George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Guest Blog: What’s the Best Way to Teach “At-Risk” Students?

March 18, 2010

Mary Beth Hertz (@mbteach on Twitter) emerged as a leader in the afternoon #edchat, where forward-thinking educators from around the world connect and discuss different issues of the day. Her tweets during the chat reflected her knowledge and passion for at-risk youth and further revealed her fluency in the issues and challenges of at-risk students in the classroom. Here's her opinion and summary of this week's edchat.

--Betty Ray, Community Manager (@EdutopiaBetty) and Elana Leoni, Social Media Marketing Coordinator (@elanaleoni)

This week's #edchat discussion topic really hit home for me. I was excited to hear what my Twitter PLN had to say about "What teaching methods work best with at-risk students?" I have been teaching "at-risk" students for about 10 years. My first real experience began with the first of two winters I spent teaching on the Navajo reservation in college. Currently, I teach in a chronically failing school in West Philadelphia. 100 percent of our students qualify for free/reduced school lunch and most of our students read below grade level. Before starting the night's discussion, I wanted to find out what most people considered "at-risk." I knew I had a definition in mind, but I was sure that others had their own definitions.

@mbteach: What does "at-risk" mean to you?

@Gaiaellyn: For me "at risk" means child is at risk for not seeing and using their gifts and talents for good...

@jasontbedell: Thinking of my students, they were kids who had stopped caring about school and were in real danger of failing out

@hshawjr: Students who have not been successful in the reg classroom or have outside of school "things" interfering w/education

@mbteach: For me, an "at risk" student is one whose environment (home/school/neighborhood) is not conducive to academic success

@Struggle2Learn: Learning disabled children are also considered at risk.

@Irene Tortolini: At risk to me means that we as educators are at-risk of not being able to reach these children.

@mritzius: At-risk students are created by a disconnect between what they actually need and what adults think they need.

@baldy7: I think we create "at risk" students by creating a rigid model.

@edtechsteve: To me, "at risk" has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence or test scores.

@cmoor4 To me at-risk are the kids you DON'T NOTICE.

Most people agreed that these kinds of students need well-defined boundaries, structure, a culture of trust and a feeling of safety. Teachers need to build a rapport with at-risk students; they need to believe in them, they need to differentiate instruction according to their needs. Many people commented on the importance of positive role models and the power that one adult can have in a student's life. As stated by @shyj: doesn't it all boil down to good teaching? and by @Chuck_Bell: The key message to students labeled as at risk: "I Believe in You."

The discussion moved at times toward the idea of labeling students as "at-risk," or labeling in general:

@courosa: I think it's been said already, but really wish there was better term than "at risk"; then there's labeling in itself, "othering" kids.

@usamimi74: We do too RT @cmoor4: Now we have this new term at my school: intentional nonlearner.

@kylepace: Is it too unrealistic to say that we should treat all students as if they are at-risk?

@baldy7: I'm still trying to figure out what strategies are good for "at risk" kids that aren't for "typical" kids?

@mbteach: I would say that whatever you would do with the avg kid would work with the at risk student!

@mritzius: At-risk, not at-risk, they are all people and all need different things at different times. Schools need to be responsive.

Maybe we are wasting our time labeling students. If we teach students as the individuals that they are, then labels are unnecessary. This approach would also make irrelevant scripted intervention programs, remedial classes and rigid grouping and tracking of students that can often prevent them from success by the academic track and label that precedes them.

As stated by @mrwejr: If a child does not 'play' or 'do' school well, does this make them at risk? When does the system change for the child?

Educating children, whether at-risk or not, requires a team effort. These efforts must sometimes be doubled with at-risk students.

@ksivick: Parents are key....all kids go home to be validated..if the parent doesn't support the school, the child won't either.

@BeckyFisher73 Do you work with your colleagues to gang up on the kids? It takes a village...

On a parting note, I feel strongly that the worst thing we can do for at-risk youth is "feel sorry for" or pity them. The students I work with crave structure and boundaries, and although they all live in the same neighborhood, one cannot assume that they come from the same home life or have unsupportive parents or lack skills needed for academic success. Get to know your students. Get to know their parents. Don't assume anything about at-risk students until you know the truth. Stereotypes are hurtful to you both.

Mary Beth Hertz is a computer science teacher at a large elementary school in West Philadelphia. She has been at the school for 5 years, and has been working in the School District of Philadelphia for 7. Her experiences over the last 7 years as well as many other life experiences inspired her to create her blog, "Philly Teacher," about teaching. Mary Beth can be reached on Twitter @mbteach.

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