Reaching The Alienated Student In Education English Language Essay

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"Why do we have to learn this stuff?" New teachers are bound to discover that some students will react apathetically toward anything involving academics, no matter how compassionate, creative, and enthusiastic the teacher is in engaging these students. From the average student's perspective, the question remains valid and is worthy of an honest answer from the teacher. Above all else, language arts teachers should never have to say, "Because I said so." Such shallow justifications will only lead to more torpor in the classroom.

In the language arts content is everything. A teacher who truly understands the material they are teaching and approaches the subject matter with enthusiasm will engage most students. Instead of alienating those engaged students by focusing on the few who resist learning, new teachers should first attempt an extremely simple tactic: a phone call home. Explaining to a parent or guardian that his or her child is not reaching their full potential might affect a quick and positive change in a student's attitudes and behavior. If anything, that phone call home will provide some clues to the student's difficulties in the classroom. In fact, even angry words and unreturned phone calls can speak volumes. Soliciting the help of parents or guardians, as well as guidance counselors and administrators if necessary, should be an early resort in redirecting the behavior of underachieving students rather than a last resort. Few parents or guardians want to hear that their child had been foundering for weeks or months.

A call to a student's home might remind new teachers that often under the veneer of student apathy may reside any number of other issues: terrible circumstances at home, problems with drugs and alcohol, emotional issues extending beyond the range of a new teacher's experience and expertise, to name but a few. Leila Christenbury explores the notion of adolescent alienation in the fourth chapter of Making the Journey and provides a few simple guidelines for the new teacher in dealing with these students: remain attentive to alienated students, maintain fair expectations, employ learning contracts, and "remember that variety in curriculum and flexibility in instructional style is probably more important to your alienated student than to others" (107-8).

My first foray into the classroom taught me quickly that if one underachieving student can create disruptions, a few underachieving students in collusion could create moment of chaos. My difficulty was in finding a balance between too much discipline and too little. I knew the draconian methods of discipline I had learned in the military would only further alienate students. I also knew that I could not turn a blind eye to laziness, to bullying, to disruptions. With no formal training, I went through a process of trial and error in finding a balanced way to deal with all students fairly. Needless to say, my methods were inconsistent from one day to the next, which only compounded the problem. If one student had found out, for example, that another was allowed to run to his or her locker for an assignment after the bell, then the word would spread, and all students would expect as much.

I did quickly discover that if most students knew my expectations in advance and knew there would be fair but firm consequences for breaking my policies about academic honesty, classroom behavior, and the treatment of others, most students would abide. The greatest lesson I learned, perhaps, was that if I would be willing to give a student a second chance, they would do the same for me. Third and fourth chances become more difficult to justify, but in extreme circumstances teachers may have few other alternatives.

A few years ago, a bright but extremely troubled student proclaimed loudly to me and the rest of his class that he was not going participate in a preparation day for Stanford Writing assessments because he was getting "sent away." His lack of participation was little surprise: his outburst, though predictable in hindsight, was a breach of a behavior contract between him and me. The writing prompt involved exploring the need for rules in school. Kyler had a problem with rules, as his colorful, expletive-peppered exhortation to the rest of the class indicated: "They can't make us do this! This is a free country! We don't have to do anything they tell us!"

At this point, I had already been told by an administrator to make life easy on myself and let Kyler sit and stew those last few days he graced our presence. Sitting and stewing was one thing: fomenting revolt was another. Instead of taking Kyler's bait, I took a breath, got down to his level, and said, "Hey, there's an idea: a school without rules! But how could we enforce it?"

I stepped away to give Kyler the space to process this paradox and pretended not to notice as he went to work. At best, I expected a return to silence. Instead, Kyler opened his response booklet. The first few words were tentative, but soon he was attacking the page. Instead of being a destructive force, Kyler was working toward creation. When the bell rang, he was still writing. In the end, Kyler's essay was serious in tone, coherent in structure, and creative in execution. He was also willing to concede that some rules might be necessary. Indeed, he could have written something horribly offensive, but that would have been better than Kyler saying or doing something far worse. Better still, Kyler knew he had accomplished something for the first time in a long time, and that was no small victory for him.

Most underachieving students will not have serious emotional issues like Kyler; many will not even have serious problems outside the classroom (though to the student this might be a case of "major surgery to me, minor surgery to you"); some underachieving students simply will not like being forced to jump through what they perceive are a series of hoops. The challenge will always remain trying to bridge the gap between what the students need to read, write, and learn and what they want to read, write, and learn, which for some may not be much. Here lies the beauty of teaching language arts to the alienated student: from Melville's Bartleby to Laurie Halse Anderson's Melinda Sordino, the literary world is overpopulated with apathetic and alienated characters. Somewhere in the world of literature, most students should be able to find a kindred spirit. When it is introduced creatively and enthusiastically, literature can become the primary means for reaching those students who do not seem to care.

In the end, frustrations will come: graded papers simply tossed in the trash, creative exercises met with torpor, tests taken with indifference, a wonderful lesson interrupted one problem student good students simply shutting down for reasons seemingly impossible to divine…and so it goes. When these frustrations do build, language arts teachers should do their best to remember that K-12 students are captive audiences. Until students are eighteen they have to be in school according to South Dakota law. When all attempts to reach a student fail, teachers must not allow that frustration to become evident to the rest of the class. Students quickly pick up on the subliminal cues (the body language, the shrillness in the voice) of their teachers. Fortunately, enthusiasm comes with its own subliminal clues. When I first went to work at the Yankton High School, I asked language arts teacher Bob Beard about reaching students: "you got to love what you do, and not every day is going to feel like that," he said, "but if you're enthusiastic, most kids will feed off that and get excited about what they're learning."

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