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Connecting With Students on the Fringes

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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Recognizing the Disconnect

Anyone who has worked with young people knows the student I am thinking of right now. When greeted, he (or she) keeps his eyes on the floor while mumbling a response. He may doodle constantly, or maybe he takes every free moment to mindlessly scroll through messages on his phone. He is the connection that feels impossible to make. Nothing seems to excite him, and when he turns in work, it is usually something partially completed with little thought.

I imagine that, for as long as I teach, I will find myself preoccupied with the students on the fringes. My thoughts continually return to these quiet students who separate themselves from their peers -- the boy who arrives angry, looking for a confrontation, or the highly engaged girl who loves to speak up in discussions but regularly fails to complete any other work.

I try to maintain perspective and remind myself of all the phases and difficult moments that I went through as an adolescent. I know that many of my students deal with circumstances much more trying than anything I faced. Yet, even with this knowledge, I am disturbed by the disconnect and feel I should be able to change it.

It would be foolish for me to back away from students who isolate themselves. Regardless of their behavior, young people want to be heard and want to have their realities acknowledged. Personal connections can help students on the fringes find excitement and validation in learning, discovering and creating.

5 Steps Toward Engaging the Disengaged Student

I have an informal checklist that I fall back upon when trying to integrate a disengaged student into the mainstream of my classroom:

Examine Content and Pedagogy

I try to remember to ask myself whether I've planned lessons and units in a way that allows students to easily answer the question, "Why does this matter?" Often, I strategize about starting class in ways that reiterate these ideas and help students to make connections they might not have already recognized. By hearing ideas from multiple students during the opening section of class, others begin to envision a range of different approaches to and ideas for completing their work.

Checking In

I try to use the small moments to check in with disengaged students and find avenues for building personal connections. This might be before class, as I circulate through the room, or during a random encounter in the hallways. I try to ask small questions to get them talking and to let them know that I'm interested and value them beyond the grade they get in my class.

Adapting and Being Flexible

At times it becomes painfully clear that my curriculum or lesson design could be adapted to better suit more learners. Often these suggestions for changes come from the students themselves. In these scenarios, I aim to let go of my ego, quickly adapt, accept new ideas, and allow students to proceed with their work in a way that is engaging and meaningful to them.

Talking with Others

It turns out that students sometimes act differently in different situations. Checking in with families and other teachers helps me get information in order to understand students more fully as I work to make connections with them.

Breathe -- It's Not Personal

Even though lack of connection with students can be very painful, it is often not personal. I try to remember to breathe, take care of myself, and see how time can shift the dynamic.

A Culture of Discovery

In his introduction to Paulo Freire's visionary book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Donaldo Macedo describes Freire's vision of education as, "a means by which people discover themselves and their potential as they give names to things around them." I agree with this framework and believe it is my job to design learning structures that allow my students to deepen their understandings of themselves and the world.

Ideally, the units I design grapple with deep, universal questions that have meaning for all students. Ideally, students engage in projects because they are able to find meaning in developing big ideas and making discoveries, and they are invested in sharing their work with a wider audience. Yet, in the real world, it is impossible to fully connect with all students.

Being teachers seems to mean sometimes waking up in the middle of the night thinking of our students, of their struggles, and of dynamics that we hope to transform. Despite the inherent challenges of working with youth, it is important to remember that establishing a culture of caring and compassion and taking the time to connect with students are what help us construct new pathways for engagement, allowing them to discover ways to reinvent themselves and their roles in the world.

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Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Darice's picture

I enjoyed reading, "5 Steps Toward Engaging the Disengaged Student." It is imperative that teachers build positive and trusting relationships with their students. Many of today's students are faced with tremendous troubles and responsibilities, both at home and school. Some of the problems they face are unfathomable, even for most adults; this could be the reason behind their disengagement. I agree it is important to find small moments to "check-in" with the disengaged student in order to make personal connections. I try my best to ask open ended questions to my students about social issues in an effort to promote positive conversations. This is an excellent way for them to open up about personal issues and share their thoughts and ideas. In addition, this builds trusting relationships and opens the lines of communication between myself and my students. We all know that positive peer and staff relationships are the perfect foundation for building academic success and achievements.

