To What Extent is the Term “At Risk” Problematic?

During the Red Cedar Writing Project Summer Institute in July, 1995, I was delighted to hear a new term for “at risk” students. Toby Kahn Curry referred to such students as “at promise.” It was a nice way to begin my rethinking of this issue and the students who for some reason make this an issue. Montgomery and Rossi point out that “at risk” students have traditionally been children of color and those who come from poor families. They also point out that any child who does not have sufficient support in the form of pre-natal care, good health, a stable family life, a safe community may be labeled “at risk.” But, of course, this is a loaded label.

LisaDelpit (1995) points out that often these issues are really associated with issues of power and “silenced dialogue.” These issues of power are enacted in the classroom. Delpit adds that “currently minority students represent a majority in all but two of our twenty five largest cities and by some estimates, the turn of the century will find up to 40 percent non-white children in American classrooms” (p. 66).

According to Berlin and Bibble (1995), the culture of school is largely responsible for producing “at risk” students. They indicate that students are often made to believe they are at fault for their own failure, that if they had somehow tried harder, paid more attention, they would have been more successful. Part of the problem lies in the inherent competitive nature of schooling.

“...public competitions create problems because they set students against one another and thus interfere with social integration. Consider what happens when a minority student is called on to compete with others who represent a majority group. Regardless of whether the minority student succeeds or fails, public competition is likely to highlight that student’s minority status, thus making it more difficult for the student to be accepted into the larger group” (p. 244).

I find this observation to be an over-simplification. And I question whether a participating minority student is calling to attention for the first time her or his minority status. However, the problem of competition in schools does create a system of winners and losers, even in schools where there are no ethnic minorities.

Delpit (1995) points out that teachers say that all children can learn, but they continue to practice instruction that says otherwise. Part of the problem, she believes, is teacher education.

“Teacher education usually focuses on research that links failure and socio-economic status, failure and cultural differences, and failure and single-parent households. It is hard to believe that these children can possibly be successful after their teachers have been so thoroughly exposed to so much negative indoctrination. When teachers receive that kind of education, there is a tendency to assume deficits in students rather than to locate and teach to strengths” (p. 172).

Delpit suggests that in order for teachers to counter these notions of students, they must know more about students lives outside the classroom. She adds that if teachers do not know anything beyond the paper and pencil representation of students, they cannot know their students’ strengths. Often what happens to students who are labeled “at risk” is that they are “tracked,” grouped by their so-called ability, or lack of ability. But Nancie Atwell (1998) points out some of the problems inherent in this approach to dealing with students. She, too, finds fault with the competitive nature of many school situations. She argues that when students are tracked, the opportunities for collaborative learning often shut down. And, tracking becomes a pattern is students’ education.

“Too many US school districts still view entrance to middle school as an occasion for identifying and sequestering “fast” and “slow” learners. The groupings established at the beginning of fifth, sixth, or seventh grade often proceed through the senior year—for those in the slow track who even make it to their senior year” (p 70).

Atwell also points out that students placed in lower tracks often are the least likely to encounter instructional techniques that result in high achievement. She adds that schools often defend tracking by saying that it is the best way to meet the individual needs of students. But she contends that tracking really better suits the needs of teachers, especially those who prefer to lecture, and hand out dittoes.

But this can be an over-simplification of the issue. Not all school district (mine included) track students. And I find “at risk” students in my classroom, labeled so perhaps because of teacher-perceived academic ability or because of behavior and displayed attitudes toward school and learning. Some of these students have been placed in special education programs. In my district, these students are included in regular education classrooms and sometimes given modified assignments. Still other students, however, opt out of the educational opportunities offered to them, for what ever reason. I suspect it has something to do with a sense of powerlessness.

Delpit identifies five aspects of power at work in school settings. The first I addressed earlier. It is the issue that power is enacted in the classroom. The second deals with the fact that schools are places where students learn the codes and rules for participating. They learn about the “culture of power.” Sometimes what they learn tells them that they have little power over their time, their lessons, or even when to relieve their bladders. Delpit’s third rule regarding power is that the rules regarding power are made by those in power—often, white middle class adults. The fourth rule teaches students that following the rules of those in power makes acquiring power easier. And the fifth rule is that those who have power are often unaware that they have. Those who do not have power are very aware of their non-powerful lot (Delpit, 1995).

