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“Do You Want To Know How To Create Your Ideal Classroom, Motivate Your Students, Maintain Their Attention And Keep Them On Task Without Screaming, Pleading Or Burning Yourself Out?”

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November, 2008
You got into teaching for all the right reasons but find yourself occasionally frustrated by problem studentswho have the whammy on you and send you home feeling frustrated, defeated, disillusioned, unhappy, or worse.

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At-Risk Students by Bill Page


Dramatic, compelling, sobering accounts of the frustration,discomfiture, and defensive ploys of students at risk, through the eyes and from the heart of a teacher who views failure from the students' perspective. Their notorious misbehavior, ranging from incompetence and disrespect to clowning, apathy, and defiance is a cover up for embarrassment and failure. Through vignettes and essays, the author places the reader firmly in the students' moccasins and presents a reality check for teachers coping with disruptive, disobedient kids.

Ch. 6


Successfully Teaching At-Risk Students: Understanding, Accepting, and Repairing the Damage

Teachers and schools can rescue damaged children instead of diminishing their lives by continuing their failures.

Damaged by limited experiences in the child-rearing process, children labeled "at-risk" become the responsibility of the educational system. While the label indicates that the child is at risk of failing, it more accurately describes the school's unwillingness or inability to respond adequately to the child's limited background and inability to profit from the lock-step, age-grouped, fixed curriculum that awaits initial school entrance.

At-Risk Children Have Been "Damaged"

The term "damaged" applied to children seems harsh. Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, many children grow up with deplorable poverty, poor parenting, cultural disadvantage, language differences and experiential deprivation. It is not their fault; they were okay when they arrived. However obvious the damage and whatever the precipitating causes, schools must not wait for the higher-up bureaucrats and politicos to direct them to salvage the children's damaged lives or to teach them how to do it. Tomorrow, these precious, vulnerable, innocent children will present themselves to school as mandated. With an age cut-off, the most children can do is "show up." Whatever the students' background, schools and teachers can do more—they can teach the students who show up!

The Problems and Effects Are Well Known

The lifelong consequences of an inadequate education are well known. At least one-fourth of all students are affected by lack of success. School failure is associated with illiteracy, unemployment, substance abuse, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, welfare lives, abject poverty and a likely continuation of the poverty cycle.
Schools are not responsible for poverty, parenting, cultural differences and early childhood learning or their
subsequent effects, butin the mandatory educative process, there is opportunity and obligation to salvage these young lives. Labeling children "at risk" makes it appear that the children create the problem when, clearly, the problem arises because of the attitude, approach, procedures and ineffectiveness of the school system.

Which Students Are "At Risk"?

Students with mostly failing grades, who have been retained in grade or those who are frequently absent and who are likely to drop out, are at risk. Students with families below the poverty level and who move often are at risk. Additionally, at-risk students include those who have parents and siblings with poor attitudes toward school, as well as those who have ethnic and cultural differences. Given the adverse prior conditions to which students are exposed and the one-size-fits-all curriculum to which they are subjected, their failures could have been predicted before they were born.

At Least We Should Avoid Contributing to the Problem

Children at risk are living their lives according to their experiences. Children must not be blamed for the damage done to them in the process of living and growing in an adult-managed world. They did not choose their learning, their lives or their lifestyle, nor did they choose to be learning problems. The least the school could do is not to denigrate their lives by labeling them failures and allowing them to be poorly educated.
These kids were not failures until they came to school. It is school and school alone that marks them as failures. School stigmatizes them with permanent records, comparisons, condemnation, condescension, marginalization, retention, and discrimination. School is not responsible for children's prior learning, but they could avoid contributing to the damage.

The First Step Is Understanding the Children

Educators can begin the salvaging process by understanding the student's plight and accepting students "as they are." Why should a child begging for attention, acceptance, recognition and belonging in the only ways s/ he knows be rejected, punished, ostracized and regarded as a behavior problem? She has just one problem—she is a human being with the same hierarchy of needs other humans have. She will defend herself and her, ego when threatened. Would you have been different if you had been reared in her family?

