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The Importance of Focusing on Students' Assets

(This is the second post in a five-part series.  You can see Part One 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 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.

Today, Lisa Westman, Salome Thomas El, T.J. Vari, Joseph Jones, Amber Chandler, Michelle Shory, Ed.S., Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., Rita Platt, Cheryl Mizerny, and Adria Klein, Ph.D., contribute their commentaries.

Response From Lisa Westman

Lisa Westman is a writer, speaker, and consultant who works with school systems across the country to implement student-driven differentiation, standards-based learning, and instructional-coaching programs. She has over 15 years of experience as a teacher and an instructional coach specializing in differentiation. She is the author of Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps to Harmonize Learning in the Classroom (Corwin). Connect with Lisa on Twitter: @lisa_westman:

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled The greatest deficiency in education is our obsession with showcasing deficits. As I transitioned from the classroom after 15 years to a full-time consultant visiting schools across the country, I was struck by how focused many education stakeholders are on deficits rather than strengths.

As I have grown in my role, I have found the most efficient and effective way to ensure teachers focus on students' strengths is for administrators to focus on teachers' strengths first. When administrators model this behavior for teachers and embody a strengths-based mindset, this lens quickly spreads to teachers doing the same in their classrooms and then to students focusing on strengths in themselves and others.

The following are three ways administrators can model a highly contagious strengths-based mindset that quickly leads to teachers embodying the same principles in their classrooms:

1) Give nonattribute praise: This is a method I learned from Jim Knight while studying to become an instructional coach. Instead of saying, "You're good at that," give teachers and students specific feedback about a commendable effort: "I noticed how you have been taking steps to ensure your students have the majority of the talk time during class discussions. You use some really creative turn and talk strategies. Kudos to you!" If you want to take this a step further, you can ask teachers to demonstrate a strategy at a staff meeting or take a quick video of them in action (if they are comfortable ... and by consistently focusing on strengths, teachers WILL become more comfortable).

2) Replace walk-throughs with look-fors: Nothing kills a teacher's spirit quicker than a walk-through looking for "missing" things. And, oftentimes, these walk-throughs are well-intended yet poorly implemented (more on that here). Instead of walk-throughs, conduct "look-fors" and highlight the things teachers are doing.

3) Use internal capacity to build capacity: Recently, I was working with a teacher in a school who said, "I was planning on leaving this school, and then our new principal started." When I asked her what the new principal did, she said, "He noticed I needed a challenge and presented me with an opportunity to build a mindfulness program for our students. This is something I am passionate about and have experience doing. Now, I am so excited to come back next school year." The key here was the new principal noticed what his teachers needed and proactively approached the situation before his teacher was "burnt out" beyond repair.

When administrators go "first" using strategies like the ones suggested above, teachers will feel more supported and excited about their roles. Teachers will then then emulate those behaviors resulting in a full educational community focused on strengths rather than deficits. 

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Response From Salome Thomas El, T.J. Vari & Joseph Jones

T.J. Vari, Salome Thomas El and Joseph Jones are district and school leaders in Delaware:

The pendulum is swinging back again, and fortunately, it's going in the right direction. For far too long, those who control the pendulum, within and outside of education, were focused on highlighting deficits to enact change. This narrow view of striving toward improvements is actually counter-intuitive. We can't lift people while we're holding them down. Now, the emphasis is moving toward efficacy, grit, and resilience. Recent research and efforts toward teaching students to have a growth mindset and re-examining grading practices that lean toward mastery have emerged as the change agents for a strength-based approach to developing a view of ourselves and others. 

We call this a learning culture, which is a deviation from the traditional teaching culture that most of us knew as students ourselves. This shift in school culture creates a fundamental change that highlights our students' dispositions as learners, connections in the classroom with the content, and precise, compassionate feedback as the mechanism for making learning gains. It means that we are building upon strengths and capitalizing on value instead of identifying weaknesses. 

The best way to translate this into practice at the student level is for school leaders to support teachers through professional growth and development. When passionate leaders apply strategic initiatives to improve the culture of the school for the adults who work there, the staff members are far more likely to do the same for the students. As we focus on the self-efficacy of our teachers, they, in turn, will help students to see learning as a way to uncover their assets, not just highlight their mistakes. 

