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The Heinemann Fellows: Lisa Birno On Changing Deficit Language


Lisa Birno is a Heinemann Fellow with the 2014–2016 class, and has been an educator for 27 years. In this post, Lisa reflects on her time in the Heinemann Fellowship and how labels for students can convey a belief system, helpful or otherwise.

I was blessed with my own struggling reader. I didn’t initially feel that way; I never imagined I’d sit on that side of the conference table listening to what my child couldn’t do. I helped the process by offering insights and explanations but by trying to explain why he might not possess all the skills teachers expected, I unintentionally contributed to the damning of my own child.

And it was damning. By offering those insights and explanations, I helped confirm possible reasons for my child’s struggle. Once the reasons exist, it’s far too easy to focus on them and their accompanying deficits. We get stuck on those weaknesses, we use them to justify. It goes back to our need to understand. In order to make sense of why the child isn’t learning the way we expect, our deficit language kicks in and it damns every child we use it on.

What happens when the puzzle doesn’t make sense to us?

Grant was a puzzle, but so is every child. A gorgeous, beautiful, wonderful puzzle. Some puzzles are easy to solve. They fit our expectations, and everything lines up as we anticipate a solution. The picture comes into focus. But what happens when the puzzle doesn’t make sense to us? What if we can’t see the picture?

There’s the dilemma. Walking away from the puzzle means walking away from the child. And once one of those struggling children is your own, there’s no walking away.

Shouldn’t that be the case for every child? Shouldn’t it be that teachers are the ones who will never walk away? Shouldn’t it be that we will persevere until we solve the puzzle?

The early suggestions were to place Grant in programs designed to support him as a reader: Title I immediately. A child study review if that didn’t work. I could see the lights of the special education room in the distance and we were only 25 days into the first grade.

When do we stop building from students’ strengths? We don’t spend much time pondering this notion and, yet if I'm honest, it happens routinely. It comes in the form of explanations, background information, and labels. It hides in good intentions and a desire to explain what we fail to understand. But there’s the problem. It comes from what we don’t understand.

Shouldn’t it be that we will persevere until we solve the puzzle?

I needed to be the one who focused on the strengths. They were there. He was imaginative, insightful, and intelligent. He was fascinated by stories and recalled them with incredible detail. His curiosity kept him questioning.

His teachers cared and wanted the best for him. They listened when I shared his strengths and began to join me in identifying them. We discovered Grant had a visual issue that was the cause of his struggle. And then everything changed, not because the vision was corrected (it took months before that was resolved). Everything changed because we understood the puzzle.

Grant’s journey changed the path of my career, leading me to become a reading specialist. Becoming a Heinemann Fellow changed it again. Working with the Fellows pushed me to examine what I was doing and why I was doing it in every aspect of my teaching.

As I pursued my action research question about the instructional strategies that would increase equity and engagement through the use of purposeful talk, my students’ strengths blossomed. Students with limiting labels contributed to our learning through powerful conversation. They showed me that rigorous and insightful thinking occurs without the ability to read at grade level. They reminded me that “struggling” readers don't struggle in all areas of learning. They demonstrated that deep comprehension doesn’t wait for reading skills to develop. They reminded me of Grant.

Every child is capable of high intellectual engagement

The gift of my work as a Heinemann Fellow is the push to dig deep. The thing about pursuing rich work—it spills over into everything. That means looking at how I live by my beliefs. I believe every child is capable of high intellectual engagement. But I hadn’t considered if I express that. How would I have wanted Grant described when I wasn’t there?

I thought about how our language reveals our beliefs. Our language exposes us. If I call a child a struggling reader, aren’t I conveying my lack of belief in him? If I really believe all children are capable of engaging in deep thinking and learning, does my language convey that? My goal is that my language reflects the child’s strengths as we put the pieces of the puzzle together. This calls for the elimination of traditional labels and deficit language.

This is hard, but I can feel a shift. That’s the power of my experience as a Heinemann Fellow: I’ve learned not just to reflect, but to examine my practice and improve it. I’ve learned to wrestle with those things I don't understand—to work on them over time. Most importantly, I’ve learned to examine how I live by my beliefs.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

*The views expressed above are Lisa Birno's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eden Prairie Schools.

Heinemann Publishing is seeking applicants to become part of our newest class of Heinemann Fellows, a small group of educators who exhibit exceptional promise for concentrated, enhanced pedagogy.

Application deadline is February 15, 2016 (11:59 pm eastern time)

Click here to learn more and apply.


Lisa Birno is a sixth grade teacher at Forest Hill Elementary School in the Eden Prairie Public School system of Minnesota. Her action research question as a Heinemann Fellow is, "What instructional strategies are most effective in promoting equitable and engaged talk in a Midwestern, suburban sixth grade self-contained classroom?"

Follow Lisa's progress on Twitter @LisaBirno

Please visit the Heinemann Fellows page to learn more.

Topics: Education, Heinemann, Heinemann Fellows, Research, This I Believe, Writing For An Authentic Audience, Lisa Birno, Purposeful Talk

Date Published: 02/11/16

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