Steven Z. Athanases is professor in the School of Education at University of California, Davis. He holds a PhD from Stanford and received postdoctoral fellowships from the Spencer and McDonnell Foundations. Athanases draws upon nearly a decade of public school teaching as a touchstone for his work. His teaching and research, honored by various organizations, focus on diversity and equity in English teaching and teacher education. He received a 2015 Faculty Citation Award for career achievement in leadership in the furthering of equal opportunity and diversity objectives within the UC Davis community. Athanases has written about infusion of multicultural content in curriculum and student voice in instruction. A recent project examined processes and values of preservice teacher inquiry in culturally and linguistically diverse, mostly high poverty classrooms, with many English language learners. A second project with several colleagues examines school- and classroom-level factors that appear promising in meeting the needs of lower-income Latina/o youth at several high schools with missions and signs of success in fostering college-going cultures. A current project focuses on self-reflexive inquiry into language as a means to explore ways to leverage one’s resources from one’s linguistic and cultural autobiography for use in teaching. Athanases can be reached at

We need to locate, nurture, and guide the budding intellect of adolescents in urban schools. This requires learning activity that makes the present challenging and engaging, with larger purposes that link to futures of continued learning and action. Challenging curriculum benefits from what Cole (1996) calls prolepsis, linking future actions with the present, placing the end in the beginning. Rather than focusing activity on bite-size chunks that prepare for some distant meaningful learning, teachers can design activity so students access rich potential of larger goals within focused present action. Why wait to take on the big ideas?

Teachers can help students tap into a remembered past and an imagined future to organize learning in the present (Hoffman-Kipp, Artiles, & Lopez-Tores, 2003). I want to make the case for the present. Too much focus on preparing for the future undermines the transformative possibility of learning in the “now.” There is a dominance of preparatory talk: test prep, college prep, skills as prep for thinking later, college-like comportment, prep for a distant future. Without the dynamic sense of a “happening” in the learning here and now, opportunities are missed, or worse, schooling becomes a mind-numbing enterprise from which students disengage.

Adolescence is a golden time to feel the power of ideas and intellect, passion about principles, chance to develop a voice on issues. As a high school English teacher, I observed how despite skill levels, students could develop as young intellectuals. I recall Tonya, whose writing was fraught with problems of syntax, sentence structure, organization, mechanics. Yet as she struggled with writing, her capacity to engage ideas and speak with confidence about issues raised in literature about family struggles, violence, war, and oppression evolved rapidly, and her developing intellect inspired her peers.

A refrain in U.S. discourse has been the goal of “college for all.” Yet college-going for many youth in low-income urban settings has seemed unattainable. Social and economic inequities have persisted, leaving many youth outside the social drama of SATs, college tours, funding applications. Impediments to educational success often snowball early so that by entry into high school, skills and learning processes for many urban youth lag far behind standards articulated by nation, state, and district. Perhaps worse, many youth entering high school do not see themselves as having the desire or capacity to develop as engaged learners and budding intellectuals.

Some schools work to accelerate learning with college admission as a goal. A set of studies colleagues and I conducted investigated promising practices in three California high schools demonstrating some success in meeting the needs of Latina/o youth in low-income urban communities and fostering college admission (Achinstein, Curry, & Ogawa, 2015; Achinstein, Curry, Ogawa, & Athanases, 2014; Athanases, Achinstein, Curry, & Ogawa, in press; Athanases & de Oliveira, 2014; Curry, 2013). Efforts were varied, including:

  • college-going mission statements
  • guidance for students to meet college preparatory course requirements
  • “relabeling” students as academically successful
  • culturally sensitive counseling supports
  • boundary crossing to access community resources
  • after-school academic and enrichment activities
  • community activism for peace
  • resources for families translated into Spanish
  • community-based internships related to subject matter learning, also fostering community engagement.

In some cases, however, school-level initiatives were not balanced with powerful teaching and learning. It repeatedly distressed me to see that with college-going as a future goal, there frequently was too little college-like thinking and learning in the present, too little stimulating, intellectually challenging activity, too few invitations for higher-order thinking.

