Stop the Insanity
Simple strategies to address the growing epidemic of at-risk learners.
October 2007 issue of District Administration Magazine

When politicians shout and headlines highlight underperforming schools and children left behind, they are referring to the growing number of students labeled “at-risk.” The phenomena leading to this designation include poverty, behavioral disorders and the rapidly growing epidemic of learning disabilities. “Atrisk” has really come to mean, “Not good at school.” Consider the possibility that if a student is not good at school, then that school is not good for the student. Perhaps the school is at-risk.

From 1999 through 2001 I worked with MIT colleagues Seymour Papert and David Cavallo on the creation of a high-tech, multiage, project-based, alternative learning environment for incarcerated teens within the troubled Maine Youth Center. Students in a person often represent the hat trick of being at-risk-poverty, social problems and learning disabilities.

My Ph.D. dissertation documents the remarkable work of dozens of these students and shares details of constructionist learning theory, which was supported and validated by the learning environment we created. Subsequent work with large populations of at-risk students in the United States, Canada and Australia leads me to share the following, some might say radical, proposals for serving at-risk learners.

Some define insanity as doing the same thing and expecting a different result. If a student is underperforming or not learning, subjecting him or her to more of the same, perhaps louder or for longer periods of time, will not achieve a different result. This is a punitive approach to teaching that increases student alienation.

The state of Maine freed us from all curricular and assessment requirements. This made it possible for us to focus on each learner. At the very least, every school can try fresh approaches to see if new interventions reduce the severity of the at-risk population.

Treat all new students as welcome guests in your classroom. Leave their umulative folders in the file cabinet so you may get to know them without prejudice. Do not allow colleagues and past teachers to poison your relationship with students before you even get to know them.

One student, Michael, was absolutely brilliant at engineering. He could assemble, test and improve a dozen robotic machines in the time it takes most people to get started. He could converse at length with MIT professors about engineering principles. Yet everything in Michael’s permanent record indicated that he was illiterate. We had clues that this was a misdiagnosis,since Michael programmed computers and garnered information from books around the classroom but never made a big deal about it. Instead we focused on Michael and his current work. We provided assistance when asked and when we observed a teachable moment. A spirit of collegiality and trust was formed between us. Such a bond is critical in any productive context for learning but is often lacking in the lives of at-risk learners.

A few weeks before Michael was going to be released from the facility on his 18th birthday, he quietly sat at his computer for long stretches of time busily working on something important to him. Upon completion of this project, Michael presented us with a 12,000-word autobiography.

My colleague feigned amazement and said, “We were told you were illiterate.” Michael replied, “Oh, I could always read and write, but I wasn’t a very strong reader and I didn’t like reading about puppies.” Then his voice trailed off and he said, “I liked reading about NASA,” as if to suggest that nobody cared about what he liked to read and tossed him in the illiterate bin. Michael and so many other at-risk learners suff er from what Herbert Koh calls “creative maladjustment.” We found that students proud of their work maintained secret portfolios, even if they refused to produce such documentation for us.

Here are a few additional suggestions for better educating at-risk students.

1. Move the goalposts

It may be unrealistic to believe a student years below grade-level will catch up in a few months, regardless of a teacher’s brilliance. The goal needs to be what football coaches call forward progress. We need to take individual students from where they are and move them forward.

2. Be honest

Prioritize and have honest objectives. If a child is disruptive, teaching him or her Algebra 2 may be unrealistic since your real goal is for the student to behave. Institutions give grades for academic subjects, while society just worries about the student being a behavioral problem.

3. Imagine the impossible

If student discipline or behavior is your primary concern, think about the places where such problems do not exist and study them. Reflect on why such activities as summer camp, organized sports or afterschool jobs don’t suffer from the same pathologies, and identify variables you may integrate in the classroom.

4. Remember that less is more

We may need to do a lot more of what we know about effective primary school teaching. Integrated studies, thematic teaching, a centers approach or storytelling as teaching offer models of engaging students without overwhelming them with different rituals and teachers and giving them insufficient time for doing quality work.

5. Stop the name calling

This one is a biggie and extends beyond blaming students for their predicament. Make a concerted effort to refrain from labeling students at-risk, under-performing, etc. Their status is not a surprise to them, and labeling them only harms their self-esteem. Other labels, often considered positive, such as “multiple intelligences learning style” also have a deleterious effect by placing students in a new set of boxes.

