Five Ways to Reach Reluctant Learners

They are easy to ignore, the reluctant learners who drift along the edges of the class and out of the fray. Between the bad kids, who divert your attention, and the brainy kids, who monopolize the ideas, there’s not much left for the sideliners. They can go through a school day unnoticed, unheard, and unseen.

After all, they’ve learned to curtain their eyes, wait you out when you call on them, and follow the rules to avoid trouble. They cause no commotion, but they shut you out.

So, how can you enter when they’ve bolted the door?

I’ve found going around back works better than pounding on the front door.

Here are some backdoor techniques:

  1. Ask for them for help.

Give them jobs—passing papers, taking an envelope to the office, updating the make-up work folder. Better still, ask their advice.

“Which book should I read aloud to the class next?” I’ve sometimes asked reluctant learners. And for the next month, as they sit there listening to their choices, they know they’ve influenced the class. When students feel necessary, they more likely engage.

  1. Move into their territory.

Start easy and earn your way. Catch their eyes. Pat their shoulders. When the class is working, pull up a chair and ask to use the corner of their desk to work.  My best technique was to pound staccato rhythms on students’ backs as I passed behind them.

  1. Call home.

Search until you find something good—a thoughtful answer on an essay, a delightful sketch on the margin of a math paper, excellent attendance . . . anything.

“I told a joke in class,” I once told Kyle’s mom, “and he was the only one to catch it. Kyle is good at nuances.”

Kyle hadn’t laughed. That was true. But his right lip corner shot up and his eyes sparked a few seconds before he shut it all down.

  1. Connect them with the movers and shakers.

I often blatantly set up this up.

“Bethany,” I said once to a class leader. “I wonder, would you help me with something? I like Tori a whole lot. But I worry about how she stays to herself. What do you think would happen with Tori if she could be with someone like you?”

And Bethany agreed to organize my classroom after school with Tori each Thursday.

  1. Write to them.

Write short personal comments on papers you hand back: I saw you at Bob Evans. Was that your grandma? She looked like she enjoyed being with you.

Tape a note to their desks: Could you stay after class for just a minute? I want to tell you something you’ll like.

With the normal ruckus of a classroom, it’s hard to think of calling more students to action. But students learn best when they are visible, when they have voice.


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