Marshall Ganz offers a insightful analysis of the election results in the L.A. Times today in a column titled “How Obama lost his voice, and how he can get it back.”

He focuses in on what he describes as the President’s choice to be “transactional” (emphasizing on compromise) instead of “transformational” (emphasizing change).

It’s a difference first coined by political scientist James MacGregor Burns, and one used by community organizers (which both Ganz and I have been). I’ve also used the words “covenant” versus “contract” to paint a similar picture.

I do think Ganz goes too far in describing it as an either/or choice — I think an effective leader, teacher, and organizer needs to be able to do both. I would agree, though, that Obama has leaned too heavily on the “transactional” side of things.

But his piece did get me thinking about how this difference could be applied to the classroom, and the tension we teachers have to deal with between these kinds of options all the time. It seems to me that’s what differentiated instruction is all about.

For example, I have some students whose writing skills are so low that they will clearly not graduate from high school unless they make dramatic improvement. I could choose to be only “transactional” (as I had been during the first two months of the school year) by helping them “get by” just enough to pass my class. In the face of all the needs other students have, doing this kind of “triage” is not an uncommon strategy that many of us take.

Another option is to be heroically “transformational” (a la the teaches we see in the movies giving up their own lives to help their students).

The option that I chose, though, was one with more of a realistic balance. I had individual conversations with each of them (done, of course, in the context of very good relationships I have built with them since the school year began). I began by saying that each of them had told me in the past that they wanted to graduate from high school and go to college, and asking if that was still a goal. After they each confirmed that it was, I bluntly told them that it probably wasn’t going to happen unless they dramatically improved their writing skills, but that I would be willing to create special assignments that would require extra work from them but that should be engaging (they can help pick the topics they write about) and ultimately help them. For example, I said, next week I would want them to use the outline and graphic organizers we had been using to write a persuasive essay about the worst natural disaster to, instead, have them write about why their favorite football or soccer team was better than another one (they are all either football or soccer players).

If they decided they wanted to do this extra work, they would need to continue to do our class’ regular work, though I would temporarily reduce my expectations for what would constitute a completed assignment. I would also give them extra credit for completing their extra writing assignments.

I also told each of them that they were free to decide they didn’t want to do the extra writing work — I wouldn’t be angry at them if they made that choice. They just needed to decide how badly they wanted to graduate and go to college.

Each one of them said they wanted to start doing the extra writing work.

I suspect it won’t be quite as easy to get them to actually do the work all the time, but at least the stage is set for the motivation to come from them, not from me. I can regularly remind them that they made the decision, and say that they’re the ones who say they want to graduate and go to college.

Notice that “transactional” and “transformational” tactics are all present in this strategy — there are the transactional elements of reducing regular classwork expectations and receiving extra credit for the extra writing assignments, and there is the core transformational element of attempting to dramatically improve their writing ability so they can achieve their goals. I’ve made it practical (and not heroic) for me by planning to have them use similar scaffolding that we’ll already be using in class and helped them increase their motivation by letting them decide on their own writing topics.

I’ll keep readers updated about how it goes — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In the meantime, please share your own experiences in balancing being “transactional” and “transformational” in the classroom….