The key is to change the way we view growth for teachers and rely more on feedback as a catalyst for change. But the feedback has to change as well. Typical feedback and evaluation methods don't produce desired change because they highlight general weaknesses in a particular area. But filling gaps is only half of the equation. The new shift in professional dialogue is toward focusing on learning as a process, not an outcome. This demands real candor and requires leaders to prioritize every teachers' assets in the classroom so that they repeat, with pride, what they do individually that makes a difference for student learning. 

In a culture of growth and support, students and teachers see themselves as learners, not just doers, taskmasters, or, worse than anything, time fillers. A new model for school culture, a learning culture versus a teaching culture, is on the horizon. The key is that everyone sees themselves as learners. With a clear focus on learning dispositions, mindset, and relationships, along with feedback (for teachers and students) that demonstrates candor around how we can grow, a new age of learning in schools is finally here. Passionate educators know that it takes a desire to be better, the work ethic necessary to make it a reality, and a positive outlook as we make the change.  

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Response From Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is the 2018 AMLE Educator of the Year, author of books on differentiation and SEL, and a teacher on special assignment as an alternative learning and intervention coordinator. She is a frequent education blogger and speaker. @MsAmberChandler:

Deficit grading—the practice of grading student work based on errors and mistakes as opposed to grading based on evidence of learning—is an outdated educational norm that I predict will continue to be very difficult to dismantle, even in light of research and shifts to embrace a growth mindset. I try to remember that people have different ways of seeing the world and learning can take many forms, filtered through their individual experiences. Yes, there are "non-negotiables" that our students must learn, but when you really think about it, there is far more wiggle room, allowing students to truly absorb what is happening in your class versus simply regurgitating what you, an adult not living their particular life, deems noteworthy instead of asking them what they learned.  

I remember a student a few years ago who showed me just that. Issac was an eccentric kiddo, deeply into computers, cubing, fantasy fiction, and easily lost track of both time and his belongings. He frequently made other teachers nuts because he was late and couldn't find things, but I always focused on the fact that he was actually thinking more than anyone I knew. You just had to scratch the surface to find out that he did online book reviews, belonged to a global community of game designers, and took care of his two younger siblings every day after school. No wonder he didn't care that much about some of the more mundane aspects of school. One day, after we'd finished The Outsiders, students were asked to respond to the question, "Why do you think Ponyboy has such a hard time accepting Johnny's death?" We had discussed this question thoroughly, and I was sure that all students had a good idea of "the answer." Issac, though, showed me quite clearly that the best learning in my class will occur when students experience the literature and make it relational, not a recanting of what I thought was important. Issac wrote an essay explaining that Ponyboy was suffering from PTSD due to his parents' deaths, and Johnny's death simply set him back a few stages in the Stages of Grief. He didn't give me "the answer," but instead he gave me a better one. How could I possibly take points off because he hadn't hit the "right answer" I'd expected? 

In my own practice, due to many experiences such as the one with Issac, I've taken to a "show what you know" approach to students demonstrating their learning. For every unit, I create a list of Essential Learnings that I'm expecting everyone to know and understand. I create a checklist for students who can then keep track of when they master a certain requirement. I'll give a test, just like everyone else, but I'll include a section where they are instructed to "tell me anything else you learned that is not on this test." If students meet the expectations set forth in the Essential Learnings, it is completely OK if they have told me in a different way. 

In theory, this sounds more radical than it actually becomes in practice. I simply allow students to "show what they know" as often as possible. Encouraging students to value what they have learned, not just what I have taught, allows them leadership in the classroom and ownership over their own experience of school. In a world where our students can learn whatever they want, seek out expertise, and share their own ideas all with the device in their pocket, it seems to me that the best use of our time as educators is to utilize a Constructivist approach in our classrooms. I think back to Issac and I realize that if I hadn't been so busy making sure that everyone knew the "right answer," he could have exposed my class to a level of learning that I hadn't even considered. As I approach students now, I'm trying to begin units with asking them what they know and building from there. In this way, we are making the learning authentic, participatory, and socially relevant, which seems to me the best way to leave deficit grading behind and embrace the future of learning, recognizing that it is an organically evolving schema.

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Response From Michelle Shory, Ed.S., & Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D.