Unfortunately Delpit doesn’t offer any specific remedies for this other than suggesting that that teachers and other school adults think of “diverse students” as resources rather than problems. But Delpit is not alone in pointing out problems that non-mainstream students have in schools. In discussing issues related to African American students, Heath (1992) points out that schools seem unable to “take up the potentially positive interactive and adaptive verbal and interpretive habits learned by Black American children (as well as other nonmainstream groups), rural and urban, within their families and on the streets” (p. 35). Heath points out that school adults often make judgements about students based on language use. That these adults make assumptions about intelligence, character, and ways of thinking that negatively impact how these students are treated in the classroom. I would add that, although Heath is writing about African American students, her points can be applied to any student who does not fit the mainstream mold.

In school situations where “at risk” students are tracked, the rationale seems to be that doing so is for their own good. Charles Nevi (1987), in an Educational Leadership article that defends tracking, points out that it is practiced in thousands of American schools. He theorizes that it began when “an enterprising young teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in the 1800’s divided his or her class into those who knew how to read and those who didn’t” (p. 25). He adds that it “certainly began when teachers started organizing students into grade and age-level groups, a clear indication that some students were going to cover different content or the same content at a different rate” (p. 25).

But there are some very real problems with this concept. One is the notion that schooling should lump students of the same age together. Berliner and Bibble (1995) agree. The fact that we group students by age, and identify skills and standards by age, means that we exclude not only students who have not arrived at those standards or mastered certain skills, but students who have exceeded them.

We must, as Patrick Shannon (1992) points out, move away from thinking of curriculum as a warehouse of knowledge that needs to be passed on. Instead we must think of it as a “configuration of knowledge” (p.3) that honors students’ experiences not only in the classroom but in the wider world. To do this, we must look beyond standardized test scores, often used in labeling students “at risk” and “recognize that literacy education is not a system in and of itself” (p.3). Freire reminds us that we must move away from the notion of students as empty vessels to be filled up. When we evaluate students by what they do not know rather than what they do know, we run the risk of seeing only deficits. Binz and Harste (1994) challenge us to move away from what they call the consensus model of education—one that penalizes. Such a model predetermines what learning should be and remediates those who do not meet those narrowly defined expectations.

Nevi believes that isolating “at risk” students is an act of equalization. He stresses that students are not all the same and so educating them in the same way is “not a formula for equity or excellence.” And I would agree. But the answer does not lie in separating students, but bringing students together in a different kind of classroom.

For that reason the “ideal” composition classroom would not isolate “at risk” students. Instead it would include them, and as the teacher, I would accept whatever literacy level students found themselves and go from there. However, I acknowledge that in some instances, “at risk” students may leave school, and then return and feel uncomfortable with other students. The following course is designed to accommodate such students.

The Course

I will place this course in the small town in which I teach, even though it may not contain the “traditional” multi-cultural mix that other such courses might have in a more urban setting. Still, having taught many of the students who would typically find themselves in such a course, I think I have a fairly good idea of the “typical” student I would see.

Generally, these students would be placed in this course because they had dropped out of school for a period of time, and then returned. It would be held during the regular school day, in the morning so that students could work at their various jobs in the afternoon and evening. The following concepts would form the theoretical framework for the course: It would be dialogic in nature Because it would dialogic, the teacher and students would both learn from each other Students would have a great deal of choice We would connect reading with writing

Since teachers steal, I will steal many of the ideas from Patricia Stock’s book, The Dialogic Curriculum: Teaching and Learning in a Multicultural Society (1995).

The class would be small, partly because Portland does not have a high drop out rate and so the number of students who would drop out and then return would be limited. Let’s assume that there are no more than 12 students in the class. And since we are dealing with the ideal, let’s assume that half the students would be boys, and half would be girls. Most of the students would be European American. Several would be Hispanic American. Half of the class would already be parents. The school would arrange day care during the time students were in class.

The over-arching principle driving the class would be the fact that, through inquiring into a sustained topic, students would engage in a wide range of oral and written texts. They would extend their reading and writing experiences and share knowledge and skills from many different resources through collaboration (Heath, 1992).

