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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Using the Pedagogy of Engagement to Help At-Risk Students

by Monica Fuglei How the Pedagogy of Engagement Helps High Need Students

Research shows there is a significant link between poverty and student performance. This opportunity and achievement gap represents the reality that socioeconomic status influences student performance. While teachers in high-need schools cannot solve poverty, the true irony is that educational success can and will increase the likelihood of socioeconomic success. The best help teachers can give these students is a combination of high expectations, understanding, and engagement.

Recognizing the challenges of at-risk students does not mean underestimating their potential, nor does it require pity or low standards. Educator and founder of Paul Gorski points out that at-risk students who “attend schools that combine rigorous curricula with learner-centered teaching achieve higher levels and are less likely to drop out than their peers who experience lower-order instruction.”

5 ways to help high-need students using the pedagogy of engagement

In his essay Building a Pedagogy of Engagement for Students in Poverty, Gorski includes many strategies teachers can use to ensure equal opportunity in the classroom for low-income students. Here are five to try.

1. Build relationships with families

Engaging students is key to their success, but that engagement must have support at home. Many at-risk students have parents who are resistant to participation in education, sometimes due to their own history of conflict within schools. Gorski suggests  creating open relationships with their families despite these potentially troubled histories. 

One way to overcome family distrust is through persistence and nurturing relationships through consistent communication, rather than simply when trouble strikes. Another important factor to building trust is acknowledging that sometimes families may want to participate but need child care or transportation in order to do so. Consider creative investments to allow for full family participation when possible.

2. Incorporate art and movement into lesson plans

For students, the challenges of poverty include a lack of access to the arts and a lack of physical expression through sports. Because PE, art, music and theater programs are increasingly scarce in schools, Gorski suggests finding a way to overlap arts or physical education with your specific teaching discipline.

This is not always easy, but can pay off significantly, particularly when it utilizes something of value to the students themselves. One good way of finding an intersection of classroom learning and music or physical movement may simply come from asking students if they can establish those connections, empowering them to bring things that they are passionate about into the classroom and thus affirming their role as active participants in their own education.

3. Emphasize reading for pleasure

Literacy proficiency is a powerful tool for low-income students; frequent readers tend to be high achievers in both education and the professional world. However, students don’t become regular readers unless they enjoy books.

Aside from teaching the mechanics of reading, literacy teachers have an opportunity to promote and support reading enjoyment. One strategy for doing this is to help students find texts they connect with, whether those are stories with diverse protagonists or books for reluctant readers.

4. Empower students to tell their stories

Another key to success is an opportunity for students to articulate their own stories — and ensure that outside perceptions do not inhibit their learning. Gorski suggests that students be given opportunities to “tell stories about themselves that challenge the deficit-laden portrayals they often hear.”

Reflections on stereotypes in their own texts could provide opportunities for such discussions. Consider looking over class materials to ensure that they do not contribute to inappropriate profiles of at-risk students. Allow students to engage those stereotypes with discussions of themselves or their families.  Such critical-thinking imbued exercises may seem a digression, but can be essential for creating an empowered student environment.  

5. Cultivate a growth mindset in students

Learner-centered teaching means finding ways to access students’ intrinsic motivation and allowing them to see themselves in charge of their educational future. Rather than viewing educational success as an innate skill, helping students adopt a growth mindset can further their success in the classroom. 

According to Michael J. Reese from the Innovative Instructor a growth mindset is “more likely to lead to deeper learning and lasting outcomes.” Reese suggests instructors encourage a growth mindset by setting high expectations, providing consistent feedback, creating risk-tolerant environments, and giving students some basic education about neurology and the influence of the learning process on the brain itself. 

Students who are challenged but allowed to fail can take their feedback and turn that into growth for future success. The more they perceive education as a process within which they have a significant role, the more likely their continued success.

Key to all of these strategies is placing the instructor in the role of guide rather than sage, which can be scary and difficult, but is an essential strategy for ensuring that our students are empowered to be active advocates for their own education.


Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.





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