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Chapter 5

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Chapter Excerpts

In fact, in education, almost nothing is equal. One cannot control for personality, background, individual style and preference let alone the attitudes and beliefs of educational leaders and classroom teachers that have been shown to be so critical to enhancing student learning (Shields, Bishop, & Mazawi, 2005) … Contexts not only differ, but are complex and constantly changing in today’s VUCA world. A new family moves into the community; the parent comes into the school to volunteer; and many human interactions change. Schools in urban centers like New Orleans or Detroit may all be located in centers which have experienced severe trauma in recent years, but the differences between devastation by a hurricane and decline through economic downturn and corruption may require vastly different transformative strategies. Similarly, a small rural, impoverished, ethnically homogeneous school population in Idaho will require a different strategy from a school in a small, urban, relatively wealthy and diverse university town in the same state. In education, to promote both private and public good, it is important to acknowledge that “one size does not fit all.” … To introduce and foster the concept of private good for all students, we must be intentional about the equity of access, standards, and outcomes we are trying to promote. (p. 70)

Too often, as educators focus on a mandated form of assessment, a prescribed intervention, or on a scripted sequence of strategies and questions, we emphasize the technical, and in so doing, both deskill teachers and lose the heart of education—the relationships—between and among people and between students and the amazing content they have the opportunity to explore. Thus, to develop the capacity of individual students, transformative leaders must recognize the complexity and the variety of interests and personalities in each school and classroom and focus on developing people, rather than attaining test scores. To that end, relationships, and not programs, become key to successful teaching and learning and to the promotion of private, and ultimately also, public good. (p. 74)

Supplemental Chapter Resources

Catherine Lake

As we saw in the text, Madeleine Grumet (1995) states that:

What is basic is not a certain set of texts, or principles or algorithms, but the conversation that makes sense of these things. Curriculum is that conversation. It is the process of making sense with a group of people of the systems that shape and organize the world that we can think about together. (p. 19)

Catherine Lake lives and breathes this philosophy. Her implementation of “conversation that makes sense of things” is quite different from curriculum as preparing students to pass standardized tests. It is not the typical conception of curriculum or teaching found in most colleges of education or in most teacher-education programs. It therefore requires considerable thought and work on a daily basis. Curriculum as conversation and sense-making with a group of people requires dialogue and interaction; learning is no longer a purely individual activity, although each person will take away something different based on his or her own basis for the sense-making. Curriculum as a conversation that makes sense of things takes the weight of responsibility from the teacher alone and distributes it to all members of the group.

To help teachers understand and enact this concept, Catherine is aware that she is engaging in transformative leadership. She acknowledges that this requires constant awareness of socio-economic inequities and ongoing dialogue about how to offer educational redress. She knows that, as a school principal, she is not necessarily changing the wider societal patterns of poverty and power, but at the same time, that she is always making decisions that take account of the need for redistributive polices in schools to help to correct inequitable outcomes. This is not as easy as it sounds, but also requires both commitment and moral courage.

Catherine Lake, as we saw in the text, led her staff in a series of investigations that first changed their awareness, and ultimately their practice. Catherine was determined that every educator in her building would understand that there were some things that were “non-negotiable”—such as the need for equity, for every child to be held to high standards and to show progress in his or her learning outcomes.

One outcome of these conversations was a new and flexible approach to teaching both math and reading. The approach was based on the specific tasks to be learned and students’ unique abilities and knowledge of each task. In math, for example, one student might have already developed considerable skill with the grouping and regrouping necessary for complex addition and subtraction and could, for that unit, progress quite quickly and skillfully. In the next unit, if the same student had never learned measurement skills, he or she might require additional time to reach mastery. Hence, through a series of pre- and post-tests, students were grouped and regrouped to maximize meaningful learning. In similar fashion, students were regularly assessed for reading skills and regrouped accordingly.

