cultural relevance · EAL

Putting Away the Deficit Lens in Culturally Diverse Classrooms

Our brain is neurobiologically set up to focus on the negative.

According to psychologist and happiness researcher Timothy J. Bono, PhD, “paying attention to negative rather than positive information is an evolutionary hand-me-down from our cave-dwelling ancestors. Back then, alertness to danger… was a matter of life and death.

Focusing on the negative is our brain’s way of keep us alive. It is a matter of survival.

However, when we sit with a child and notice their writing, there is no need for our evolutionary deficit lens. If we want to grow “fresh and fearless” writers, it is best to put away the deficit lens.

One of my biggest pleasures is sitting with a growing writer and enjoying the beauty of their work. However, at the start of the year, when my eyes hit a student’s piece of writing for the first time, sometimes my “limbic system” or emotional brain kicks in and takes the first shot.

Our deficit lens can appear without our noticing. It can appear not only in our words, but also…

  • in our body language or facial expressions
  • in our tone of voice
  • in our attention to calling on only select students for sharing aloud in the classroom

Students may not verbally express hurt or disappointment, but the message is clearly understood. The consequences for using a negative lens on students can be disastrous. When students do not feel loved, accepted, or valued, they will let you know in many different ways.

It may be that our brain is neurobiologically set up to focus on the negative, but we have the power to keep a positive lens. We have the power to “refresh” our thinking and decide to research with wonder and astonishment upon the work of each growing writer.

Our ability to change our lens from negative to positive is a gift we each carry, and it is our choice. It is a choice that is especially important for students in culturally diverse classrooms.

Students from low socioeconomic, multilingual, or other culturally diverse environments do not need…

  • to “virtually” travel to places to have something of value to write
  • teachers to empathize their lives into low expectations
  • to speak “academic” English to be brilliant and powerful writers
  • to be boastfully confident and outspoken to be fearless writers

When we expect that our culturally diverse students lack the valuable experiences necessary to develop a writerly life, we fail our students.  

All students have stories to share. All of them. Our challenge may be to undo what has been done to have students believe they have nothing of value to share. One student shared, “I’ve never done anything that no one has done already.” His statement left me without words. Sometimes we need time to respond to powerfully negative statements like these, in order to find the right words to shift a young writer’s mindset into a better place.

How do we keep a positive lens when students counter ours with their own negative lens?

We can begin with trust. Trust for young students, especially those with trauma is, like writing, a process. It is a process that must occur before any learning or writing can be expected. Writing is a vulnerable act that requires significant trust. It is important that we offer our vulnerability first.

When we share our stories, traumas that are safe to share with students, fears, worries, and struggles, it changes the classroom. When we share our stumbles, triumphs, how we handle anger, fear, and freedom, we build great bridges with students. Slowly, they will work their way around into trusting the community enough to share. It is a careful, sometimes painful dance to allow students to see authentic hurt and joy. Lending our hearts to teach students to lend theirs is a crucial piece to moving and growing culturally diverse writers. However, we can also share powerful experience through the many beautiful mentor texts that offer the impact of story.

Our challenge is to make sure we set up our writing environments to expect brilliance.

This student began the year focusing the use of his notebook on illustrations.

Within a few weeks, this student decided to write using words. The decision to use words was his, not the teacher’s. This is where wait time is crucial.

Teacher Language:

Some of the language I used to help move this writer into using words was primarily selected to focus on the positives of his work, to cheer, and celebrate his artistic illustration and expression of story telling.

“Wow. Like an author of a wordless book.”

“Your notebook is like a graphic novel! Nice.”

I noticed another story like a graphic novel. Is illustrating our passion? When we have a passion, we get good at it, because we practice it.

“I’d like to see what will happen if you try telling a story with words.”

“Oh! You even used figurative language in your seed story! That’s awesome!”

The Results:

Increase in serotonin produced in the body. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter important for memory and learning. Writing fluency increases.

After school, this student continues to seek out other students to share and comment on his work.

Empowering writers by focusing on building trust, relationships, and the positive creates a solid foundation for learning.

Relationships matter greatly, especially in culturally diverse classrooms. When students trust those who teach, they will work beyond expectations to thrive in the classroom. Classroom teachers have the ability to shift the environment for students to feel loved and valued enough to move on to learning, writing, and growing.

3 thoughts on “Putting Away the Deficit Lens in Culturally Diverse Classrooms

  1. I really appreciate your empowering words and insight. Fostering an environment of safety and openness is the one way students can truly be given agency to share their written stories authentically. What spoke to me the most was reaching students at their level, finding beauty in wherever they are at and working with them to improve and grow. It is our job as teachers to identify and cultivate these beautiful skills in our learners, remembering that they all have the ability to learn.


  2. This made me feel so good. Not sure why…well I suppose it’s because we all need guidance and help to bring forth the greatness that lies within. I truly like this. Thanks for beng such an amazing teacher.


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