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October 1, 1997

Letters Online

The April 1997 issue on The Changing Lives of Children addressed an array of challenges confronting children today. Authors Sylvia Rimm and Chris Liska Carger agreed to discuss these challenges in an online, interactive forum. ASCD Senior Editor Carolyn Pool facilitated the discussion. Following are brief excerpts from authors and readers. (To participate in future conversations, visit ASCD's home page on the Web ( At the top of the page, click on "Talk to EL Authors.")

On Underachievement

Q: Dr. Rimm, in "An Underachievement Epidemic," you suggest some ways of reversing this problem. Could you suggest how to motivate the students you describe as "dependent nonconformers"—children who practice passive resistance to everything school-related?
  • Break assignments into parts, having the students meet with you after each successful completion. As they build confidence, give them assignments to accomplish on their own.
  • Praise only casually—overpraise seems to put pressure on them and make them stop working right after receiving the praise.
  • Involve them in cooperative learning and team projects.
  • Use a stop watch to chart their improvement or to help them stay on task.
  • Have them read stories aloud and tape record them, which will help them in writing projects.
  • Teach them brainstorming techniques and how to defer judgment to help them generate ideas (these children tend to be very self-critical).
  • Set up token reward systems for pages of assignments completed.
  • Assign them small extra-credit projects to build confidence and thus productivity.
  • Ask them to compete with their own past performances.
Editor's note: Many readers requested more information on how to obtain Rimm's Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades and What You Can Do About It (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995) and Smart Parenting: How to Raise a Happy Achieving Child (New York: Crown Publishers, 1996). Copies may be ordered from the Educational Assessment Service Inc., W6050 Apple Rd., Watertown, WI 53098-3937; (800) 475-1118 or by e-mail:

Attending to Voices

Chris Liska Carger: After the April 1997 issue came out, I received a poignant e-mail message from a Latino high school student. He confided that he felt as though he could have been one of the Latino children I wrote about in "Attending to New Voices," that he has always had to struggle to keep up with his classmates academically. It made him feel good that someone understood—and respected—the environment he came from. He then asked for help in applying to college. The experience made me realize that such articles help students learn that educators are working to improve their students' lives. We tend to write only for one another, but we should also be addressing the wider public. The experience also made me a little less of a technological skeptic. Through his school computer and the Internet, this young man could reach out to someone he saw as a caring adult.
Tencha Romero: "Attending to New Voices" tugged at my heart. Yes, many Mexican-Americans—myself included—are raised that way. At the age of 11, the most important thing on my agenda was getting home from school by 3 p.m. My obligation—rain, snow, or heat—was to have dinner on the table by 4:30 for my parents, sister, and five brothers. After dinner I was to leave the kitchen spotless if I wanted to go outside and play. On Saturdays, our whole family cleaned, and on Sundays, we went to church.
No one ever asked me if I had homework or how I was doing in school. As long as we did not receive F's on our report cards my parents were proud of us.
My father, whose parents were migrant workers, completed 2nd grade. For 38 years he was a chef at El Paso's Gateway Hotel. When he retired he was earning $7 an hour with no retirement benefits or pension. He was fluent in Spanish and English and wrote well in English. When my youngest brother was 6, my mother went to work sewing jeans for $1.98 an hour, with a piece-rate incentive.
My father would not let my mother work until all the kids were in school. "If you teach them well until the age of 5, you will never have discipline problems," he would say. My parents taught us to respect ourselves and others. All seven of us graduated from high school. My oldest and youngest brothers got college degrees, earning the tuition themselves. Now, as the mother of two grown children, I work full-time and am earning my college degree in the evenings.
Our parents had the greatest influence on our schooling—an influence that so many teachers ignore. Ask students of five ethnic backgrounds to share stories of their home life and you will get five different stories. You will also realize how important it is to educate parents as well as students. Carger could not have said it better; I was overwhelmed at her perceptiveness.

The Student's Viewpoint

Jessica Housand: I'd like to comment on The Changing Lives of Children from the point of view of a high school student in today's world.
So many of us have lost faith in our elders and our government, and, sadly, I am one of them. At my old high school, private security officers guard the doors. In our new building, we don't have clocks or pencil sharpeners. Most of the kids are old enough to drop out—and many will. They will quickly become discouraged with the prison-like environment. School used to be a privilege; now, it is a burdensome requirement.
Schools ban certain clothes, colors, styles, accessories. But perhaps what we wear on the outside reflects our fear, sadness, and loneliness on the inside. Perhaps, unconsciously, we feel protected when we wear certain clothes. With our leaders so clueless, we have no faith in their protection. Who are we to respect and follow? The very people we should look up to are prejudiced and selfish, bent on control and power.
I am constantly aware of adults' offensive stares, scorn, cold comments, and fear. Many see us as hoodlums—undisciplined, rebellious, and violent. The media portray us as bad guys. Police officers who see us just chilling out in front of our homes assume we are troublemakers. They often ask to search us. We've come to expect this.
People wonder why so many teens are committing suicide. Few stop to think that we are victims, too; it is we who must live with the violence and hatred. So we adapt as best we can. We must be tough and watch out for ourselves; we must ignore our pain. More and more kids are growing uncomfortable with their future. America must listen to us.

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