Examining Our Expectations

Teachers need to examine their expectations. Do they believe in encouragement? In a good self-concept? Do they really believe that exhortation, negative reactions, failure, disparaging looks, derogatory comments and punishment are good ways to help the kids change their behavior? Doesn't it seem strange that professional teachers have difficulty changing their own behavior, even enough to accept the fact that children can't change their behavior totally? Should they not make a distinction between teaching children to behave and making them behave?

Beginning with "A Failure Identity"

By their walk, talk, dress, hairstyle, friends and mannerisms, the lowest achieving students exhibit a failure identity. It is their identity that must be addressed. Failing students become members of a subculture of students who sometimes openly express disrespect, disregard, and disdain for school. Attempts to change their knowledge and achievement ignore the basis of their behavior. Their behavior identifies who they are; it stems from their need to be accepted, to survive emotionally.

To change identity, students must have a viable alternative to failure, become aware of problems associated with that identity and see positive value in acquiring a different identity. Students can learn a new identity through new associations, models, and experiences. Change, however, requires better understanding and relationships with those whom they desire to be like. A teacher is usually the second most important person influencing a young child's life. S/he has the best opportunity to intervene, relate, change student attitudes and help the child develop new competencies

Belonging to a Group or Subculture

Speaking mannerisms frequently identify individuals as belonging to certain cultural, ethnic or socioeconomic groups. Consider subcultures with the speech patterns of a "hillbilly," an "English butler," or a "valley girl." People judge others and readily categorize them according to their speaking style, dialects, vocabulary, interests and behavior. Think about movies characterizing wealthy celebrities, homeless people, biker gangs, or high school cliques by their language.

Failing students befriend other failing students. They find satisfaction in wearing their failure and low social status like a badge of honor. Expelled from school for behavior problems, a student enrolling in a new school will immediately team up with someone he thinks is the worst child at the new school. Each knows the many identifying characteristics well. Their identity can be a source of pride and power—it is their mark of distinction.

A Matter of "Life and Death"

For the most impoverished at-risk children, success can be a matter of "life and death." Failure to "make it" in school may leave kids without hope. They are not likely to have the family resources, connections, or associations to compensate for failure. Without adequate living and job skills, they are probably doomed to continue lives of abject poverty, association with people frequently in trouble and in conditions of desperate existence, poor relationships, self-destructive lifestyles, violence, inadequate health care, and immobility. Education is their best and last hope.

Intimidation and Coercion Have Already Failed

Persistent failure causes students to stop trying or caring. Repeated failure causes parents and teachers to stop trying to motivate children except by additional coercion, which has already failed. Individual achievement is never the result of coercion. Coercion can cause compliance, but it can also cause resistance, resentment, hostility, antagonism, defiance, aggression, and apathy. When at-risk children see themselves as failures, no amount of continuing failure, compulsion, intimidation, cajoling or bribery will change them.

Identity Is the Problem

For at-risk students to succeed academically, they must see themselves as capable of success, and they must desire to try. Many at-risk children gave up long ago on both counts. Interpreting the behavior of low-achieving students as manifestations of beliefs, attitudes, associations and experiences, classroom teachers can help students view themselves differently. The change in perception can be accomplished through a trusting, caring, accepting relationship. Knowing that self-esteem is inferred, teachers must act to help children "figure out" that they are capable.

Approach to Repairing the Damage

Traditional remedial approaches for dealing with at-risk children-especially hard-core, lowest achieving students—are notoriously ineffective.
If remediation were effective, the problem would have been eliminated.
The years of damage to emotions, feelings and attitudes must be repaired.
Following are six important considerations for repairing the damage:

1. A teacher-student relationship of mutual trust and respect is crucial. Teachers must empathize with these students and take the initiative and responsibility for improving the relationship.

a) The children must perceive that they can be like the teacher and like the successful students.
b) If students believe teachers have their interests at heart, they can accept help and advice.

