Engaging The Disengaged Student
Feb 5, 2015 Teaching 2702 Views
The A.C.T. Strategy
Part 1 of 3
Prison. Juvenile detention centers. The mean streets of the city. All of these things and more are possibilities for kids these days. I know, because I've been there myself. One simple, stupid mistake made when I was a teenager led to four hard years in a correctional facility, and during that time I spent nearly every day feeling like I had completely destroyed my chances of having a life. It's a harsh, empty feeling and one that nobody should have to go through.
I turned my life around, however. It wasn't easy - it never is - but I was finally released from prison after what felt like an eternity. The first months after getting out were rough. Jail doesn't exactly prepare a young person for a role as a model citizen, after all. But today I've moved into a management position at a highly successful company and spend much of my free time as a youth mentor and professional speaker, trying to help at-risk kids avoid the same mistakes I made and start taking the steps towards a better future right now.
The big change for me wasn't some miracle lottery win or some other kind of amazing incident like they show in the movies. No - my change came down to two men. A teacher named Charles Lyles, and me. Today, I owe practically everything I have become to him.
While volunteering in schools, I've noticed that most teachers really do want to reach students - to form connections, help guide them, teach them what they need to know to succeed. But the problem is that many educators are looked upon to do more than simply deliver the lesson plan, and don't have the time to go the extra mile, many can't relate to some students, and others grow so frustrated with the challenges facing them that they simply give up. Every school has students that may be considered 'unreachable' or 'unteachable'. But by using these 3 keys, teachers can get through to their students and really start to make a difference in their lives. It could be the saving grace for numerous children out there. No child is impossible to reach - I believe it can be done using the same methods that Mr. Lyles used to help me transform my life. I call it, The A.C.T. Strategy.
Step One: Ask Questions
It may sound like common sense, but the fact is that many teachers fail to ask the questions they need to ask. Often, teachers simply assume that they know what a child's problem is or that the kid in question won't be willing to talk to them. Others assume that just by asking simple questions, they're breaking through a boundary that shouldn't be crossed. Essentially, this is a huge mistake that needs to be completely rethought. Not asking questions is like trying to solve a geometry problem without knowing what X is. You have to know the problem, gain insight to a child's life, and learn all that you can in order to figure out what is holding one back in the classroom.
Just a small bit of paying attention will take you a long way towards finding the questions you need to ask. If a student is always chaperoned to parent teacher conferences by their grandmother or a much older sibling, for instance, the obvious question is simply to ask where the child's parents are. It may be somewhat uncomfortable, but it could lead you to find out that the child doesn't have parents in their life. A kid growing up being raised by a grandparent may not be able to get the help with their homework that a parent could provide. This could cause a student to struggle with their schoolwork or to grow so frustrated that they give up completely.
By just asking the question of where a child's parents are, you may unlock the door that is keeping them from learning. You could set up tutoring, spend extra time with the student, or take numerous other steps that will help the student get the help they need with their school work. Instead, many teachers just assume that a student is lazy, unwilling to learn, or a problem child when the truth could be that their home life is having a negative impact on their ability to learn effectively.
Asking questions can be hard. That's why following this simple three level formula could be so worthwhile. It simplifies the process and helps you start asking a student more about their issues.
Level One Question: Yes or No?
Asking yes or no questions is a great way to get a dialogue started, to feel out a student, or to just open the lines of communication. Students are more likely to answer these questions since they don't require an in depth explanation from the student. They can answer yes or no, or they can elaborate. These don't have to be related to school at all, and in fact it's usually better if they don't since you're just opening up the communication lines.
• Example - Is that a new shirt? Did you get a new haircut? Questions like this seem trivial, but in fact they're helping a student realize that you're interested in them. Even if the child answers in a negative fashion, still try to frame your response positively. If a child says "No, I've had this shirt for a long time", you can respond with a positive response like "That's awesome! My kids never take care of their clothes like that."
Level Two Question: Open Ended Questions
These questions are the next step, and they get a dialogue going. They're direct questions that encourage deeper responses from kids. Think of them as the "who, what, when, where, why, and how" questions.
• Example - "How do you take care of your clothes so well?" "What did you use to style your hair? It looks amazing!"
Another thing to consider is to ask questions that will set up later interaction with the student, to keep the dialogue moving forward.
• Example - "What team do you play against tonight?" or "What movie are you going to watch this week?" The next questions will be later, and include things like "How did you do in the game?" or "What did you think of the movie?" When things go bad, such as a lost game, always remember to use positive encouragement to keep them motivated. And even if things go well, positive reinforcement is still important. Just a simple "Good job!" is often enough to keep a kid thinking highly of themselves.
Basically, these questions are designed to lead to a more relaxed, comfortable level of communication with the student before you start asking the next level of questions.
Level Three Question: Personal Questions
Finally, these are the questions you've been working towards asking. They're usually more difficult to ask the student, but are the important ones. By asking level one and two questions you should be able to work into these questions a bit more easily, though you shouldn't expect it to be a simple conversation.
These questions should focus on the actual issue at hand and will be personal in nature.
• Example - "Is it okay if I ask why you live with your grandfather?", "I'm worried about your grades. Is there something going on I can help with?" "Would it be okay to talk to a mentor to help you with your problem?"
These questions need to go beyond just asking what the problem could be. You need to actually discuss solutions as well. Just finding out that a student's parents are going through a divorce and that the separation is the reason for a drop in grades isn't enough. You need to suggest some possible solutions to the problem and work with the student to move through their issues.
Let me go back to my own story for a minute, to help show you how questions can really influence a young person's life.
Most youth incarceration programs have education programs within them. Some are just GED classes, others are a little deeper. Some are very similar to the kind of trade programs you'd enroll in at a community college. They're designed to help inmates learn skills to use when they get released, but the fact is that most of the people in those institutions could care less about learning. You grow up hard, you live hard. And living hard doesn't mean learning. To make things worse, most of the teachers in those programs are either afraid of the inmates, or they just don't care. They think it's impossible to reach anyone, so they don't bother trying.
Mr. Lyles was one of the teachers in an educational program where I was incarcerated, but he was different. Every day I was in those classes he asked me questions, constantly. "How are you this morning?" "Did you sleep okay?" "How was breakfast?" It was annoying, to be honest with you. I had my guard up and refused to believe he really cared. I hardly ever answered, but that didn't stop those questions from coming.
It took nearly a year for me to finally understand what he was doing, to see that Mr. Lyles did in fact care about me. My first year in prison, I spent as much time in solitary confinement as I did in his classroom - for fighting, mostly, or possession of contraband. And nearly every time I was put in 'the hole', he paid me a short visit. He'd ask a couple of his questions, usually "were you hurt?" or something similar, and then leave. But one day he actually came into the cell with me. He stared at me for a long moment, studying my face. Finally he said, "You realize prison doesn't have to be your life, don't you? That you'll be released one day?" I didn't say anything. What did he care? Then, as he left, he paused again, looked at me and said, "You could really do great things with your life. I believe in you." I'm not ashamed to say that I cried for a good, long while when that steel door slammed shut again.
Someone believed in me.
That was the breakthrough, and thanks to that conversation I realized that someone finally did believe in me. But just walking into a cell and saying those words to me would have meant nothing if not for the constant questions he had used to lay the foundation of proof. By asking questions, taking an interest in me, and showing that he cared, I really believed him when he said those four words. And I didn't want to let him down.
The next step of the A.C.T. strategy covers an important aspect of this story - the ability to form a connection with your students. When you create that bond, you'll be able to also create success stories just like mine.