6. Eliminate academic competition

While competition may be human nature, it’s highly destructive in the learning environment. It is only possible for students to make steady personal progress if one may comfortably read Dr. Seuss while a classmate tackles James Michener. Th e typical high school classroom sanctions ridicule and rewards degree of difficulty. This is counterproductive for at-risk learners.

7. Create authentic experiences

Disengaged students need to work on long-term meaningful work they can take pride in. Whether you embrace projectbased learning or something akin to the apprenticeship model used successfully by the Big Picture schools, students, especially those at-risk, need to be engaged in authentic experiences.

Students love teachers brave enough to maintain humane relationships with them.

8. Offer greater curricular diversity

The biggest mistake made in an effort to increase test scores is doubling up on reading and mathematics at the expense of the other subjects, especially electives. At-risk students may already dislike school. Depriving them of opportunities to learn something they like by killing-off electives, social studies, science and the arts is a recipe for disastrous dropout rates.

9. Have material rich classrooms

Learn from great kindergarten classes and make classrooms material rich. Not only should there be abundant constructive and computational technology and art supplies, but every classroom needs a wellstocked classroom library of fiction and nonfiction books at every reading level.

Allowing one of our 18-year-old students to “read” a book on tape led him to say, “This is the first time I ever saw pictures when I read.” Access to such materials may quickly lead to literate behaviors. Ubiquitous access to computers may offer a opportunity for at-risk students to demonstrate expertise in a domain not dominated by teachers.

10. Let go of the checklists

Great teachers know that once interest is generated in a story or topic, connections may be made to any other subject. Your scope and sequence is less important than children learning.

11. Talk with the students

While this sounds obvious, I meet highschool-age students regularly who have never had a conversation with an adult. Sure, adults have talked at them or yelled at them or told them what to do, but an alarming number of students have never engaged in an actual intergenerational conversation among equally interested parties. Without reversing this trend, students will never be able to be productive citizens. Students love teachers brave enough to maintain humane relationships with them.

12. The “worst” students need your “best” teachers

We all know the tendency to assign the best students the finest teachers. While we may quibble over a defi nition of “best,” the most flexible, creative, compassionate teachers need to work with your least successful students.

13. Keep the students engaged

The one rule in our Maine classroom was that every student needed to be doing something. Children understand this, and it’s good, simple advice for educators of atrisk students as well. If one strategy isn’t working, do something else.

14. Don’t put students at risk in the first place

Can you imagine how much effort and suffering Michael invested in being illiterate? Wouldn’t asking what he liked to read when he was seven have saved a great deal of hardship? It may take decades to overcome today’s earlier and tougher calls for accountability, which result in the conditions that breed at-risk students.

Gary S. Stager, gary@stager.org, is senior editor of DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION and editor of The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate

(www. districtadministration.com/pulse).

The work of Joey, one of my at-risk students, will be featured again this weekend on public radio’s This American Life!

Last October (2010), I wrote a blog post called, Try Not to Cry, in which I tell the story of Joey, an incarcerated teenager in the alternative learning environment I created with Seymour Papert. For three years, I helped lead The Constructionist Learning Laboratory, inside Maine’s troubled prison for teens, The Maine Youth Center (now Long Creek Youth Development Center). This work is chronicled in my doctoral dissertation, An Investigation of Constructionism in the Maine Youth Center.

In Try Not to Cry  I discuss how some students in the Constructionist Learning Laboratory engaged in radio production, including Joey who won a national radio-production award and created deeply poignant, sad and at times hilarious radio programs. You can (and IMHO should) listen to three of Joey’s radio programs and learn more about our learning environment here.

From Try Not to Cry

After my work in Maine ended, my partner came running into the house screaming that one of my “prison kids” was just on This American Life. I refused to believe it! Surely, there was no way that something from “The LEGO Lab” (as the kids called our classroom) could have made it to the best storytelling program on radio. I checked the web site and sure enough, Joey’s piece of Mike Wallace-style investigative journalism, “Who Peed in the Pudding?” was played on Ira Glass’ show from coast-to-coast. You MUST listen to this short piece to be reminded of what kids, all kids, are capable of and to hear Joey remain calm during a stressful situation when all of the adults around him behave badly. Hilarity ensues!

I met Ira Glass, host of This American Life, a few years ago and he told me that Joey’s piece was one of his all-time favorites. This American Life seems to repeat it at least once a year. (including this weekend)

This weekend’s episode of This American Life reruns one of their most popular shows, “20 Acts in 60 Minutes,” Joey’s contribution may be heard at the 13 minute and 33 second mark. I hope his work will inspire you and your students.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.

