, build trust, and continue to share with one another unprompted is a gift.

Response From Shawna Coppola

Shawna Coppola is an educator, national speaker, and the author of two books from Stenhouse, Renew! Become a Better—and More Authentic—Writing Teacher (2017) and Writing, Redefined: Broadening Our Ideas About What It Means to Compose (2019). When she is not working, she can be found writing comics or honing her craft as a beginner watercolorist:

I can recall with painful clarity one Thanksgiving holiday when I sat on my in-laws’ couch, stacks of student writing piled on one side of me, convinced (after slogging through a dozen or so papers) that I in no way had any business teaching young adolescents to write a sentence—let alone an engaging, conventionally “readable” essay. Maybe it was the wine—it’s safe to assume I’d had a glass or two that evening—but I couldn’t help focusing all of my attention, not to mention my professional worth, on what my students couldn’t do as writers—chief among them being putting their darn name on the paper itself. Fully submerged in a self-pitying fog of despair, I’d laid my head back, put my hands over my face, and sobbed.

Now, I’m the first to admit that there’s a lot to unpack in the above narrative: notions around how we assign and assess student work, ideas about what makes writing “good” writing, how much holiday alcohol consumption is too much, etc. What’s important to focus on, though, is the lens through which I read my students’ writing that evening (and many evenings before and since, as painful as it is to admit): one which focused almost entirely on their collective and individual deficits as opposed to their assets—their abilities, their strengths, their beautiful, unique, quirky, ways of thinking, being, doing, and ... well, and writing.

Fast forward a decade and a half, and I can no longer read a piece of student work without tearing up at seeing the intentional moves the writer has made, at the ways in which this writer could teach others about process, craft, or voice—at (to borrow a phrase from author-educator-literacy giant Katherine Bomer) the “hidden gems” embedded in their work. Each chance to view a student’s writing is one that I cherish, as it’s become so joyful for me to identify what that student is showing me they can do as a writer—particularly when they have been gifted the space, the time, and the opportunity to choose not only what they want to write but how they want to write it. Doing so has become such a habit that I have been asked, over and over again, to help my colleagues “see” what it is that I see.

Because that deficit lens ... well, it’s a tough one to crack.

For teachers of student writers—a good number of whom were taught to write by those who had no trouble wielding their punitive red pens—it can sometimes be easier to pick up on the sentence fragments and misplaced apostrophes than it can be to recognize an unusual turn of a phrase or witty sidebar. However, taking an inquiry stance when it comes to student writing—asking myself first and foremost, “What could this writer potentially teach another writer?"—is what transformed my being an error-seeker to a miner of gems. Because truly, whether it be related to craft, process, form, or even attitude, every child has something to teach at least one other child (or even their teacher!) about what it means to be a writer. Every. Single. One.

Now, it may take some time to discover the gems that every student writer has within them. It may take more than one conversation with students about the decisions they’ve made as writers. But give yourself a year—maybe partner with a colleague and hold one another accountable—and if you can’t answer that overarching question for every single child in your classroom, you haven’t tried hard enough. It’s up to us to change our deficit mindset, and taking an inquiry stance is the key to doing so.

Our students are waiting.

Response From Kevin Parr

Kevin Parr is a 1st grade teacher from Wenatchee, Wash., and a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader:

As a system, we push kids toward success in school with the end goal largely being success on standardized tests. This goal, while well intentioned, narrows the focus of school on a defined band of knowledge, skills, and dispositions. We all know there are certain skills (such as literacy, arithmetic, and communication) that are critical for a fulfilled life, no matter what that may look like for any given individual. When a student struggles with these key skills, however, we often only look at what they are missing, label them as “behind,” and further restrict their learning until they “catch up.” In short, we are so hyper-focused on having each child progress through these sets of standards within a given time frame that we overlook the very strengths that could be leveraged to help them get there.

To do so, teachers must first adopt a mindset of acknowledging student weaknesses while at the same time celebrating student strengths and finding ways to use them to ensure lifelong success.

