by Kara Hanson

Lately I’ve been thinking about a lot about those back-row students – the ones who attend class sporadically, come late, and are unlikely to participate despite the energy I exert trying to make my classes interactive and engaging. These students are a great frustration to me and to many of us, and I’ve complained about them many a time.  Recently, however, I have begun to approach these students from more of an investigational point of view, wishing to understand what is behind this behavior rather than just complaining about it. This shift in viewpoint has been spurred at least in part by parenting a child who exhibits some of these tendencies and wishing to help him overcome the obstacles that lead to this behavior before the academic stakes become high.  

Over the course of the past year, my perspective on this subject has been enriched by a book I read about the students in one high school ESL class and by a workshop I attended that was all about the human brain.  

The book – The Newcomers (available in the professional development library)

Helen Thorpe’s The Newcomers, published in the last year, documents of a year in a Denver high school’s newcomer ELL class. Taught by a Mr. Williams, the newcomer class consists of students from around the world who are brand new to the US and mostly absolute beginners in terms of English skills.  I have long wished for more opportunities to observe others teaching ESL classes but struggled to find the time to fit it into my life. I felt that through Thorpe’s careful observations, I was able to observe a master teacher in action and the book would have been a worthwhile read for this alone.  Another asset of the book is the solid review on language acquisition that Thorpe provides (she’s clearly done her homework in this area). However, the greatest strength of the book, in my opinion, is that Thorpe gets to know Mr. Williams’ students and their families outside the classroom, and from their stories we are able to see how what is going on in their lives outside the classroom affects their performance inside the classroom.  

   The students who most stood out to me were Mariam and Jakeen, two sisters who, with their mother and younger sister, fled first from Iraq to Syria and later to Turkey before finally being resettled in Denver.  The upheaval and trauma these young women experienced continue to impact them; they frequently miss school and struggle when there. Thorpe writes that “Sadness hung over the two girls like a bank of fog. Even while they were physically in Room 142, they spent an unusual amount of time on their phones. . . . I was perplexed by Jakleen and Mariam’s frequent absences, refusal to participate, and obsession with texting until I visited them at home again, and the girls explained that they were distracted because their close friends Haifa and Noor had just departed from Damascus, even though it was the dead of winter” and were about to attempt to cross the Aegean Sea in hopes of eventually making it to Germany (p. 128-129).  Reading Mariam and Jakleen’s story made me wonder what distractions glue our back-row students to their phones. I generally assume it is “only” addiction to technology (no small concern on its own), but no doubt our students are often distracted by larger concerns and if many could probably use more support and less nagging.

Thorpe provides a thoughtful overview of the issues that impact the ability of students to progress.  She explains that “the main issues that affected the pace of learning for the newcomers [were] language proximity, interruption of schooling, education of parents, trauma, and motivation” (p. 225).  In grad school I learned about language proximity (speaking a language more similar to English makes acquiring English easier) and motivation (intrinsic motivation providing better outcomes than extrinsic motivation), but I don’t remember the remaining three factors she mentions being addressed.  I am not sure how many of our students have had their schooling interrupted, though I’m sure it has happened to some. I suspect, however, that parental education levels strongly affect our students (how many of those back-row sitters are first generation college students, unaware of how to behave in a higher education setting, let alone in a foreign country?).  And surely many of our students have experienced trauma through the death of loved ones, severe illness, parental divorce, or other traumatic events.

I was intrigued when Thorpe suggested another crucial factor that impacts students’ ability to progress: volition. “Had a given student showed up in Mr. Williams’s classroom of his or her own choice?” Thorpe writes, “Or had the student walked into the room thanks to someone else’s decision making?” While volition was certainly a factor affecting Mariam and Jakleen, who were forced to leave their home and travel from country to country, it is also a factor affecting our students.  How many of our students are in our classes because their families want them to be, regardless of their wishes in the matter?

The Workshop – Brain Changers

On a Saturday last February, Kathleen Moon and I attended an all-day workshop at Corban University in Salem all about the brain called Brain Changers. The presenter, Jesse Payne, provided a variety of fascinating facts about the brain, but what stood out to me the most in terms of usefulness in our classrooms is that human brains are not fully developed until the age of 25 for women and 28 for men, and that the last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for tasks such as goal-setting, planning, and learning from mistakes. For me, learning this was a lightbulb moment in terms of what I see in the classroom. I am always relieved when I have a class with a lot of grad students or with a higher-than-normal ratio of women to men, and this workshop made me realize that there are brain-related facts that make it easier to teach classes like these: the younger students, particularly the younger males, simply don’t have as fully developed pre-frontal cortexes, and therefore don’t have the same organizational skills, impulse control, and focus as the more mature students.  Learning this made me wonder if we disadvantage our less mature students when we put in classes with students whose brains are more mature as it creates unfairly high expectations. While all our students are adults, there are biological reasons that they are not equally mature, and we need to set appropriate expectations for these less mature students, help them develop the skills need to be competent learners, and not simply grumble when they don’t already have these skills.

Recently I have been more cognizant of these brain differences and I feel that I have done a better job of meeting less mature students’ needs.  One the of the classes I taught this past fall provided an especially good opportunity for this as I had some of the most challenging behaviors I’ve dealt with in some time.  From the beginning of the term, however, I tried to determine the approximate age of the students, and so I was able to predict which students might struggle; my predictions proved correct as, just as expected, it was the youngest male students who struggled the most.  While their lack of skills in areas such as time management, organization, and following directions were still challenging to deal with, it was helpful for me to remember that these were developmental issues and that there were legitimate reasons they were behind some of their classmates in these areas.  Furthermore, being able to predict who might have these challenges helped me nip some behaviors in the bud by immediately talking to these students about areas of concern as they emerged. I look forward to seeing how I can continue to use this awareness of age and brain maturity to better help students in the future.


Payne, J. (2018, February). Brain Changers Workshop. Salem, OR.

Thorpe, H. (2017). The Newcomers. New York, NY: Scribner.