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Stopping the Snowball: Catching Struggling Learners Early On

By Dave Stuart Jr.

As some of you know, last year I started a ninth grade Advanced Placement World History course at our school. (Read my rationale and why I ultimately found the age level of my students to be one of our chief advantages here: How to View Teaching Situations Where the Odds are Against You: A Personal Case Study.)

After spring break of last year, I asked a handful of students, those who seemed to me least likely to earn college credit on the May 12 test, to come see me for lunch. In a very straightforward fashion, I explained why they were there and what I was asking them to do: come work in my classroom at least three times per week during the morning, lunch, and after-school slots that I had available. (I copied this whole idea from Luke Wilcox, who was featured in this blog post about a year ago.)

Following the meeting, most of the students in that group did what I asked, and some did even more. For about the thousandth time that year, I was inspired by the stories I saw unfolding in front of me: the tireless persistence of Matt; the dogged determination of Cassie; the Cinderella Man story of Alex.

Yet as May 12 got closer, I kept kicking myself: Why hadn't I done this sooner? It was nearly zero effort on my part — the students just came in and worked from a list of study objectives I had created months ago — and it was reaping some big returns for the students. Couldn't we have avoided a lot of stress and last-minute finagling?

Not a new experience

Sadly, this wasn't just a new thing that I was seeing for the first time. Every year of my career it has seemed like at that month-before-the-end-of-the-term mark, I start noticing in my gradebook the kids who are going to need some extra time if they're to finish my course in the black. It doesn't matter if it's an advanced class (a novel experience for me last year) or a standard class or an “at-risk” class, the phenomenon of Snowball Kids — kids for whose start-of-term problems snowball into end-of-term emergencies — seems to defy labeling, especially if our courses are as challenging as we want them to be.

“Phone, remind me in October to do the April study hall thing for potential Snowball Kids”

I just told my phone to remind me in October to identify potential Snowball Kids and pull them for the same kind of meeting I held this past April. (I don't use my smartphone for much, but I do appreciate that voice-commanded, time-delayed reminder function.)

Simple solutions are always better than complex solutions if both solutions achieve the same ends. I'm simply going to try bumping that post-spring-break meeting I held with kids to the early part of the school year, and then I want to see how it goes. Will the lack of a near deadline (e.g., the end of the term, or the AP test) mean that fewer kids show up? We'll see. My hypothesis is that at least a couple of kids who might have Snowballed into the April Study Hall group will pull out of their descent and decrease their overall stress load for the year. If that happens for even one kid, I'll consider it a professional gain. It doesn't require me to work much harder, and it could potentially bring great benefit to my students.

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