Redefining “At-Risk”: New Times Call for New Ground Rules - National Council of Teachers of English
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Redefining “At-Risk”: New Times Call for New Ground Rules

This post is written by member Christina Berchini. 

christinaberchiniThe “at-risk student” is a construct conjuring imagery of low test scores, spotty school attendance, and concerning home lives. The term at-risk is often based on the notion of failure. Mainstream language of “at-risk” inspires thoughts of students who cannot (or are not likely to) transition into functioning, self-sufficient adults.

That’s always been a problematic label. There are myriad researchers and educators who oppose this limiting and harmful conception of those considered at risk. There are others still who challenge the use of the term altogether as it has been employed to describe and ultimately hurt children. For instance, urban education teacher and scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings has long argued that

“[w]e cannot saddle these babies at kindergarten with this label and expect them to proudly wear it for the next 13 years, and think, “Well, gee, I don’t know why they aren’t doing good.” So if anybody gets it, I know that writing project people know language matters. What you call something matters.”

I agree with Ladson-Billings, while begrudgingly acknowledging that the term at-risk is not likely to go away any time soon. Which is why I think we should apply it differently. Incidents across the country in the last few months have raised my concern for a different kind of at-risk student, a different kind of educational failure. These are students at risk of failure to grow into kind, compassionate, empathetic adults.

The political environment in which we find ourselves as a country right now has amplified the need for teachers and other adults in educational communities to protect socially targeted populations from those whose behaviors are outlined in scores of hate incidents recently reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center. If we, as teachers, fail to identify and address students “at risk” of hurting those around them, then we are complicit in sending them out into a world where they can only do more harm.

In terms of a way forward, I am reminded of a syllabus I received several years ago, as a graduate student enrolled in a course designed to broaden and expand understandings about the languages and literacies developed and practiced by urban youth cultures. The syllabus is fairly typical (what with its objectives, assignments, due dates, etc.), with the exception of the course’s “ground rules,” established by the teacher. I’ll call attention to the first two rules:

  1. Acknowledge that oppression (i.e., racism, classism, sexism, etc.) exists.
  2. Acknowledge that one of the mechanisms of oppression (racism, classism, sexism, etc.) is that we have been systematically taught misinformation about our own group and especially members of devalued/subordinate groups (this is true for both dominant and subordinate group members).1

I was a graduate student in my thirties before I ever confronted a set of class rules such as these. These ground rules were not negotiable, nor should they have been. Some students never confront ground rules of this nature.

What would it look like, then, in our elementary, middle, and high school classrooms to establish a classroom culture that demands acknowledgment of oppression and its mechanisms?

In the spirit of the second rule, what would it look like to establish a classroom culture that insists that, while students are there to learn, they are also there to unlearn? Our “safe spaces” and “tolerance” and “respect for each other’s differences” are, at best, not enough. We must begin to shift our understandings of what it means to be an “at-risk” youth, and then bombard such children with love, compassion, empathy, and the kinds of classroom and curricular experiences that work tirelessly to upend their misinformation. I see a classroom’s and school’s ground rules as a place to begin this important work.


1. Dr. David Kirkland is the author of these ground rules, which were included in a syllabus for his course entitled “Critical Perspectives on Languages, Literacies, and Urban Youth Cultures.”

Work Cited

Ladson-Billings, Gloria.

Christina Berchini is a university professor, author, and researcher at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. Her Education Week Teacher article, Why Are All the Teachers White?, has been selected by SheKnows/BlogHer media as a 2016 Voices of the Year Honoree .