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Reframing Deficit Thinking With Project Based Learning

When I left elementary school last school year to move to the high school in our feeder pattern, I knew that it was going to be a challenge. High school students are not only different from my fifth graders but the teacher’s approach to teaching and learning, in my opinion, is only content driven. Nothing else seems to matter much.

I’m no stranger to working at schools that have been in corrective action, but the students’ and teachers’ attitudes towards assignments that aren’t worksheets blows my mind!

In my  blog post, Breaking the Pedagogy of Poverty Cycle, I wrote about how some administrators of high poverty inner city schools buy into the pedagogy of poverty in the name of test scores. Believe me I get the accountability piece. That’s only one piece of the puzzle. 

The other piece of the puzzle is that there are many teachers who blame poor achievement on student and family deficits. In the article, Challenging Deficit Thinking, the author says that many teachers find this version of deficit thinking seductive because it places the responsibility outside of the classroom.

According to the the authors of Culturally Responsive Educational Theories, in deficit theory, the belief is that some students, due to factors beyond their control, simply do not have the tools necessary to thrive and succeed in their educational endeavors.

If I were to be brutally honest, I hear teachers say that if students parents did this or that they would do better in school. If it were not for a handful of unique teachers and administrators saying what can we do to help this student succeed I don’t think the conversation would ever take place.

I’m not bashing teachers but students from underserved communities are victims of their circumstances. Hearing  the many stories from my ninth grade students about how they have to work to help their parents and unwillingly fight a battle that is not theirs because the rest of their family fights or they’ll get beat up is unreal. Many of them want to make the right decision but like one of my students said, “ Miss Williams I try not to skip my classes, but it’s so hard.” 

Deficit Thinking

It’s a well-known fact that students in high poverty schools are faced with life experiences that some adults wouldn’t be able to survive. Students like mine come to school despite their living circumstances, parents, or otherwise.

Just imagine how it feels to overcome a less than stellar home life and have to be taught by a teacher who thinks that you won’t make it because it’s you against the world. This is deficit thinking.

Since I’ve moved to the high school I’ve seen more deficit thinking in the form of low floor low ceiling activities than I have seen in my entire career. It’s really disheartening to witness this on a daily basis.

Prior to us leaving for the holiday break, one of the tutors and I had a conversation about teaching students who can add and subtract. His solution is to give the students a graphing calculator and move on.  I reminded him that I’m the intervention teacher and we can’t ignore their deficits. That’s why I’m here and the sole purpose of the position.

Before I could finish my sentence he says, “Well I can’t teach students who can’t add or subtract. You’re going to have to show me.” I just shook my head. After talking about them passing their standardized test and what they can’t do, I ended the conversation by saying, “We are  teachers, -er one who does what? Teaches.

Project Based Learning

I decided last year that I wanted to introduce my students to Project Based Learning because my students didn’t understand that the community they lived in lacked many resources. For example, I live about thirty minutes from where I teach and there are four grocery stores within a two mile radius of my house. This is not the case in their community. The sad part is that the students don’t even realize it!

Last year, I started kind of testing how I could implement PBL. I decided to do two week projects while scaffolding the components of PBL into the projects. 

This year since I’m at the high school I have one Strategic Math Class. In this class we do a mix of Algebra I and middle school skills but most of it Project Based Learning.

I wanted the projects to be authentic and represent the students’ concerns or problems. While we were brainstorming topics that students believed were problems that they wanted to solve,  they began to talk about Marijuana. I was like, yes that’s a good topic! 

Then one of my students said, “ You need to take that off as a topic.” I responded, “Why?”. He said, “Because marijuana is good for you.” I was like really?

So this became our first topic and he was NOT happy! Needless to say he pretty much refused to participate in any of the assignments. This wasn’t really a surprise. What did shock me was the students’ lack of enthusiasm in learning math in a different way.

After a couple of weeks we began the project, a few of the students asked me, “Is this a math classroom?” I really wasn’t prepared for questions like this or some of the reactions to doing the project. 

Classroom Challenges

One of the biggest challenges in reframing deficit thinking is that many of my students have bought into the pedagogy of poverty and deficit thinking. 

I went next door to vent to a teacher about my  frustration with my students not getting the support that they needed in their Algebra I classrooms and a student chimes in and says, “Welcome to the hood.” I turned and said to him just because you live in the hood doesn’t mean that you should get a poor education.

I’ve even had a student tell me that white neighborhoods are clean and they don’t have trash everywhere. I told the student that this neighborhood could be the same way. But you have to pick up your trash!

Honestly, some days I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. Even on the days when I feel like they don’t care there’s always those students who show up and want to receive a different learning experience.

I could choose to look at my students’ deficit as a high wall that they’ll never get over. I’d rather take their strengths and use them to show them how to solve their problems. 

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I help math teachers who teach high need students to effectively manage their classrooms and deliver high quality math instruction. Learn more about me


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