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Answers to Member Questions

As we answer questions via e-mail, we'll try to archive them here, providing a useful knowledge base to others.

  • "I'm working with 'at risk' students."
  • "I'm trying to integrate character education with Math."

Working With "At Risk" Students

Question: "Hello, I am a tutor at an 'at risk' jr. high school. I work in a classroom of special ed. kids of 6-8 grades. Most of them are emotionally distressed. Sometimes, they don't feel like concentrating or listening. Other times they don't stop talking. From what I hear, their home lives are broken, and they tend to be quite shy or in a gang. What do you suggest? And, thank you."


Response: Thanks for your work! I've got a special place in my heart for these kids, especially since I'm raising a few of my own who have similar characteristics: lost their mom to cancer, ADD, Dyslexic, blended family, etc.


First of all, if you're not a member and don't have the means to pay, feel free to sign in, choose an alternative payment (not credit card), write in the box that Steve promised you a scholarship, and I'll receive word from the site to activate your account.


Second, we need to see the school thing through our students' eyes. Our school system has told these kids, both overtly and subtly, that they are losers, failures. At one time, they probably tried, but kept failing, because of some learning disability or personality quirk. Eventually, they had to choose between really trying and continuing to fail, or just acting like don't care, which preserves some of their ego. 


Since we emphasize academic achievement so much (it's what teachers are graded on), the failing kids are forced to conclude that either they are stupid, or their teachers and the system are stupid. A couple of my kids have chosen the latter, and have little respect for authorities at school, although we have a great relationship at home.


Third, I'd try some different tacts.

1. Try hard to find their interests, and appeal to those. Do a survey, asking questions like,

  • What are your interests (fishing, talking to friends, buying stuff, travel, etc.)?
  • What do you love to do in your spare time (video games, listen to music, play sports, etc.)?
  • What bands do you like?
  • What are your favorite sports?
  • What celebrities/movie stars do you like?
  • What's a job you might enjoy when you grow up?

This is invaluable information. If they're interested in pursuing music, you can bring up how certain academics can help them become successful in a band (knowing basic accounting can keep from getting ripped off by managers; knowing how to read can help them to understand music contracts.)


Also, you can use stories of these heroes to teach lessons (I have a good many in our members' area.)


Finally, by appealing to their interests, you show that you truly care about them. You've entered their world instead of expecting them to take an interest in yours. The saying is true:


People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care.


Knowing their interests and helping them achieve their goals puts you in the position of an adult who cares, something they might have not experienced very much.



2. Try to learn their strengths, and help them find ways that these strengths can be used to their advantage. The Gallup organization studied two million people to discover better ways to help people find success. One of their findings was that the brains of youth tend to establish their patterns of thinking, strengths, and weaknesses very early in life.  Thus, the key to helping people find fulfilling work is to help them discover their strengths and find places to work that use and build upon these strengths. (See Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Buckingham and Clifton.) School has made them very aware of their weaknesses, but has probably done little to help them discover their strengths.


One kid may never be able to locate an adjective, or spell the word "intelligent," but may know every lyric to his favorite rap songs. Isn't a remarkable memory a marketable strength? Another kid may be on a third grade reading level, but has a remarkable way with people. (Example: my own 12-year-old twins, who are dyslexic, but off the scale with Emotional Intelligence.) Do they realize that their people skills will probably get them further in the business world than an ability to read well? (I can readily document this.) And what about such strengths as creativity or outside-of-the-box thinking?



3. They desperately need encouragement from a significant adult. One way to encourage them is to let them know that people with their weaknesses can make it big in the world. In fact, in some ways, their weaknesses may be their greatest assets.


When Dr. Stanley did the biggest study of millionaires that I've ever seen, (The Millionaire Mind) he discovered that the average multi-millionaire achieved a mediocre "C" average (which tells me that some were below "C" average.) Sure, if they were going to be lawyers or doctors, they had to be gifted at academics. But most multi-millionaires were not lawyers and doctors. Most were business owners and innovators and hard workers.


