By Eric Russo
Students who struggle. Everyone has them and, as a profession, we do an inconsistent job of helping them move forward. We crunch numbers; we look at data; we differentiate (or try to); we scaffold (or try to); we sit in meetings and talk about what the students can or can’t do; we use flexible groups, homogenous groups, and small group instruction; we use the latest technology or software that claims to “personalize” instruction or “level the playing field;” and we respond to interventions over and over again. Despite all of this, however, so many students still slip through the cracks.
As an 8th grade special education reading teacher, I was always struggling to find a balance between backfilling the gaps in learning and engaging my students in rigorous activities. Too many times we get caught in the habit of “reteaching” students everything they “should know,” as if it is the first time they are seeing the content. This leads to students who are stuck in a lower-order-limbo—a perpetual state of review where they are asked to memorize and recall facts and labels without ever really having a chance to explore the higher-level concepts that come from application and creation. It’s as if we are teaching them to ride a bike by having them study and take notes on how to ride a bike, rather than getting on the seat and simply riding the bike. Students can’t write a strong essay, so let’s take notes and spend a week on how to write an essay, instead of writing and revising more essays. Students are having trouble converting fractions, so let’s reteach it the same way and attempt ten more identical problems, because surely these learners can only perform tasks if they are copying and remembering exactly how the teacher did the problem. We can never expect our students to ride (or invent, or compose, or create) if we don’t give them the opportunity. The following is a list of strategies compiled from a number of different experts in the field that have helped me help my students learn to ride.
- Consider the Whole Child: As stated earlier, too often we focus on the skills—what a student can or cannot do. Once I started considering the ASCD Whole Child tenets—healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged—when trying to diagnose difficulties in student learning, my eyes were opened to a different way of thinking. Considering the tenets takes the conversation away from what the student may or may not be able to do and brings it to what the student may or may not have or need. You might have a student that’s struggling to learn because he hasn’t eaten or doesn’t feel safe. You might have a student that has given up because she does not feel supported in the classroom. You might have a student underperforming because he is bored from not being engaged or challenged in your classroom. Years ago, I had a student who would always fall asleep in class. He also had a learning disability and was several years below expected grade-level performance. Most people assumed that he didn’t care about learning, that he had just given up, or that he would never really be able to perform at a high level. When I took some time to talk with him about it, I found out that his mom was going out at night and leaving him to watch is infant sister. Although she would fall asleep, he would be too nervous to go to sleep himself and would stay up until his mother came home. How could he ever be ready to access content in the classroom when his basic needs weren’t being met? And more important, why did my content even matter for him? Considering the tenets helped me rethink my approach with this student, get him some extra support from other individuals and services in the school, and change other people’s dialogue about and impression of him. Once we were helping to address some of his needs, he felt more supported at school and put more effort into his learning.
- Adopt a Growth Mind-Set: There is a lot of buzz behind the work of Carol Dweck, and I’ve spent several years applying it in the classroom with my highest learners and strugglers alike. Each year we start by reading one or more articles on the topic. I have my students discuss the differences between fixed and growth mind-sets and then write letters or create infographics about it. I have them rate themselves on their own beliefs, and we continually return to the idea that our brains are actually growing when we challenge ourselves and work through difficult learning tasks. This alone does not “fix” the struggling learner (in fact we should think about how we can “fix” our instruction for these students), but it creates a shift in student perception about what it means to learn. Too often we prize speed and honor the kids who pick up the information most quickly. That cannot be the case in a room with kids who may have been told that they are basic (or below basic) for the last five years. If you honor the struggle, showcase the process, and even share your own struggles with your students, you can start to tip the scales toward greater effort and motivation.
- Emphasize Learning, Not Grades: There is an entire movement about throwing away grades (you can check out the work of Mark Barnes to get some truly innovative ideas on this matter), but grades are here for the time being. With that being said, we do not have to make them the prize or the endgame, and they should never be used to hold over a student’s head. I can still hear myself saying to kids in my first year, “If you don’t do the work, then you’re going to fail.” I cringe to even think about it. Many or all of these students have failed before, and although they don’t love it, the failing grade has a “been there, done that” air about it. It isn’t motivating for the student, and it shouldn’t be the point of focus anyway. Once I started de-emphasizing the grade and honing in on the process, I began to see students more engaged with their work, resubmitting assignments multiple times or making corrections at home on their own without being told.I’m a fan of a implementing a combination of ideas from Jonathan Saphier’s The Skillful Teacher, Grant Wiggins’ definition of feedback, and an adaption of Mark Barnes’ narrative feedback approach. I don’t let student know their grades on a given assignment. I list out the criteria and give them a “Met” or “Not Yet” score (a strategy mentioned in Dweck’s TedTalk linked to above). In addition, I include a little narrative that lets them know what they did well, what they need to improve on, and some suggestions for what they might do next. More important, I allow students to revise and resubmit as many times as they would like, until they can meet all requirements. Below is an example of what this may look like for a brief writing assignment.
When students come in, I return their assignment without a mark on it, along with their feedback form. Typically, the warm-up is then to look at the feedback and briefly summarize what they did well and what they need to work on. I give them time to revise their assignments right in class. For many students, this process is new and sometimes uncomfortable. It is therefore important to monitor, check for understanding, and support them throughout the process. And tell them not to worry about the grades: if you fix, they will come.
- Quality over Quantity: I’m going to tackle this one from an ELA perspective, but the implications are the same across all content areas. The Common Core State Standards celebrate complex text and extended writing that is coherent and evidence based. This is great when we talk about wanting to raise the rigor, but for the struggling learner, it can create a fight-or-flight scenario. And, by the time kids come to me, they are already experts in avoidance. Last year, I had a student who froze whenever I put a new text in front of him. He would stare out the window, stare blankly at the page, and ultimately get little to no reading done in the allotted time. By pulling him to the side or working with him one on one at his desk, I realized that, if given the time, he was capable of comprehending the work, but he struggled to keep up with the fluency. He wasn’t even using the time I gave him to read, because he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep up. When I told him to focus on key parts of the text and targeted certain chunks for him to read, he got started more quickly. He even began asking me to take the work home to finish on his own (yes, a student voluntarily asked to complete a text for homework). The more supported he felt, the more engaged he was in the class. Eventually, this student, who once did little to no work in most classes, was volunteering answers and asking questions about credible sources while conducting research. By focusing on the quality of the work, we alleviated the pressure brought on by the quantity of the work—which ultimately increased as time went on anyway.
At first these strategies may require a shift in thinking (and perhaps they are more appropriately labeled as philosophies or mind-sets rather than strategies), but maybe that’s just what we need to truly help our most needy learners in the classroom.
The bottom line is this: No one wakes up on a daily basis and says, “Man, I can’t wait to be unsuccessful today!” But imagine spending the majority of your day feeling just that—unsuccessful. If we set students up for success, they will want to be around us. If we make them feel supported, they will work for us. But, best of all, if they are working for us, they will learn to work (or ride) for themselves, which is the ultimate goal.
Eric Russo is an instructional lead teacher and special educator for English language arts at Drew Freeman Middle School, in Suitland, Md. Drew Freeman is a member of the Whole Child Network of Schools and Russo has been working to ensure that all students in his classes are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. In addition, he is a member of the 2014–16 Teacher Advisory Council for the Bill and Melinda Gates Education Foundation. Connect with Russo on Twitter @erusso78.