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Meeting Students Where They Live

by Richard L. Curwin

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. The Difficulty of Motivating Urban Youth

The word motivation, as used in this book, refers to wanting to learn as opposed to having to learn. I pay my bills not because I want to but because I have to in order to avoid the consequences of not paying them. Thus, by my definition, I am not motivated to pay them. Similarly, when students do their work under the threat of unpleasant consequences, they are not motivated.

If sufficiently feared, threats can produce behavior changes, but students who are continually threatened often develop a psychological "immune system" that can render such attempts at coercion useless. These students have been threatened so many times that they no longer fear the worst a teacher can inflict upon them. Ironically, when threats do work, it is usually with good students, who rarely receive them and, consequently, are more frightened by them. Regardless, changes in behavior do not necessarily equal motivation.

I observed a teacher in Philadelphia who continually used threats—ranging from serving detention to making calls home—to get her students to do their work. Many of her students exerted just enough effort to get by, doing minimal work with minimal results. In my conferences with this teacher, I focused mainly on two strategies: reducing the use of threats and introducing joy into the classroom. The students who hadn't been doing any work didn't respond to the changes in the classroom (they became our next project), but those who had been doing some work, albeit the bare minimum, did far more and vastly improved work.

Fair Trumps Equal

A friend of mine once said that covering material is not great teaching; uncovering it is. And the techniques we use to uncover material for students can greatly affect their motivation to learn. What is motivating to one student is not necessarily motivating to all. Some students like group activities; others hate them. Some learn by listening, others by seeing, and still others by doing. These factors all affect motivation. To successfully motivate, we must accept that fair is not the same as equal—that is, applying the same motivational strategy to all students may be equal, but if one student responds well to that technique and another student does not, it is almost certainly not fair. IEPs (individualized education plans) operate on this principle, as does individualized instruction. The same is true for motivational strategies: they work best when individualized.

José and Ike were two 5th grade students who refused to do any homework. When he got home from school, José was expected to help his father in his family's bodega until 7 p.m. By the time he finished working in the store, he was too tired to do his homework. Ike's problem was more severe. He lived in a middle-class section of town with what appeared to be attentive parents. A home visit, however, quickly revealed why he didn't do his homework. His living room had a large, deep hole in the floor filled with pizza boxes, beer cans, other trash, and rats. Ike was too afraid of the rats—he even slept with a baseball bat on his lap—to concentrate on his work.

Both of these students had the same problem, but the solution to that problem was, by necessity, very different for each boy. Ike's case was turned over to social services. The hole in his living room was eventually filled and the rats exterminated. Not surprisingly, his work gradually began to come in when due. Meanwhile, José's father agreed to set aside time to let his son do his homework before expecting him to help in the store and even found a little time to sit with him while he did it. Responding only to the behavioral symptom in these cases (i.e., not doing homework) rather than addressing the root causes of the symptom and applying the appropriate solutions to those causes would have solved nothing in these situations.

Measuring Motivation

Motivation cannot be inferred by measuring achievement. One student who tries his hardest may get 50 percent on a test, while another student who does not try at all could get 95 percent on the same test. The true determiner of motivation is effort. In fact, the goal of motivation is to increase effort. Although effort alone will not increase achievement, achievement can be seen as a byproduct of effort. When students do not try, they are not producing at their highest potential. Conversely, when students put in high levels of effort, achievement does tend to increase overall. Assessment of learning works best when it accounts for this variable.

Of course, to be truly effective, students must use best practices as well as put in effort. Trying hard incorrectly leads to little improvement. Thus, we have the learning cycle: using motivational strategies, the teacher shows students the right way to learn necessary skills, and the students try hard to master those skills. Sounds perfect, and it is when it works; but is it ever that easy?

Motivating Urban Youth

Urban schools, like all other schools, have some students who are highly motivated, some who are occasionally motivated, and some who care very little, if at all, about learning. Plenty of urban schools are effective and do not struggle with the problems discussed here. If the discussion here seems overly negative, it is because I am focusing on improving learning for those students who have chosen not to try, and the reasons behind that choice are almost never positive. I am not blind to the excellence exhibited by so many teachers, administrators, schools, programs, and parents. Nor do I feel hopeless, negative, or discouraged about urban youth. In fact, the suggestions I offer for improving motivation among urban students center around hope and moving away from a system that equates "increasing motivation" with either punishment or bribery. But aiming for a more hopeful, improved future requires acknowledging and understanding the present situation, namely that many urban schools do face a constellation of serious problems. The following seven plagues present the greatest challenge to urban schools and their students.