Michelle Shory, Ed.S., is a district instructional coach and Google Certified Trainer in Jefferson County public schools, Louisville, Ky. She serves five high schools in the district. In addition to coaching, Michelle designs and implements professional learning experiences for teachers across the district. She is passionate about literacy and helped establish Dolly Parton's Imagination Library in Louisville. 

Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., is a district instructional coach and Google Certified Trainer in Jefferson County. She facilitates online and face-to-face. She is also a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project (LWP) and the University of Louisville adjunct who teaches Literacy and ESL methods courses.

Michelle and Irina are passionate about good books, meaningful tech integration, andragogy, and classroom joy. They share resources on Twitter and at bit.ly/ell2point0:

Mindsets affect outcomes. A positive mindset can impact our ability to grow and appreciate others. A negative mindset sets up for failure and disappointment by clouding our views of ourselves and others. In order to create optimal learning environments, teachers must adopt a positive mindset of learning and the learners in his/her classroom.

Teachers Can adopt a positive mindset by

Paying attention to the language used when referring to English-learners. Diction is powerful. A line from a famous quote states, "Watch your thoughts, they become words; Watch your words, they become actions. ..." Consequently, it's imperative for educators to substitute words such as "low level," "struggling," "limited English proficient" with "emerging bilingual/multilingual," "striving," and "linguistically and culturally diverse."

Accepting the WIDA's 'Can Do' philosophy. The philosophy stresses the social and emotional assets ELs bring to any classroom. By focusing on what ELs can do, teachers set the stage for a positive and productive learning environment that enables students to strive.

Capitalizing on students' "funds of knowledge." The concept of "funds of knowledge," developed by Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez (2001), refers to the skills and practices that are central to students' cultures. By integrating ELs' funds of knowledge into school curriculum, teachers create meaningful learning experience for students and boost pride in their cultural and linguistic backgrounds. 

Valuing students' native languages (L1). ELs' native language is an integral part of who they are. By making an effort to learn words and phrases in students' native language instead of insisting on "English only," teachers acknowledge the importance of L1 to ELs' identity development and academic growth. 

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Teachers should avoid

Grouping students by test scores, languages, or reading level all of the time. Even though we as teachers have the very best intentions, students know what we are doing—and they do not always appreciate it. Although there are times when it might be helpful for students to be in ability groups (for tier 2 or 3 instruction), students learn a tremendous amount when they work with a variety of peers with different language backgrounds and readiness levels. We all have strengths to share. Teachers do, too. Try sitting in a new seat during your next faculty meeting.

Creating one-size-fits-all goals for the whole class. We most likely have the same learning target or goal for our lesson, but how we meet that target or goal can be different for each student. When planning instruction, remember that students come to us with various funds of knowledge, educational experiences, and motivations to learn. They deserve personalized learning.  Set aside time to conference individually with students so you can work together to set meaningful goals.

Excluding ELs from enrichment opportunities like TAG screenings, related arts experiences, etc.  "Specials" should be for everyone.  Music, art, drama, and other related arts courses are some of the most memorable and soothing parts of the day for students.  ELs, especially those who are dealing with culture shock or trauma, need these experiences. Be sure to advocate for your ELs when it is time for talented and gifted screenings or academic opportunities like Governor's School. Remind teachers (and administrators) that language proficiency, cognitive abilities, and creativity are not one in the same.  

Lowering expectations.  High school students do not want to read books about Clifford the Big Red Dog.  We know ... because they have told us.  When choosing materials, keep student interest and developmental appropriateness in mind. Consider using websites like Newsela, Actively Learn, and News in Levels so students have access to material at a variety of Lexiles. Also, do not let newcomer students become ignored or overlooked.  Even if they do not understand the entire lesson, they can share something about their learning experience each and every day.  Try using simplified exit tickets or a dialogue journal. 

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Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a national-board-certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergartner to graduate student. She is currently the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb:

In The Most Powerful 3-Letter Word a Parent or Teacher Can Use, Daniel Coyle writes that "kids love to announce they're not good at something." One of the cures for this type of defeatism, says Coyle, is to teach children to add the word yet to the end of any such declarations. If, for example, one of my kindergartners says, "I can't tie my shoes" or a 5th grader says, "I can't do long division," I encourage her or him to add yet to that statement: "I can't tie my shoes yet" or "I can't do long division yet." It's a small but powerful addition that almost forces the speaker into a growth mindset.