The Role of Dialogue

In this ideal composition course for “at risk” students, talk would be an important element. Edelsky reminds us that all discourses are social practices. It is through this social act that students and indeed most people, construct and refine their sense of selves. Speech mediates thought, according to Flinders, who uses Vygotsky’s ideas as a foundation. Flinders goes on to say that speech is not only a product of social interrelationships, but a molder of those relationships. There are a number of voices in the literature about schools and classrooms that address the issue of classroom communities (Daniels and Zemelman, 1988; Romano,1987; Atwell, 1998). And the idea of building community within the classroom sounds pretty good. But there is one problem with that.

Teachers are perceived as being in a position of power within the classroom. Cazden (1988)comments on the imbalance of power between students and teachers, specifically in the rights of speech. Teachers, she points, out, have the right to speak at any time in any tone of voice. I acknowledge this, and thus knowingly often use that presumed right to keep classroom activities on the track that I want. “At risk” students may be very sensitive to this classroom dynamic, especially, since, as Delpit pointed out, these students frequently do not perceive that they have a “legitimate” voice.

One of the activities I frequently use at the beginning of a class period with middle school students is to ask them to generate a list. Middle school students often do not feel very confident about their writing skills, and I will assume that some of the students in the “at risk” composition class may feel just as uncomfortable.

The lists can serve as a prompt for the conversation that will hopefully follow. Moffett and Wagner (1992) point out that the generation of lists is an appropriate beginning for conversation. And although it is a relatively simple form of writing, it can be very useful in the formation of concepts.

Cazden reminds us that classrooms are, themselves, a reflection of complex social systems. Teachers can capitalize on this and add dimensions to this social system. The act of making a quick list can hopefully begin an internal dialogue for my students, a dialogue with themselves based on their growing experiences.

Like Patricia Stock’s Dialogic Curriculum established for a similar course in Saginaw, Michigan, I would want this particular course to be focused on inquiry and reflection. And because Stock’s theme of “growing up stories” was so good, I would steal it.

So, while Stock’s course began and ended each session with conversation about works in progress, I would begin the class with a short list-making activity or perhaps a free write. Hopefully these little “sponge” activities and the quick sharing that would ensue, would help build a sense of community among students, who in all likelihood, because of the nature of small towns, know each other to some extent already.

The first quick list of the year might use the topic of friendship. Perhaps students would be asked to list what they think are the good attributes of a friend—either an idealized fictionalized friend or one that really exists. The quick list would merely be a spring-board for dialogue. Barton (1994) tells us that discourse can be used “to emphasize that language is only one part of any social interaction” (p.56). He explains that talking to a bank manager, for example, is different than talking to an infant, and so, through social interaction we learn which kind of language to use in particular situations. Barton, citing James Gee, an advocate of the New Literacy (like Barton) says that the idea of situating language within a social context, or “ways of being” views language as discourse.

Barton points out that in order for discourse to impact literacy, “what must be covered is broader than just discussing the linguistic form of particular registers or genres, and that particular ways of using language are ways of structuring knowledge and relationships” (p. 56). Barton goes on to say:

“The point is that when using language, people are drawing on the resources of a particular language, such as English but they are always doing this within a particular socially constructed discourse. There are various discourses and they only exist if they are recognized by people as identifiably distinct, as for example with academic discourse, a particular way of using language which is generally recognized. Academic discourse exists because it is recognized by the people who use it—often by people who do not use it—as distinct. Rather than saying people who us it (emphasis in original), it is probably more accurate to say people who are part of it or part of a discourse community” (p. 57).

Although I understand the problems inherent in this, I will attempt to help my students create a discourse community where they share some common texts and goals (Barton, 1992).

It is important to touch a bit here on Freire’s ideas regarding pedagogy. Freire believed that students are often unaware of the impact that society has on their own lives. But in order to transfer their ideas or thoughts to text, they must become aware of their own social context. In order for this to happen students need to be aware of the themes that run through their own lives and connect them to the larger world. One of the ways in which to do this is through investigating issues that allow students to bring their own knowledge of their everyday world into the classroom (Freire, 1997).

