What Is It About Me You Can’t Teach?: Culturally Responsive Instruction in Deeper Learning Classrooms


Eleanor Renee Rodriguez, James Bellanca & Deborah Rosalia Esparza

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    Preface A Smaller World

    “It’s a small, small world.”

    —Richard and Robert Sherman, “It’s a Small World (After All)”

    In the years since this book was first published, the globe has continued to shrink. The global village has continued to grow. At the same time, in the school world, new ideas and practices have emerged and expanded what we know and do about teaching and learning. These include the following:

    • Evidence of, acceptance of, and belief in the understanding that intelligence is not fixed and that the human mind is malleable has expanded and moved from laughed-at theory to established practice.
    • Evidence supporting best practices for enabling all children to grow and expand their capacity to learn has increased.
    • Multiple sets of standards at the national and state level, from government agencies in and outside education and professional education groups, have clarified the meaning of college and career readiness.
    • Academic, government, and business organizations outside the school community have intensified their calls for development of 21st century learning at all grades for all students.
    • Brain research, best-practice research, and other types of studies have fortified the calls for deeper learning outcomes and ways to assess them.
    • Digital technologies have opened up new vistas for providing access by all students to more advanced, relevant, and rigorous curricula.
    • New models of instruction and assessment have fostered new school models as alternatives to the traditional factory model for instruction.
    • The birth rates among nonwhite populations have increased, while that rate among whites has decreased. In growing numbers, students of color from a range of cultures are entering formerly all-white school districts for the first time.
    • The graying of America caused by rising numbers of senior white citizens has led to a decline in school support.
    • Population shifts continue to increase the colors and socioeconomic statuses of preK–12 students not only in urban centers, but in the suburbs and rural towns from sea to sea.

    Even as these new patterns and practices emerge, much remains the same:

    • Lectures in which students are told rather than taught material fill upper-grade classrooms.
    • Worksheets followed by tech-prep practice sessions dominate lower-grade classrooms.
    • Teachers work isolated in their classrooms.
    • Textbooks direct the daily recall curriculum.
    • Curriculum is fragmented into isolated boxes, with each box representing a basic discipline.
    • Textbooks and other materials remain focused on a white, middle-class student population.
    • Testing is geared to accountability of basic skills in basic curriculum areas.
    • Achievement, access, and expectation gaps do not change.
    • Low expectations define instruction provided children who are poor or less than affluent.
    • There is little equity of resources among school systems.
    • In contrast to student populations, white female teachers are the largest number teaching in the classroom.
    Implications for This Book

    The quest for high expectations as a goal for all learners has not ended. In fact, since this book’s first edition, the need for high-expectations instruction has outstripped what happens in practice. Because of the cultural shifts in American schools, where faces of color are becoming increasingly dominant even in suburban and rural classrooms, the quest for high-expectations practice extends beyond cityscapes. Communities once all white, but not always all wealthy, now are seeing more faces of color in their classrooms. Diversity is everywhere; it is no longer isolated within large urban centers.

    Demographic data tell the story. The once-dominant Northern European cultures are aging. More youthful cultures from Asia and Central and South America, as well as the Middle East and Africa, arrive with higher birth rates, and they are ready to fit the job markets of a service society driven by technology. Unfortunately, schools are slow to adapt. A majority of schools still teach from a curriculum that fit well during the pre–civil rights era, with job market and schooling methods that readied young people for assembly-line jobs and Mad Men–type office employment. Many of these schools do not understand and are unprepared for the value shifts that have come with many diverse cultures. These cultures value different school norms and hold different expectations for their children.

    The words different and diverse frighten many who are trying to “hold down the fort” and preserve once-dominant Caucasian cultural values from Northern Europe, values that controlled decisions about the local community with its established white-centric consumerism.