Racism has various debilitating effects: it sows students' mistrust of teachers, contributes to teachers' negative characterizations of students of certain races, and leads to student conflicts, even fights. Minority students are especially vulnerable to the phenomenon known as the "school-to-prison pipeline."

Here's how it works. Minority students—many of whom already have limited access to educational opportunities—tend to receive harsher school punishments for their infractions than nonminority students do. Such punishments may include suspension and expulsion, which further isolate students from academic instruction. In a nutshell, when schools fail to educate students and mete out extreme punishments for minor offenses, they limit students' future opportunity and move them toward the prison system (Brown, 2003; Ferguson, 2000; Gordon, Della Piana, & Keleher, 2001a, 2001b; Johnson, Boyden, & Pittz, 2001; Losen & Edley, 2001; Skiba & Leone, 2001; Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002; Vavrus & Cole, 2002; Wald & Losen, 2004a, 2004b).

When I was in high school, my best friend Bob and I hung out at Fenway Park every day after school during baseball season. Over time, we got to know many players from visiting teams, mostly African American players who were, by and large, more receptive to us than their white teammates. Some of these players eventually befriended us and came to our homes for dinners, played stickball with us, and allowed us to record interviews with them. In these interviews, the players told us how different and difficult life was for black players. Because of my friendship with these men, I developed a sensitivity to racism unusual for white kids of that era. In college, I worked within the black community to recruit more minority students (and not just athletes). Most of my friends were black, and I sported an Afro that my friends said was a waste on a white man. I also engaged in blockbusting—buying a house in an all-white neighborhood with some friends and then turning it over to a black family. And I've dedicated much of my professional career to finding ways for minorities to get quality education.

Given my history, you can imagine how surprised I was when two black administrators complained to seminar organizers that I was racist after I privately asked them why they were late to a session, disturbing the other participants with an unruly entrance. Their accusation hurt my feelings, but I tried not to take it personally, knowing that it was likely based on assumptions solidified by their own life experiences. My suggestion for teachers accused of racism, no matter their background or race, is to try not to become defensive. Instead, ask accusers how you can meet their needs without offending them. As difficult as it may be, try to find common ground. Here are two possible ways to begin the conversation, one directed toward a student, the other toward a parent:

  • Teacher to student: "I'm sorry you were hurt by what I did/said. Can you tell me a better way to ask you to be quiet when I need your attention that won't offend you?"
  • Teacher to parent: "I'm sure in your past you have felt disrespected due to your race. I never want to do that with you or your child. Can you help me find a way to stop your child from hitting other kids without disrespecting him?"

Tower of Babel

Among most urban school populations, at least two languages are spoken. In some schools, that number is much higher. It is difficult enough at times to teach native English speakers, let alone students with a poor grasp of your first language. Unfortunately, funding and other support systems have not caught up with the reality of multilingual student populations. Check (2006) observes that "dealing with multiple languages in urban schools is underfunded and … a lot of work still needs to be done." Here are some ways to alleviate the challenges:

  • Have paraprofessionals with multiple language skills come into your classroom to help translate.
  • Invite community members, especially retired or elderly people, into your classroom to act as interpreters.
  • Ask students who are more fluent in English to translate what you are saying to less fluent students and to help you understand those students.
  • Ask teachers who speak the secondary language to help you prepare written assignments and tests.
  • Seek out older students with free periods or those serving in-school suspension (see page 77) to act as interpreters.

Even among native English speakers, language barriers exist. A serious and frequently ignored discrepancy exists between the vocabularies of middle-class white students and poor African American students upon entering school. Samuel Betances, author of Ten Steps to the Head of the Class, estimates that the latter know about one-third of the number of words that the former know by school age. Based on this discrepancy, we make negative assumptions about minority children's ability to read, write, and comprehend, when in fact they just have a smaller initial vocabulary (Betances, 1998). Such assumptions can lead to false conclusions and labels that negatively affect minority children throughout their school careers.


Obviously, drug use and abuse are not limited to urban schools. Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, one of the most comprehensive and rigorous studies of the behavior of American high school students, tell us that suburban public high school students have sex, drink, smoke, use illegal drugs, and engage in delinquent behavior just as often as urban public high school students do (Greene & Forster, 2004). But certainly teachers and administrators in urban areas must find ways to deal with drug use and distribution in their schools. Students can be involved with drugs in all kinds of ways. For example, they may

  • Use in school.
  • Use at home but not in school.
  • Use at home and come to school high.
  • Sell or distribute in school.
  • Enable drug use by not reporting their friends who do any of the above because there is such a strong code against informing.
  • Have parents who use at home.

