Expecting Excellence in Urban Schools: 7 Steps to an Engaging Classroom Practice


Jelani Jabari

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
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  • Dedication

    I would like to dedicate this book to my wife, Lessie, and children Nassor, Kamya, Imani, and Jelani Jr. This project could not have been possible without you. I would also like to dedicate it to my grandparents, Ethel and Lawrence Thompson, and mother, Adrienne Smith, for believing in me and helping to shape a strong academic foundation for me. I appreciate the time you put in to assist me. And finally I would like to dedicate it to Uncle Lawrence Thompson, for helping me to become the man I am today.


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    List of Tables and Figures

    List of Tables
    • 1 Changing Perceived Deficits into Deposits 42
    • 2 Essential Pedagogical Frameworks that Position HUMS Students for Success 65
    • 3 Effectively Connecting through Conversations as Communicative Tools of Relationship Building 98
    • 4 Connecting by Assisting with Academic Issues 108
    • 5 Connecting by Assisting with Personal Issues 109
    • 6 Realistic Fiction Texts that Intersect Experiences of African American Students with Content 121
    • 7 Realistic Fiction Texts that Intersect Experiences of Latino/a Students with Content 129
    • 8 Engineering Intersections of Interests and Experiences with Mathematics 142
    • 9 Engineering Intersections of Interests and Experiences with Science Content 144
    • 10 Constructing Intersections of Interest and Experience with Social Studies Content 146
    • 11 Intersecting Games with Content 149
    • 12 Processes Utilized to Engage in Reflective Practice 164
    List of Figures
    • 1 Items that Could be Included in Your Survey 30
    • 2 Additional Considerations for Designing Your Survey 30
    • 3 Frequently Perceived Deficits of HUMS Students 37
    • 4 Effective Ways to Create Emotional Connections with Students 77


    In a day and age when excellence is espoused and yet dropout rates in inner city schools can approximate or exceed 60%, it is time for someone to write a book that provides more realistic answers than questions. Jelani Jabari has done just that in the publication you are about to read.

    Good writers and teachers know that there are specific brain-compatible strategies that engage the reader and result in a comprehension and retention of any message. Jelani masterfully incorporates many of those strategies beginning with the mnemonic device that denotes the main concept of his book—INSPIRE (inspect, nurture, sew, partner, intersect, reflect, and expect). These verbs summarize the major concepts in this book. Other acronyms include HUMS—high-poverty, urban, largely minority schools—the target population that the book addresses, and SOFAs, or success opportunities for all.

    Jelani's use of actual classroom vignettes to illustrate the concepts is a most effective use of the age-old strategy of storytelling. Through his stories, the reader learns how teachers actually change the lives of HUMS students through such actions as taking a personal interest in them, building caring relationships with them, and making content relevant by connecting it to real examples from their personal lives. Jelani's book even includes an inventory a teacher can use to discern the likes, dislikes, and personal interests of students.

    Some chapters also include chunks of research that provide the theoretical framework for the concepts that he espouses. Other chapters give content-specific examples of how to connect the content to be taught with the interests and experiences of HUMS students.

    Jelani is a masterful writer and wittily employs the brain-compatible strategies of using metaphors, analogies, and similes throughout the text to make his message plain. Some of my favorites are (1) trying to teach without engagement is like trying to send a text message without a service provider, and teachers are the thermostats of classrooms in that they monitor the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral temperature of the learning environment. When he discusses the value of incorporating movement into a lesson (a concept I wholeheartedly espouse, by the way), he writes about paroling students from seat incarceration. He even outlines a blueprint for turning students' trip ups into triumphs. I cannot think of a better way to express these thoughts!

    One of the most important aspects of the book is the Actionable Professional Learning plan that closes each chapter. In other words, now that the reader has a conceptual understanding of the ideas detailed in the chapter, the learning plan enables the reader to actualize the concept in the classroom by responding to the questions in this section. Those of us who teach about adult learning theory know that this reflection is crucial to adult behavior change.

    It is not often that you find a book that provides practical ideas for addressing one of the most pressing challenges of today's educators. This is exactly what Jelani does. In fact, he also gives the research behind why his ideas work and practical examples for implementing them. This is a must-have text for your professional library. I will certainly add it to mine!

    Marcia L.Tate


    Growing up, you've probably heard it a million times that practice makes perfect. Generally speaking, the more you do something, the better you get at it. Lawyers build successful law practices by successfully representing clients in court, providing sage legal advice, and drafting well-thought-out legal documents. Doctors with successful medical practices are able to consistently and accurately diagnose health challenges and prescribe the best course of treatment. However, much less widely does society hold the perception that K–12 educators who teach conduct an educational practice.

