If you walked into the classroom of a teacher who was outstanding at serving all of their students—those who might be marginalized, struggling, neurodiverse or recent immigrants—what exactly would you see? What actions distinguish teachers who are especially effective with our most vulnerable students?
Over the past four years, I’ve come to immensely enjoy this question, both because it seems so urgently important and because it is a stumper. Through my work as director of MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab, I’ve asked the question to teachers, school leaders, coaches, researchers and experts of all stripes (think: learning science, instruction, teacher education, culturally responsive teaching and so on), and it typically elicits more pauses and wonderings than answers.
Part of the challenge of the question is that it’s easier to think about classroom instruction in terms of lessons or units of curriculum than moments or actions. I can show you my lesson plans, my binders, my Google Classroom pages, but it’s harder to show you a moment when a young person felt challenged or included or inspired.
So in the fall of 2019 and the winter of 2020, I worked with a talented team of videographers and producers to fan out to schools across the country—in Indiana, California, Florida and Massachusetts—to capture short documentary videos of classroom teachers. We weren’t seeking out “perfect” teachers or ideal settings, just real classrooms where we thought we could see special, important work happening.
Our primary guide for observing these learning environments was a book by Vanderbilt University Professor Rich Milner called Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There, which offers a framework of opportunity-centered teaching. Opportunity-centered teaching is the practice of considering relationships, community building, identity development and student well-being as bedrock foundations for rigorous academic learning.
In our summary of that work (inspired also by University of Southern California faculty Robert Filback and Alan Green), we see opportunity-centered teaching as re-righting four tensions that are often imbalanced in schools: asset framing and deficit thinking, equity and equality, awareness and avoidance, and context-centeredness and context-neutrality.
For instance, it is very common for teachers to view their students through a deficit lens: What don’t my students know, and what can’t they do? Now, those are actually quite essential questions! There are good things we want all students to learn about the world around them, and we should keep track of student progress toward those goals. But there is so much to learn from understanding student strengths: What are my students’ distinct talents and unique understandings, and how can they leverage those assets to do great things? Both questions are important for educators, but we tend to think a bit too much about the deficits and not nearly enough about the strengths.
Similarly in schools, we put a lot of focus on giving all students the same thing (equality), and perhaps not enough on giving each student what they need (equity). We often neglect to discuss the real impacts of diverse life experiences and circumstances. Again, sometimes that’s good; it’s a wonderful thing to dwell on the various wonders of what makes our humanity universal. But too often, we simply avoid discussing topics related to identity. In a world driven by race, class, caste and difference, we don’t do enough in schools to candidly confront those realities with an attentive awareness.
And finally, sometimes it makes sense to set our local contexts aside and explore the universality of a particular content area such as math, or physics, or social science. But too often, we fail to center our local contexts, and to explore all of the assets that our neighborhoods and communities could bring to our educational mission. Our local histories, our neighborhood green spaces and our students’ extended families offer all kinds of academic connections that can enrich our studies. Of course it’s wonderful to study astronomy and look up at the same stars that we all see, but a rich curriculum will also make room for studying the unique issues, people and history of the neighborhoods around our schools.
These were the tensions—lenses, if you will—that we put in front of our cameras and audio recorders as we visited classrooms across the country three years ago.
In Indiana, Ronni Moore, a high school instructional leader, showed us how she listens to students who are struggling to find clues that might help her serve them better. She told us how she shifted from asking herself, “What’s wrong with this kid?” to asking, “What happened to this kid?” We watched her try little micro-experiments with her students: with one student who needed plenty of redirection, she made extra efforts to ramp up her positive actions—even small things, like, “Hey, I like that jacket,” to build the foundation of a relationship.
In Florida, Angela Daniel, a high school instructional coach, told us about a lesson from her father: “If you ever want something out of a child, accuse them of it first.” From that piece of paternal wisdom followed a teaching practice of naming student strengths. “As soon as I see a nugget of brilliance in a student, they get accused of it a lot,” Daniel shared. She might accuse her students of being kind, or brave, or exceptionally bright. In her advisory period, we watched her teach her students how to write down a compliment to another person and then say it aloud. What a great writing prompt. What a terrific life skill to be sharing. What a great way to build up ripples of positivity in a school community.
In Boston, Neema Avashia, a civics teacher, showed us how she teaches stories of loss and difference in a unit about Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, also known as “Black Wall Street.” If her students learn anything at all about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, it is the destruction of one of the most affluent Black commercial districts in 20th century America. In Avashia’s’s class, the focus was equally on what those enterprising entrepreneurs built, on what was created and what was lost. As Avashia said in the documentary, “If I’m not talking about race, and the way that race is affecting [my students] and their families, then I’m being blind to the very real issues we are all struggling with.”
Probably the most ambitious instruction we observed was at Latitude High School in Oakland, California, where a team of physics teachers led their students in the construction of a set of “tiny houses.” Students designed, measured and built real, livable tiny homes that could be deployed to address the epidemic of housing insecurity that students saw and felt all around them—sometimes first-hand—in their community every day.
We’ve stitched all of these stories together into a 30-minute documentary called “We Have to Do Something Different.” The film weaves together the stories of teachers across the country and demonstrates how they employ these teaching practices in real schools with real students. Again, these are not perfect teachers. They don’t have access to exceptional resources or possess out-of-reach skills. Anyone can learn from—maybe even adopt—the practices and approaches they use with their students.
We hope that educators will watch the film in groups and discuss it. We kept the length to 32 minutes so that educators could watch the film and debrief afterward in a faculty meeting, professional learning community meeting or other typical gathering. The free film can be requested at somethingdifferentfilm.com, where there are also resources such as discussion guides and slides for facilitators.
The film is an optimistic portrait of teachers doing their best to make schools work better for all young people. Teachers who have watched the film tell us that they all found some specific move or approach that they can try in their context.
Since much of the footage was filmed in the winter of 2020, it is also a remarkable time capsule. It is some of the last pre-pandemic footage captured in American classrooms. It reminds us of what we have lost in the past three years, while pointing the way to brighter futures.