Unchallenging curricula often occur in low-income settings with diverse youth and many English language learners (ELs) (Oakes, Rogers, & Lipton, 2006). In reviewing relevant studies, Rivera-McCutchen (2012) notes: “A caring education provides students who have a history of poor academic outcomes with an environment that is both emotionally nurturing and academically rigorous” (p. 654). Striking that balance of challenge and support is key. Social support related to belonging is positively but moderately related to learning; more important for achievement is academic press, including expectations for student learning and alignment with academic standards (Lee & Smith, 1999).

Resist the Dominance of Skills-First

We often assume skill development must precede academic challenge. Why? To deliver on skills to be assessed on standardized tests? Because we believe students need basics as foundation before they can proceed to interpretation and problem-solving? In one school my colleagues and I studied, skills-before-content was widely in evidence and may have worked at cross-purposes with school goals. Sequential approaches in fundamentals of doing a subject dominated and may have forestalled opportunities for meaning-making and college-level rigorous work.

One teacher argued she could not focus 11th graders on figurative language when they needed basic language skills development. However, at another school with a similar demographic of mostly low-income Latina/o youth, several of them ELs, an 11th-grade teacher did just that: Students conducted discussions focused on figurative language in a novel and managed it well.

Some teachers work first with recall about content, then use information-gathering for collective understanding before moving to opinion, argumentation, interpretation. However, with supports very tightly structured, skills central, sometimes a lesson never climbs to argument, analysis, cause and effect. Skills in such cases overwhelm content, or the learning supports constructed in service of content become the focus.

There is particular danger in teaching diverse youth and particularly ELs of focusing on just discrete tasks, basics, vocabulary, mechanics, and language errors, minimizing attention to content knowledge development (Bartolomé, 1998; Bruna, Vann, & Escudero, 2007; Mohan & Slater, 2006; Valdés et al., 2005). Such work can lead to intellectually impoverished curricula, instead of casting work with ELs and others as high challenge, high support (Hammond, 2006).


Have we forgotten as educators the mental torture of a skills focus without purpose and challenge? Focus on larger purpose can engage youth. One first-year teacher, a Latina committed to challenging a class of Latina/o students in 12th-grade government, designed lessons with challenge, support, and purpose:

• Purpose: In the season of a national election, she led an exploration into why Latina/o voting patterns in California were low and what could be done to alter this pattern.

• Disciplinary learning: She guided students to use primary documents, “source” texts for bias, and align understandings with what we know about government functioning.

• Challenging literacy task: She guided students to make clear claims about voting patterns and possibilities for change, use evidence from multiple texts, cite sources, weave ideas, drive home a conclusion.

• Constant probing for elaboration: She constantly probed for elaboration of understanding during discussions, never settling for first or simple responses.

In another urban school, two teachers, both White, linked history and English around social issues and political struggles in World Cultures. Students knew they had to support claims with evidence and heard consistently about purpose: “So what? We need to consider the so-what factor. Why should we care that this occurred? Why is it important?”

Synthetic Thinking as Intellectual Activity

In that World Cultures class, I worked with the teachers on cultural themes (racism, cultural assimilation, empathy) that organized understandings across historical periods, primary documents, texts and media, and literary works. Students conveyed thematic knowledge through visual displays, dramatic enactment, presentation, essays.

Thematic focus helps youth think at the level of abstraction. Synthesizing across sources supports the intellectual process of making sense of data, ideas that come from the countless sources we can access, especially in our digital age. To assess capacity to synthesize knowledge from sources, we checked for transfer of understanding. We introduced four new texts of diverse genres, asking students to make as many thematic links as they could across texts and from those new texts to other sources in the curriculum.

A 10th-grade African American young woman with a poor attendance record and tough demeanor wrote the most explosive synthesis of ideas I had read from a high schooler. She linked seemingly disparate sources to texture her understanding of themes. I read it aloud in class, and her peers looked shocked that she was the author. Budding intellectual. Later I read it in a university presentation, acknowledging roughness in structure and syntax. An English professor spoke from the audience: “I wish my English majors would write with that kind of synthesis.” Intellect within.