The "power of yet" and growth mindset are tools for helping students develop the self-efficacy needed to see themselves already able to do incredible things and capable learners with even more greatness in their futures. In other words, it helps learners to develop an asset-based approach when looking at themselves. 

As I watch my students learn, I give feedback focused on helping them to see learning as a process, which is often hard and messy. I want them to see every learning success as a metaphor for all that is possible in their lives. In addition to saying "yet" over and over again, I find myself encouraging with other growth-mindset-focused ideas.

"If you can learn to do this, you can do anything!"

"You must feel so proud of yourself for continuing to try even when it was really hard!"

"I know it's hard! I am here for you! Don't give up!"

"Can you believe how hard you worked to make this happen?"   

"Don't worry if you don't learn it this year; we'll work on it next year, too! You will do this!"

Helping students learn to set, self-monitor, and meet goals is another great way to empower them to see themselves as having the ability to impact their own growth and to be independently successful. At my school, we talk about having a commitment to helping ALL students make a year's growth in a year's time. We focus our work with goals in reading and math and expect learners who are on grade level, above grade level, and below grade level to set SMART goals and work hard and grow.

When students see themselves meeting goals, it can have a powerful ripple effect on their sense of themselves from an asset-based rather than a deficit-based perspective because they have proof that they learn, grow, change, and get better when they try to.

Recently, I read The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. Have you read it? It's worth the time. It's a memoir that tells the story of two kids named Wes Moore who grew up in tough neighborhoods, faced many traumas, and ultimately ended up in very different places, one a very successful military and business leader and the other an inmate in federal prison. What resonated most with me was Moore's emphasis on the power of expectations. He said, "We are products of our expectations, what we expect of ourselves and what we expect of others."

I would add teacher expectations to that as well. When teachers share the power of "yet," support kiddos as they set and meet goals, and see students begin to focus on their assets, a teacher cannot help but do the same. Watching students grow helps teachers to see them through an asset-based lens, have high expectations for them, and truly believe students can achieve. When teachers believe in students and students believe in themselves, together they can move mountains!

For a detailed example of how I work with kiddos to build growth mindset, read Once Around the Bunny's Ear: Learning to Tie Shoes as a Metaphor for All That is Possible

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Response From Cheryl Mizerny

Cheryl Mizerny has been teaching for over 20 years, is passionate about middle-level education, and serves on the faculty of the AMLE Leadership Institute. Her practice is guided by her belief in reaching every student and educating the whole child. She currently teaches 6th grade English in Michigan and writes an education blog, It's Not Easy Being Tween, for Middleweb.com:

When I taught special education students, one of the most frustrating parts of my job was seeing the absolute defeat on one of their faces when they had earned a low grade on something they'd worked extremely hard to complete. Often, the low grade was directly related to a manifestation of their learning difference such as poor spelling, inadequate vocabulary, or not being able to do math facts in their head in order to show their work. In reality, my students and I both knew they were capable of so much more if just given the proper accommodations and opportunities. It was heartbreaking because I'd witnessed their moments of brilliance. I've heard similar stories from colleagues who teach students with physical limitations or English-language learners. Students were not able to perform to their potential because their needs weren't being met. Happily, in the decade since I moved out of a resource position to teaching English, teachers are now much more aware of the importance of focusing on strengths over weaknesses.

Our students come to us with myriad unique attributes, and capitalizing on this allows them to achieve at higher levels than in the past. As a result of asset- or strengths-based teaching, they are more motivated, confident, and happy and less likely to be earn yet another label: "at-risk."

Recently, I had the privilege of attending a PD session led by author Andrew Smith. He said something that struck home. He encouraged us to tell our students, "Being good at the thing that makes you different is what makes you irreplaceable. Be the light and not the lightbulb." This is exactly how I want my students to feel and what I want them to internalize. Fortunately, there are many ways classroom teachers can help students view themselves as talented, capable, included, and even essential.