The July 18th edition of The Washington Post contains the report of an exhaustive education study that is sure to be ignored by the get-tough accountability standardistas who otherwise worship at the alter of educational data.

The conclusions of this lognitudinal study of  nearly one million school students confirms my belief that real teachers don’t need data. That said, the findings of this study need to be presented to every school board and posted in every faculty room in the nation.

Here’s one myth of school debunked: Harsh discipline is not always a reflection of the students in a particular school. It can be driven by those in charge.

In a study of nearly a million Texas children described as an unprecedented look at discipline, researchers found that nearly identical schools suspended and expelled students at very different rates…

“The bottom line is that schools can get different outcomes with very similar student bodies,” he said. “School administrators and school superintendents and teachers can have a dramatic impact.”

The research showed that while some high-poverty schools suspended students at unexpectedly high rates, others with strikingly similar characteristics did not. The same discipline gap was clear for prosperous, suburban schools and small, rural schools; some were harsh, and others with nearly identical qualities were not…

…The study showed that 97 percent of disciplined students got in trouble for “discretionary” offenses, which can include serious fights but often refer to classroom disruption and insubordination. Fewer than 3 percent were ousted for violations with state-mandated punishment, such as bringing weapons or drugs to school.

In an analysis that controlled for 83 variables to isolate the effect of race on discipline, the study found African American students had a 31 percent higher likelihood of being disciplined for a discretionary offense, compared with whites and Hispanics with similar characteristics…

…The results showed that suspension or expulsion greatly increased a student’s risk of being held back a grade, dropping out or landing in the juvenile justice system. Such ideas have been probed in other research, but not with such a large population and across a lengthy period, experts said.

Among the study’s central findings was that 23 percent of students who had been suspended at least once had contact with the juvenile justice system. By comparison, 2 percent of students with no suspensions had juvenile justice involvement…

File that under, Duh! When schools suspend students, they dramatically increase the likelihood that those children will find themselves in the juvenile justice system. This isn’t a matter of bad kids needing extreme discipline, but of educational policies disposing of children, rather than educating them. In my opinion, zero tolerance policies, NCLB, Race-to-the-Top and test score obsession undoubtedly contribute to the increasing animosity between children and educators. Suspending children denies them of an education and fails to address their needs. That is despite being the favorite pedagogical innovation practiced by people like the new Chicago Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard who replaced out-of-school suspensions with new and improved in-school suspensions.

At-risk children need increased learning opportunities, not different forms of banishment.

60 Minutes just aired a two-part story that stands in their grand tradition of breathtaking journalism. The report tells the story of Gospel for Teens, a non-profit arts organization created in Harlem, NYC by the radio broadcaster, publisher and theatre producer, Vy Higginsen. Her original goals were modest; teach kids to sing gospel music so that this important African American art form endures. The lessons Ms. Higginsen, the teenagers and the 60 Minutes audience learn are much more profound and life-altering.

First you witness the children’s drive, determination and capacity for intensity (a major theme of my forthcoming book). During their first two-hour class, the kids learn three gospel songs in three-part harmony. Try comparing this accomplishment to the school tasks teachers so mightily struggle to eek out of these kids, or kids just like them. The complexity of this musical feat dwarfs much of what one finds in the school curriculum, especially the curriculum for poor children.

The 60 Minutes report follows the development of these children through two semesters of participation in Gospel for Teens and explores their backgrounds, daily struggles and triumphs. Perhaps you know the challenges urban teens face, but have forgotten, or you are just so focused on raising those damned test scores that you forgot why you became an educator. Every child – yours and mine – is precariously close to being labeled “at-risk.” This is especially true of poor children.

Teaching is as complex and diverse as each learner. Although these kids can sing their pants off, they struggle with the most basic of life skills. Their emotional needs can make academic success impossible, especially because way too few adults give a damn about each kid and do whatever is necessary to connect with them on a human level.

I am sick and tired of hearing about “those kids” and how they are failing! You never know when the slightest gesture of good will, willingness to listen or simple act of kindness can change a young person’s life and enrich us all.

We are all reminded of this lesson over and over again throughout the 60 Minutes piece. As in other constructive environments where children choose to be, there are quite likely no discipline problems at Gospel for Teens.

Teachers really need to do some soul-searching during these challenging times.