2. Attitude is over-riding. If a child says, "I hate math!" or "I hate this stupid school!" that is an attitude. If a teacher can't change the student's attitude, they can't teach him. Research shows two ways to help a child change his/her attitude:

a) By the teacher's own attitude. Students know whether their teacher thinks they can succeed. They
spend many hours "learning" their teachers and know their teacher's attitudes, beliefs and values.
b) By helping children see the situation differently.
If children perceive differently, they will behave differently. If they saw what teachers saw, they would behave as the teacher behaves or recommends

3. Responsibility is a critical key to self-esteem; the key to responsibility is participation. But students cannot be responsible for anything in which they have no part or no voice. At-risk students must have the opportunity and encouragement to participate.

a) An outstanding characteristic of at-risk children is that they feel no responsibility for what happens to them. They are likely to see themselves as victims—helpless, hapless dupes. Until they begin to participate in factors that affect their lives, they cannot change. Teachers cannot "give" responsibility, but they can offer and promote participation.

b) Students learn what they experience. If they live on a ranch, they learn about horses. If they live among people who use profanity, they use profanity; children learn what they live. The question teachers need to ask is, "What experiences might I offer to help the child learn skills and behaviors toward a new identity?"

4. Students learn from the company they keep. At-risk children may be in the class physically, but they are not part of the group. To become a part of the classroom community, there are four requirements:

a) The group and its activities must be inviting. Children must want to join. They can be compelled to be in the group, but not a part of the group.

b) The organization must accept people "like them"—they must identify with members of the group and share its goals.

c) If at-risk children expect to be excluded, they avoid rejection by rejecting the group first.

d) If joining the classroom community means rejectingother groups that their friends and family belong to—they won't join.

5. Tests, grades and report cards are the schools' ultimate, public, definitive, irrefutable rejection. For at-risk children to see themselves as capable, the assessment system and policies must be changed or eliminated.

a) The most unfair classroom procedure in school is treating every student alike. There is nothing more unfair than the equal treatment of un-equals. To give children who are different the same test after the same exposure to the same material at the same time is blatantly unfair.

b) The goal of school is learning. Testing is learning; a 70 on a test means the student needs to learn 30 percent more, not get a "D."

c) Marks should never be made on a student's paper (for others to see). Post-it notes, a letter with positive remarks, etc. are more helpful.

d) Use tests for showing the children the goal. Let students take the test several times the way states do for the drivers' license exam.

e) Make testing time flexible. Give the test orally if test answers have been memorized.

6. Use a meaningful assessment procedure that won't hurt or embarrass students. At-risk children don't need grades; they need to be taught. Failure must not be used as a replacement for learning
and teaching.

a) Assessment normally consists of three elements:

measurement, evaluation and a symbol for evaluation, e.g. Measurement: "That apple is as big as a basketball." Evaluation: "Wow!" Symbol: "Super-dooper! Humongous or SDH or A+++"

b) Measurement: He got one of ten division problems right.

c) Evaluation: Apparently she doesn't understand the process.

d) Letter symbol is for reporting the evaluation to others; a grade is unnecessary. "He needs to review previous lessons." Only the child and those working with him/her for improvement need to know so they can help, not so they can judge.

Pygmalion in the Classroom

The potential of the Pygmalion effect is virtually unquestioned. Teachers' expectations influence student performance and, as humans, teachers discriminate on the basis of their expectations or biases, however unintentionally. The behavior of teachers change depending on their perception of whether the student is "good" or "bad." For example, facial expressions—a smile for the good student, a frown for the bad one—even discrimination in the amount of time teachers allow for the students to answer a question have been documented repeatedly. Sometimes teachers demand levels of performance that are simply impossible for the struggling student to achieve because the student doesn't have the prior learning skills necessary to master a new task.

