We recently sat down with Michael Haggen, Senior Vice President Content Development and Chief Academic Officer, Scholastic Education, to talk about how educators can navigate this challenging academic year. In this interview, Michael shares what strengths-based learning means to him, how educators can accelerate learning for students through this approach, and practical advice for teachers and administrators.
EDU: It’s undeniable that this school year is unlike any other. Michael, what’s your advice for educators right now as they navigate this unprecedented moment?
Michael Haggen: We are all facing similar challenges around the country and around the world. I’ve found that when we learn and experience together, and share best practices, the better chance we all have at succeeding. Schools are trying so many different approaches to support students right now, whether they’re following an in-person, remote, or hybrid model. I think that regardless of which learning model you’re using, you as an educator have to find out where your students are as the first step. Try not to worry about all students being where they’re supposed to be. Instead, look at which strengths students are coming to you with—this is a strengths-based learning approach. Receive students where they are, then begin to accelerate learning, and go from there.
EDU: What does strengths-based learning mean to you?
Michael Haggen: It was actually a lesson I learned after Hurricane Katrina when I was working as an educator in New Orleans. We had students coming back to school who had been displaced and immediately, the focus was, “What grade are you in? What were your grades?” The problem with these questions was that these students had no records. They had no information. Everything was destroyed in the storm.
We had to learn how to look at where students were, and accept them how they came to us. Instead of focusing on where they should be academically, we assessed them where they were and built upon their strengths from there. Then, once you as an educator have that foundational understanding, you can accelerate the learning for each student. To me, strengths-based means taking something negative and making it positive.
EDU: How can teachers use a strengths-based framework year during this academic year to meet students where they are at?
Michael Haggen: Students, teachers, administrators, and staff are coming back to school after possibly losing a family member due to COVID-19 or maybe even being sick themselves. That’s a lot of trauma to face, and it has to inform our approach to teaching.
Teachers now have to prepare their classrooms and help their students adjust to their new normal. On top of that, they have to assess where students are—what skills did students retain? What skills are they proficient in? Once we attain that information, then we have a better understanding of students’ strengths. That’s where we need to start in order to accelerate.
Accelerating students in a strengths-based approach means moving them forward from where they are. Teachers should concentrate on feeling comfortable scaffolding instruction to meet their students’ needs, not trying to grade students based on a rigorous scale; this includes accounting for all students, including those with disabilities, students who are multilingual, and students who require interventions. Once you’ve identified how all students need to be supported through assessment, then you can determine which students need extra intervention based on the multiple data points that you’ve gathered.
EDU: What advice do you have for administrators? What should they be thinking about to help teachers focus on students strengths?
Michael Haggen: The advice I have for teachers working with their students is the same as the advice I have for school and administrative leaders in working with their teachers—utilize a strengths-based approach. Teachers have different strengths and areas where they need support—that’s where professional development comes in. As Michael Fullan explains, principals should be the lead learner in setting the example of always learning. You may not know all the information and you may not know all of the content, but you should be the lead learner. You should be learning, alongside your teachers, all of the practices you’re putting in place for them.
As an administrator, first identify where your teachers are and where their strengths are, then you can focus on where they need coaching. We have many teachers around the country who are learning to incorporate new technology into the classroom in a way they’ve never done before now—all of that needs some support and professional development.
Whole class instruction is also a challenge due to social distancing and hybrid instruction, and class sizes have become smaller. Usually, the higher the grade level, the less experience a teacher may have with smaller grouping. So, professional development is key to learn how to work with students, how to work with teachers to support their students through strengths-based instruction, how to accelerate young learners, and how to recognize when interventions need to take place.
EDU: Lastly, as is our tradition on the EDU blog, we want to know: What are you reading right now?
Michael Haggen: I just finished rereading The Why Not? Challenge by Dr. Jacqueline Sanderlin. She writes about inspiring communities that were left behind and what the work of building sustainable community partnerships can look like. In a time when there’s so much economic uncertainty, teachers still have to prepare their classrooms, often in their own homes. In some instances, they’ve had to create their own libraries in their garages. Where are they getting those resources and funding from? Findings from the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report show that 80% of teachers use their own money to buy books for their classroom libraries. This is a sacrifice that comes out of their pocket. Dr. Sanderlin talks about how school leaders can find funding within their communities, which we need now more than ever.
I’m also reading Race and the Totalitarian Century by Vaughn Rasberry, an English professor at Stanford. Lastly, I read children’s books more than anything else—about 20 books a week. This practice does so much for my own professional growth and I recommend it for teachers as well.