What is GLEAM™ Instruction?

September 10, 2021

UnboundEd supports educators at every level of the system to provide students of color with instruction that we have come to call GLEAM™ —  grade-level, engaging, affirming, and meaningful. The ideas behind GLEAM instruction are not new. They rest on UnboundEd’s learning from many extraordinary educators and on theories and evidence associated with learning science and culturally relevant and responsive teaching.

Grounded in Grade-level

The national conversation about equity often centers grade-level learning, which is a critical component of GLEAM instruction. We believe the explicit descriptions of college- and career-readiness in the standards and the evidence-based focus on what matters most for learning are crucial. If educators don’t use instruction and lessons aligned to grade-level standards, they begin with low expectations. In contrast, as TNTP’s landmark study, The Opportunity Myth, demonstrated, students meet our expectations and thrive when we provide them with instruction aligned to grade-level standards.

But, grade-level rigor and standards-aligned curriculum aren’t enough. To amplify the power and potential of grade-level instruction, it needs to be engaging, affirming, and meaningful.

Engaging instruction builds on students’ interests, but not in the “edutainment” way. Engaging instruction builds students’ interests tied to their knowledge and culture, helping them see themselves as learners with agency. Teachers who enact engaging instruction have an awareness of and accountability for the curriculum’s demands for rigor and productive struggle. These teachers use students’ academic, linguistic, local-contextual, and cultural identities as on-ramps to learning in ways that extend students’ “intellective capacity” (Hammond, 2015).

Affirming instruction acknowledges and honors students’ ethnic, racial, and linguistic identities and their current and historical experiences within the context of grade-level work. Teachers who provide affirming instruction articulate or demonstrate how students can use the learning in their world and the larger world. These teachers see, value, and affirm students’ full humanity and all of their identities, academic and intrapersonal.

Meaningful instruction provides students with opportunities to gain knowledge, look at the world, then decide (including critique) how the knowledge can move them (the learner) and the world. Teachers who provide meaningful instruction find room in the curriculum to develop students’ socio-political lenses through dialog, debate, questioning, writing, think-abouts, etc. These teachers build their own in-depth content knowledge and develop a cultural lens focused on their students’ local-contextual outlook.

More than Technical Actions and Skills

There is no recipe for GLEAM instruction. It is not a rubric, nor is it a list of indisputable actions teachers take in the classroom. Importantly, GLEAM instruction is more than a set of technical skills. In much of our work, we have drawn inspiration from Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings (2008), who wrote in her essay, “Yes, But How Do We Do It,”

I argue that the first problem that teachers confront is believing that successful teaching for poor students of color is primarily about ‘what to do.’ Instead, I suggest that the problem is rooted in how we think—about the social contexts, about the students, about the curriculum, and about instruction.

Certainly, understanding “what to do” is essential, but it is not enough. That’s why our GLEAM hypothesis goes further. Only when a teacher’s mindset and planning are purposefully put into the service of grade-level, engaging, affirming, and meaningful instruction do we see the teacher actions and student experiences that exemplify successful teaching for historically marginalized students.

Outside of the Classroom

Let’s unpack the elements of our hypothesis a bit. We believe that how educators think and spend their time outside the classroom matters, especially teacher mindsets and planning. Some of the characteristics of teachers who hold mindsets that support GLEAM are that they:

  • Know grade-level academic standards and are open to growing understanding of their students’ cultures and contexts.
  • Believe that students can meet grade-level expectations through relevant content and multiple ways of demonstrating knowledge.
  • Understand how racism operates in K-12 educational systems and feel agency in disrupting racism.

Educators bring these mindsets to bear during instructional their instructional planning when they do things like:

  • Commit to understanding their students’ personal and academic identities and their cultural funds of knowledge.
  • Reflect continuously on the individual identities and cultures they bring to the classroom and their impact on instruction and student relationships.
  • Continuously seek knowledge of content, pedagogy, and how racism operates in K-12 educational systems and in themselves.

Who educators are and what they do outside of the classroom have significant influence over how they teach; these mindsets and planning practices are critical for GLEAM instruction to occur.

GLEAM has the power to disrupt long-standing inequities in our schools, including inequitable access to grade-level learning, and unfair distribution of opportunities for students to be seen, heard, and valued. We look forward to taking a deeper dive into what GLEAM instruction looks like in future posts, including a closer look at what happens in classrooms when teacher mindset and planning work in service of instruction that is grade-level, engaging, affirming, and meaningful.

Call to Action

UnboundEd empowers educators to eliminate the predictability of student outcomes by race, language, and socioeconomic status. Centering historically marginalized students does not eliminate the need for all other students to receive a quality education. On the contrary, the skills, dispositions, and knowledge that exemplify GLEAM instruction are applicable and beneficial to all students — providing equal opportunity for students to experience engaging, meaningful, and affirming instruction and classroom experiences that reflect grade-level expectations. Join us in this work as we explore these ideas in a series of upcoming posts!



Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2008). Yes, but how do we do it?: Practicing culturally relevant pedagogy. City kids, city schools: More reports from the front row, 162-177.