Try remembering why you told your parents that you wanted to become an educator. Was it so you could scream at children and control when they get to pee? Was it so you could march kids up and down the hall like POWs? Was it to deliver the curriculum and hold them accountable? Was it to raise f$#king test scores on tests never intended to be used to rank kids or punish teachers, especially when they are hugely expensive and rigged against the very children you serve?

If the answer to all of the above is NO, then wake up every morning and ask yourself, “What can I do to ensure that this is the best 7 hours of each student’s day?” While you’re at it, fight with every ounce of your being to preserve world-class music and art opportunities for every American child! Don’t blame the kids when we won’t do the right thing!

Why not declare every day, “I’m Here for the Kids Day,” and protect them from the corporate and political bullies fighting to make their schools joyless test-prep factories?

Watch the 60 Minutes report:

  1. Gospel for Teens 60 Minutes Story – Part 1
  2. Gospel for Teens 60 Minutes Story – Part 2

(the clips may not play inline, but the links above work)

I am honored to be invited to speak Saturday as part of TEDxNYED and thrilled to be on the same program with one my heroes, Dennis Littky.

I’m terrified by the format and the fact that it requires a completely new talk that I will never present again, but I’ll give it my best. I think my message is important and hope it will be well-received.

I am not sure if TEDxNYED will be simulcast on the Web, but am confident that all of the videos will eventually make it online. Perhaps mine will go viral, like a kitty putting on a hat.

Many of you know that my doctoral research was based on work with Seymour Papert creating a multi-age, technology rich, constructionist learning environment for severely at-risk learners inside Maine’s troubled prison for teenagers. I worked for three years (1999-2002) on that project and learned a great deal about learning, teaching, school reform and the fragility of childhood from that experience.

Kids in the Constructionist Learning Laboratory were free to work on personally meaningful projects, regardless of what they were, as long as they were “doing something.” They had five hours of uninterrupted time each day for project development and we were freed from all curriculum and assessment requirements by the Governor and legislature in order to truly reform the system and reacquaint damaged students with their sense of power as learners.

Any and all volunteers who could generate student interest in a project were welcome in our classroom. I often felt as if we were on Gilligan’s Island since we had a constant stream of visitors and volunteers despite working within a prison.

Blunt Youth Radio volunteers visited twice a week to work with kids on radio projects. This gave some kids a tremendous voice – literally and figuratively.

Joey really took to radio production and his program, Joey Interviews a Cutter, in which he interviews a peer about self-mutilation is brutally candid and won Joey a national radio award. I was reminded of this moving piece by Scott McLeod’s recent post about cutting (self harm).

After my work in Maine ended, my partner came running into the house screaming that one of my “prison kids” was just on This American Life. I refused to believe it! Surely, there was no way that something from “The LEGO Lab” (as the kids called our classroom) could have made it to the best storytelling program on radio. I checked the web site and sure enough, Joey’s piece of Mike Wallace-style investigative journalism, “Who Peed in the Pudding?” was played on Ira Glass’ show from coast-to-coast. You MUST listen to this short piece to be reminded of what kids, all kids, are capable of and to hear Joey remain calm during a stressful situation when all of the adults around him behave badly. Hilarity ensues!

I met Ira Glass, host of This American Life, a few years ago and he told me that Joey’s piece was one of his all-time favorites. This American Life seems to repeat it at least once a year.

While looking for Joey’s two radio programs, I found one that I never heard before. Joey’s Phone Call Home is just what it sounds like. An incarcerated teenager called home (from our classroom – probably in violation of 100 rules) and recorded the conversation. It is the banality of the conversation that reduced me to tears. All stereotypes of troubled kids and their “whacked-out” parents fade away when you listen to the heart-wrenching, but completely casual exchange between Joey, his mother and his little sister. It’s unbelievably poignant.

While I worked in the teen prison, my own kids were around the same age as the kids I taught. I was immediately struck by how similar my kids were to those with such traumatic lives and terrible odds stacked against them. The experience was humbling and moving. I learned more from the kids in Maine than I can ever possibly express.

During the three years of our project Joey and two of his brothers were our students. Yup, three brothers were all incarcerated within three years. I wonder what has become of the little sister you hear on the recording?

My colleague John Stetson once remarked, “Joey’s family goes to jail for the same reason the Bush family went to Yale. It’s their legacy.”

Joey, I hope you and your family are doing well. Your voice haunts me.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.