All these ways of being involved with drugs affect students. Drug use, whether by students or by their friends or family,

  • Compromises students' ability to learn.
  • Connects students to other drug users.
  • Places students in danger of incarceration.
  • Compromises their home life (especially if family members use drugs).

If legal issues are involved, such as drug use and dealing at school, the police must be called in. Make it clear from the beginning that you will inform the authorities if you see students breaking the law. Tell students not to reveal anything to you that you might need to report, because you will not hesitate to do so. If a student's behavior leads you to suspect him or her of drug use or distribution, voice your suspicions and the basis for them. Listen to the student's answers, but clearly state your legal obligations and what you will do next if the behavior continues.

If you know that drug use is preventing parents from meeting their responsibilities, talk with your administrator about informing the parents of your concerns. In some cases, this may not be the best option and the school may need to call social services.

If students come to class high, address the students' behavior rather than the cause. This may seem contradictory to what I've argued previously, but in the case of drug use, our influence does not extend beyond the school boundaries. Addressing the underlying reasons for students' drug use is beyond the scope of our abilities. In this book, however, I suggest techniques that a teacher can use to deal with specific behavior. For example, if the student does not participate in class, use the Terminator technique discussed in Chapter 2. If the student doesn't complete his or her homework, try the strategies offered in Chapter 10.

Of course, some educators have used drugs themselves, and teachers frequently ask me, "What do I say when a student asks me if I've ever tried drugs? I want to be honest, but I don't want to legitimize drug use." My answer is (1) don't come to school high, and (2) ask the student if he can keep a secret. If he says "Yes," then tell him "So can I."

Perhaps the most abused drug among teens is alcohol. According to the Web site, alcohol is the top drug of choice for children and adolescents. Each day, 7,000 children in the United States under the age of 16 take their first drink. In addition, more than 35 percent of adults with an alcohol problem developed symptoms by age 19. Overall, more than 100,000 U.S. deaths are caused by excessive alcohol consumption each year. Clearly, something must be done to stem the tide of student drinking at an early age. This requires a joint effort between parents and schools. We need education programs for parents, agreements among all groups (including parents and educators) to provide more diligent supervision, and increased communication among community groups, parents, and schools.


According to Laub and Lauritsen, "the presence of street gangs at school can be very disruptive to the school environment because they may not only create fear among students but also increase the level of violence in school" (1998). In the National Center for Education Statistics' Indicators of School Crime and Safety (DeVoe et al., 2004), 21 percent of students surveyed reported that there were gangs at their schools. Of all the students surveyed, "students in urban schools were the most likely to report the presence of street gangs at their school (31 percent), followed by suburban students and rural students, who were the least likely to do so (18 and 12 percent, respectively)." The report goes on to note, however, that "no difference was detected between 2001 and 2003 in percentages of students who reported the presence of street gangs, regardless of school location."

Students join gangs for a variety of reasons: for excitement, protection, friendship, family affiliations, neighborhood recruitment, or the support and stability that they aren't getting at home. Students often view gang members as glamorous and powerful, a perception that is difficult to combat. As with drug abuse, our ability as educators to change students' gang behavior is limited. We can, however, take a strong stand against gang behavior in school and try to steer that behavior toward more positive outcomes.

Students should not be permitted to wear gang colors, insignia, or paraphernalia in school. Admittedly, it is difficult to stop this when "showing colors" can be something as subtle as unbuttoning a specific button on a shirt or wearing a collar in a certain way. Nonetheless, we must be vigilant about observing the codes students use to signify gang affiliation.

In addition, schools must develop a system that allows students and faculty to anonymously report gang activity in schools, including drug distribution, fighting, and intimidation. This will require facing our fears about our own safety. Acting alone is never a good idea when dealing with gang activity. Most cities have a gang task force. Be sure that your school works closely with one if you have a gang problem.

Some curricular content areas may offer opportunities to introduce the topic of gangs—for example, social studies, art, music, and composition. Consider taking advantage of these in-class opportunities to discuss the issue in your school. Invite former gang members who have successfully gotten out to speak to your classes. Their firsthand experiences may bring home to kids that it is better not to join in the first place than to try to get out later. Coordinate community services where available to find alternative activities for students, such as sports, clubs, community improvement programs, and volunteer work.