    The use of knowledge to perform the duty of educating students defines an educational practice. Effective educational practices consist of practitioners who utilize research-based pedagogy to attain educational and social outcomes. They are defined by professionals who refine the quality of instruction through repeated planning, preparing, and presenting of material. Successful practitioners are able to consistently place learners in optimal situations of success by making the appropriate modifications and adjustments to instruction. The instruction is refined by self-reflection and feedback from the principal consumers of the curriculum—the students.

    What does a highly engaging educational practice consist of? When you think of engaging students, elements such as time on task, students showing interest in a topic, or students showing excitement while completing a task may come to mind. Engaging educational practices are about sustaining student engagement whether the students are in or out of school. These practices are characterized by students who excitedly anticipate what the teacher has planned each day, interact effectively with their peers in the classroom, and most of all, enjoy the presence of the teacher. It's about enveloping students in an engaging educational experience.

    To the point, the hallmarks of highly engaging educational practices are teachers who are able to consistently connect with students through strong emotional and intellectual bonds. It consists of committed educators whose main emphasis is to make learning about students and consistently place them in situations of success. As a guide to assist you in building your practice or making your existing practice more engaging, this book will provide you with a well-constructed seven-step process represented by the acrostic INSPIRE:

    • Inspect to inspire: Become a scholar of your students.
    • Nurture their attributes: Turn commonly perceived deficits into deposits.
    • Sew success into your instructional fabric.
    • Partner to make emotional connections.
    • Intersect their interests and experiences with instruction.
    • Reflect on practice as a tool of improvement.
    • Expect nothing short of excellence.

    This process will assist you in transforming your practice from one that simply delivers instruction into one that provides a dynamically engaging educational experience. It will also assist you in enhancing the academic rigor in your pedagogy with methods for providing challenging tasks and content, meaningful real-world applications, and not only elevating but also sustaining expectations for all.

    Organization of This Book

    Chapter 1. The introductory chapter provides insight into the elements of engagement, what an engaging practice is along with the rationale for creating one, the theoretical framework supporting engagement, and similarities between teaching and sales situations.

    Chapter 2. The first principle in the INSPIRE process, Inspect to Inspire: Become a Scholar of Your Students, is explored. Your success in creating a highly engaging practice rests on the effectiveness of processes that consistently inform you about your students. That is, tools, techniques, and strategies for gathering critical information about both personal and academic facets are examined. You'll receive specific guidance for designing your survey to elicit critical feedback and ultimately make the learning more student centered. These invaluable pieces of information serve as the foundation of the engaging practice.

    Chapter 3. A common perception held in many high-poverty, urban, largely minority schools (HUMS) is that student deficits are largely responsible for achievement failures. This chapter explores ways to turn commonly perceived deficits among students into deposits of the learning community. Specific ways of affirming, legitimating, and harnessing what students bring to the learning community are examined.

    Chapter 4. One of the biggest barriers that preclude emotional and behavioral engagement is the lack of academic success of students. Moreover, chronic failure has been cited as one of the biggest contributors to student misbehavior in classrooms. Strategies for creating a highly supportive learning environment with pedagogy that consistently places students in positions of success are examined.

    Chapter 5. A recurring emphasis in many urban classrooms is the creation of an environment of control rather than one in which strong emotional ties are developed with students. The extent to which teachers in HUMS successfully engage their students is inextricably tied to the strength of such emotional connections. A plethora of specific techniques, tools, and strategies for successfully developing strong, yet essential, emotional bonds is examined.

    Chapter 6. One of the most effective ways to engage students is to find a way to weave required academic content with their world. This chapter yields a wealth of timely insight on how to minimize boredom, apathy, and disinterest and connect student interests and experiences with the core content areas of English language arts (reading), mathematics, science, and social studies. How to intersect play (games) with content and use multimedia tools and closure as a means of engaging the students is explored.

    Chapter 7. One of the surest ways to stay stagnant or render a practice ineffective is to infrequently engage in reflective practice. This chapter describes the fundamentals of reflective practice and provides techniques, such as video, for framing and reframing issues, learning from experience, and, as a result, improving your practice.

    Chapter 8. Pervasively negative perceptions of the impoverished conditions of HUMS students and their communities often contribute to the subconscious lowering of academic expectations. Strategies for critically examining your current expectations, elevating them, and maintaining high expectations of HUMS students are explored.


