Ryan O’Rourke

Uncommon Commonsense Ways to Empower Struggling Students

Struggling Students - Marygrove College

When we were students, it quickly became apparent who was "smart" and who was "not so smart." This writer happened to find himself in the latter category, especially when it came to math. How did we figure this out? Those who struggled with math, for example, simply interpreted the arrangement of the math groups: Group A students were often first to work with the teacher (and the first to finish). This was obviously the "smart group." Group B consisted of the "decently smart group" of students, and so on. "Smart kids" earned As in math. "Not so smart kids" didn't. "Smart kids" went outside during recess. "Not so smart kids" had to get extra help during recess. Most teachers know As say very little about a student's intellect. Unfortunately, most students don't.

Whether our struggling students know it or not, they have a unique gift. And it's up to us to unearth that special talent and find ways to empower them.

Uncommon Commonsense Ways to Empower Struggling Students

  • Have your students talk about their interests. There are myriad ways to find out what your students are passionate about. One way is to have them write about it. We've had success with prompts like, "What are three things you want me to know about you?" and "Describe three things that you are really good at."

    Another way to discover your students' special talents is to have them go around the room and talk about them. Or you might pair students up and have them interview one another and report back to the class.

  • Publicize the strengths of each student. In fifth grade I sat next to a student named Marcus for most of the year. He had little interest in most of what we were asked to do and received low marks because of it. If you would have asked his peers where Marcus fit, they would have relegated him to the "not so smart" category.

    A typical day for Marcus went something like this: His group would work together on a project; meanwhile, he would pull out his notebook, place it on his lap beneath the desk, and sketch. Even at that age, he was supremely talented. One day, as the class worked in groups, he was finally caught—but instead of punishing Marcus, our teacher quietly whispered into his ear. He nodded and handed over the notebook to her. Then the strangest thing happened: She asked everyone to stop what they were doing and held up his sketch. As we looked at it, she raved about its sophistication. Then she walked around the room so that every student could see. Marcus beamed. When she finished, she returned the notebook, which he closed and promptly put back in his desk.

    Prior to this, Marcus' strengths had never been publicized. This simple but brilliantly executed decision by our teacher had a lasting impact on his learning experience—and we all began to notice a change in him.

  • Spend more time talking to parents about the student's strengths. When we meet with parents to review our students' progress, it's tempting to gloss over the As and Bs and quickly and move on to the Ds. The reasons for this are obvious enough, but doing so may come at the cost of building on our students' strengths. Spend an equal amount of time talking about the As and Bs as you do the Ds. Though higher marks have little to do with intellect, they do point to where a student's strengths lie. Spend time investigating the meaning of that A; explore ways to develop that strength, both inside and outside the classroom.
  • Encourage students beyond academics. Are some of your students in the school play? Are others on the baseball or soccer team? Why not spend five minutes before class talking about yesterday's game or tonight's performance. Not only will this ease your students into the work that lies ahead, it will give your athletes and artists an opportunity to share talents that they might not get to share otherwise.

Mindfulness in the Classroom - Marygrove CollegeRyan O'Rourke is an adjunct professor, writing tutor, blogger, guitar strummer, and dog lover. He graduated from Madonna University in 2005 where he received his Bachelor of Arts in English and Philosophy. After living and teaching abroad in Taiwan, he returned to Detroit in 2006 to complete his master's degree in English from Marygrove College. Currently, he teaches academic writing and American literature; he also blogs for the Master in the Art of Teaching program at Marygrove College, a liberal arts institution in northwest Detroit, Michigan. Check out, subscribe, and connect with O'Rourke on his blog.

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