What It Takes To Really Make A Difference

One of the things I love about summer is the chance to stretch out academically and get into professional books with the time and space to think deeply and reflect on my professional practice and the practice of the institution I am charged with providing academic leadership for. This summer I have spent time with Eric Jensen’s ‘Teaching Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It”. I highly recommend this book for all of my colleagues who work in challenging urban environments. Jensen spends a great deal of time in the first part of the book examining the effects of poverty on the brain. This section includes extensive research quotes to support his thoughts, without being overly academic or stuffy. The second part of the book explores the mindsets necessary to work successfully with children from impoverished backgrounds. (I’ll take this chance to give a shout out for Carol Dweck and ‘Mindset’…a must for all who work in education for a living). Finally, the third and fourth parts of the book explore building wide and classroom success factors that are critical for schools and teachers that seek to be successful with at risk students. Specifically, Jensen asserts that support of the whole child, strategically using data, a high degree of accountability, focusing on relationships, and constant enrichment are critical components in schools that are making a difference with hard to reach students. Below are a smattering of quotes that specifically stuck out to me. The book is available through ASCD, ISBN: 978-1-4166-0884-4

“Poverty calls for key information and smarter strategies, not resignation and despair” p.5

“Teachers don’t need to come from their students’ cultures to be able to teach them, but empathy and cultural knowledge are essential.” p. 11

“Children raised in poverty rarely choose to behave differently, but they are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, and their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance.” p.14

“Some teachers may interpret students’ emotional and social deficits as a lack of respect or manners, but it is more accurate and helpful to understand that the students come to schools with a narrower range of appropriate emotional responses than we expect.” p. 18

“It is much easier to condemn a student’s behavior and demand that he or she change it than it is to help the student change it. Every proper response that you don’t see at your school is one that you need to be teaching.” p. 19

“If your school aims to improve student achievement, academic success must be culturally acceptable among your students.” p. 20

“Whenever you and your colleagues witness a behavior you consider inappropriate, ask yourselves whether the discipline process is positive and therefore increases the chances for better future behavior, or whether it’s punitive and therefore reduces the chances for better future behavior.” p. 30

“Instead of telling students to act differently, take the time to teach them how to act differently.” p. 30

“On every single day of school, your students’ brains will be changing…Whether they are changing for better or for worse depends headily on the quality of the staff.” p.48

“Most low SES kids’ brains have adapted to survive their circumstances, not to get As in school. Their brains may lack the attention, sequencing, and processing systems for successful learning. It’s up to us to upgrade their operating systems – or see a downgrade in their performance.” p. 57

“We can help kids rise above their predicted path of struggle if we see them as possibilities, not as problems.” p. 65

“If you surrender to the despair and deprivation of students’ lives outside school, you will make your classroom and school failure a self-fulfilling prophecy. To get the best from your student, you must expect and demand the best from yourself.” p. 83

“If a student is not doing well (excellent teachers) immediately ask the question “How can I teach this differently, and what needs to change so that the student will achieve mastery?” p. 110

“Avoid complaining about students’ deficits. If they don’t have it, teach it!” p. 116

Asking The Right Questions to Stretch Performance

Getting past the monolithic approach of teaching to all students (towards the middle) is essential if we are going to get past the one size fits all method of education.

With all the attention that has been generated with student growth measures, value added metrics, and the flipped classroom, you would think that teachers would be rushing to the doors to differentiate their lessons and create multiple pathways for students to demonstrate mastery.

The reality is that changing the culture of the teacher centered classroom and moving it towards a student centered classroom is hard work that requires a shift in mindset.

There are three books that I’d recommend to leaders who are considering tackling the challenging work of culture change around where the center of the classroom gravity is (sage on the stage vs. guide on the side).

1. Drive by Dan Pink – While not an education book per se, Pink lays the framework for understanding the aptitudes and skill sets that are essential for those who want to be successful in the idea and knowledge economy of the 21st century.  Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose are the three essentials that Pink believes are the drivers of intrinsic motivation and outweigh external if-then rewards (that we are so good at using in education).

2. Mindset by Carol Dweck – This book examines the growth vs. fixed mindset and spends a great deal of time exploring behaviors that can move persons towards either side of the mindset continuum.  The takeaway for educators is that we have immense power to shape and create growth mindsets by the types of interactions we intentionally have with our students.  The power of language and its ability to mold student beliefs is a big takeaway.  There are parallels to Marzano’s work on effective praise that will make you think twice before telling a student ‘great work’ the next time s/he tells you that ‘A’ is the correct answer.

3. Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom by Tomlinson and Imbeau – I must admit that I was guilty of thinking about differentiation as a set of classroom strategies that could be used as part of the larger teacher toolkit.  While there are certainly strategies involved, I discovered, after participating in a workshop put on by Marcia Imbeau, that differentiation is more about having a growth mindset as an educator and deeply knowing each student as a learning.  Only when one is committed to creating differentiated experiences for all learners that capitalize on their strengths will differentiation truly take hold in a classroom.  The tools from the Formative Instructional Practices (F.I.P.) workshops by Battelle for Kids fits perfectly with the structures for leading a differentiated classroom that Tomlinson and Imbeau lay out.  The bottom line is that in a differentiated classroom, time is not the constant.  Rather, student learning and mastery take center stage, and differentiated structures are put in place to help all learners master the content.

While all-star teachers and learners will latch onto books such as those above and are always willing to try new things, the key for leaders is to figure out how to get your reluctant staff members to the table in order to eat.  I believe that the use of thought provoking, discomfort producing questions is one strategy to help this process along.

A question to begin the differentiation conversation could be:

“What plans do you have for the students in your classroom who already get the material?”


“How can you ensure that learning is taking place for students who have mastered the content as opposed to just letting them sit there and wither while you review with everyone else?”

Too often we try and go for the homerun ball with every professional development, and the result is that the participants feel overwhelmed and nothing ends up changing.  By using provocative, discomforting questions, teachers get moved to the edge of their zone of proximal development and they will be forced to fill in the white spaces on their own.

If you were to begin to draw these questions out to their logical conclusions, differentiation is the only place where teachers can end up.  This is where you as the leader then backfill with work around mindset and shift thinking towards a classroom environment where success can be experienced by all students.