    However, a fair examination of what is new in schools doesn’t translate necessarily into the negative. Differences and similarities are just that; some foster positive results and some foster negative results. As educators in a workforce still dominated by white faces look out at the increasingly diverse faces in classrooms, they are becoming more and more aware that change must be more than what they see, and that judging a book by its cover will never again be translated as best practice.

    • High expectations for learning are a bottom-line birthright regardless of a child’s skin color, ethnicity, gender, religion, national or geographic origin, special challenge, language, or economic status. The democratic core of the American school system is built on the belief that every child has a moral right to an equitable—not equal—education. In the 21st century, that equitable right translates to a quality education that ensures each child is one year more college and career ready at the end of each school year. The high expectations inherent in this readiness goal make it mandatory that equitable personnel, physical and digital resources, instruction, curriculum, and assessment are available equally to every child.
    • The basic and most important ways a teacher can show high expectations begins, as it always has, with a belief in every child’s possibility to be an exceptional learner. There is no room for a glass ceiling because of gender, special challenge, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, color, or any other artificial marker.
    • Words are not enough. Actions are required in how a teacher demonstrates her belief in equally high expectations for every child in and out of the classroom. Competent teachers are expected to walk the talk of evidence-based instruction.
    • It is a mark of a school district’s quality in how it provides the leadership, the resources, and the assessments that enable all teachers to become proficient in demonstrating high expectations for all children.
    Walking the High-Expectations Talk

    Since the book’s first edition, the landscape of high expectations has changed remarkably. The small number of evidence-based teaching behaviors and strategies has become a library. Teachers have multiple choices for selecting the practices that fit best with particular students, and they have much valuable data. These enable them to become designers of instruction that engages all students in the search for deeper learning outcomes, rather than limiting them to text-driven and unproductive, obsolete methods. It has also allowed teachers to personalize their instruction even as they are guided by other research-supported changes in curriculum, leadership, technology, assessment, and school structure.

    Evidence-Based Research. Through this new text, you will see citations to studies that extend the notion of high expectations beyond the fundamentals identified in the early best-practice research to additional best practices. This variety will expand teachers’ best-practice repertoires and make apparent their increased proficiencies in advancing students’ achievement even as they develop students’ “learning to learn” skills. In this context, the mark of the most proficient “high-expectations” teachers is their ability to promote learning transfer in the majority of their students.

    The increased value of evidence-based teaching is highlighted in what researchers have identified over several decades about metacognition and guided feedback. This edition, like the prior two, starts with the pioneering study, Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement (TESA). Succeeding chapters build on TESA through the lens of Reuven Feuerstein’s theory of structural cognitive modifiability and mediated learning experiences.

    It was Feuerstein’s work, now reinforced by neuroscientific data, that first brought the education community to the understanding that intelligence—the mind’s tool for learning—has no glass top. Teachers, he noted, can mediate changes in what students can accomplish with their minds. And those changes, he said, occur in the basic structure of the brain.

    Not only did Feuerstein’s ideas and practices challenge the established myth that intelligence was fixed at birth by race, gender, and many other factors; he also developed a systematic approach that facilitated those changes. In Instrumental Enrichment, he introduced the world to a concrete method and the needed materials to make “thinking about thinking,” or “metacognition,” doable.

    TESA, a teacher training program developed in the Los Angeles school system and spread across the nation by Phi Delta Kappan, brought the education community’s attention to the concept of high expectations, its connection to teaching behaviors that challenged all students to think at “higher levels.” With Feuerstein’s work on development of cognitive skills in all students adding tools for promoting metacognition through teacher feedback, increased attention has been focused on the role of thinking in classroom instruction.

    In subsequent decades, education researchers expanded the examination of practices most likely to increase student test scores. Although limited to measuring often simplistic outcomes in the basics of reading and mathematics, these studies began to provide data sets that showed which strategies were most effective. Ironically, many of the most effective were those that enabled teachers to fill their high-expectations instructional toolkit with mind-enabling methods such as cooperative learning, graphic organizers, advance organizers, summary making, inquiry, and metacognition.

