Help for Kids Who’ve Already Failed

Today’s post comes from a recent email (used with permission, of course) from a member of our community. For privacy, I changed her name.

Hi Laura,
I hope your summer is going well. I’ll be starting my third year as a Freshman English teacher this year. My question, however, has more to do with my students than content area. I have a few students who will be repeating my class this year because they did not turn in work. I was wondering if you had any advice about how to motivate these kids. I know a few of them have things in their personal lives that they are having trouble with. Do you know a way to help them focus on school when they are in the classroom?

Thank you. I hope you enjoy the rest of your summer.
Johanna B. 

Hey Johanna,
Thanks for reaching out to me. Alas, there is no one-size-fits-all fix for this situation, but I know that when I emotionally pour into kids who are struggling, they tend to do more work for me. When I’m in that position, I’ll have a sit-down with each student individually in the first week of school (maybe you can get permission to pull the kids out of a different class for 15 minutes or so during your prep period?) and have a heart-to-heart. Something about the class didn’t work for them the first time around. You’ll need to work with each kid to know what’s going on and then make accommodations accordingly.

More and more, I’ve grown to doubt the value of a lot of the homework I see my colleagues assign. Sure, kids need to read all kinds of books all the time (SSR = an example of good HW), but I’ve cut a lot of the handout-type work and out-of-class projects that I used to give kids to complete on their own. Take a look back over last year’s grade book and see if there’s a trend in the types of work those particular students didn’t complete – projects, nightly grammar work, etc. Then, I’d figure out how to get that work completed in class – maybe not just for them, but for all of your kids.

As an example, I now assign almost all of our major essays to be written in class. A few years back, I had too many cases of plagiarism (internet, tutors, overly involved parents) that I just had to say, “No more!” Essays are now done with me in class; yes, that takes more of our class time, but I now have a much better understanding of my students’ abilities and they benefit from less homework and time-crunch stress. You might want to consider a similar approach. The more work they do with us in class, the better.

Again, I don’t have a quick or easy answer. I do know, though, that the fact that you’re thinking about your kiddos in July is evidence that you’re going to do right by them. They are lucky to have you – even if they don’t love English class.

Hope this helps. I’m here when you need me!

Okay, teacher friends, let’s hive mind some advice for Johanna. How do YOU help the kid who has to repeat your class? Leave a reply below!

16 thoughts on “Help for Kids Who’ve Already Failed

  1. Melodie Wick says:

    I stopped giving homework two years ago… The only time students have homework is when they don’t complete the work in class. If they don’t complete it in class… they are usually talking or being disruptive… so parent conference etc. Students are in class 8 hours… they need down time. Why give work that is not going to be done? Seems ridiculous to me!

  2. I’m with you on homework and in-class essays, and I’ve had success with an occasional project vs. the traditional test.

  3. I do see the value in some work done at home, Melodie, but I’ve also pulled way back on the amount I assign. In large part, my decision was based on the writings of Alfie Kohn, who shares your/our belief about the value of downtime for our kids. With my own two kids, I’ve watched the overload of homework suck all of the fun out of school for them. They both love learning, but they don’t care much for school. That’s a big problem and I want to be part of the solution, for sure. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Absolutely, Crystal. I always pause and think to myself, “Is there a good reason this piece has to be done at home?” If yes, it’s homework. If no, I rework it. Glad you’re here with me. 🙂

  5. Jennifer W says:

    I completely agree with your reply on both aspects—the relationship building and the value of “worksheet” type homework and other homework that doesn’t have much value. I look at this issue from my perspective as a mom of two daughters (7th and 8th grade), and an English teacher. Regarding homework—I teach on a 110 minute block schedule, same schedule M-F. I strongly feel like we should be able to get the bulk of our work done in class. I teach juniors and seniors, many who have jobs, play sports, have family responsibilities, etc. From my mom perspective as well, these kids have been in school from 8am-3:20pm, sitting all day except when they get their lunch break. When my own girls have hours of homework to finish, they feel defeated before they even get home from school. About pulling kids out during your planning-amazing idea! It will speak volumes to the kids that know you have sought them out to find out what’s going on with them. For me, there is no substitute for knowing your students. I know we all have so many, but when they know I care, they work better for me—and I also get to know their unique situations and stop making assumptions about their attitude and work ethic when I know their story.

