Suggestions for Teaching At-Risk Youth
By Meghan Fay, Assistant Editor

The limited amount of contextual knowledge and experiences many at-risk youth have puts them at a disadvantage and can hinder the learning process for the youth who need the most attention. Farryll Brown, Principal of State Agency Children's Programs for Kentucky, shared the story of a simple misunderstanding between an at-risk youth named Montez and the custodian he helps after school named Mr. Jim with educators, social workers, juvenile justice experts and others from around the country in attendance at The Educating At-Risk Youth Conference: "Issues Facing Educators & Administrators in the New Millennium" in Louisville, Kentucky from February 8 – 10. Brown believes that it is crucial for those working with these youth to expand the scope of their knowledge. 

Montez is a 12-year-old youth in the juvenile justice system in Kentucky. Because he has been doing well in school Montez has been given an opportunity to work with Mr. Jim, doing custodial work around the school after school hours. Recently, Brown overheard a heated discussion between Mr. Jim and Montez.
“Muhammad Ali was a great fighter,” said Mr. Jim. 
“No he’s not,” said Montez. 
“Yes, he is. Ali was a great fighter,” said Mr. Jim. 
“No he’s not,” said Montez.
Brown was baffled by the argument because the two have been getting along so well. However, realizing that this discussion was only going to get more involved she went into the hallway to find out what all the fuss was about. 
Mr. Jim explained to Brown that Montez didn’t believe Muhammad Ali was a fighter. Montez quickly chimed in, “it’s not a fighter, Ms. Brown. Muhammad Ali is a bus!” The Muhammad Ali bus is the mode of transportation Montez uses to get to this after school job and the only reference to the fighter Montez has ever known. He did not know that Kentucky named several things after its favorite son. 

Click here to find out about a new networking association -- Council For Educators of At-Risk and Delinquent Youth (CEARDY).

Holistic Education May Be the Answer

Dr. Ernestine Riggs, a professor at Loyola University in Illinois and teacher of at-risk youth for over 30 years, addressed this issue in her keynote presentation "Failure is Not an Option: Strategies for Creating an Effective Learning Environment", highlighting the success of a holistic approach to teaching and offering suggestions to fellow teachers for cooperative learning activities that engage students and expand their knowledge base. Riggs’ message is to, "perceive every child as having the potential for greatness; provide all students with every opportunity to dream, blossom and experience success."

According to Riggs, educators have to teach kids in the way that they learn best. If the students aren’t understanding and retaining information, then teachers need to discover another way to engage them and continue to do so until they find the right method to reach the students, she said. 

Youth these days deal with situations that adults didn’t face growing up, said Riggs. Every eight seconds of the school day a child drops out of school; every 26 seconds a child runs away from home; every 67 seconds a teenager has a baby; and the list continues. “Education is life. We’re not teaching kids to read and write to pass the test. This is the foundation that gets built upon to have productive youth,” she said.

All too often the focus in the classroom is on the end result and that is why kids leave a classroom without the full range of knowledge they need, she said. “No miracles are going to walk through your door. You have to work with what you’ve got,” said Riggs, who believes teaching is a partnership in which the students have to take a proactive part. 

Most teachers who work with at-risk youth understand that they cannot save all of their students from risky lifestyles and the backgrounds they come from, however, Riggs believes that if teachers aim at saving as many as they can, they will make a difference somewhere.

Educators Have the Power to Make a Difference

According to Riggs, many at-risk youth have given up by the time the teachers have access to them. But, there are three learning domains -- cognitive (what one knows), affective (what one feels) and conative (how one acts) -- and Riggs believes that the third is the missing element. We can’t give them everything, but we can awaken some things within them, said Riggs, referring to the innate will and desire to succeed that all people possess at the conative level.

“We cannot solve the problems [that exist at home or that brought them to us], but while they’re there sitting in the classroom, we can make it a safe haven for them and make them feel good about themselves,” said Riggs, who believes that most at-risk youth don’t know what success feels like. “All kids have something that they bring to the learning table,” she said. It is important to allow youth to share something positive so that they can taste success.

Part of the reason youth are considered at-risk is because they receive so little attention. According to Riggs, some kids have 30 seconds of conversation with their parents a day. Due to this staggering statistic, she suggests that it is crucial to incorporate cooperative learning activities into the classroom to offer kids opportunities for positive socialization. Although cooperative learning is sometimes referred to as controlled chaos and many teachers shy way from it, Riggs argues that it is one of the best teaching methods available to educators today. Students need to be taken out of their comfort zone and challenged to think so that they use their brains to the fullest potential. “Education isn’t preparation for life. It is life,” said Riggs.

Educational Exercises 

All of these activities can be adapted to serve the needs of an educator’s classrooms. 

Character Education and Cooperative Learning

1. Have the students break into small groups
2. Between those in the group find one object that they have on them to discuss (i.e. bracelet, Tic Tac case)
3. Have them answer a variety of questions that discuss the object’s human qualities, such as: 

  • give your object a human quality
  • describe how beautiful it is
  • think of three ways your object is or can be useful
  • give four reasons for loving and respecting your article
  • give one way you can enhance the objects self esteem or concept 
“I Can’t Funeral”

In “Chicken Soup for the Soul” there is a story about a teacher who got so frustrated with her students saying  “I Can’t” that she had them write down their “I Can’t Statements” and as a class they buried them. The activity was combined with understanding cultural customs associated with funerals and increasing the students’ vocabulary. 
After this activity the students were no longer allowed to use the words “I Can’t” and had to think of ways to express themselves differently. When a student did use an “I Can’t Statement” the class would say, “he’ dead!”

Vocabulary Interview

Have the students split into groups, assign each group a vocabulary word. (At the conference the words Hope and Love were used, but more subject specific words will work as well.) and have the groups answer the following questions about their vocabulary word.

1. What do you look like?
2. Where do you live?
3. Do you have a family? Name and describe each member of your family.
4. Which member of our family do you most resemble? Elaborate.
5. Where do you get energy?
6. How do you get around?
7. What are your outstanding attributes?
8. Will you ever hurt me? Explain your answer.
9. What is your greatest fear?
10. What would the world be like without you?

Click here for a unique exercise developed by Riggs.
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