In a composition class (whether it be for “at risk” students or not) the task is to help writers shift their attention away from an immediate audience to one that is less familiar. With this shift comes the unsettling idea that the unfamiliar audience may not share much common ground with the writer. A composition course, especially for “at risk” students, would have to help students bridge that gap between the oral and the written (Freire, 1997).

Freire suggests that that shift is a developmental process by which the writer moves from what Vygotsky calls inner speech, where one word or phrase signifies many associations and meanings, to more elaborate written speech in which the writer must tease apart those phrases and associations. Finley and Faith (1987) link this to Vygotsky’s developmental psychology which emphasizes the interaction between personal and cultural elements. Indeed, in a course designed for “at risk” college students,

Finley and Faith sought to help their students connect their language to the larger society, “between the use of words and the structure of their reality” (p.64). In order for students to move beyond their shorthand thoughts into a more social context, they must transform their inner speech into written text (Faith and Finley, 1987).

In a more current traditional composition course, students would probably be asked to write analyses of social issues, that argue particular positions. These “critical thoughts” are usually assessed using fixed, authoritative stances that actually diminish students’ ideological arguments. It renders them neutral. A course made up of non-traditional students (and even traditional ones, but that is another argument for another time) should not ask them to participate in a traditional setting that they are solitary voices. Vygotsky believed that we develop our sense of self after becoming aware of our sense of community. The individual and the social are culturally mediated. To deny that fact in a classroom of any kind is to underestimate and devalue that which students who have a different cultural experience, whether because of attitude, learning style, ethnicity, or something else, bring to the classroom.

It would be my hope that lists and free writes would help students do this. Lists and free writes, of course, are not the only kinds of writing students will participate in. As in Stock’s course, students will be writing stories about growing up experiences, either from their own experiences or fictionalized. (Granting, of course, that all personal experience writing can be considered fiction, and all fiction can be considered personal experience writing.) For the sake of students’ privacy, I will allow them to write what they would consider fiction.

Because the course will be based on the broad issue of growing up, it will focus on some broad questions designed to help students inquire into that issue. Stock’s questions are good ones. “What has been the nature of your growing up experiences?

“What are the stories you tell about them? “What has been the nature of others’ growing-up experiences? “What stories do they tell about them? “Are there common experiences that characterize growing up and common themes that characterize growing up stories?” (p. 3).

However, because I believe students should have some say in their curriculum, I would ask students if there were other issues involving growing up that they think should be added to the list above. Even if they do not add to the list, the act of asking becomes the act of including them in a process that, for what ever reason, they believe has excluded them in the past.

Throughout the course, students will be expected to share their writing and their reading, either through small and large group conversations or through response journals. In the journals, students will be asked to write their reactions to various pieces of literature. The journal will be another place for talk.

Cazden (1988) points out that teachers can use up to two thirds of the classtime talking. She envisions an environment where this would not happen, where students would decide what to say and when, that they would not have to wait to be called upon by the teacher. I try, within the confines of a structured day that dictates the number of minutes students spend in English, to make student talk, in its varied forms, as commonplace and natural as the un-natural nature of the classroom allows. The journal would be a place for testing ideas in a more private arena. The journal may or may not be shared with other students, however, it would be shared with me. And for that reason, I would have to be a safe audience.

There is another element of dialogue that I would like to include in this course, as long as we are talking about the “ideal.” I think it would be essential to include computers for each student and cable-modem internet access for each computer. Such access allows for continuous internet access without telephone lines. And while there is still no clear cut evidence that computers have a positive impact on student writing abilities (Nichols, 1997; Lichtenstein, 1997), certainly internet access would facilitate not only students ability to conduct sustained conversations beyond the classroom walls, but they would allow students to explore hypertext (the topic of a different comprehensive exam). This brings us to another component of the course—the connection between reading and writing.

The Reading/Writing Connection

Stock’s course connected composition to reading in several different ways. Students read pieces written by themselves and other individuals in class, both as pieces in progress and as finished, published pieces. Students also read pieces of full length published literature that dealt with the growing up theme.

