High-risk teaching

At Stories from School, Kim has given up honors classes to work with colleagues on a catch-up program for ninth graders who failed two or more eighth-grade classes. Most will be non-white, low-income and male. Without something special, these kids are very likely to fail in high school, give up and drop out.

I’ve been looking for more ways to bring kinesthetic activities into an English classroom where basic skills in reading and writing are a top priority, and believe me, there just aren’t that many kinesthetic activities when it comes to the actual tasks of reading and writing. Kinesthetic projects and responses to literature I have aplenty. Actually getting them moving when they’re reading and writing is pretty difficult – especially at the high school level.

We’ve also been exploring alternative assessment and trying to figure out how that will fit in. One of our discussions right now is how we will balance responsibility and mastery. We’re playing with the idea that student can pass our final exams with a 75% or better, it won’t matter whether they turned in assignments or not, as long as the tests prove mastery in skills and content. But if we do this, are we setting them up to fail when they move on to more conventional teachers?

It will be exhilirating, writes Kim. Or it will be hell.

Meanwhile, I’ve been asked to suggest high-interest books for sixth, seventh and eighth graders who read at the third, fourth and fifth grade level.  Downtown College Prep’s Alviso campus is hoping to build a library that will include a wide range of fun books — including science, biography, adventure, sports, anything that will get kids reading without frustration. (Eventually, some “challenge” books will be on the list too.) Suggestions are welcome. Most students come from low-income and working-class Mexican-American families; 59 percent are male and 23 percent are considered disabled.

About Joanne


  1. tim-10-ber says:

    If an eighth grader or any level student fails one or more classes how in the world can they be allowed to go to the next grade? These students failed well before 8th grade. Why were their challenges or disconnects with school not determined at an earlier age? Did no one do the assessments or did no one truly care about whether or not these kids master the subject matter they needed to master BEFORE moving to the next grade? Social promotion must end.

    My main question is when will this stop? Kids need to be assessed in such a manner that these disconnects in learning are discovered earlier and they are corrected.

    Schools need to be changed so kids can move at their own pace through the subjects they have to master. This may mean for some kids they are accelerated in math or science but lag behind in english and history.

    This approach makes too much sense for the failed monopoly of public education and so many of the ill-prepared educators to adopt this sensible approach.

    I wish Kim and her colleagues all the best with these students they should not have to teach…I applaud them for taking on this task…

  2. Robert Wright says:

    Eastside Dreams by Art Rodriguez.

    It’s not very good, but I’ve seen students who have never finished a book in their lives become glued to it. Quite a sight to see.

  3. Joanne,

    Sarah at http://thereadingzone.wordpress.com/ has tons of great ideas for books. She teachers 6th grade and her website is full of book reviews of all stripes. I think you’ll find lots of good ideas there. Here is her compilation of gift ideas for tweens last Christmas.


    Good Luck

    Dan Winters

  4. Cardinal Fang says:

    For the library: Soccer magazines with a lot of pictures, Harry Potter (not sure if it’s at a fifth grade level but the kids could probably get through it),books by Gary Paulsen, Hank the Cowdog (may be too babyish, but the books are very very funny), Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain (a series), The Dark is Rising series, books by Tamora Pierce, the Dragons books by Patricia Wrede, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other Roald Dahl books, Bunnicula, Captain Underpants

  5. I’m not sure what reading level they are, but the “Horrible Histories” and “Horrible Science” series of books by Terry Deary are both entertaining and informative.

    Another series that comes to mind is “Max Axiom, Super Scientist”. They’re written in graphic novel form, but the science content is actually quite good.

  6. Mark Roulo says:

    Some book suggestions:

    Pippi Longstocking (4th grade, maybe).

    I think very highly of this the “Graphic History” series from Capstone Press: http://www.capstonepress.com/aspx/pOverview.aspx?TreeGUID=63510784-8d61-48c3-b3af-3b20b7be5ecd

    They also do the Max Axiom series, I think.

    The Great Brain series of books is good (4th grade-ish).

    Chronicles of Narnia series is good (4th grade-ish).

  7. SuperSub says:

    What worries me-
    “I’ve been looking for more ways to bring kinesthetic activities into an English classroom where basic skills in reading and writing are a top priority”

    If the students are already behind on reading and writing, how in the heck is wasting time by moving and dancing around going to help them catch up?

  8. My son is at about that reading level. The books that have most interested him recently are the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series and the comic series “Bone”.

  9. Your situation sounds challenging – how to find appropriate and interesting educational materials for people whose academic achievement lags behind their chronological age.

    You may find a list of educational resources helpful in locating the kinds of materials you seek.

    For information, see:


  10. For the library — What about Calvin & Hobbes? I know that some people think that all comics are worthless, but to be honest I learned a lot more vocabulary from C&H than I did from most children’s literature. The series as a whole is also a lot more thoughtful and educational than many books out there. The only issue I could see is that people might think C&H is too violent in today’s day and age. The kid does fantasize about blowing up his classroom, after all. That was never an issue with me, but it could be a sticking point with some teachers and/or parents.

