At-risk college students are a special group of young adults who need what used to be called TLC (tender loving care) in their treatment. Usually academically disadvantaged, these students suffer from numerous challenges including, but not limited to learning disabilities, weak self-concepts, a low ability to cope with life situations, a low socioeconomic status (College Parent Central).
“Beneath a show of bravado, these students’ classroom demeanor is tentative…When [they] visit our offices, ostensibly to ask questions about homework, their strained expressions explain what their words cannot: They have questions but don’t know how to put their thoughts into words,” writes English instructor Melissa E. Lee, in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Lee).
Since I’ve taught at a number of institutions catering to at-risk students, I am familiar with these strained expressions, this initial “show of bravado”. LaMarr (not his real name) was a freshman in my speech class at a New York City community college. On the first day of class he arrived late, interrupting the class as he swaggered to the front of the room, taking the seat of a student who’d disappeared to answer a cell phone call. “Hiya, teach,” LaMarr said to me with a grin, then laughed as he slumped into his chair, making a show of his boredom.
I didn’t reprimand him—after all, it was the first day—and I still didn’t scold him after his first slip-shod speech. Instead, I complimented him on his beautiful speaking voice. LaMarr’s voice was rich and melodious; he could have been on the radio, and I told him that.
LaMarr looked surprised, even shocked by the compliment, and I noticed the next class he was on time, eager to pick up his speech critique. His next performance was a prepared speech, not written well, but delivered in his strong baritone and showing promise. I gave him a B- on the effort, again complimenting his voice. LaMarr began to study for his quizzes, improving his grades from D to B. At semester’s end his grades averaged between C+ and B-; if he did well on the final he could get a B in the course.
LaMarr came to see me after our last class. His demeanor was humble: “I want to thank you,” he said. “I never liked speaking in front of people. Now I don’t mind it.”
“You did well,” I told him. “Study hard for your final—I want to see you get a B in this course!”
LaMarr flashed a grin and hurried away. He must have studied hard because he scored an 80 on the exam—his final grade was a B.
By taking his one positive attribute—his God-given good voice, I was able to reach LaMarr through his myriad academic problems. As conscientious instructors, we have no choice but to look for this bridge into our at-risk students’ abilities. As Melissa Lee writes, “In order to help at-risk students succeed—and thereby to succeed ourselves as instructors—we must meet the students where they are” (Lee).
College Parent Central, “Is Your College Student Academically At-Risk?” Retrieved March 30, 2011 from http://www.collegeparentcentral.com
Lee, Melissa E., “How to Teach English to At-Risk College Students”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 18, 2011, Vol. LVII, No. 28