Teachers also agreed on many strategies that would be highly controversial and perhaps unattainable in many schools—especially in unionized environments. They agreed that for each new task, those children having the most difficulty at a given moment should learn in smaller groups, with teachers with more skilled students voluntarily accepting larger groups. They decided that parent volunteers would be trained to assist in the groups where they were most needed (and not specifically where their own children were placed); and ultimately, they agreed to pool and redistribute some of their scarce fiscal resources to address needs that were newly identified. For example, the new approach to grouping revealed a lack of adequate high interest age/grade appropriate reading materials to meet the needs of a Spanish-speaking group of students, new to the school and the community. When there had been only one or two children per classroom falling below grade level expectations, this need went unnoticed; but with the new approach, it was clear that additional materials needed to be purchased from the already stretched and limited school budget. The teachers generously approached the challenge by renouncing individual requests to purchase the needed materials.

The foregoing constitutes an example the collective and transformative outcomes that may be attained when a transformative leader persists in engaging faculty in conversations about student capacity, ability, and need. These actions do not occur spontaneously, but require ongoing attention and persistent support and encouragement on the part of a leader.

Moreover, these examples illustrate the importance and the effectiveness of transformative leadership. Persistence in these new approaches required Catherine to be willing to take risks, and to have the courage to take a firm stand, resisting threats about what might happen should the changes detract from improving test scores or meeting AYP.

As indicated by the public reports of school data and the movement of test scores over time, there is a clear need for consistent and persistent leadership. Catherine herself says that when she backed off in 2011 and relaxed the pressure for dialogue and understanding inequity, test scores dropped. 

Figure 5.1

Nevertheless, recognizing the continued change in her school population from 21.9% low income and 70.6% white in 2002 to the current 46% low income and 33.1% white; the school’s performance exceeds what many educators believe to be possible. 

Figure 5.2


A more complete description of the assignment and Dionte’s response may be found in Kane, J. M., & Shields, C. M. (under review). You don’t think we can be scientists …? Overcoming deficit approaches to students living in poverty. In this article, we describe a principal we call Dr. Henry, who is struggling to know what kind of curriculum reforms to introduce in her school. In her quest, she encounters Dionte and his classmates. There we write:

Some of the students were responding to the question with words and others with drawings and many were engaged in lively conversation. She approached one table to speak with four children who were having a spirited discussion about what was happening to the water in their cylinder.

“What’s going on here?” Dr. Henry asked.

“We’re being scientists,” replied Amaya.

“Yes, we are writing in our science journals just like scientists do,” said Larenzo.

“Do scientists write in journals?” asked Dr. Henry.

“Oh, yes.” replied Amaya, “They write their ideas down so they can remember them and they make sure they put in a lot of details.”

“And they draw pictures,” said Larenzo, “and their pictures have words, too, because they have to label what they draw so other people know what’s in their picture. I’m an artist because I learned to draw from my auntie and so I can draw real good and then I can label my drawings so they are like scientist drawings.”

“I see,” said Dr. Henry, “so how do scientists know what to draw and write in their journals?”

“We do experiments,” said Amaya, “like the evaporation experiment. We observe what’s happening to the water in the cylinder and we read books about science and we think about it and write that down.” (Dr. Henry noted with amusement the shift from “they” to “we” but did not interrupt.)

“The best part of being a scientist,” said Larenzo, “is that we don’t have to know all the answers. If you’re a scientist, it’s okay not to know the answer before you start because you can learn by exploring and stuff and sometimes you just want to see what will happen because it’s fun that way. It’s not like other times when you have to find the right answer and take tests and stuff.” Dr. Henry was impressed by their ideas about being a scientist and noted that the students could tell the difference between inquiring for learning and finding the “right” answers for one test or another. She decided to move on to another group of students to hear their insights.

Dionte’s group caught her eye. She recognized him as a student who had previously made frequent visits to her office, but realized she had not seen him at all that year. “Hi, Dionte. What are you guys up to?”

“Oh, hey, Dr. Henry. Well, we’re working together and helping each other think about some ideas to put in our journal. I’m drawing my science lab and my assistants are helping me do my experiments. Today, we are finding out where the water is going and this assistant here is telling me that the molecules are moving faster and faster because of heat and that makes them turn into vapor and so they can escape. See these dots here? These are the molecules escaping because of heat. I’m a real good scientist because I’m creative and I like to discover stuff, but the best part is that I get to be in charge of the lab and my assistants help me to discover things and have ideas.” Dr. Henry realized she had never heard Dionte so excited about something he was learning in school.