    Several key principles of this writing are illustrated through vignettes of three teachers as described below:

    • Ms. Klein, a 26-year-old teacher who grew up in a tony upper class midwestern suburb, has three years of teaching experience. She teaches fourth grade in a large urban elementary school in a midwestern city where 100% of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Most students' homes are headed by single parents who don't consistently participate in the school activities.
    • Mrs. Jones, a 31-year-old teacher who grew up in the same neighborhood and attended the same school in which she teaches, has eight years of teaching experience. She teaches seventh grade English language arts in a large northeastern urban city. The city has seen a precipitous decline in population as a changing economy shuttered many once-thriving steel mills. Several of her students have to walk by abandoned houses during their journey to and from school.
    • Mr. King, a 43-year-old teacher who grew up in the Great Plains, has five years of teaching experience. After being laid off from his midlevel management position when his former employer downsized, he returned to school to earn a teaching certificate. He relocated to the West Coast and teaches economics to 10th graders at an urban high school that is often marred by violence; its walls are marked by gang graffiti.
    Actionable Professional Learning

    Would you agree that when information is presented in books, other media, or professional learning workshops, the presentation too often ends with no meaningful way to extend the learning? That is, it doesn't answer the “so what?” or “what now?” or “how do I?” questions. To help you put ideas into practice, each chapter of this book concludes with a framework for you and your colleagues to engage in continual learning. In the last section of each chapter, Actionable Professional Learning, practical ways to critically reflect on, integrate, and improve the implementation of ideas over time are given to use within the framework of a teacher learning community.

    When teachers are active participants in ongoing professional learning, such as professional learning communities (PLCs), their professional knowledge is continuously enhanced, and student learning improves. As Darling-Hammond (2008) poignantly noted, “Teaching in which teachers have the opportunity for continual learning is the likeliest way to inspire greater achievement for children, especially for those whom education is the only pathway to survival and success” (p. 99). Moreover, knowledge is not only woven into the thread of teachers' daily experiences but is understood best when engaging in shared critical reflection with those with similar experiences (Buysse, Sparkman, & Wesley, 2003). Such teacher learning communities yield much needed collegial support as well as opportunities to learn from each other about ways to create the “richest opportunities for student growth” (Lieberman & Miller, 2011, p. 19).

    As you're probably aware, collaboration is a cornerstone of PLCs. With the well-documented challenges of teaching in high-poverty underresourced urban schools, collaborative practices provide sorely needed collegial support. This book will encourage your team to utilize shared practices, critiquing of practice, collaborative inquiry, action research, and debriefing and dialoguing as vehicles of improvement.


    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    • Karen Kersey
    • Second-Grade Teacher
    • Kanawha County Schools
    • Charleston, WV
    • Ken Klopack
    • Art & Gifted Education Consultant
    • Chicago Public Schools
    • Chicago, IL
    • Jennifer Sinsel
    • Gifted Facilitator
    • Wichita Public Schools
    • Wichita, KS

    About the Author

    Jelani Jabari, PhD, is founder and president of Pedagogical Solutions, LLC. Pedagogical Solutions partners with learning communities throughout the United States and abroad to both enhance pedagogical practice and improve academic achievement. His research interests include engaging pedagogy, academically rigorous instructional practices, and utilizing assessment as an instructional tool. He holds a BA in economics, an MA in curriculum and instruction, and a PhD in educational evaluation and research.

    Jelani has had a stellar career that spans more than 20 years in the field of education. He thoroughly enjoyed serving more than ten years as a school teacher and three years as a school administrator. He has also served as university instructor and has consulted with the Michigan Department of Education. His exemplary work has led to presentations for the National Staff Development Council, National Middle School Association, International Society for Technology in Education, and a many other organizations.

    Jelani wholeheartedly believes the capacities all children have to excel are unearthed when educators expect exemplary performance, position the students in situations of success, and inspire them to maximize their potential. Touching lives, positively impacting each other, and enhancing educational experiences for all students lies at the heart of the mission of a team of highly competent and wholeheartedly committed educators.

    Jelani currently resides in southeastern Michigan with his wife and children.

  • Appendix: Interest Inventory

    • What is your favorite school subject? Why?
    • If you were able to choose a topic to learn about, what would it be?
    • Do you work better with others or individually? Why?
    • What types of things do you enjoy doing indoors? Explain.
    • If you had the ability to choose your activity for the weekend, what would it be? Why?
    • Rank the following types of communication you prefer in order from most to least liked: text messaging, instant messaging, telephone calls, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook. Why did you order them that way?
    • What are three characteristics that you think make up a great teacher? Why?
    • Which method of expression do you use to best express yourself: poetry, rap, essay, or song? Why?
    • What is your favorite type of music? What are your three favorite songs? Who are your three favorite artists? What are three favorite music videos? Explain why each is your favorite.
    • If your best friend were to describe you and the things you enjoyed, write that description.
    • What is your favorite outfit? Why?
    • What place(s) in the world would have you visited or would you love to visit most? Explain.
    • What is your favorite way to style your hair (or favorite haircut type)?
    • What way do you like to show others information you have learned in class (group presentation, picture/drawing, project board, skit)?
    • Describe the most enjoyable lessons you ever participated in. What made them enjoyable?


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