As Stock points out, reading their own pieces in progress gives students the opportunity to maintain a dialogue with themselves and their textual selves. Since this course would essentially ask students to engage in memoir or memoir-like genre, they would not only have to read their own pieces and those of their classmates, but stories and essays by published writers. In this way I would hope students would begin to see a set of genre characteristics inherent in many memoirs (Bomer, 1995).

Bomer, in discussing his own classes that use memoir as a springboard for reading and writing, points out that he deliberately makes available pieces of literature to which student can “butt up their own life stories and help them in their composition of who they are” (p. 162). He adds that students need to read particular genres, in this case memoir, in order to build their schemas for their own future pieces. He does this so that students can “build their own memoir-ness, a mental contour image of the container they are trying to fill” (p. 162).

It is through the genre of memoir that Bomer, like Stock, teach elements of craft, both in writing and in reading. In my own ideal composition class, students would read such authors as Annie Dillard, Maya Angelou, and Gary Paulson. They would also read articles from magazines and newspapers.

Bomer reminds us that reading and writing are both acts of composing or constructing meaning. Both discursive acts call upon readers and writers prior experiences, both with life in general and with other texts. Bomer, specifically talking about memoir, writes: “Doing memoir brings into sharp focus the truth that reading and writing and living are each most sensible when they are combined. When I am making memoir, what am I doing but writing a reading of my living?” (p. 161).

And he also points out:

“When students read memoir and from their reading bump into memory and from remembering reach toward writing, the lines that divide reading, writing, and living blur. Distinctions collapse between literature and creative writing and composition and reading. The walls come a-tumbling down” (p. 160).

Students in my ideal course would also keep response journals, as I indicated earlier. In these journals they would react to their own emerging texts and the other texts offered or chosen during the course. But the journals would also be a place for students to explore such issues as the relationship between oral and written texts, or the transition between written and cinematic text. It would be a place to talk with the differences between poetry and descriptive writing.

The journal could be used to predict what is going to happen in a piece of literature, to think about the attributes of a main character, to compare the plot lines of two stories. It would also be a place to talk about a piece of writing in progress, to think deliberately about the piece as it emerges. The journal would be a place for the students and myself to come together, each in our own time and mind, and have a conversation about literacy (Atwell, 1998; Bomer, 1995).

Student Choice

Because “at risk” students often feel as if they have little control or authority over what is included in classes, I would make student choice central in my ideal course. Because the students in this class have returned to school after dropping out, they have exercised one choice by walking through the classroom door. My goal in allowing students a great deal of choice in the course is to make the classroom as democratic a setting as possible so that I and the students in the classroom can engage in what bell hooks (1995) calls “transformative pedagogy.”

The idea of choice encompasses many aspects of the ideal composition course, including the interpretation of literature used as models for writing and topics for discussion. Carole Edelsky (1996) reminds us that traditional approaches to literacy often leave students out of the loop when it comes to choosing what they read and write. In a more democratic setting, students would have far more choice. And while I would ask students to read some things that I had chosen, I would also make other selections available through the classroom library (Atwell, 1998).

Within the framework of memoir or growing up stories, students would not only be able to choose reading materials, but the genres and topics for many of the pieces of writing they would do in conjunction with the course. There would even be a place for students to choose alternative genres such as poetry, short stories, letters, editorials, diaries, news articles, etc.

And students could choose to revisit a story they had already written, to either revise it further, or treat it in a different way. Bomer reminds us that this aspect of choosing to return to a previously covered topic is valuable.

“...if we want student to write what they care about, if we value their interests as the bedrock of their learning, then we need to encourage— loudly and clearly—the continual unashamed reuse of those bits of life that are most precious and familiar to our writers. After all, dealing with life material in a new genre transforms that material and makes new meanings possible” (p. 130).

We must remember that if we are to engage students in the act of writing, we must respect them enough to allow them to behave as writers. Rather than assigning topics, we need to trust students enough to let them find their own topics (Atwell, 1998; Bomer, 1995; Graves, -----).