  11. Margo/Mom says:

    There are two issues here–both intriguing. One is the assertion of the teacher entering a school for (primarily low-income, male and minority) students “at-risk” need a “kinesthetic” learning style. The reasons that students fall into high risk categories are multiple–most frequently recognized as a combination of the symptoms class failure, high rate of discipline and high rates of unexcused absence. I’m not sure whose kool-ade Kim has been drinking to initiate her search for kinesthetic materials, but I think it may turn out to be a blind alley. I would begin by searching for good diagnostic materials to identify specific reading strengths and deficiencies. I would not be opposed to seeking after an evaluation of individual learning styles–recognizing that this is a somewhat looser field of diagnostics. But, we are already talking about a population of kids who is highly vulnerable to stereotyping (as low-income, male and minority). Why throw one more assumption (albeit a well-meaning one) onto the heap that is assuredly not helpful to them in their growth and development. Some may be more kinesthetic in their learning style (maybe a voice choir would be a helpful way to combine poetry and movement)–but, I wouldn’t go there without some evidence.

    My son, for instance, is African American, male, been educated in largely low SES schools, and, at the end of the day, has no interest what-so-ever in basketball. Go figure. It has been years since we had a video game in our house. But, I have sat through many sessions with adults trying to “get through” to my son in stereotypical way and walking away with the impressions that he lacks affect and may be retarded. One of his English teachers apologized to me that they “had” to do Shakespeare–he understood how boring it is. On the otherhand, I recall my son explaining to a friend on the phone what a “wet nurse” is. “Didn’t you read Romeo and Juliet?” he asked.

    He has generally been regarded as a reluctant reader, and yet, profoundly interested in story. And, a book that deals with a topic in which he is interested can become an obsession.

    This is not to reject any of the suggestions offered here–the second topic, presented by Joanne. Certainly there are readers at varying ages who will be drawn to any of them. I recall the category of “high interest, easy reading” being hot for awhile. Certainly a good concept. When I was teaching adult GED classes, I hit upon the technique of reading aloud the first chapter of a book that I had several copies of, and then offering the book to anyone who wanted to take it home and follow up. It worked pretty well–sort of a hook. But, I think that overall, the search for books to engage low-level readers should be as broad as possible–just as with any other level of reader. I would also recommend varying ways to use digital text–which can frequently be enabled to provide supports (read-aloud with or without highlighting, hyperlinks to definitions, click on read-aloud help for discrete words), as well as writing supports that can read back student writing so that they are able to experience their own work.

    Maybe some of the students and parents could provide helpful information on their favorite books or reading experiences.

  12. Ragnarok says:

    Stalky & Co., by Kipling?

    I read it when I was in school, and I still think it’s a great book.

  13. Joanne, thanks for mentioning my post. As I meet more and more with my team, the counselor, and the administrators in charge, I’m getting more and more excited about the opportunity to work with this group of kids.

    While there is a part of me that agrees with Tim-10-ber regarding social promotion, there are also a lot of studies that show that kids who are held back are much more likely to drop out. If we don’t catch them at a very early age – say before the end of second grade – then retaining kids can backfire. When I first started teaching, my district retained kids in junior high rather than passing them on to high school, and my personal experiences showed that they did not do any better in 9th-grade English the second time around than they did the first. It’s a very difficult and complex issue – especially when we look at the reasons that the kids are behind academically.

    I also appreciate Margo/Mom’s concerns about stereotyping. Because the school I work in is 68% minority, and more than half qualify for free and reduced lunch, this is a demographic that I know well. And one of the major lessons that a successful teacher learns is to not judge a book by its cover. And now comes the big “BUT…” Every year, I start out by doing a large unit on learning styles. We don’t just look at modalities (visual, auditory, kinesthetic), we examine brain hemisphericity, group personalities, and multiple intelligences. (It’s a really great way for me to get to know the kids.) I keep this information in my grade book, and use it over the year as I am creating lessons. Of course, not all of my minority boys in need of remediation are kinesthetic learners, but a large number of them are. I have found that if I can just get them hooked; if I can get their interest early on, then they will buy into almost anything I ask them to do. The sad fact is, that most of the kids who end up failing my class are kinesthetic learners. Is that stereotyping? I have all the diagnostic materials I need to find their specific weaknesses, but I refuse to “drill and kill” their interest by just focusing on the exercises that will remediate. I actually want to stimulate their interest in learning.

  14. The Giver is an excellent book for older students with lower reading ability. In fact it should NOT be read by 4th graders as they will simply not understand it and the issues it raises are very tricky. Great book to stimulate discussion.

    Almost all of Gary Paulson’s books are great for this.

    I would avoid Pippi Longstocking and other books that are very much aimed at younger readers since the older readers are already quite sensitive to the fact that they can’t read books for “older kids.”

    The entire Animorphs series is good and also great for discussion: eg: If your brother had been taken over by an alien being–and you would rather be dead than be in that state–and he is a danger to your entire family–should you allow him to be “taken out”? (The answer is finally, no, but what a topic for discussion!)

    Stick with easy reading sci-fi and the kids won’t feel the author and teacher is talking down to them.