More Than A Desk - Changing the Learning Environment
With help, the quiet, marginal student who falls invisibly between the cracks can love learning. Here's how to recognize and light a spark for those who have ability, but lack interest.
by Mamie L. Pack
New contributor to the Gazette
October 1, 2008
She sits there. Eyes vacant. Face blank. She doesn’t even bother to be rebellious or disruptive. Like some of the others off task—she just doesn’t seem to care. How often have we met this student in our classrooms? Never a discipline problem, this is the student who is falling invisibly through the cracks. She is the one in whom we see droplets of interest here and there before the waves of standardization and legalisms of teaching washes them out. She is the one who doesn’t lack ability, but rather lacks interest. One point from being considered a success, one point that classifies her as below the mark. She is the one, that marginal student, and our classrooms are filled with students just like her.
In this article I'll share practical ideas for educators that will help with identifying the marginal student, assisting these students develop their love and interest for learning; and simples changes that can be added to the classroom to become a more positive, safe, inviting learning environment.
So how do we identify students like her amidst all the paperwork, meetings, and lesson plans in a way that is not time consuming? To be honest, you cannot. Identifying marginal students takes investing our time to do the research necessary in the beginning to be able to make a lasting impact in the long run. Here are some tips to help you identify marginal students:
Tip #1: Use what you have
Most school districts require teachers to develop long-range plans that are expected to include various standardized test scores. Although some teachers may only review the students’ scores from the previous year, it may be just as important to review the scores from the last two to three school years to see if there is a consistent performance pattern in your particular subject or level. For example, John Smith has scored 2-6 points above what is required to pass the state standardized test in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. These test scores reveal two important factors. John has a higher probability of failing than someone who may have scored 10-15 points higher. In addition, his scores reveal that he may have some difficulty in that particular subject; therefore you now know some remedial help may be needed to strengthen his skills.
Tip #2: Start Somewhere
At the beginning of the school year or semester, do not assume all of your students are prepared and able to complete grade level standards or assignments. To help you adequately assess a student’s ability, use a diagnostic test. If you are an English teacher, your diagnostic may include grammar, writing, and reading comprehension. The results of the diagnostic may help identify the students who are struggling and aid you with where to begin your instruction. Having an idea about the structure of your instruction ahead of schedule is fine, but it is equally as important to know where students are academically in relationship to these plans.
Tip #3: Use parents and students
Sometimes parents and/or students themselves are able to communicate with a teacher a student’s struggles. When creating the student’s profile sheet, include areas that allow parents to identify a student’s academic strengths and weaknesses. Also include an area for parents/students to report if they have, within the last year, received any tutorial or remedial assistance outside of school hours. This information may also help you with identifying students who have midlevel abilities.
Assisting students in developing their interest or love for learning does not have to be an arduous task for the educator or student. There are three basic tips educators may use to foster a student’s acquiring of academic abilities while appealing to their interest.
Tip #1: Use profile sheets
Many educators use student profile sheets to obtain basic information such as the student’s address, phone number, in addition to information like the student’s favorite color or candy. Use the profile sheet to gain information that you will actually use. Unless you are going to print students’ papers on their favorite color, how is that information helpful to aiding the student? Instead, include questions that probe student’s interests. If a majority of students in your class show an interest in sports, then you may want to use curricular strategies that incorporate sports. Word problems in math may focus on yards earned by a football player or analyze a baseball player’s stats. By centering curriculum using areas of interest, students are more likely to pay attention, stay engaged, and comprehend information better.
Tip #2: Know the style
One valuable piece of information that helped me as an educator was discovering my teaching style. Once I knew my teaching style, I then administered a learning style inventory to my students to learn their styles. By using this information, I was able to provide suggestions to my students about how to study, organize, and learn information based upon the results of their learning styles assessment. Most students, especially those in middle and high school, enjoy learning about themselves. In this instance, not only does the educator gain important information, but so does the student. If marginal students are able to understand how they learn, then they are more likely able to develop the skills that are needed to adapt to various learning environments.