Violence in schools typically manifests itself in one of four ways: physically, emotionally, sexually, or as destruction or theft of property. The behaviors that fall within these categories range from name-calling and sexual taunts to fighting and carrying weapons onto school property. Some of these behaviors (e.g., carrying weapons into school or getting into physical altercations) are obviously dangerous and disruptive to the learning process, but what about less egregious behavior? Where should school administrators draw the line between behavior that lacks ill intent but may nonetheless be considered problematic? For example, is giving a welcoming shoulder tap the same as hitting? Are middle school students who playfully shove one another fighting? Does asking a girl out on a date after she denied the first request constitute sexual harassment? In an attempt to eliminate confusion, some schools have made all touching, even handshakes, a suspendable offense. Although understandable, such a blanket response is not realistic. Each school must define reasonable behavior boundaries given the age of its students, prevailing school culture, and potential for escalation. One possible approach is to involve a range of school representatives—staff, administrators, parents, and students—in developing acceptable behavioral boundary lines and a range of consequences for crossing those lines. I discuss these ideas further in Chapter 3.

However we choose to respond to school violence, we must respond. In a 2003 survey of high school students, 17.1 percent reported having carried a weapon to school during the 30 days preceding the survey (Grunbaum et al., 2004). In response to a 2000 survey on crime and safety, 71 percent of the public elementary and secondary schools surveyed indicated that they had experienced at least one violent incident during the 1999–2000 school year (Larsen, 2003). Many students who display violent or abusive behavior are themselves exposed to such behavior outside school and are in need of mental health services. Frequently, the only such services available to these children are those provided through the school (Stein et al., 2003). This lays a great deal of responsibility at the feet of educators, because statistics clearly indicate the long-reaching effects of school violence: children who engage in bullying are more likely to become adult criminals (Taub, 2002) and eventually pass on the concept that violence is acceptable to their own children.

Lack of Family Structure and Stability

A supportive and stable home environment plays a defining role in how motivated students are to learn. Certainly, not all urban children come from abusive or dysfunctional families. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics (Lippman, Burns, & McArthur, 1996) reports that "urban students were equally or more likely than other students to have families with certain characteristics that have been found to support desirable education outcomes, including high parental educational attainment, high expectations for their children's education, and frequent communication about school." This same study, however, found that many urban children were less likely to have other fundamental supports, including "the family structure, economic security, and stability that are most associated with desirable educational outcomes."

Often, school officials view parents or other adults in the home as an impediment to students' motivation and achievement, perceiving them as adversaries instead of supporters of their children's education. These officials blame different cultural values and a lack of family structure for poor academic achievement. Parents, not surprisingly, frequently see school officials as the problem, accusing them of discrimination and insensitivity (Atkinson & Juntunen, 1994). We must endeavor to remove this wall between educators and parents.

We do not have the power to change our students' family lives, but we do have the power to give them a welcoming, supportive, and safe school environment. School is often the safest place, both emotionally and physically, in many students' lives. We also have an obligation to build the best possible relationships with parents and other significant adults in our students' lives. This book offers suggestions on how to do both of these things. Finally, we have the responsibility to contact social services if we perceive that a student's family life is endangering him. Although this is a drastic step, to be undertaken with great caution, it is sometimes necessary.

I was a behavior consultant for Lipman Hall, a lockdown facility for teenage male sex offenders in Newark, New Jersey, that closed in June 2004. It held 220 students/inmates at the time I was helping them. All 220 of the teenagers housed there had been sexually abused themselves. Their parents or the adults in their homes did most of the molesting. I saw firsthand how children pay for the sins of a poor family life or, in these cases, a toxic one.

When assigned to the facility, each student was offered a teddy bear if he wanted one. Monica Crapis, the principal at the time, told me that every student took one, and most slept with theirs. The juxtaposition of hardened sexual criminals sleeping with teddy bears in a lockdown facility is a powerful image of how severely damaging a destructive family can be.

High Dropout Rates

In far too many cases, the streets are more attractive to students than our city schools are. Fourteen urban school districts, including Detroit, Baltimore, New York, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas, Denver, and Houston, have on-time graduation rates below 50 percent (Toppo, 2006). And when students drop out of school, for whatever reason, incarceration is often their next stop. As Harlow (2003) observes, "school dropouts are vulnerable to incarceration regardless of race. In 1997, almost 75 percent of state inmates lacked a high school diploma." African American male dropouts, however, are significantly more vulnerable than white male dropouts are. Harlow (2003) further notes that "by the time high school dropouts reach age 34, 12 percent of white men and 52 percent of black men have prison records." In 1999, 7.2 percent of young white high school dropouts were in prison, compared with 41.2 percent of young African American high school dropouts (Western, Pettit, & Guetzkow, 2002).