    • College and Career Readiness. When Common Core State Standards aimed at providing a national curriculum framework for higher expectations in preK–12 English/Language Arts and Mathematics arrived, the ground began to shift. These were followed by the Next Generation Science Standards, the National Arts Standards, the English Language Learner Standards from WIDA, and others. Select states have adopted the national standards, and others elected to retain their own as guides to ready all students for college and careers in a 21st century global economy.
    • National Tests. Although the standards garnered the most attention, the federal Department of Education contracted two consortia to develop national tests—PARCC and SMARTER BALANCE—to create national tests. States were given the option to participate. The aim was to provide more equitable testing across all states, to raise national learning expectations, and to hold all schools equally accountable for all students. Instead of examining only surface-level literacy and mathematics proficiencies with multiple-choice, recall tests, as was common practice in prior decades, these new tests were aimed at determining students’ higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills.
    • 21st Century Deeper Learning. Following reports from international tests, the American business community, government agencies, universities, and others completed surveys that reinforced the need—driven by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)—for American schools to raise the level of curriculum and instruction from the commonly practiced surface learning of the No Child Left Behind era. Instead, they urged to advance development of 21st century skills that would result in deeper learning outcomes and increased amounts of learning transfer.
    • 21st Century Skills. Led by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning—a national advocacy group of state education agencies, corporations, and education leaders—high-expectations curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices and programs were advanced within a deeper learning framework. The framework focused on best practices and the identification of exemplary schools in which the skills of critical thinking, creative problem solving, communication, and collaboration were central to developing all students as 21st century deeper learners.
    • The 5th C. How able are students to handle the changing colors and shapes of new peers in their classrooms? How able are teachers to apply high-expectations skills to foster the 21st century skills to those students many considered incapable of their use? Culture, as the 5th C, brings high expectations into focus for all students. In fact, the state of Alaska has identified a set of learning standards attuned to culturally responsive instruction.
    • Technology. In the first edition, little mention was made of technology’s role in promoting student learning. With the explosive expansion of the Internet has come a flood of digital hardware, software, and Web-based teaching and learning tools that stimulate higher-order thinking and enable rich metacognition. Now the center of experimental research, digital games, integrated feedback, e-mediation, and other technologies are extending the possibilities of deeper learning.
    • New Models of Instruction. As more schools applied the best-practice research, they have created more productive models of instruction and have added to Bruce Joyce’s original list of six. The best project-based learning (PBL) models incorporate evidence-based high-expectations strategies such as cooperative learning, advance organizers, graphics, summaries, peer feedback, self-assessment and teacher feedback as methods to ensure that the PBL units show the maximum benefits for all students and lead to mindset changes that better prepare students for life in this century’s complex, information-saturated society.
    • New School Models. Reflecting dialogues around the aims of learning and control of schools, new models of schooling began to emerge. Within these, a significant number have focused on deeper learning outcomes via deeper learning instruction. As cited by new school advocate Ted Fujimoto (2015), the change to new school models that bring all students to deeper learning is yet in its infancy.
      • The Deeper Learning Network includes public and charter models committed to deeper learning outcomes for all students. Included in this deeper learning network are the High Tech High Network, the New Tech Network, Big Picture Schools, Envision Education Schools, Expeditionary Learning Schools, and the Asia Society.
      • P21’s Exemplar Schools of Innovation is an informal network of model schools in which 21st century learning is promoted by attention to PBL and other approaches for developing students’ 21st century skills with deeper learning outcomes. This network is coordinated by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning.
      • Next Generation Schools. Funded by the Ford Motor Company, this network assists high schools in transforming curriculum and instruction to increase readiness for college and careers, especially in emerging industries.
    Connecting the Dots: All Children Ready for a Lifetime of Deeper Learning

    Best-practice research has followed a pathway spotlighting what teachers can do to be most effective in moving students to higher achievement. A teacher’s success in using one-to-one communication tactics—as found in TESA, the more sophisticated strategies pinpointed by Hattie and Marzano, or the more comprehensive combinations geared to the higher-order thinking skills as found in PBL—is rooted in the beliefs that intelligence is changeable and all learners can improve how and what they learn. To the degree that teachers believe and convince their students to believe both tenets and to internalize the growth mindset, all will see evidence of changes in the quantity and quality of what, how, and how much a student learns from any lesson, unit, or project.

