Perimeter People


The other day I was talking to my son and he described an acquaintance with a larger-than-life personality. As a matter of fact, the whole family was like that. They were gregarious, over-the-top-we-love-being-the-center-of-attention people. I asked him if our family behaved like that; were we vociferous and outrageous?

“No,” he replied. “We’re perimeter people. We watch what’s going on around us.”

“’Perimeter people?’” Mmmm, I thought. “Is that a bad thing?” I asked.

“Not necessarily. We soak it all in.”

As an English teacher, I liked the alliteration and symbolism associated with “perimeter people.” But as an Instructional Coach/Reading Specialist of a large urban high school, the last thing we want is for our students to be perimeter people. We don’t want them to just “watch what’s going on around” them, but we certainly want them to “soak it all in.”

How do we do that?

We have all created what we’ve perceived to be the best lesson in the world. The Learning Intention was written in specific, student-friendly language. The Success Criteria was achievable and measureable. The skills were standards-based and the strategies were engaging and motivating. After the lesson, ninety-eight percent of the class told us through their reflective Exit Ticket that they could explain to us what they learned that day and that they enjoyed the lesson.

Ah success!

But what about the two percent of students who didn’t respond favorably? Are those the “perimeter people”? The students who would rather watch from the sidelines and not interact? The students who, while it’s not necessarily a bad thing, didn’t want to be the center of attention? Were those statistics satisfactory enough for us to deem the lesson a success?

With 23 years of experience and expertise in the classroom, here are my tips to move students from the perimeter to the center of the classroom:

1) Be human. When a student was disengaged, I didn’t call her out in front of her peers; I waited until class was over and kept the conversation light and friendly – not defensive. I didn’t ask her why she wasn’t participating. I let her know I wanted her to think about joining in. Maybe I didn’t see participation right away, but usually she began to seek me out before school or after school as a way to share and exchange ideas. I used that time as a way to discover her interests and concerns.

2) Whatever it takes. During our conversation, I’d try to find something that she suggested as an interest. As an example, one of my “perimeter” students mentioned that he liked to write poetry. I bought Tupac Shakur’s book, The Rose that Grew from Concrete at a half-price book store and gave him the book. I explained that if he didn’t want to verbally participate in class, he needed to participate in writing – and if he wanted, he could to share his thoughts in poetry. Kijohn did just that. He seldom spoke, but at the end of class, he’d hand me his thoughts in imaginative stanzas.

3) Let’s make a deal. I would ask the perimeter student to offer just one comment or idea during the class period. I kept track of her remarks with a check-mark and showed her that I was keeping track so she knew the value of her contribution. I didn’t expect her, to all of a sudden, just because I asked, become a chatterbox. As the weeks progressed, I requested more comments per class, building up the ante. Remember, she has to get something out of the deal, too. I always called home to share the positive participation news with mom/dad/caregiver.

4) I am not beneath bribery. Another tactic I used to inspire participation was to invite the student to lunch - with me. To encourage a positive response, I allowed her to invite two of her friends. We met in my room, where I laid out assorted sandwiches and desserts of my own creation. The trio was awe-struck to see so much planning and work had gone into a lunch. I centered the conversation on the importance of sharing one’s thinking. Then, we practiced how to participate in class. With a wonderful lunch already consumed, the student always agreed to comment in tomorrow’s class and usually followed through.

5) Acceptance is not resignation. Some students might not participate or engage in the way that we want them to; at that point; we have to accept their boundaries. I consider myself to be an extravert. I like people and I like to learn from them. My idea of participation and engagement and a student’s idea of participation and engagement are (probably) two different definitions. I needed to accept that – more than once.

In closing, depending upon the situation, we are all “perimeter people” at one time or another. We feel comfort in watching and soaking it all in. But, if we are able to move students to the center once in a while we must do it with humanity, perseverance, compromise and acceptance.