This outcome has become so prevalent that many urban students seem resigned to it or, even more alarmingly, see it as a goal. During a discussion with students at an urban middle school in San Jose, California, I asked, "What do you want to do when you graduate from high school?" Many of them responded, "Go to prison." When I asked them why, their answers ranged from "It's cool" to "You get respect in this neighborhood [when you go to prison]" to "So I can see my dad." As evidenced by these students' answers, urban settings often foster a culture of accepting and even honoring failure, a mind-set that particularly flourishes among the least motivated. Even worse, it begins to affect those students who are motivated to learn. Students who do well are castigated and rejected by many of their peers. I asked Henry, a high school student from San Francisco's Hunters Point neighborhood, why a bright young man like himself was doing so poorly in school. His response? "So I can have friends."

Sometimes, students' concerns are far more basic than worrying about social acceptance. When a student's home life is truly toxic—filled with drug and alcohol addiction, physical abuse, neglect, dangerous or unsanitary living conditions, family members in gangs or prison, and the responsibility for raising younger siblings or taking care of parents—just getting to school, let alone graduating, can present a challenge. Teachers do not always know what happens at home or understand its effect on school behavior.

I recall a 7th grade boy who came to school disheveled, dirty, and wearing the same clothes day after day. The other students complained about his smell. The teacher wanted to send him home until he practiced good hygiene. A home visit soon showed why this was the worst possible solution. His mother was an alcoholic who left this boy and his younger sister locked in the backyard when she left home to go on drinking binges. The kids had no water, clean clothes, or food. They had to forage to eat and were forced to sleep on a pile of dirt. They were informed that if they told anyone, they would "pay the price." Sending them back to the yard was certainly the wrong solution. The school called social services immediately, and the situation improved. Like Ike, the young man mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, students may be contending with a home environment that doesn't meet even the most fundamental needs of shelter and safety. In such cases, a teacher's best efforts to provide a positive, supportive environment away from the home are simply not enough.

Setting aside the family situations over which we have no control, we must do a better job of keeping children in school. Fortunately, despite the many challenges discussed so far, the options for doing so are plentiful. Alternative schools have proven effective at keeping kids engaged in learning and off the streets. Most of the alternative schools I have visited are filled with dedicated staff members who actually prefer to teach troubled youth and who provide an atmosphere that fairly shouts, "All are welcome here!" These schools may employ varied structures, strategies, and policies, but they all offer hope to their students. Most students refuse to return to regular school even if offered the opportunity.

Charter schools offer another avenue for keeping students in school. As with alternative schools, I have personally observed the dedication of the teachers and administrators who staff these schools. The Envision Schools, a group of charter schools in California's San Francisco Bay Area, are perfect examples of what schools have the capacity to be: student-centered, with individualized instruction, high but reachable standards, and a committed staff that has built each school into a genuine community.

This book offers suggestions that every school can use to keep its students in the classroom. Chapter 6 (Welcoming All Students to School and Class) is especially relevant. Motivating and encouraging students who do not want to learn begins with five key changes in attitude:

  • Build hope.
  • Believe in students.
  • Genuinely care about students.
  • Refuse to give up on students, no matter how hard they try to make us quit.
  • Stop thinking "What difference can I make?" and start making a difference. Teachers have the power to change lives. Teachers changed mine, and there's a good chance a teacher changed yours.

Changes in attitude, however, are not enough. We must also take action. Concrete steps we can take include

  • Welcoming all students.
  • Building lessons that involve and engage.
  • Motivating and energizing ourselves.
  • Using evaluation to encourage and build learning rather than defeat it.

Teaching from a Center of Love

When we teach urban youth, we can teach from a center of fear, or we can teach from a center of love. When we operate from a center of fear, we pursue self-protection. We promote values and practices that focus on control, uniformity, and lack of tolerance. When we teach from a center of love, we engage in pursuing what is best for students. We promote values and practices that focus on compassion, understanding, tolerance, and safety for all.

The remainder of this book focuses on specific values and practices that can help educators make the above changes in attitude and action a reality.


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