Cherise added, “Yeah, we like to do the science explorations because we get to learn and we can ask each other for help and if we have a question we can ask each other. It’s not like other times when we have to be good.” Dr. Henry was curious about what it meant to “be good,” so she asked Cherise to say more. “Well,” Cherise continued, “other times we just have to be good. You know, like you have to sit up straight and raise your hand and do all the things you’re supposed to do and find out the right answers to the questions the teachers asks. And if you’re not good, you get in trouble. But sometimes in science we get to do stuff that is different.” Dr. Henry then wondered what Cherise meant by “different,” so she asked Cherise to explain. “Well,” Cherise said, “usually we just sit and do our work alone, but in science we can learn from books and move around and one time we even were running in the classroom.”

Dr. Henry was surprised and wondered if she should be concerned, but Dionte continued, “Oh, yeah. That was the molecule activity. We were up on the rug with Ms. Richer and we were molecules and Ms. Richer kept turning up the heat and we kept moving faster and finally we popped off the top of the water and went moving real fast round the classroom. Larenzo had to shut the door so we wouldn’t escape because molecules move really fast in all kind of directions when they get hot.”

“Yeah,” Cherise continued, “and then she turned the heat down and we had to slow down and we had to get back together and be water again and then it got really cold and we froze and we were all close together and solid.” Dr. Henry was impressed by how much these third graders understood about molecules changing from solid to liquid to gas. Obviously, the inquiry-based approach that Sophie was using was helping them learn science. It was so different from the transmissive approaches she knew other teachers were taking, trying to emphasize material they thought might be on the tests. In fact, as Dr. Henry reflected, she realized what a departure Sophie’s class truly was for these children. Yet, it was obviously helping students like Dionte, who had frequently been in her office, think of himself as a scientist and a capable learner. She had rarely seen students so engaged.


Aaron was a tall, handsome, bright, and very unmotivated student in my alternative ninth grade English class. Shortly after I learned of his almost singular interest in kung fu and his hero Bruce Lee, he brought me a sheaf of handwritten papers on which I read statements like the following:

Bruce Lee reminds me of Alexander the Great who opened the famed Gordian knot. Gordius was king of Phyrgia. According to the legend, he tied a very large knot with the ends hidden and announced that the person who could untie it would become ruler of all Asia. Hundreds of people tried and were unsuccessful. Then came Alexander the Great who took one look at the knot and hacked it to pieces with his sword and declared that he had fulfilled the prophecy. “Cutting the Gordian knot” is an expression meaning solving a difficult problem in a simple, unexpected way. Bruce Lee cut the Gordian knot of the martial arts world. While many styles of Kung Fu  said, “You must do this and you must do that and you must sit in this stance. You must do this to become proficient,” Bruce looked at the roots of the problem, the simplicity of the art, and the principles of combat, and hacked through the Gordian knot of ignorance in the martial arts world.

Figure 5.3

His writing went on to talk about how Gandhi had led the “search for truth”; how Thomas Edison was “probably the greatest inventor in history”; to describe Harry Houdini who was able to "perform sensational and extraordinary things”; and to discuss Leonardo da Vinci and his “amazing knowledge of the human body.” He went on to discuss Genghis Khan, "greatest conqueror of them all”; Julius Caesar; and Jackie Robinson, who “broke through the racial barrier.” He then concluded:

But above all Bruce Lee reminds me of Jonathan Livingston Seagull who kept striving to be faster and was never satisfied with himself until he could outdo himself by being faster and faster.  Bruce, like this seagull, kept reaching levels upon levels which others said were physically impossible to reach.  When people asked how can you get any better, he didn’t even stop to think, he just kept on improving and improving, and improved physically, spiritually, and mentally.

So much for thinking Aaron was unmotivated!  His general knowledge (in this particular area) was obviously better than that of many adults. Moreover, until I took the time to learn about his interest outside of the classroom, I had no way to know how to make the curriculum relevant for him or to help him connect it to his interests. Aaron taught me, once again, the importance of learning something about the outside interests and lives of my students.

