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.


Finding a Royal

Perhaps the most ornate frame in the Columbus Museum of Art borders the portrait of a street kid. And this kid’s got the attitude of a king. He juts his chin, wears his t-shirt like a robe, grasps a scepter, and stands tall against a background of Victorian wallpaper colored like African textiles. The artist, Kehinde Wiley, found this kid walking a Columbus neighborhood. Wiley likes painting scamps from the streets in the poses of Old Master portraits. Wiley titled his painting Portrait of Andries Stilte II.

“And you can see the reason for the title,” I tell museum visitors. (I’ve been volunteering as a docent at the museum since I retired from teaching.)

“Look at this smaller painting,” I say. “This is Portrait of Andries Stilte. He was a standard bearer from an important Dutch family. And he commissioned Verspronck to paint him in all his pomp.”

Some of my tours are full of kids from Columbus City Schools, and they like the way Wiley bests Versponck in size and framing.  And the kid Andries is way more cool with steel-toed boots and big tread and saggy jeans.

I like to visit Andries II early in my tour with these kids. In front of his portrait, they breathe a little easier. Their faces open, their shoulders relax, and their chins go almost as high as Andries II’s chin.

The art museum often intimidates city kids. The museum is quiet and pristine and built like a palace. In the museum, they hear a different vocabulary. Cameras watch, and guards speak only to scold. So many kids freeze up and shut down.

But, in front of Portrait of Andries Stilte II, they find a place. They leave the painting walking taller, like maybe they have crowns on their heads. Wiley has recognized royalty in them. And Wiley loosens their tongues for the rest of the tour. After all, when a royal speaks, people listen.



Students on the Edges

I’ve taught students on both sides of the bell curve. In the mid–1990’s the first crack babies starting showing up in middle school classrooms. Hillary showed up in mine. Hillary stared for long minutes at nothing I could see. She was unable to follow the logic of a paragraph or understand even the simplest directions. She vacillated between peering from under heavy eyelids and shaking in wide-eyed agitation if someone walking by brushed her arm.

A decade later, Jed tested into the gifted class I was teaching. Even in that classroom of smart kids, Jed was on the edge. In math, he jumped three grade levels in a year. When students played the category game SET at lunch, it was Jed against the rest. And Jed could best them. He was an information addict and an artist. He could dissect a poem or a painting, and calculate algebra problems in his head, hard ones. At the end of the day, Jed would leave class along with the other students. But he often came back while I was there working. He’d curl into an ottoman I kept in the corner, his head tucked in and his limbs drawn tight. Sometimes from my desk, I could see him shaking.

It can be lonely on the edges, often harder to find a friend and to be understood. To the kids on the edges, the middle often looks like a happy club, a club to which they haven’t been invited.

Hillary and Jed were two of the most fragile students of my career. I don’t know what has happened with Hillary. Jed came back into town a year ago. I bought him lunch at Bob Evans. He’s living at the bottom of a mountain in Appalachia, along a stream. He paints. He talks to almost no one. And his main worry, he told me, is that he will kill himself.

I’m not sure exactly what, but I’m quite sure I could have done more for Hillary and Jed. I needed more specialized tools and didn’t know how to use all the tools I had.  But mostly, I had never lived so far out on the edges, so alone. I had more company than they did, and I didn’t fully understand the different dimensions of their worlds.

Thanks for the Scolding

I never enjoyed setting students straight. They needed it, though. In thirty years of teaching, I saw plenty of student behavior that wasn’t conducive to learning. I couldn’t teach, for example, in the crossfire of spit wads. And students couldn’t learn while they slept. Once I was startled to see that Jenny, at the desk in the back corner, had swallowed a chain. She sat there triumphant, one end of the chain dangling from her left nostril and the other end hanging from her mouth. Jenny had no idea, I was sure, that we had been tracing the motifs in Taylor’s book Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. 

But talking to students about spit wads and swallowing chains didn’t always persuade them to quit messing around and start learning. Sometimes after my reprimands students reverted to using deeper cover to throw even more spit wads. Or they’d switch to destroying a good discussion with snarky comments.

One evening at a dinner with friends, a company vice-president said, “For the past few years, I’ve had a new goal—to fire people, when need be, in such a way that they thank me.”

I decided to borrow that goal, to talk to students about misbehavior in such a way that they’d thank me. I remember the first time this happened. Chrissy stayed after class, as I requested, but she slumped in her seat, her hair draped to hide her eyes. I managed to do a few things right, and our talk actually ended with a hug. As she left the room, she said, “Thanks, Mrs. Swartz, for the scolding.”

This gave me gumption to hone my skills, and students began to thank me more often. So what can you do to turn misbehavior conversations positive?

