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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior editor of DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION and editor of The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate
Veteran educator Gary Stager, Ph.D. is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, publisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools thirty years ago and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Gary is also the curator of The Seymour Papert archives at DailyPapert.com. Learn more about Gary here.