  6. Preach, Jennifer! I wish my own kids were in your classes. These moves matter – a lot.

  7. I have found that students will be quite honest with me when we discuss approaches and how to best help them succeed. Of course, I’m sure you already differentiate. I take in work whenever, except for tests. When we review what went well last year and what didn’t, it usually becomes clear what the issue is. Say a student hands in none of the writing assignments, I ask them what the issue is about writing. They almost always say something like, “I don’t want to write about the topics you assign.” I try to give them options for what they write about, and we brainstorm ideas ahead of time together for those who can’t think of something (for example, a rant). Where I’m from it is more about meeting expectations, so I look for ways to meet those expectations and tailor my assessment practices to assess for the expectations rather than by assignment. So if they meet the expectation, that may get a “pass” on the next assignment that assesses for those expectations, unless they want to improve (which I always encourage). Some just want to write narratives, and not essays. I NEVER give homework, except in my IB classes, but that is expected in those classes. We do most of the work in class, where I’m available for help if they need it. I make it very clear that they are making choices about their education every day and they should do their best every day. Some days their best is awesome and some days it isn’t. Like me. 🤓 In the end, sometimes it’s the building of the relationship that serves them best.

  8. Maureen Mulvaney says:

    Most of my students who fail do so because of attendance. I agree that take-home homework teaches students very little and is impossible to complete for many students in poverty. If a student is repeating a course, you really need to build a strong relationship right away, and be certain you are assessing knowledge of standards rather than task completion. Offer a variety of ways to display knowledge. Good luck!

  9. Yup, positivegrit, it almost always goes back to relationship building. Great advice here.

  10. Sage advice, Maureen. You’re making me think of that old saying – “80 percent of success is showing up.”

  11. I have several students who do not complete work. They are so frustrated with reading and writing that they just shut down. If they can draw, I have them draw six major points in the novel and have the class think about what his drawings reflect in the story. They always come up with something that gets him points. If he is an audio learner, I have him find six songs that could depict the themes in the story and play them for the class. If they are just shy, we discuss where there was a strong feeling for the character in the story and then they create a collage that shows that emotion.

    Once we read “Everyday Use” and my student came in with her grandmother’s beautiful quilt she had made in 1898. The whole class was engaged in feeling it, asking questions about the pieces of materials in the quilt, and made that student feel so important that day. She got a 100 for her sharing which my kids agreed on after they wrote a five-paragraph essay. It worked. That was the first good grade she received and it was uphill for every assignment after that. Give them a moment and they will give you a lifetime. Good luck! I know how hard it is to put that F on the report card, but sometimes it is beneficial for the student who then realizes he or she is not giving it every effort.

  12. Thanks so much for these ideas, Sylvia! All of these, too, could be expanded into choice board items for an end-of-unit assessment. Sometimes, we need to get kids to write/meet a specific standard; other times (and whenever possible), we need to find a variety of ways for kids to show what they know. Love your creativity. 🙂

  13. Do we have room for two more cents here?
    My son who is entering 6th grade (already??) has severe ADHD and anxiety. Guess what causes him the most stress in his life? YUP! Homework that could simply be done in class or not at all. I’m SOOOOOOO tired of adjusting my students’ workload only to struggle with my son’s. I think we BOTH passed fifth grade because I sat and worked with him for hours daily once we got home. =(

  14. I’m always happy to hear your thoughts, mstee1220! My own kids are older now, but the same scene at our kitchen table left some scars, too. I think you’ll appreciate this: Not all of Kohn’s ideas are rooted in my reality, but I appreciate that he’s been working for decades to get us all to stop and think about this issue. Maybe request his book, The Homework Myth, from the library?

  15. As someone who teaches EFL students (first language Chinese) I don’t know how universalizable my practices are, but I tend to set reading (along with comprehensive questions related to learning goals) for homework.

    As EFL students, they all have different reading speeds, and all are considerably slower than native speakers especially when interacting with complex texts. I often think in terms of “what things are equally effective (in theory in terms of mechanics) at home as at school.” Although it’s not a perfect analysis, in theory they can read stuff just as well at home as in class, whereas class can be saved for stuff they can’t do at home (discussion, group work etc).

    I never quite feel “right” in the lessons when a lot of it is just students reading, particularly as Chinese students are exasperatingly hesitant to ask questions about things they don’t understand or have trouble with!

  16. Thanks, Middle Kingdom, for your insight! It’s helpful to hear about things run in your classroom. 🙂

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