Tip #3: Provide options
In the real world, bosses are not always as concerned with the process as they are with the result. As educators, we can use the same concept in our classrooms. If the goal is for students to show they understand the historical significance of slavery on the economy, why not allow students to demonstrate their understanding through various performance assessments. One student may explain his or her knowledge of the concept in an essay; one student in a cartoon strip; and another in a song. By providing options, students are mastering the standards while taking more interest in and being more accountable for their learning. This strategy requires the educator to plan ahead of time with proper directions and rubrics to evaluate the work. Although more time is involved, students will show more interest in the learning and the subject.
Environment makes an impact on everyone. There are numerous research reports that expound on the connection between the brain, colors, and smells. We have all felt the ambiance of a room or home when we entered it. There were times the environment seemed warm and inviting whereas others are cold and lack personality. Our classrooms are no different. We have the ability to create a positive, safe, inviting learning environment in practical ways.
Tip #1: Be you
Let your classroom reflect who you are and your passions for the subject, your career, and your life. Showing your individuality shows students that it is okay to be who they are. By sharing your passions, students are able to see that you want to be in the classroom. You want to teach them. It is a daily choice you make because you believe in what you do. By ushering them in the right direction, marginal students need to see that we care.
Tip #2: Use stations
Create areas in your classroom that have a specific purpose. Not all educators have classrooms large enough to vary their desk arrangements; still, all educators can make the room they do have functional for everyone involved. A specialized area may include a labeled supply area with supplies exclusively for students. This will help to establish a distinction between the teacher’s space and property with the students’ assigned space. Another area may be a “Need To Know” information wall. Designate an identifiable area of a wall or bulletin board space for all mandatory and important information. This may include class rules, the make-up policy, school motto (alma mater), or important dates. Creating a “Celebration Station” area would also be valuable. This may be placed on a wall or bulletin board as well. The area is specifically designed to celebrate the accomplishments of your students. You may choose to focus only on academics such as most improved or highest grade. Or you may consider highlighting other areas that are of importance to students. Celebrate if someone scored a touchdown or won class representative. By creating this area, you illustrate to students that you care about who they are as a whole, not just who they are or what they do in your classroom. Additionally, such recognition reinforces a student’s self-worth.
Tip #3: Use of music, lighting, and seating
Don’t be afraid to use music in the class, within reason. Using classical, jazz, or even Broadway music, for example, can positively alter your classroom, especially after lunch when students seem to be their most hyper. Allow students to bring in music that is appropriate, if your principal or school district approves. Again, you are showing an interest in your students. These strategies may even give you leverage if students become discipline problems.
Based on information gained from the learning style inventory, you may discover some students learn better in bright light whereas some will work better in dim light. If possible, change the lighting for different assignments. Have one side of the classroom in bright lighting and the other in dimmer lighting. Be cautious when doing this because dim light may cause some students to become sleepy.
If you are able, include various places to sit within your class by using bean bags, stools, rugs, rocking chairs, benches, and even sofas. Marginal students will often work better in nontraditional seating because it makes the learning and environment less threatening. Be sure that you are able to see all the students in the nontraditional seats to ensure they are on task.
Educators play a vital role in increasing the achievement of marginal students. By making small changes to instruction and the environment, these students are more likely to be engaged in their learning. Since many marginal students are sometimes threatened by the information they are required to learn, changing the environment can help to remove the scary factor of learning and create a zeal for learning in its place.
Dunn, R., & Dunn, K. (1992). Teaching secondary students through their individual learning styles: Practical approaches for grades 7-12. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Gardner, H. (1993b). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.
Some valuable resources are:
Student Profiles & Other Forms for Educators (purchase through mail only)
Chosen Generation Products P O Box 1132 Cheraw, SC
Contains student profile, parent profiles, class profiles, parent contact sheets, and various other forms for classroom use.
The Plan Book with Pizazz manufactured by Frank Schaffer
Author Mamie Pack says, "With a BA in English with an Emphasis in Communications, a MEd. in Divergent Learning, and currently working toward earning my PhD in Education with an emphasis in K-12 Professional studies, one lesson I have learned is that in order to reach and teach people, you must provide information in various ways. I have specialized my career by working with students who score below standardized test requirements, by mentoring beginning educators, in addition to working within small learning communities like Ninth Grade Academies. As a teacher, mentor, minister, and youth leader, I have had the privilege of working and teaching individuals with varying learning styles and personality types. For further information, please visit www.ogramsupport.com or my blog at lifeinowlive.blogspot.com."