Martin Buber

Martin Buber’s little volume, I and thou,was originally published in German in 1923. The collection of short statements in which he summarized his philosophy about the importance of dialogue and of relationships has made a lasting impression. The English version may be found on multiple websites, among them, http://www.angelfire.com/md2/timewarp/buber.html in which the author, Alex Scott (2002) explains:

According to Buber, human beings may adopt two attitudes toward the world: I-Thou or I-It. I-Thou is a relation of subject-to-subject, while I-It is a relation of subject-to-object. In the I-Thou relationship, human beings are aware of each other as having a unity of being. In the I-Thou relationship, human beings do not perceive each other as consisting of specific, isolated qualities, but engage in a dialogue involving each other's whole being. In the I-It relationship, on the other hand, human beings perceive each other as consisting of specific, isolated qualities, and view themselves as part of a world which consists of things. I-Thou is a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity, while I-It is a relationship of separateness and detachment.

For an interesting PowerPoint on the life of Buber, check out the presentation on the University of Washington website at http://courses.washington.edu/spcmu/buber/.

First Graders Can Talk about Inclusion and Exclusion

Often we remain silent about important issues, hiding our own reluctance or sense of trepidation or even incompetence by suggesting that the students with whom we work are too young or immature to discuss difficult issues. In the 1990s, a colleague of mine, Dr. Jerry Pillsbury, conducted a lengthy study in a first grade class to determine their ability to understand issues of inclusion and exclusion. In an article we called, “When ‘they’ becomes ‘we’”—published as: Pillsbury, J., & Shields, C. M. (1999). When “they” becomes “we.” Journal for a Just and Caring Education, 5(4),410–429,we cite the following incident from his data:

Jerry asked them, Is it wrong to call a bunch of people “they”?
During the conversation, one student asked, “What if someone said, ‘We’re playing by ourselves?’”
After two intervening statements, a little girl reflected, “Umm, like, we’re playing by ourselves so you can’t play.”
As they explored this issue, a child said softly, almost to herself, “Oh no, don’t say that you can’t play.”
Shortly thereafter, another boy, recognizing the potential for hurt, asked, “But how are you going to describe someone else without saying ‘they’”?
Therein lies the problem, clearly delineated by first-graders.
A girl continued, “When you say ‘they,’ it’s like … ‘they’ is different and whenever we say ‘we’ it’s not different.” (p. 426)

We concluded this piece by saying:

This example of a conversation between a researcher and a first grade class shows clearly the power of attempting new forms of communication – even with very young children. As these children began to recognize, it is not that the use of “we” or “they” is inherently right or wrong; rather, it is how a comment is framed and what sense of self or other is being represented which is important.

The Poverty Unit

In another piece of research, conducted as part of a longitudinal pan-Canadian study and reported in both the project report (Smith, W. J., Butler-Kisber, L., LaRocque, L. J., Portelli, J. P., Shields, C. M., Sparkes, C. S. et al. (1998).. Student engagement in learning and school life: National project report. Office of Research on Educational Policy, McGill University) and a subsequent article (Vibert, A. B., Portelli, J. P., Shields, C. M., & LaRocque, L. (2002). Critical practice in elementary schools: Curriculum of life, voice, and community. Journal of Educational Change, 3(2), 93–116), we found sixth graders discussing a newspaper article in which their community and school had been characterized as high poverty—much to the dismay of some residents. Here is a small portion of their conversation:

J: I don’t know if we should talk about violence in our community.
D: Are we saying that poverty and violence are things we should not talk about? I’m just asking …
V: And violence and poverty are things we have to talk about if we want them to go away … The thing is, it isn’t personal … and people taking it that way makes it worse, sort of like there’s some shame in being poor.
T: But the article says “many” and “many” sounds bad … like shame or blame …
K: But, poverty is not poor people’s fault and not having everything you need shouldn’t make you feel less of a person.

Again we find here strong evidence that much of the reluctance to discuss difficult issues comes from the adults in charge of schools and classrooms. Students are both very willing and highly able to engage in thoughtful and meaningful conversations.