Wynne's picture

As a new teacher, I like the ideals you posted about the five steps to engaging the disengaged student. As I looked at some of the other blogs, it became evident that engaging the student is probably one of my biggest fears. "Will I be a good teacher?" Will I be able to keep them engaged or interested in what I am saying?" "Will I reach them the way that I want to?" And I have realized that the answer is maybe. I know that teaching is not all-inclusive and there will be hardships that I may encounter. Your post has provided me with good ideas in overcoming this worry. Your last sentence topped it off; "Establishing a culture of caring and compassion and taking the time to connect with students are what help us to construct new pathways for engagement..." the culture of caring and compassion is, in my opinion, a part of what makes a teacher a teacher.

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thank you all for the insightful comments!

Darice-- I agree with your thoughts about student realities and finding ways to create small moments. This goes along with Sekenia's comment about sharing information from her own life.

Wynne-- I love your perspective.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

A great point came up on Twitter. @marystrainNY wrote:

I would definitely add "what are students actually doing?" In class, as critical to engagement--agency, agency!

Todd Berman's picture
Todd Berman
Community artist, educator in San Francisco

Also: acknowledge the BS.

This is an excellent list, but I'd add one more idea: acknowledge the BS in the world. Teenagers have a strong nose for detecting the hypocrisy and contradictions built into our society - and especially prevalent in bureaucratic institutions like high schools. Be willing to acknowledge that some of the rules and processes we live with are ridiculous and why you're willing to put up with some of them while pushing for change in others.

These students on the fringe are the ones most likely to be the social change agents of the future - that's a good reason for them to put up with some BS so that they can build the skills to be effective revolutionaries.

Kevin's picture
I am a high school French teacher from Sikeston, Missouri.

Young people who are disconnected are NOT lost. Wynne, you are absolutely correct about setting aside a few minutes each day (before class, lunch, or after school) to connect with the students. Conversations often lead to wants and desires, which demonstrate that the person listening to them...cares.
I am also a new teacher who asks questions about lesson comprehension and retention. After reading the article and viewing Wynne's post, I believe that keeping the student engaged will parallel the teacher's interest in his/her students. Learning any information requires a certain amount of motivation. Caring is a factor that cannot be minimized.

DeanJeanQuam's picture
Dean of University of Minnesota - College of Education & Human Development

Our research has shown the tremendous effects of "being known" for young students. This occurs when a student feels a sense of belonging in school with both peers and teachers. When teachers know their students well, students are more likely to be engaged--and educators are more likely to focus less on students' limitations and more on possibilities for growth. Not only will connected students do better in the classroom, they will often be freed of bullying and other forms of alienation. Learn how teachers can foster a sense of "being known" among their students here:

Dean Jean Quam, University of Minnesota - College of Education and Human Development

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Dean Quam, that's a great article. It hits the nail right on the head. Thank you for sharing it.

Debra's picture

I just wanted to say, as someone who used to be a "kid on the fringes," keep trying. Even though I was too angry (dealing with concerns outside the classroom) to do much more than glare, it doesn't mean that I wasn't inspired by your lessons, or that I wasn't deeply touched by your concern. I just couldn't show it at the time. (And I agree with Todd, acknowledge the B.S.)

Constance Richardson's picture

Great reminders, thank you. My mission every new academic year is to make connections with each student outside of class. "Kids on the fringes" are usually very bright, creative and talented. If student is passionate about theater, I go see him/her acting in a play, working as the lights or stage director, if the student enjoys painting or music, I go to the art show in our gallery or the concert (on a stage or informally under a tree on campus). Demonstrating my interest in the student as a whole person, someone with talents and interests outside the classroom, helps to build a rapport that later has positive repercussions in the classroom.

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