A strengths-based mindset for teachers: Although our school system seems to honor reading, writing, and mathematics above all else, teachers need to be open to the diverse talents children bring with them to school. My advice to teachers is to look at the people around you. Attend a community theater production, see some live music or comedy, and walk through the farmer’s market to see the handcrafted soaps, woodwork, and knitting. All of these things we appreciate and admire are particular strengths of these individuals, yet are/were not always supported in traditional schooling.

Once a teacher is in the mindset of finding student strengths, they can now help students to realize them and use them to help them in the classroom, especially in areas where they may struggle.

Here are a just a few hidden talents that are not viewed as valuable in school and how teachers can help students use them beneficially.

Drawing: Many children love to draw and are quite good at it but receive the message from teachers that “we don’t have time for drawing.” If for just a minute we consider how a child’s talent in representing the world through drawing could help them learn the skills we know they need, we can show them that their talents are valued and in the meantime help them find success. I have encountered many students who are challenged to sequence or retell a story but shine when allowed to draw the story as it unfolds or after reading. Similarly, sketching is a viable strategy for making meaning of and solving math problems. So to say “we don’t have time for drawing” is shortsighted.

Listening skills: For whatever reason, many students struggle to learn to read on the preset schedule they are placed on, and this perceived weakness is so obvious to teachers that they are blinded from any strengths the student may have. While learning to read is paramount, what if we separated “learning to read” from processing and evaluating information? A student’s relative strength in comprehension through listening could compensate for their weakness in reading skills. In this way, they will not be penalized twice for a skill they are struggling with and working so hard to master.

Behavior: There is no area of school in which teachers see weaknesses in students more than behavior. Teachers also need to focus on leveraging students’ dispositions, while at the same time teaching them ways to use them in a way that will benefit students later in life. Strong-willed students are often labeled “argumentative” or “defiant,” and methods are used to eliminate that behavior in favor of compliance. Standing up for what one believes in is a very beneficial skill. Teachers need to honor that skill and work with the student to realize how it can be perceived from different perspectives, better ways of communicating their viewpoint, and the times where it can be employed appropriately.

Teachers need to realize and remember that all the talents kids come to school with are important. If we change our perspective and learn to leverage their strengths, that may hold the key to our students’ success and happiness in life.

Response From Andrew Sharos

Andrew Sharos is a former social studies teacher and current high school administrator in Chicago. He is the author of All 4s and 5s, a book about teaching and leading Advanced Placement classes. He speaks nationwide about closing achievement gaps, best practices in classroom policies, and the intersection of literacy and technology:

Within every class, there are two critical different dynamics at play. The first one is the dynamic of the entire class with the teacher. Each student could tell you about their favorite and their least favorite class, and teachers could do the same. The class dynamic usually gets the teacher’s immediate attention because it’s what is in front of him/her every day. Once that culture and dynamic is established, the teacher can then approach each student relationship like it is an IEP and figure out what drives each student toward success in the class. It’s through the relationship with the class as a whole that teachers earn their “ins” with students as individuals. Once a teacher gets to know each student, they can identify strengths that are both academic and nonacademic. So if this seems overstrategized, let me explain.

The secret to good teaching might be boiled down simply to this: “We have to get kids to do what we want them to do.” That likely won’t happen without a good relationship with the teacher and a student/teacher awareness of student strengths. Building confidence has a direct correlation to finding and identifying what students are good at and helping them add to their repertoire. Once the teacher can identify the strengths, they can use them as a springboard to add new skills and build confidence to address weaknesses.

Perhaps a student’s habit of talking insensately could be seen as an asset to help with their writing. Could a student’s athletic prowess or commitment to extracurricular activities be used to cultivate leadership in the class and build agency with others? Could a student who often visits the dean’s office harness their skill set to become excellent at debates in class or defending a position? Maybe the quiet student in class could be the leader in digital discussions or peer editing online?

We have to look for strengths where there are strengths. But we also have to find strength in perceived weaknesses. When students receive recognition for what they do have, they stop focusing on what they don’t have. The teacher is the ultimate director in this dynamic, and it can only be achieved by first creating a strong culture with the class and moving swiftly to getting to know each student individually.

Thanks to Adeyemi, Larry, Carmen, Julie, Shawna, Kevin, and Andrew 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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