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Reaching the Hard-to-Reach Student


Voice of Experience

This week, educator Kathleen Modenbach reflects on her summer vacation. Like most teachers, Modenbach uses summer as a time to reflect on the school year just ended and come up with new ideas for improving learning in the year ahead. Modenbach has been thinking a lot about how she might do a better job of reaching her hard-to-reach students.


All teachers remember their best and brightest students. Recently, however, I spent some time reflecting on some of my harder-to-reach students -- the ones who, for a wide variety of reasons, and in spite of the fact that they try hard, might not be as successful as the others. By evaluating some of the problems those hard-to-reach kids face, I hope to better equip myself to help students like them in the future.


One day I discovered 11th grader Jamie laboring over every word in a required novel. A poor reader, he hadn't developed the skill of scanning for important information. He had not learned a skill that is crucial to proficient readers.

Eric had difficulty writing and editing. He couldnt get past the first paragraph of his essay. "I keep stopping to fix mistakes," he explained to me. I advised him to write the first draft without stopping. Eric knew what to say, but he hadn't learned to edit his work after all of his ideas were written down.

"It's smothering cold in here," Sean said one day as he entered class. The other students laughed. The words made no sense to his classmates. Sean, you see, had remembered an example of an oxymoron, but he didn't understand the concept enough to explain to his classmates what he was trying to do.

School is a daily battle for students like Jamie, Eric, and Sean. They are usually in classes with students whose skills are on level or above, so they feel all the more lost.

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Ive done a lot of thinking this summer about what I might do to help hard-to-reach students like Jamie, Eric, and Sean. Following are a few of my thoughts:

  • First, I can try to have them moved into smaller classes. Last year I had one class with 15 students while the others averaged 26 students. A smaller class would enable me to pay more attention to the needs of struggling students.
  • I can reinforce difficult literary terms and other vocabulary words with information that will make them clearer. That, along with examples -- even ridiculous ones -- will help build concepts the students can use when they face new examples. (In the case of the oxymoron concept, I could have emphasized the idea that oxymorons are contradictions; I could carefully define the word contradictions in order to be sure they understood. I might follow up the careful explanation with a hands-on activity in which students draw pictures to represent each word in an oxymoron. For example, students might draw contradictory images of a snowman and a fire to illustrate the oxymoron polar heat.)
  • I can assign a reading or writing partner to students who are having difficulty. I had one class last year that included a gifted student and several below-level students. The advanced student helped the hard-to-reach kids isolate important ideas in reading materials. When he finished his own writing, he was able to serve as their peer editor.
  • I can reach out to the struggling students on a more personal level. I can give them extra reminders about upcoming tests and project deadlines. These extra reminders will help them learn valuable time management skills.
  • I can remind students on a regular basis about their goals. Struggling students need regular reminders to keep them focused. That is especially important for student athletes since their eligibility to play hinges on their grades. For those student-athletes, I also find it helpful to keep in touch with the students coaches and other teachers who can support me in keeping the students focused.
All of those ideas are simple ways in which I can help my struggling students.

My brightest students always will shine with success; but success for those who struggle is a bigger prize for which to strive. I approach the new school year with a new outlook -- and some new ideas -- for reaching my hard-to-reach students. I will make an extra effort to advocate for at-risk students because sometimes they have no one else on their sides.

With this new focus on helping at-risk students succeed, I look forward to celebrating some real success stories in the months ahead!

Kathleen Modenbach is an English teacher in Louisianas St. Tammany Parish Schools. She teaches at Northshore High School and writes for The Times Picayune in New Orleans.