Paul Hernandez in his book, The Pedagogy of Real Talk, Engaging, Teaching, and Connecting with Students at Risk, proposes an alternative pedagogy for working with at risk students to increase success and retention. His pedagogy facilitates meaningful connections between students and faculty by sharing real life experiences and connecting them to the curriculum.
Real talk pedagogy is based on a case study investigation with migrant seasonal farm workers enrolled in the Michigan State University High School Equivalency Program designed to help high school dropouts pass the test of General Educational Development (GED). Results of the investigation showed increased passing rates on the reading and writing portions of the GED as well as improved faculty and student relationships, reduced behavioral issues, and an increased interest in education. Over 5 semesters, students had a 97% passing rate on the reading,and 95% on the writing portion of the GED.
Real talk discussions are powerful tools to help students. These discussions are used at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester, although they can be used at key teachable moments during the semester. At the beginning of the semester, real talk discussions are used to help the students get to know the instructor as a real person who is genuinely interested in student success. Key to the success of real talk discussions is the willingness of the instructors to share their personal experiences, so that students can feel that the classroom is a safe place to share their own experiences. During these discussions, the instructor helps students understand how to overcome the struggles and celebrate the successes. Real talk discussions are based on universal themes such as sadness, anger, frustration, happiness, excitement, fear, hate, and love. These universal themes can easily be connected to the content of first-year experience courses.
Hernandez has many suggestions for working with at risk students that can also be successfully used with all students.
- Find ways to connect the curriculum with the life experience of students.
- Make sure that students understand clearly the expectations you have for them in your course.
- Arrive to class every day with an enthusiastic attitude.
- Have students do a brief writing assignment each week on how the class is progressing, and whether the pace is too fast or too slow.
- Be willing to share you experiences so that students will feel free to share their own experiences.
- Move from lecture to individualized instruction, working in groups, and having students teach each other.
- Vary the structure of the class by using different activities such as games, group exercises, and different lessons.
- Maintain a positive attitude toward the work that students do in class since many have not received positive reinforcement in the past.
- Spend time with individual students to answer questions about the class and to learn about personal issues affecting classroom success.
- Although it is important to approach students with the attitude that every student can be successful, it is not possible to help every student. We can feel good about any benefit students obtain from being in our class. Some students are not ready to make a change, but positive experiences in education may help them to be ready for change in the future.
Hernandez reminds us that our own life stories are powerful tools in relating to students. All of us have been successful in graduating from college as we faced struggles along the way. As an example, I know of one instructor who works with Latino students. On the first day, he tells the story of how his father was a migrant farm worker who managed to send his four sons to college. This instructor was part of a Mexican gang who ended up with an advanced college degree and has helped many at risk students to be successful.
Not all of us have such powerful stories. Some of my best experiences in sharing stories has been from inviting guest speakers who have faced great struggles and become successful. In one of my most memorable classes, I invited a speaker who was a holocaust survivor to share her experiences. Students were listening intently and were more motivated to overcome their own struggles after hearing this speaker.
If you are working with at risk students or just want to find new tools for relating to students, take a look at The Pedagogy of Real Talk.
Paul Hernandez, The Pedagogy of Real Talk: Engaging, Teaching and Connecting with Students at Risk (Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin, 2016).