  1. Talk like a person, not a frustrated teacher. Students resist tones that smack of nagging.
  2. Give some love: Look, Eric. I care about you. And I’m worried. Here’s why—you talk so much in class that you miss important things I say and so do your friends.
  3. Showcase strength: What you say is funny and surprises people and makes them think. People love to hear you talk.
  4. Focus on the future: With this gift, you could run a company or teach a class. You could lead wherever you go.
  5. Get to the point: So, here’s the deal. I’ll give you extra chances to lead, to talk in class—so you can get better at it. But you’ve got to stop talking when I’m talking. I care about you too much to let you miss what you need to learn. I want you to succeed. So we’re going to make this happen.
  6. Ask for buy-in: Now, here’s the question. Can you handle this? Or do we need to pull in more help—like your parents or a reward system?
  7. End with support: I’m going to hold you to this. You mean this much to me.

This didn’t work every time, but more and more students thanked me at the end and often hugged me and usually changed their ways.

Make Content Stick

I wanted students to remember, so I tried to make class content good enough to stick. But even great material doesn’t guarantee learning. Students, after all, remember only 5 % of what they hear and 30 % of what they see.

It’s when students interact, that content sticks. Students remember 50% of what they discuss, 75% of what they do, and 90% of what they teach others.

In a telling study, McDaniel and her team found that when teachers include frequent, short retrieval exercises, student learning increases (McDaniel, Agarwal, Huelser, McDermott, & Roediger, 2011).

So what are ways to retrieve content from students?

Think and Talk

Say to students, “Take one minute to think. When the time is up, you’ll explain to your partner what you’ve learned so far about the elements of art.”

This space for thinking gives introverts a chance to prepare for talking before extroverts jump in. When students first think and then talk with a partner, they master content.

Highlight and Write

Give students time to choose an important idea they’ve learned about the Great Depression. Then ask students to write a note to a partner explaining this idea.

Recall and Draw

Say to students, “Recall what you have learned so far about cell division. What images could you draw that would help your partner understand cell division?” Ask students to construct images, and then explain them to a partner.

When students pull concepts from their minds and interact with them, those concepts are likely to stick.

Teach Like a Snake . . . and a Dove

I hadn’t planned to teach at a prison, but I’m glad I did—and early in my career. At the prison I learned to teach by paradox—to mingle the shrewdness of a snake with the gentleness of a dove. At the start, orientation scared me into shrewdness. Story after story showed me what could happen if I couldn’t detect and avoid danger.

“Let me tell you about an officer who took the job to help inmates,” the instructor said.

And he looked my way.

Then he told about how an inmate came to this officer and begged food for his family.

“Just one time,” the inmate said. “Drop some food on the porch so my kids can eat—tide them over ‘til food stamps come.”

So the officer did, twice, because the first time he saw the kids through the window, kids like his own.

The inmate was grateful, and nothing bad happened. Then a few days before Christmas, the inmate asked another favor.

“Just something special for Christmas, maybe a ham,” he said.

When the officer stepped onto the porch with a ham for the kids, the inmate’s wife opened the door and fainted into the officer’s arms. The officer carried her to a sofa and called a neighbor to help.

Five days later, the inmate asked the officer to bring drugs to the prison. The officer refused, and the inmate pulled a photo from his pocket—the officer holding the inmate’s wife.

“Bring the drugs, and I won’t report you,” said the inmate.

And so, to keep his own kids in food, the officer smuggled drugs. He ended up as an inmate, himself.

“That’s what happens,” said the instructor, looking my way again, “when you’re too nice.”

So I followed prison protocol. I concealed personal information, kept to the middle of hallways and away from overhangs, reported suspicious behavior, and checked my pocket for keys a thousand times a day.

But my heart also broke, especially when I taught human development. In one class we talked about Erickson’s stages of development, how babies need to learn to trust instead of fear and how the task of toddlers is to learn to be independent, not to feel shame.

Inmate Clark sat in the front row, not seeming to care about his tears. He clenched his fists.

“Why didn’t nobody tell me this stuff?” he asked. “I messed up my kids. I’ve got to get out of here and do them right. What do they need when they’re ten and twelve?”

With a soul like this in my class, I couldn’t let shrewdness turn hard. I had to keep in mind that my students had raped and murdered and thieved and beat their wives. But, though I was shrewd as a snake, I also tried to be gentle as a dove, to refuse to injure my students with cynicism, to offer hope instead of harm, to remember that some of my students were probably innocent, and to treat all of them, guilty and innocent, with dignity.

This “shrewd as a snake, gentle as a dove” technique I learned in prison set in me a pattern I tried to follow during my decades of teaching—to watch for bad and to give good—both of these at the same time, to all students, all the time.

Why Stopping the Bad Isn’t Good Enough

I had worked too hard that day helping kids be good, Dayvion being one example. Dayvion had ended the day without a detention, but this was because of my vigilance, not his. I felt like a pitcher at the mound, dividing my attention between a batter wanting a pitch and a first-base runner wanting to lead off. For each instant Dayvion escaped my gaze, he seemed to have a plan. But I kept snapping my eyes back just in time to foil his antics. He didn’t filch a calculator from Kayla, pass a note to Kenyon, or trip Josh coming down the aisle. Because each time he felt my eyes, he jerked back into place. He ended class offense free; I ended class frazzled.