    The trail from early research to deeper learning for all students may be long and bumpy, but it is well lit. In this book, you will connect the dots among those evidence-based best practices that lead from what teachers can do in their basic classroom interactions; how teachers can behave with the selected instructional methods and tools that are most likely to raise student achievement and simultaneously develop students as 21st century deeper learners; how teachers can apply strategies and tactics to different content-based scenarios within the changing of cultures; and how teachers can call upon select approaches to improve the quality of student learning, no matter what their differences. These connections, when you apply them appropriately, will end in more students meeting the highest of expectations; they will empower students to place their minds over what matters most and be in control of the what, so what, now what, and what next for how and why they are in school.

    Coming Attractions

    The search for how best to use the practices of high expectations to inspire deeper learning will not end with this book. Like the planet Earth in the context of its solar system, what we know about the possibilities of the human intellect is but one drop of water in one of Earth’s oceans. Already, technology is uncovering new ways to engage students’ minds for longer and longer periods as they play digital games, solve e-puzzles, and uncover new information at faster and faster rates. Already there are new dots on the horizon. With a common goal to hold the highest expectations that all children leave every school ready for lifetime of learning, we can be assured that the power that results will lead to a better world.

    Your Journey

    We welcome you to this new edition. It will help you update your knowledge of what teaching practices are most likely to flip the challenging question, “What is it about me you can’t teach?” to “You changed my life by helping me change my learning.” And it will also provide an abundance of practical, evidence-based tools to assure you that all children will meet the high expectations of deep, lifelong learning.

    You may use this book in many different ways. Most of all, we hope it will help you expand your teaching toolkit so that you can assist every child you teach with the exactly right prescription: a truly personalized approach. For this to happen, you can pick and choose at random, or you can follow a sequenced walk through the chapters.

    To ensure your success, we are adding some implementation recommendations. On the book’s Web page, you will find several plan-do-assess documents. These will guide you as you choose what ideas or strategies to try in your classroom. They will also link you to other sites that will add to your work and let you network with other teachers working with this material. And they will tell you how to touch base with us.

    Learning new information is important. What is more important is that you try out that information in your classroom. If you can entice a peer or two to join you in making those applications, invite them to your party: Have more communication! More collaboration! Sharper thinking and problem solving! And more creative ways to make schools better and better!

    Thanks for joining us on this journey.


    The framework for this book is based on Reuven Feuerstein’s seminal work for championing the structural cognitive modifiability of the brain when most scholars adhered to the belief that learning capacity was fixed at birth and forever unchangeable. Like the fall of the fixed universe theory to Galileo’s new insights, Feuerstein’s pioneering theories were received with almost universal skepticism. Research from neuroscientists, learning psychologists, and educational researchers—and common sense—have since proved the soundness of Feuerstein’s ideas. Especially helpful to classroom teachers today are 10 of Feuerstein’s 26 criteria for high-quality mediation that are now seen charging the growth of brain neurons, connecting synapses, and literally changing the brain. With those changes comes the mind-changing expansion of the child’s capacity to learn. These criteria serve as the major guide in this book for linking the many strategies and structures to one another much as the synapses connect in the brain, so that students are guided to enrich their learning and become more effective, skillful learners for a lifetime.