At the beginning of the year, I give my students a "get to know you" survey that asks about their outside interests, something they are proud of, and something they can do well enough to teach others. I use this information to provide a platform to showcase these talents. Another beginning-of-the-year activity is to have pupils complete a reading- and writing-skills inventory (I particularly like the ones provided by Jennifer Serravallo), and they use this to develop skills-based goals and personal goals. We also do some exploratory work to allow them to determine how they learn best, what they need to succeed, and how to self-advocate.

Once they have personal goals, I provide choice as much as possible, incorporate collaborative activities, and minimize competition. In addition, I practice culturally responsive teaching so I make sure that the cultural background my students bring to the table is something to be celebrated beyond just the tokenism of holidays, foods, and clothing by designing a classroom that showcases and honors all backgrounds. Finally, I have high expectations of all of my students and believe it is my duty to provide what they need to reach their full potential. My end goal is a classroom of confident, creative, lifelong learners.

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Response From Adria Klein, Ph.D.

Adria Klein, Ph.D., is center director and trainer for early-intervention programs at Saint Mary's College of California and the author of Scholastic EDGE™—a program designed to address the needs of striving readers. She is also a professor emerita of reading education at California State University, San Bernardino, where she was the chair of the Department of Elementary and Bilingual Education; she has served as president of the California Reading Association and on the International Literacy Association board:

Highlighting student assets means building on their strengths to support them. Students bring a wealth of experiences that should be celebrated to enhance learning. Here are three examples from my experience that show how highlighting student strengths benefits their learning.

One of the students in our intervention services was learning English as a newcomer. English was his fourth language and his first experience with the Roman alphabet. He was in upper-elementary, and it would have been easy to see his needs over his strengths. His world wisdom, knowledge of other languages, and representational writing systems were extraordinary. He came to school with a positive, can-do attitude but was tentative, and his responses were very limited. What were his assets? In terms of his knowledge of languages, cultures, foods, and experiences, he was far beyond everyone at the school. And he was eager to learn even though so much was new. So the teacher took it step by step, first by sharing the alphabet with picture support, then by using additional visuals and videos to build upon vocabulary learning, all while tapping into the cognitive frame for this work he already had from his experience learning in other languages. He continued to learn quickly, smiled often, was eager to try, and I am certain a big part of this was the assets-based view of his teachers. (Clay, 2016; Briceño & Klein, 2019)

Earlier in my teaching, I was a reading specialist at the secondary level. I saw many students who had gained less than a year of growth for one year in school, losing about two to three months on assessments every year. By 10th grade, they were at least two to three years behind—not low enough to suggest a special education referral but unable to benefit from classroom instruction without intervention. Our goal was to focus on student assets by helping them find high-interest books that they would want to and be able to read, while teaching them needed skills. Once we viewed them as readers who wanted to read, they began to see themselves as readers, too, carrying books around and visiting the library often. Their test-score gains doubled in one year over previous yearly results. (Afflerbach, 2016; Afflerbach & Klein, 2019).

What happens when there are fewer obvious strengths? As an interventionist, I recently worked with a kindergartner who spoke English as her home language; she would draw pictures but only wrote her name and random strings of letters all year during independent writing. She had a knowledgeable teacher who had clear, focused mini-lessons and conferred often, but even more scaffolding intervention was needed. So I evaluated her assets and built on what she already knew to target instruction (Clay, 2016; Dorn & Soffos, 2011, 2017). During independent writing, we conferred and shared the pen for a short time, writing sentences together, and I reminded her where she could look for resources in the room, including a word wall and a dictionary. During sharing time, she transferred those new skills by volunteering to share her writing with the class. Her hand went up to share before the teacher even asked! 

When we highlight students' strengths during teaching in any situation, they will do better because we can target our scaffolding approach. We can find all students' assets when we build on knowns. This means that students can use what they already know to solidify information and become faster at recognizing new words. We also have to teach for transfer. This requires working from strengths and this starts when we see all children as having unlimited possibilities open to them. By being mindful of students' strengths, we will help to close the opportunity gaps!

See References here.

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Thanks to Lisa, Salome, T.J., Joseph, Amber, Michelle, Irina, Rita, Cheryl, and Adria 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 [email protected]. 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.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first eight years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom-Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin the School Year

Best Ways to End the School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Cooperative & Collaborative Learning

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Best of Classroom Q&A

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Mistakes in Education

Project-Based Learning

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days.

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