Past Deficit to Intellect Within

Others have written about the need to move past deficit thinking, that many educators, particularly White middle-class teachers, see youth of color in ways that assume deficiencies and underestimate potential. How shall teachers move past such deficit thinking? One way is to engage deeply in studies and self-reflexive inquiry into race, language, and other forms of diversity to learn about and challenge oneself about multiple identity factors.

In work with preservice teachers, colleagues and I also found classroom-based inquiry into student learning with diverse learners engaged them in documenting the achievement that is there (Athanases, Wahleithner, & Bennett, 2013). Teachers could uncover much to move past deficit perspectives and learn more fully about learners and their thinking. In many cases, this meant flipping a focus from what is wrong, not working, confusing, to what a student is expressing, resources she is using, or how he appears to be shaping an argument. This process needs mentoring but can take hold for early-career teachers.

For example, Marisa dismissed a paper by her student Juan, a Latino male designated intermediate in English language proficiency, as merely using a cartoon and curse words. As I guided Marisa and peers to look more closely at Juan’s writing, the group documented achievement that was there. Though Juan’s academic English was in development, his writing, composed in ten minutes, used a range of linguistic and visual resources to capture a character’s feelings with raw emotion.

With his prose, Juan constructed a cartoon of three pivotal characters in a scene from a Shakespeare play, represented them using labeled stick figure memes popular on the internet, used analogic thinking to compare a character’s frustration with feelings Juan has when losing in a video game, and considered his audience by placing curse words strategically in the character’s voice and leaving out key letters so as not to offend a reader. Juan’s prose would need attention, but the conversation helped the group see how to locate literacy processes and intellectual moves that undergirded one student’s quick-write loaded with clues to his comprehension, grasp of point of view, analogic thinking, and sense of play with multimodal literacy tools.

We Need Creativity, Innovation, Documentation

What is most disturbing about getting mired in skill-level work without larger purpose is that youth in such settings get little taste of what makes disciplinary learning exciting and worth pursuing. What does it look like to immerse students in rich problem-solving, deep disciplinary challenges–even as they are developing English language proficiency, even as they are learning comprehension strategies, basic computational literacy, trying to develop and master skills and processes of a subject? I have provided illustrations. Lee (2007) describes how she worked on parallel issues with Chicago students. Many of us have designed and implemented units, projects, lessons illustrating ways to do this.

We need more examples, need to document, post, and share ways teachers in urban schools ground lessons in larger purposes, link disciplinary learning with skills, find meaningful ways to place the end in the beginning—to engage youth in rich and rewarding parts of learning even when their English proficiency levels are labeled “basic” or “intermediate,” even if their comprehension skills or writing processes need much support. We also need to help beginning teachers document achievement that is there so they can locate and nurture intellectual development.

This is the engaged learning we need for students in the present, which also may help them believe in college as a more viable and appealing option for their futures. Without such attention to meaningful disciplinary learning, all of the school-level college-going initiatives fall short. Whether college is in their futures or not, as educators, we need ways to work with youth in urban schools to locate and nurture the intellect within.


Achinstein, B., Curry, M. W., Ogawa, R. T., & Athanases, S. Z. (2014). Organizing high schools for Latina/o youth success: Boundary crossing to access and build community wealth. Urban Education. doi: 10.1177/0042085914550413.

Achinstein, B., Curry, M. T., & Ogawa, R. T. (2015). (Re)labeling social status: Promises and tensions of developing a college going culture for Latina/o youth in an urban high school. American Journal of Education.

Athanases, S. Z. (2012). Maintaining high challenge and high support for California’s diverse learners. Leadership, 42(1), (Themed Issue: Learning & the Classroom, Sept/Oct), 18-22, 36.

Athanases, S. Z., Achinstein, B., Curry, M., & Ogawa, R. (in press, 2015). The promise and limitations of a college-going culture: Toward cultures of engaged learning for low-income Latina/o youth. Teachers College Record.

