I recently sat down with Eric Jensen to talk about his new book Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement. If you haven’t come across Eric Jensen’s work before, you’re missing out. He reads between 200 and 300 peer-reviewed studies per year and has a great way of taking research and making it really practical and accessible for real teachers in real classrooms. Not only does he have a compelling personal story, he has a contagious passion for educating children that manages to balance a bracing understanding of the reality we face with a boundless optimism for the miracles we can create in the classroom each day. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation:
Robyn: Eric, you’ve spent a lot of time talking about poverty and how it affects students’ brains and the way that they learn. In your book, you yourself say that you often get asked, “what does an upper middle class white guy know about poverty?” A lot of teachers I encounter tell me that they have a hard time relating to some students because they do not share their background. How have you managed to make such a powerful connection with students from poverty when you didn’t come from poverty yourself?
Eric: I think the important distinction for teachers when it comes to relating to students who are different from them is empathy. Can you really be there inside their head, their hearts, their souls? Can you empathize without feeling sorry for them? You don’t have to be from poverty to teach others how to succeed with kids in poverty. You just need to understand what it’s like when the hand that you’re dealt is a bad one. How do you empathize? It can come about from different avenue. It can come about from having bad experiences on your own. That happened in my case.
Robyn: What made the difference for you?
Eric: I didn’t have good school experiences and I wanted it to be different for other kids. Most of school k-12 if you ask me to name good teachers I had, I probably could name 3-4 teachers out of 150. I’d been arrested twice but I didn’t have a great role model until I met a couple in my late 30’s that showed me what it was like to be healthy. I just never knew that existed. Until you start looking at what it took to turn you around, then you are able to figure out how to help turn around your students even if their situation is different than yours.
Robyn: Why is being a role model for your students so important?
Eric: Teachers assume that many kids know what’s possible but many don’t know. Being able to sell them on themselves with viable alternatives for their lives, that’s something that many kids don’t have. You have to sell them on themselves so that kids say “I can do this.”
Robyn: So you’re not just talking about being an upstanding citizen or an admirable person when you say “role-model.” You’re talking about something much more.
Eric: Oh, much more. It’s about helping kids develop what I call “Gaudy Goals” – outrageous goals that drive students, like “I am going to change the world with what I write” or “I’m going to invent technology.” You have to fuel kids’ imagination so much so that they will crawl over broken glass to get that goal.
Robyn: Wow. I love that. But, how do you develop “gaudy goals” for students when they are facing so many challenges or they don’t seem motivated to learn?
Eric: People assume that the reason that kids aren’t succeeding is that that kids don’t have the capacity, or effort, or attitude. If they don’t have it, roll up your sleeves and start building it. Motivation is something teachers ascribe to kids as an excuse for them. A science teacher at one of my workshops and told me how he teaches 8th grade science. He shows them in the first class all these disaster videos – hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes – you name it. Then he turns to the kids and asks, “what would you do if this happens in your neighborhood.” I’ll tell you what we’re going to do this semester in science. We’re going to learn how to deal with this. We’re going to rebuild our city from scratch to deal with these kinds of disasters and that is going to be our science project. And his kids are riveted from day one because they are doing something gaudy and novel and real. What happened? The teacher said how can I get kids hooked in?
Robyn: I love that! And yet, so many teachers feel like they cannot do that in their classrooms, or they try to do something like this and it doesn’t work with their students. So, they go back to more traditional approaches.
Eric: A lot of teachers get stuck on the assumption that “If I work my tail off and the kids aren’t achieving well then it can’t be my fault.” This assumption is false because it assumes that the only variable is effort. That’s like saying if you drill for oil in Oregon every day and don’t’ strike oil then there is no oil to be had. Have you ever thought about drilling in Texas? Stop the craziness. Stop making kids the problem. Light a fire in kids. You be the one to help them develop motivation. You be the one to help kids think bigger. You be the one to help kids develop life goals.
Robyn: But how does a teacher do that?
Eric: Start with your assumptions. Be willing to x-ray every single assumption you have about why kids aren’t high achieving. You assume that if they could learn, they would learn. But we are assuming that they know how. Most teachers were never taught that. We weren’t taught to be highly reflective on our practice and to be brutal on examining our own assumptions. That can be painful.
Robyn: What are some assumptions we should be examining?