Stock reminds us that it is important for teachers and students to co-construct curriculum. She writes:

“Like everyone else, I want teachers and students to assume responsibility for the outcomes of their teaching and learning. I am persuaded that teacher’s and students’ co-construction of curricula—curricula that teachers introduce with topical questions; curricula that students address in terms of the images, language, and logic of their home communities; curricula that teachers and students co-compose in reciprocally realized interactions within (inter)discipline-based studies; curricula that students transport into their home communities in the form of meaningful and purposeful products of their learning-—is the most promising way to achieve this end” (p. 93).

Learning from Students

One of the most powerful elements of Stock’s Inquiry and Reflection course is the fact that the teachers involved placed themselves in a position so that they could learn from their students. In a traditional setting the teacher takes on the role of deliverer—the one who hands over knowledge, often in the form of a text book or handouts, to students. As in the curriculum outlined in the Prentice Hall composition series adopted by my school district, composition studies becomes a series of rules to follow—paragraphing, capitalization, outlining, five paragraph essay writing.

But such an approach to composition positions the student as the only learner. In Stock’s course, because the students acted as co-composers of the curriculum, both teachers and students were in a position to learn from each other.

“...teachers of dialogic curricula offer invitations to their students and base goal-oriented instruction in the materials and ideas that students introduce into their classes in response to those invitations” (p. 43).

In other words, the content of the course is co-created by teachers and students. Students contribute through the pieces they write and the insights they share into their own and others’ writing processes and in the connections they make between their own lives and the larger society. Stock adds that teachers receive and respond to the student knowledge. They receive and acknowledge students’ contribution to the body of knowledge brought by all the individuals in the class.

Stock writes:

“A dialogic curriculum develops as students explore the dimensions of their initial interest along thematic lines charted by their emerging and intermingling inquiries. Over time, as teachers draw students’ interest into conversations with on another and as students unfold the layers of complexity and interconnection contained in their inquiries, their intellectual projects inevitably overlap and intermingle” (p. 43).


Heath (1995) reminds us that the majority of teachers still rely to some extent on commercial language arts materials. She adds that these materials ask students to write in order to display knowledge of pre-prescribed skills outlined handily in the front of the teachers’ edition. And included with these materials are often worksheets that teachers can use to “assess” how well their students are doing.

These materials would not be used in my ideal composition course. Students would not received grades on their pieces of writing (Atwell, 1998). The force behind any changes that students would make in their writings would come from small group sharing situations where other students could respond to a piece of writing and make suggestions and give praise, or both. As in Nancie Atwell’s classroom, students would be asked to identify aspects of their writing that they would personally like to change, improve, grow.

Grades are one of those little tyrannies that steal power from students. In a course where students have more control over the curriculum and their own writing and reading. Grades are often used as the motivator in a classroom. But many “at risk” students ceased to be motivated by them. Binz and Harste believe that students are more attracted to more inquiry-based classrooms such as this ideal composition class. The go on to explain that assessment as inquiry in actually an invitation to learn, and invitation to look at something perhaps familiar, but in a new way.

But Binz and Harste stress that the inquiry questions must come from the students. They cannot come from the teacher or a textbook. Teachers and textbook companies, in assuming what questions are appropriate, will fail to identify the real questions the learner wants to investigate. This is especially true when a student inquiry changes as a result of new information or ideas.

Binz and Harste’s “consensus” model of education that weaves authentic assessment throughout the process breaks the silence that so often happens in more traditional courses, especially for marginalized students. Binz and Harste believe that:

“instead of asking Does this child know what I think he or she should know? or Has this child mastered the content I think important? assessment as inquiry asks, What does this response tell me about what the learner believes as well as what action I should take? How does this response force me to change what I believe? Whose voices are being heard and why?” (p. 274).

As a closing comment I would like to acknowledge that a course built on memoir on the surface, at least, does not seem to include or support other modes of writing. However, as was the case with Wendy, one of the students described in Stock’s study, I believe students would explore other forms of writing farther into the course. As Wendy engaged in dialogue with her thoughts, her pieces of writing, her conversations with peers and teachers, she worked on essays. It is easy to assume that “at risk” students would not need to use more formal kinds of discourse, but that assumption is the clearly disrespectful. Stock writes:

I imagine a democratic society in which people speak and listen to one another and teach and learn from one another for the benefit of us all. In the society I imagine, dialogue will abound and learning will flourish. (93).