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This is a repost of Zaretta’s guest post last year. My colleagues and I will be facilitating a session at NCTE in St. Louis tomorrow and we’ll be citing some of Zaretta’s powerful work. Today’s post will inspire and help to build capacity for our partnerships in learning with students in our care.

I am incredibly honored that Zaretta Hammond is guest blogging for today’s That Thing You Do! segment. Zaretta is an educator and the esteemed author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. You can follow her at and on Twitter @Ready4rigor

Counter-Narratives Support Student Identity and Agency

Relationships are the on-ramp to learning.  Trust is the secret weapon of the culturally responsive teacher. Because when students trust that we have their best interests at heart, they give us permission to push them to higher levels of achievement.

In order to help them see themselves as strong readers and writers or as confident learners, they must have a strong academic mindset. Unfortunately, too many diverse students who are dependent learners have internalized some of the negative labels put on them – unmotivated, not intellectually capable to name a few. They believe they can’t learn at high levels or can’t take on rigorous content.


When students accept this negative view of themselves, they are creating an internalized “story” to explain to themselves why they struggle. As a result, they develop a fixed mindset.

What they need is a new story to tell themselves, a new internal dialogue that re-affirms their capacity for learning.  This is the foundation of a counter-narrative.  A counter- narrative isn’t hyped-up platitudes.  It’s not about positive thinking. It is about cultivating each student’s identity as a learner by having him shift his internal dialogue.

Here are two things we can do to help students cultivate a positive counter narrative.

Practice “noticing and naming” to help students craft a new narrative.

Naming and noticing is about recognizing student capacities that the student often ignores and drawing students’ attention to them.  This type of pattern recognition is powerful. Point out how they have grown as learners or when they are using their natural gifts. Maybe you notice how a student solved a problem in a unique way by using knowledge from previous lessons. Once a student starts noticing certain things about his capacity as a learner, it is hard not to notice it again.  We call this perceptual bias.  We tend to see a thing more often once it is pointed out to us where we were once blind to it.

Noticing and naming is a critical practice for culturally responsive teachers. Doing it regularly activates the brain’s reticular activating system or RAS. The RAS is the brain’s 24-hour search engine that looks for events and experiences that confirm what is being named and noticed.   When it finds them, it literally rewires the brain’s neural pathways to make permanent circuits that “hold” our story and use it to guide our actions and behaviors in everyday life.

There is another aspect of noticing and naming we don’t want to ignore. Students will often repeat negative statements about their own capabilities or about the capabilities of others in their particular racial, gender, or language group. We want to name and notice when they are engaged in negative self-talk.  Without shaming or blaming, we must interrupt that behavior or point out how those statements aren’t true by re-framing or refuting those statements.

Use questions and prompts like these to help build a strong counter-narrative:

  • Remember during the first month when we had to really work at [fill in the blank]. Now you can do that automatically.
  • Tell me what went well for you during the lesson.
  • What interesting thing did you do as a writer [reader, thinker, or mathematician] today?

Use literature to help deepen the counter-narrative

In addition to what students say to themselves as part of noticing and naming, we can use texts to play a key role in strengthening a counter-narrative.  Remember that the books students read (along with the movies they watch and music they listen to) can be either  “disabling”  by reinforcing negative self-image or they can promote a counter narrative that is “enabling” in two important ways:

  • Enabling texts promote a healthy psyche for students that affirms their worth and capacity
  • Enabling texts serve as a road map for being, doing, thinking, and acting as they navigate racial, language, and gender politics in the larger society in ways that counter labels of “unmotivated, less intelligent, and less capable.”

You can use these characteristics of enabling texts as a guide when selecting companion texts to the books or textbooks mandated in the curriculum.

Just keep in mind, the goal is to have students formulate and own their individual and collective counter-narratives.  That means you have to give them regular opportunities to speak these counter-narratives aloud to themselves and to others.  For example, have student regularly use the Success Analysis Protocol to look at and say out loud what progress or success they’re proud of at the end of a lesson or unit.


–Zaretta Hammond









If you have not yet read Zaretta’s book, I highly recommend it–one of the best books I’ve read in 30+ years in education.