    Additional acknowledgments must be made to those who encouraged this work. Special thanks in this new Corwin edition go to Kate Bellanca, CEO of the International Renewal Institute, Inc., who took time from her packed schedule guiding the implementation of Feuerstein school projects in North America in order to help us. She used her deep understanding of Feuerstein’s work to advise the authors and ensure that we were aligned with his theory and practice. And we would like to thank those at Corwin who helped us prepare the third edition of What Is It About Me You Can’t Teach?

    I acknowledge the many blessings I have received, starting with my personal board of directors. First and foremost, I thank Ms. Mayme B. Anderson, my mother, for the spiritual support and love she shared with me. I give thanks to friends who have been particularly supportive, including and certainly not limited to, Dr. Denise L. King-Miller, Jennifer Gibbs-Phillips, Mahdi Ibn-Zayad, and special residents of Parkview Towers. My nieces and nephews, cousins and other young ones are coming into their own. The torch is being passed, and they are holding it up high. You make an elder proud.

       —Eleanor Renée Rodriguez

    I’d like to thank Corwin for recognizing the need and relevance this book has to our teachers and students and the value of its contribution to 21st century education. A special note of gratitude is due my friend and colleague, James Bellanca, who extended the invitation and encouragement to write, and provided guidance throughout the process. I am grateful to all proactive educators across the world that will not accept failure in teaching and learning and believe in every child’s potential. Finally, thank you to my family and friends for the inspiration they’ve always provided and for their love and support.

       —Deborah Rosalia Esparza

    Publisher’s Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions to this third edition from the following reviewers:

    • Karen Carotta
    • Eighth-Grade Social Studies Teacher
    • Greensboro, NC
    • Marcela Parra
    • Educational Equity Specialist Coordinator
    • Denver, CO
    • Josh Rhoad
    • Network Reading Coordinator/Reading Teacher
    • Chicago, IL

    Corwin would also like to acknowledge the contributions of reviewers to previous editions:

    • Ellen Brantlinger
    • Professor, Special Education Program Area
    • Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
    • Eric Cooper
    • National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, Lake Success, NY, Council of Great City Schools, Washington, D.C., and the
    • University of Alabama, Birmingham
    • Judy Deiro
    • Faculty
    • Western Washington University, Bellingham
    • Edward Fergus
    • Director of Research, Metropolitan Center for Urban Education
    • New York University, New York
    • Rosalind Pijeaux Hale
    • Professor of Education
    • Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans
    • Rosanne G. Henderson
    • Principal
    • North Star Elementary School, Salt Lake City, UT
    • Ellen Herbert
    • Art Studio and Art History Teacher
    • Longview High School, Longview, TX
    • Tracy Huziak
    • Assistant Professor, Teaching and Learning
    • Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH
    • Montie Koehn
    • Principal
    • Sequoyah Elementary School, Oklahoma City, OK
    • Marie Kraska
    • Mildred Cheshire Fraley Distinguished Professor of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology
    • Auburn University, Auburn, AL
    • Barbara Rudiak
    • Principal
    • Phillips Elementary School, Pittsburgh, PA
    • Anne Smith
    • Education Research Analyst
    • Office of Special Education Programs
    • U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.

    About the Authors

    Eleanor Renée Rodriguez, PhD, a professional developer with Rodriguez and Associates, has provided consulting services and training to school districts, national associations, and state departments in 48 of 50 states and abroad. Her concentration is on research-based teaching and leadership strategies. She has served in positions from substitute teacher to superintendent, with assignments that included preK through adult education, and with an emphasis on meeting the needs of students with special needs. In addition, she has directed, reviewed, and evaluated seminars and institutes for the American Association of School Administrators. Her mission is to eliminate the achievement gap and to help educators believe, behave, and achieve so all truly means all.

    James Bellanca is a lifelong advocate of the principles and practices created by Reuven Feuerstein. As a senior fellow for the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, he created and edits the innovative P21Blogazine. He is the editor of a series of 21st century deeper learning collections, has authored more than a dozen how-to books aimed to infuse critical and creative thinking across the curriculum, and is president of the Illinois Consortium for 21st Century Schools.

