I love teaching my AP students and honors students, but the most satisfying thing to hear as a teacher is when my toughest students—the ones who failed English last year or the year before or the last three years—spend a class period completing a lesson on how to analyze poetry and say to me, “I never liked English before your class.”
When I can engage those kids, I know I’ve done something right.
I clearly remember one student I had twelve years ago, the first year that I implemented reading workshop in my classes. As a senior in high school, he proudly stated on many occasions that he had never read a whole book in his life. During reading workshop that year, however, when students were given the choice of what they wanted to read, he read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. And he loved it. He recommended it to friends, he talked to me about it outside of class, and I got to know him on a whole new level because of that.
One of my favorite students last year was a senior who had failed English all three years of high school. He was on his fifth year of coming into the school and sort of wandering the halls, visiting his friends. With his class, a senior elective called “Madness in Literature,” we read short stories by Edgar Allen Poe, poetry by Emily Dickinson, and Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. Nothing was contemporary, and nothing was easy or “high interest.” I think that the day that I really won that student over was when we were discussing a poem that we had read in class. When he suggested an interpretation of the poem—one that I had been reading for over twenty years and he was reading for the first time that day—that completely went against what I had always thought about the poem, and when I acknowledged that I liked his reading more than mine, something clicked between us.
For me, there are two key factors for engaging this kind of reluctant learner: choice and rigor. Here are my four tips for hooking them and keeping them hooked.
1. For long, sustained projects, guide students, but give them choice. My students who struggle in school are often overwhelmed by too much choice. If I just told them, “Go find something that you like and learn about it!” they would likely freeze up and not get anything done.
But when I start off with short questions to help them think about their interests, and then build on that with freewrites, and then build on that with writing exercises, I lessen their anxiety and also help them tap into their passions. Once they are writing a personal essay about snowmobiling or interviewing people on why they chose to postpone college, I often only have to keep checking in with them to make sure that they are still on task.
2. For short, in-class lessons, incorporate rigor as much as possible. What this usually means for me is poetry. I couldn’t sustain a discussion of Wuthering Heights with my most challenging classes, but I can work in 19th-century poetry all the time. When we read Twelfth Night, we listen to the CD and spend about 7 to 20 minutes reading the play each class. Short, intense periods of time spent on truly challenging texts builds up their stamina as well as their reading comprehension skills.
When I take it down a level, thinking that I will engage students more by assigning easy texts, I often find that those texts have overly simplistic ideas. And what I have found is that the toughest students often have the richest life experience—they know that answers are not easy and that life is complex, so they are bored by reading anything that suggests otherwise.
3. Always scaffold the rigorous assignments. Just as I don’t tell my students to go out and write a paper on whatever they want and leave it at that, I don’t give them a copy of Twelfth Night and expect them to navigate it on their own. I usually give questions that take them step by step through the text, but I make sure to add the higher level questions in there as well. By the time that they are taking a test on the play, they are writing essays on Shakespeare’s views on gender or bullying and citing evidence from the text.
4. Do all work in class. Another characteristic that my toughest students often seem to have in common is that their lives outside of school are complicated. Most have jobs, and many work 30 plus hours outside of school to help out their families. Some are going back and forth between different houses, and some don’t always know where they’ll be sleeping that night. Many take care of siblings after school, sometimes until bedtime.
What this means is that assigning homework to these kids won’t work. And it would likely be setting them up to fail (again). In my experience, reading challenging poetry in class is just as effective as assigning simplistic modern novels to be read at home. So I finish what I can during the school day, and I let them go home at the end of it.
Teaching reluctant learners is not always easy—and in fact, it is often exhausting. But ten years later, these are the kids I still remember. When they get engaged in a discussion on a book written hundreds of years ago, or they get excited to write about a life experience, I know that I have achieved something.
For more, see:
- 7 Ways to Maximize Student Engagement
- 3 Key Ways to Inspire Student Engagement and Motivation
- Want Student Engagement? Stage It and Set the Hook