Athanases, S. Z., & de Oliveira, L. C. (2014). Scaffolding versus routine support for Latina/o youth in an urban school: Tensions in building toward disciplinary literacy. Journal of Literacy Research, 46(2), 263-299.

Athanases, S. Z., Wahleithner, J. M., & Bennett, L. H. (2013). Learning about English learners’ content understandings through teacher inquiry: Focus on writing. The New Educator, 9(4), 304-327.

Bartolomé, L. I. (1998). The misteaching of academic discourses. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Bruna, K. R., Vann, R., & Escudero, M. P. (2007). What’s language got to do with it? A case study of academic language instruction in a high school “English Learner Science” class. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 6(1), 36-54.

Cole, M. (1996). Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Curry, M. W. (2013). Being the change: An inner city school builds peace. Phi Delta Kappan. 95 (4), 23-27.

Hammond, J. (2006). High challenge, high support: Integrating language and content instruction for diverse learners in an English literature classroom. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 5, 269-283.

Hoffman-Kipp, P., Artiles, A. J., & Lopez-Tores, L. (2003). Beyond reflection: Teacher learning as praxis. Theory into Practice, 42(3), 248-254.

Lee. C. D. (2007). Culture, literacy, and learning: Taking bloom in the midst of the whirlwind. NY: Teachers College Press.

Lee, V. E., & Smith, J. B. (1999). Social support and achievement for young adolescents in Chicago: The role of school academic press. American Educational Research Journal, 36(4), 907-945.

Mohan, B., & Slater, T. (2006). Examining the theory/practice relation in a high school science register: A functional linguistic perspective. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 5, 302-316.

Oakes, J., Rogers, J., & Lipton, M. (2006). Learning power: Organizing for education and justice. NY: Teachers College Press.

Rivera-McCutchen, R. L. (2012). Caring in a small urban high school: A complicated success. Urban Education, 47(3), 653-680.

Valdés, G., Bunch, G., Snow, C., Lee, C., with Matos, L. (2005). Enhancing the development of students’ language(s). In L. Darling-Hammond & J. Bransford (Eds.), Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do (pp. 126-168). SF: Jossey-Bass.

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3 Responses to “Teachers Striving with Urban Youth to Challenge and Nurture the Intellect Within by Steven Z. Athanases”

  1. carlos diaz on 5/9/15 9:56 AM US/Eastern

    Sadly, the emphasis on state high-stakes tests throughout the nation has not only narrowed the curriculum, but has emboldened those educators who take a skills first position. Many of our Black and Latino students are starved to be directly engaged with intellectual content. However, too many educators assess their abilities to do so from their skill levels in English and mathematics.
    It may seem “counterintuitive” for these educators to engage students with deficient skills with intellectual content, yet this is one of the best ways to stimulate them, give them a sense of efficacy as learners and encourage them to engage in the hard work of improving their skills.

  2. Cecelia Alvarado on 5/11/15 9:22 AM US/Eastern

    This is a wonderful piece that I plan to share with colleagues, some who see this kind of equity work as essential to the development of academically under-prepared students and others who don’t see this as their responsibility, nor as their assignment.

    I teach early childhood education at the community college in the District of Columbia, where 95 percent of our students come to us needing developmental English and math courses before they can enter our major courses. In our college (all disciplines) faculty meetings there is always on-going discussion about the struggles of students like the ones described here but very few examples of faculty who challenge their thinking at high levels or allow them to use creative means to demonstrate their knowledge or prior experiences to connect to the current topic. Thank you, Dr. Athanases for giving us this wonderful acknowledgement/reminder of our responsibility to the intellect within.

  3. Rosemary Henze on 6/23/15 3:04 PM US/Eastern

    Thanks for this thought provoking piece, especially the examples and the emphasis on working with the present. I plan to use this in my course this fall for MA TESOL candidates who also plan to teach basic college composition — where too often a low skills approach is the focus.

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