Now, in my quiet after school classroom with papers to grade, e-mails to answer, and the message light blinking on the telephone, I just sat. The rain thrummed on the window as I sorted thoughts. The trouble, I decided, was that I was helping Dayvion meet my goals for him, not his own. I needed to switch the burden to him.

But how?

I thought of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development from a college class. Dayvion, though, would roll his eyes at words like conventional morality and social contract. But what if I translated Kohlberg for Dayvion?

The next day, Dayvion noticed my new poster on the wall:

What's Your Stage

When we talked during break, Dayvion recognized himself at Stage 1. We bartered a deal to nudge him toward Stage 2. He liked chocolate.

“You tell me,” I said, “when you’ve grown out of Stage 2.”

Kohlberg didn’t turn Dayvion into an easy student. But the chart became a mirror for Dayvion. He could spot himself up there on the wall. And when we read Number the Stars, he could place the Nazi soldiers.

“They think they’re good because they follow Hitler’s rules,” he said. “They don’t think about whether the rules are good for everyone.”

He saw also noticed that the protagonist Annemarie was brave enough to help others, even though helping them hurt her.”

“Wow!” he said. “She sure enough isn’t at the bottom. She’s way up there.”

Dayvion liked reading about heroes, even though he didn’t always want to be one. But he was moving up the chart.




Kiss of Judas

My worst year of teaching started out as one of my best. After a decade of teaching, I had learned how to start a school year with high expectations, and it showed. Students started work even before the bell rang, I had issued only three demerits, grades looked good, and every day brought some magic. Then the principal asked me to stop by.

“Would you take a student teacher?” he asked.

And I did.

Jason watched me teach the first week.

“Not a problem,” he said, “I can do this.”

Well then, I thought. But my uneasiness with Jason grew. He didn’t ask questions or check student records or stay a minute longer than required each afternoon. I gave Jason more to do, and he did some of it, barely. Giving responsibility to Jason was like spooning food to a baby; it kept coming right back.

He tuned me out when I tried to talk with him. But he joked with the kids. And they liked him well enough . . . until I left my classes in his care for the required three weeks.

When I came back, they didn’t like him anymore. He didn’t like them, either. And I didn’t like him or them.

For the rest of that year, I tried to get my classes back. I called parents, talked with students, changed seats, offered rewards, taught with vigor. But the magic never came back.

One evening I thought it had. Four students showed up on my front porch. Just walking by, they said, and thought they’d stop. They thanked me for being their teacher, gave me hugs, and said they’d be on their way.

Bewildered, I closed the door, afraid to hope. Then I walked by a mirror and saw that, on top of my shoulder, one of them had pressed a menstrual pad.

Perhaps this kiss of Judas helped. I’m not sure. The general unruliness lost its edge.

And I’m not sure I handled this right. What I did was nothing . . . nothing, at all. I didn’t report to the office. I didn’t call parents. I didn’t talk to the four students, although they watched me with new eyes the rest of the year.

What I did was slog through to June with my head high. Then I started with fresh students in the fall, glad to begin strong with this batch and then let go later.

Start as a Scrooge and end as a Santa, I tell first-year teachers. The other way is no fun, at all.

Eyes-On Thinking

I had long known that roughly 65 percent of my students were visual learners. Still, for way too many years, I asked them to think mostly about words, not images. It was Kaylene who finally pointed the way for me. With Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” spread before us, we had discussed how Frost shows two different paths, each path representing a different decision. By placing these paths beside each other, Frost shows you can’t have it both ways.

“This is juxtaposition,” I told the class. ”Two unlike things or ideas bumped right up against each other.”

But Kaylene, who probably had half her mind on that night’s volleyball game, still looked mystified.

Stumped on how to help Kaylene, I paused. And in that instant, I noticed the Van Gogh poster I had hung on the wall.

“Look at Starry Night, Kaylene,” I said. “You see how the big sky comes right down to the earth? Why did Van Gogh bump them right up against each other like that?”

Kaylene edged up in her seat.

“I get it,” she said. “That wild sky smacks that puny town right into place.”

“And that’s a juxtaposition,” I said.

“Get with your talking partner,” I told the class. “Find other ways Van Gogh painted opposite things together to make each one stand out more.”

Van Gogh kept helping me teach. We found hyperbole in Starry Night with Van Gogh’s exaggerated brushstrokes, foreshadowing in the creepy cyprus that looms over the drowsy town, and tone in his rough bold painting style. Van Gogh made ideas visible. We could see them up there on the wall. Seeing Van Gogh’s ideas, helped visual learners like Kaylene to take these concepts back into literature.

Talking about art, I could tell, helped students externalize their thoughts, become more confident in their thinking. And even the students seemed to notice. One day I found a gift box on my desk. I lifted out a replica of Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker.

Rodin shows in this sculpture how hard thinking really is. Rodin’s thinker knits his brow, distends his nostrils, compresses his lips, and clenches his fists. Taped to the sculpture was a note: Thanks, Mrs. Swartz, for helping us think.