Eric: It’s a huge assumption that kids don’t’ learn because they don’t try. There’re two possibilities for why kids aren’t learning. One is that kids don’ have the resources to pull it off in class and the second is that they have the resources but aren’t using them. Well, if kids don’t have the resources, can you be a capacity builder in kids? For instance, if they don’t have study skills, teach them! I went through 13 years of school and no teacher ever taught me to study and I had terrible grades in school. Then I figured it out in college and said, why didn’t anybody teach me this? I knew I wasn’t an idiot. Teachers need to assume that either kids don’t have what they need so they will have to build it, or that kids have what they need and they have to build buy in. I spend my workshops teaching teachers how to do this. By the way this completely applies to teachers. What you have are teachers whose status quo is to think inside the box and get through the school day and I am asking them to ask kids to havegaudy goals and outrageous dreams and to fuel those with clear hope and pathways and teachers have never done this for themselves.
Robyn: So it’s important for teachers to have “gaudy goals” for themselves as well if they ever hope to inspire those goals in students.
Eric: Absolutely. Think of it this way: If you knew for sure that that kid was going to become our next president, how would you teach that kid? The future of our country in in your hands; what will you do with that student?
Robyn: But what about that teacher who is out there struggling right now — the one who is trying to get her students engaged and motivated and not being really successful? What do you say to that teacher?
Eric: The first thing I would say is “Would you like some help?” If the teacher says “Ok, I’m game,” then, if I could I would visit the classroom and show her how it’s done or do a verbal autopsy with her. Usually you will find that there are a lot of things that nobody ever taught teachers and what they don’t know is all the other unwritten rules that go into good teaching. I’ve been there and have had that happen to me too. Over time, I have learned how to do autopsies on my teaching so that it happens less and less and less.
Robyn: So what are some of the things that you’ve learned about student engagement that you share in your new book?
Eric: Engagement is critical because it’s the process of purposeful learning that’s using mind, body, and soul. Engagement is a frame of mind. It says, I am going to make this class so alive and so living that students just don’t attend my class, they ARE my class. I want students to co-create the class. Engagement does that.
Eric: Engagement always has a purpose. The purposeful part is critical because if you are doing an engaging activity, are you doing anything with it? You can use engagement to build focus or attention or anything. Engagement can be purposeful for building a growth mindset. For instance, after students complete an activity you could say, “everyone turn to your neighbor and if the neighbor has done XYZ then say to your neighbor, “I love the effort you put into your work.” That’s a five second thing but it can be powerful.
Robyn: I love that distinction, that engagement is purposeful. I think that’s what makes student engagement so powerful.
Eric: The purposeful part is key. My book is divided into two sections: The first two chapters focus intensely on the seven factors that are crucial to student engagement and why these factors are so crucial for low-SES students. The remaining chapters discuss how to implement engagement strategies in a purposeful way.
Robyn: You call your book a “no excuses” resource for working with students in poverty. In fact, much of your work is about students in poverty. Why?
Eric: What I see that as bad as poverty is in the US right now (22% of kids come from poverty) and every single trend is pointing toward it worsening. Collectively all of us have less than one generation to turn our country around. Every piece of data says that we cannot make it one more generation on the same pathway. From 1970 to today the value of the dollar has dropped 80%. The poor and middle class who are more likely to get a fixed paycheck, their paycheck is losing on average 4-5% purchasing power every single year. What a dollar took to buy in 1970 takes five dollars today. This is why the poor have so much difficulty. In the next generation if the purchasing power loses the same numbers, 20-30 years from now, someone is making 40-50k each year, their wages will be worth less and less and less. We don’t have three lifetimes to turn schools around and turn kids around. If we don’t do this ASAP, we can kiss the country we knew good-by.
Robyn: Wow. It seems so daunting. A lot of people say that the challenges we face with poverty in schools makes success in schools almost impossible.
Eric: When people say it can’t be done, I shake my head and say, if you knew it could be done, would you change anything?
As you can see, Eric Jensen’s passion is tangible and contagious. And the strategies he provides in Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind aren’t just for students in poverty: They are for all students. What I came away with from our conversation was that in spite of some pretty dire statistics about poverty and its affect on our students and our world, Eric Jensen remains very optimistic about our future and the potential that all teachers have to radically make a difference in the lives of their students. I love this quote from Eric’s introduction, “We need to face reality: the same old mind-sets and strategies are not working. It’s time for a change. Over the years, I have visited numerous schools with high-poverty populations. Many of you work in schools like these, under difficult circumstances, and I empathize with you. But when you share your problems with me, my response will always be, “So what are you going to do differently tomorrow?” Every day, staff members at high-poverty schools around the world continue to do the same thing and vainly hope for a miracle that will never come. We have to make our own miracles.”
The thing that impressed me the most however was that Jensen strongly believes that you, me, all of us can create our own miracles. He believes that “miracles will happen in your classroom when you build your dreams bigger than your challenges.”
Share with us how are you making miracles in your classroom below.