Labels help us organize various factors into workable constellations. In education, we have many of them for categorizing the children needing special attention: ELL (for those learning English as a second language), TAG (for the gifted and talented learners), SPED (for those with disabilities requiring special education), and simply “students at risk.” I would suggest adding another label to the list: “kids from chaos.” These students share similarities with students at risk, but with some important differences.
Like at-risk students, kids from chaos struggle to achieve academically. They are frequently from poor and historically marginalized student populations. But in addition to this, they come from homes where chaos reigns. The adults in their homes are absent, either physically, from the necessity of working multiple low-paying jobs, or emotionally, as the fallout from unemployment, substance abuse, illness, or some other social factor. Food, clothing, guidance, nurturance, and support often are unavailable to these children. More significantly, they lack substantive relationships with powerful, humane, culturally affirmed, and engaged citizens. Turmoil and unpredictability rule the daily lives of kids from chaos.
Were we writing diagnostic criteria for kids from chaos, they would read something like this:
• Struggle academically.
• Feel alienated from school.
• Feel unaffirmed by society.
• Lack time-management skills.
• Have little vision of the future and live for the moment.
• Lack appropriate oral-language skills to connect and negotiate with others or to express themselves.
• Act out physically or withdraw into depression.
• Encounter trouble with the law.
• Relate most significantly with their peers.
• Rarely experience success in life or see legitimate success attained by their associates.
As the veteran educator Bob Sullo points out in Activating the Desire to Learn, people need five components to be able to learn: power, mastery, belonging, safety, and fun. But in their attempts to provide themselves with these, kids from chaos typically engage in activities that are either illegal or unhealthy, or both. Gang membership is a good example.
Educators of kids from chaos easily fall into the “deficit model” of thinking, in which these students are seen as deficient—in intelligence and in their commitment to learning. But we must push ourselves out of this mode of thinking and into one in which we continually challenge our instructional strategies, searching for ways to help the students come to know themselves as thinkers, readers, writers, and people with contributions to make to society.
We must see the multidimensionality of all students, most particularly these kids from chaos. They are more than any label can convey. They are strong, resilient, good people who, for reasons not of their making, are in places that facilitate bad decisions. Because of this, we must find the ways to teach them, so that they will have the tools to evolve into powerful, humane, culturally affirmed, and engaged citizens.
Some of the instructional strategies that can move kids from chaos in those directions include the following:
• Multimodality instruction. These students have to be able to see, hear, touch, and speak as they learn. Offering them lectures alone is like pouring water over rocks and expecting seeds to sprout. Kids from chaos lack a sufficient academic vocabulary to easily process information delivered only by a teacher talking in front of a class.
• Short-term goals with explicitly defined time frames. Divide projects into separate parts, with each part receiving a grade, rather than assigning a project over a given time period, with the grade at its completion.
• Specific, concrete, and immediate feedback. Rather than saying, “Good work,” say, “Good work with your subject and verb agreement.” This kind of feedback allows another opportunity for students to know what skills they are supposed to be learning.
• Time and space for their voices to be heard. The Reciprocal Teaching strategy works well with kids from chaos after sufficient modeling and scaffolding.
• Research-based, explicit vocabulary instruction, especially in academic vocabulary. Use standardized-testing words (“evaluate,” “determine,” and others) as part of classroom conversation.
• Homework support. This could perhaps be provided in class time devoted to completing homework.
• Movement during learning experiences.
• Displays of exemplary student work. They need to be able to see and understand what the school values.
• Role-playing opportunities. They need role-plays of appropriate behavior, as well as role-playing that involves talk aimed at resolving conflicts and negotiating mutual resolutions.
• Affirmation. They need reflections of their cultures and ethnicities in their classrooms. And, most importantly, they need to know that they are valued.
Many kids from chaos are placed in alternative schools. Such settings give those of us who teach in them perspectives on the tremendous gaps in opportunities to learn these young people experience. We know that the task we face is both urgent and obvious: to find what is needed to make the classroom a powerful learning space for these especially at-risk and neglected kids, places where instruction helps build a strong identity while it enriches learning and life chances.
Perhaps the label “kids from chaos” could be a helpful reminder of what we’re dealing with as we seek, create, and employ the instructional strategies that make up a pedagogy of power for these students.
A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Kids From Chaos