Lack of Learning Is Cumulative

Once a student begins the school year already behind classmates, the learninf deficit accumulates and increases. Students behind one year in first-grade.arithmetic or reading will not be one year behind in eighth grade; they could be eight years behind. Slow learning is often a matter of coming to a task without the prerequisite knowledge to do that task. The learner needs to be taught the prerequisite knowledge. But it is not that simple. The at-risk student has been "provided" that knowledge many times before and thinks "I can't do that." That is why attitudes must be changed.

Remediation Is not a Remedy

If a student does not know the multiplication tables in eighth grade, after having been "taught" those tables through several successive years, another go-round of remediation becomes futile. Worse than futile, because when it fails again, the notion of failure becomes further ingrained. Teachers frown, get frustrated, and finally give up. If they give up on students, why shouldn't students give up on themselves? Finally, because failure is difficult to admit to oneself, the students do some mental gymnastics and become more convinced that they hate math, the teacher and school.

Rather than beginning with remediation, teachers need to begin with those behaviors and characteristics that enable students to readily recognize at-risk characteristics. By teaching student self-reflection techniques, they can increase the student's awareness of those identifying characteristics. Aspects of student self-reflection include thoughtfulness about current behavior, deliberation among possible choices of alternative behavior, and reflection on a series of actions in an effort to consider a new course of action. To engage in self-reflection, the student must feel secure, be willing to take a risk, and have the opportunity to try again.

Aspects of the reflection process include dialogue, facilitation of the process, student's desire and need to improve strengths and weaknesses. Once students are aware of factors causing undesirable results, they can process new information and accept feedback. Without awareness of need, there can be no change.

Self-Concept Is Inferred, Not Conferred

At the outset, the student must be involved in all phases of the evaluation process. Involvement gives the children an interest, a stake in the process. Student involvement includes participation in task analyses, grading their own papers, student-led conferences, a personal portfolio maintained and managed by the child, participation in testing, correcting, reviewing, recording and reporting. Self-worth is inferred, students need to figure out things for themselves.

Relationship of Learning and Goals

Teachers can offer diagnostic or trial tests in lieu of evaluative or recorded tests. They can shorten tests by offering five spelling words at a time rather than twenty. A ten-question test can be offered in two parts, or written work can be judged by content without grading context. All of this is toward self-confidence and improved attitude.
Students must see a direct relationship between learning goals and learning procedures and assessment. Teachers can help students begin judging themselves by their personal best achievement rather than comparison to others. Students can learn "temporary failure" as a part of learning, not as a determination of worth. They can profit by feedback and understand that false progress based on cheating or charity is detrimental now and for their future progress.

Principals Can Be the Key to Success

Administrators are responsible for teacher morale in working with the at-risk student. Principals should help teachers develop and use specific techniques such as "authentic learning," the project approach and thematic concepts as a part of educational policy. Principals should see themselves and their policies as resources for teachers in the same way that teachers become resources for their students rather than taskmasters. Focus is on helping individuals, teams and study groups through embedded staff development efforts.

Of course, principals must build a school learning community to help teachers build classroom learning communities. Whatever principals expect teachers to do with students is precisely what principals should do with teachers. If they want teachers to allow for differences in students, then principals should allow for differences in teachers. With everyone working together, at-risk students will have an excellent chance of making the grade.

Printed with permission from Educational Dynamics Publishing Company.

At-Risk Students Feeling Their Pain, Understanding Their Defensive Ploys by Bill Page

Bill Page, a farm boy who graduated from a one-room school, attended a rural high school, flunked out of college, and was drafted into the Korean War. Later, with maturity, military experience and the G.I. Bill, he received his teaching credentials. He became a specialist, teaching middle-school "troublemakers." Bill went on to originate and direct a successful USOE research program for six years. Then for 26 years he taught teachers across the nation to teach the lowest achieving students with his proven premise, "Failure is the choice and fault of schools--not students.

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