    Deborah Rosalia Esparza is a retired teacher, principal, and district administrator. In her years as a practicing school leader, Deborah advocated culturally responsive instruction for all students in a 21st century learning framework. As an area education officer in Chicago, she guided her schools in the implementation of Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment program even as her district led the city in high achievement scores. Currently, she is executive director of the Illinois Consortium and is leading an all-district implementation of the MindQuest21 transformation model throughout the districts’ schools.

    A Special Note

    A wise man knows a proverb reconciles difficulties.


    Storytelling in Africa is an important oral tradition, and each story contains a lesson that highlights history, customs, and/or traditions. I love African proverbs. To me, they are the short and concise means to an end. The Nigerian proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” is remembered and used as a way to say that it takes everyone to educate everyone. Proverbs or sayings are used throughout this book in places where emphasis or additional attention is needed to reinforce a point. Enjoy!

       —Eleanor Renée Rodriguez


    To the children placed in our care.

    We change lives.

    Thank you for doing your best.

    Children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

    —Author unknown

    To the children of Flint, Michigan, and other children at risk for lead poisoning, resulting in devastating health and education consequences such as ADHD, behavior problems, and irreversible brain and central nervous damage; we will focus on your needs.

    To the decision makers responsible for developing and adhering to policies and practices while correcting the visible and invisible epidemics of trauma-related stresses in schools and neighborhoods; we will hold you accountable.

    To the caring educators, families, and communities that stand tall in their efforts to provide our children with a healthy, fair, and head start in life; we will support you.

    This book is dedicated to our ancestors, parents, extended family, and friends. It is hard to describe the special effect they have on our personal mission to make school a better place for every child, especially those who have struggled to be taught. Countless friends and colleagues have been supportive throughout the years. They have helped us stay focused on the children.

    Finally, we dedicate this book to all the young learners and their families throughout the nation who are doing the best they know how, and to the educators who appreciate the positive influence they can have on their lives.

  • Resources

    These lists take you to online sites where you can explore additional materials related to ideas in this book. It is not meant to be all-inclusive or final.

    State Standards

    This list contains the URL addresses for sample state standards referenced in this book’s sample lessons:

    National Standards

    This list contains the URL addresses for sample standards from national organizations that are referenced in the book:

    Culturally Responsive and Deeper Learning School Resources

    These URLs reference organizations that feature resources about deeper learning or culturally responsive strategies:

    Deeper Learning Does It for All

    Learn how teachers at Katherine Smith Elementary School develop and assess for deeper learning in project-based learning.

    Food Bank Call for Help

    Created by two students who wanted to help their food bank.

    How to Play Four Square

    Instructional film created by students to settle arguments and disagreements at recess over how to play the game.

    No Excuses

    “Our students can and will succeed . . . NO EXCUSES.” A story about transforming a public elementary school through high expectations into a deeper learning community that includes all students.

    Putting Hazardous Waste in Its Place

    Documentary about a PBL project that shows the nature and process of the project. https://youtu.be/kXyQ75wczWk

    • Digital Media: New Learners of the 21st Century
    • Introduction: The basic reasons why schools need to change.
    • Quest 2 Learn: This may be the most far outside-the-box model in a public school.
    • Digital Youth Network: An after-school program in Chicago.
    • Smithsonian Institute: 21st century learning outside school walls.
    • Middleton (Wisconsin): Students step outside classroom borders to explore their community in a digitally enriched project.
    • Philadelphia Leadership Academy: A STEM model that brings powerful results.
    • http://ilc21.0rg/resources/selected-free-videos/
    Manor New Tech High

    “How we work @ Manor New Tech High.” Students take visitors on a tour to see how 100 percent PBL leads to deeper learning for all students in a rural school with many cultures.


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