The only thing that high grades predicts in high school is how well you will do at other academics, e.g., in college. Success in school doesn't tell you whether or not you will succeed in life. Perhaps by being labeled "losers" in academics, these high achievers in business thought they'd have to work harder than average. Perhaps they learned to delegate and depend on their social skills. Perhaps since they didn't fit into the school system's box, and were forced to think outside of the box, like all truly great businessmen. Whatever the case, these mediocre students tended to outperform their straight "A" counterparts.


Thus, in a sense, you may have been stuck with the lifetime high achievers, who just happen to be struggling through an academic environment they are unequipped and/or unmotivated to handle. Encourage them that although most multimillionaires weren't stellar students, they did hang in there and complete school. So...hang in there! 


Tell them short stories of people who made it big time, but struggled with disabilities. I've gathered a lot of those on the site. Tom Cruise is dyslexic and had a very difficult time with school. Read the book about Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinkos, entitled Copy This: Lessons from a hyperactive dyslexic who turned a bright idea into one of America's best companies. He still can hardly read, but learned how to depend on others and delegate and now considers his "disabilities" to be his greatest assets. (Orfalea says that if "No Child Left Behind" had be in force when he was in school, he'd still be in the 5th grade!) These kids simply must hear these encouraging stories!


On a personal note, one of my sons exhibits executive brain dysfunction (unable to will himself to do things he doesn't want to do). He would make A's on the assignments he was interested in, but wouldn't even do the assignments he wasn't interested in. He couldn't keep notebooks or do projects. We tried everything, but his strategy was, if he flunked a class, he'd just take it again with a different teacher next semester. He graduated with a horrible gpa, but did graduate. Now he's about to complete a degree in Web Design at a local technical school, making A's. He loves it! Encourage your students to hang in there with the boring classes so that they can get to really cool classes in the future. 


I think you can see that helping you make your students successful is a passion of mine. Please let me know what you find that works, and let me know, so that I can pass on your ideas to others.

If I didn't answer your question adequately, feel free to write back.


Thanks for your work with these special students!


Steve Miller



Integrating Character and Math

Question: I teach middle school Geometry and want to know how to teach character in my class. 


Response: I've had a principal tell me that he needed help integrating character education and math - lessons that tie it altogether. But every way I imagine tying the two together seamlessly seems to me to be rather artificial; e.g., lessons from the lives of great mathematicians, or integrating a moral into a math word problem.


Example: Henry was dating Sally. He was also cheating on Sally with Jane. How many girlfriends does Henry have now? Answer: None. Sally and Jane found out about each other and talked. Moral? Cheating gets you in trouble.) Hmmm...maybe this relational triangle could somehow connect to geometry!


Rather, I think the best way I've seen to integrate a class like yours was modeled by Dr. William Craig, one of my graduate school professors. In a "History of Philosophy" class, the brilliant professor (two earned Ph.D.'s), would devote 3 to 5 minutes at the beginning of class to a sort of real-life moment. One day, he started class with something like this:


"You know, you can make A's in my class, while flunking in real life. I remember while I was working on my Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Munich, Germany. The academic load was overwhelming me. But my teacher pulled me aside and advised me, 'Look around you. People around here with Ph.D.'s are a dime a dozen. But how many people do you see who have a really great marriage? Don't neglect your relationship with your wife.' It really put things in perspective for me."


Well, that was 25 years ago, and I'm not sure how much today I remember from the history of philosophy. But I'll never forget that simple life story from a teacher who cared as much about my life as about my passing his class. 


My advice for your Geometry class? Introduce what you're doing by saying, "Class, I've been thinking. If I teach so wonderfully that all of you pass my class with A's and B's, but you flunk out in life, I've not done much to help you. For what it's worth, I'd like to devote a couple of minutes at the first of class (or on Monday of each week) to discuss some life lessons I've either learned or am learning. I'm not saying I'm the perfect model of these things, but I've come to realize that often my character has meant more to my success than whether I made an "A" or a "C" in a class."


Then, either tell a story from your life about how you learned the importance of telling the truth, not cheating, caring about others, diligence, etc.; or, tell the story of another person whom they may respect. (I've got over 100 of such stories, which I call "Intercom Insights," categorized by character trait, with discussion questions, in our members' section.) 


If you need further help or suggestions, feel free to let me know. 


Steve Miller 
President, Legacy Educational Resources