Reaching At-Risk Students Through Video

David H. Elkind and Freddy Sweet Ph.D.

hat if you saw an elderly woman in a department store unknowingly drop a $50 bill and walk away. What would you do? This is one of many hypothetical situations we posed to several diverse groups of middle school students across the country during the production of our public television series “Big Changes, Big Choices.”

“I’d keep it,” one boy said right away. A girl looked at him disdainfully and asked, “What if that was your grandmother?” The boy shrugged and said, “Too bad.” The girl persisted, “But what if she didn’t have any other money, and she would go hungry? The boy grimaced and another girl tossed her hair back and interjected, “Well, I’d keep it if I was the only person who saw it.”

Middle school students consistently responded in such an open and honest way, even when our dilemmas conflicted with their initial impulses. We videotaped these unrehearsed responses, which have since been viewed by hundreds of thousands of middle school students nationwide on television in their homes, and on video in the classroom.

What made the taped discussion so engaging was that it included a lot of disagreement over whether or not to keep the $50 bill. Very quickly the entire debate came down to a discussion of right versus wrong. Those who favored keeping it offered a variety of rationalizations. Those who favored giving it back maintained that keeping it would be wrong. When asked how it feels when they realize they’ve done the wrong thing, the kids responded that “it’s a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach,” and “you wish you hadn’t done it, and you look for a way to fix it.” When asked how they know when they’re doing the right thing, the kids replied that “you feel really good about yourself,” and “it’s a sensation that starts in your heart and then spreads out.”

After grappling with the hard moral choices, the kids began to reach some consensus. Finally, we asked the decisive question: “But what is the right thing to do?” When put in these terms, the issue took on critical focus. Suddenly all the students were in agreement. They said to give back the $50 bill. One boy asserted that if he kept the money he’d respect himself a lot less because “then I’m no better than scum on the street.” Another boy added that “if I give the money back I know I’m a good person, and it gives me more self-respect.” So, by the end of the discussion all of the kids recognized what was the right thing to do and what were the consequences of making certain good and bad choices. And in the end they were in agreement that they should return the $50 bill to its rightful owner. 



The impact of viewing this exchange on the television screen can be a powerful communications tool, as middle school students watch young teens just like themselves respond to reality-based situations. At an age where questions of justice and fairness are so central to their world view, early adolescents respond positively to these kinds of ethical dilemmas. Young teens are coming into what psychologists call “the advent of formal operations.” Hill describes this remarkable stage of intellectual development in the following way:

Adolescents go beyond the information given … to think about what might be true. They reason by taking what is possible as well as what is actually given as a point of departure for their thought processes. Adolescents are able to reason about physical and social events in terms of the unobserved and the unobservable. They can, for the first time, reason about justice, for example, and get quite worked up emotionally about other ideals, too (1980).

We see this passionate intensity whenever the hypothetical about the $50 bill is presented.

As producers of four well-respected youth guidance video series, we have spent over a decade observing children in schools around the country respond successfully to video in the classroom. Hypothetical situations, like the one above, can engage any middle school student, including those at-risk. Our own experiences, as well as those of educators, counselors, and researchers who work with at-risk children, have underscored the conviction that video is an exceptionally valuable tool in approaching this hard-to-reach group.

For our purposes we have found Slavin’s definition of “at-risk” to be very useful. He describes a student as “at risk” as one who is in danger of failing to complete his or her education with an adequate level of skills. Risk factors include low achievement, retention in grade, behavior problems, poor attendance, low socioeconomic status, and attendance at schools with large numbers of poor students (1989). From our observations, we would like to add “poor literacy” to Slavin’s definition, to make it more complete.

Showing a video to at-risk students, however, is only the first step. It’s true that video will attract their attention and make them receptive to learning. But once a video has caught their interest, we can move on to our major objective, which is to foster critical, independent thinking and encourage literacy. Class discussions, writing assignments and group activities which take place after the video has been viewed, are all part of the process of using video to reach at-risk students.



We have seen over and over again how video brings kids on board right from the start, by capturing their attention and getting them involved in the action on the screen. But why is video so successful in reaching those middle school students who are the most “unreachable”? In part, it is because the medium of video is so familiar and entertaining. It is the air teens breathe, especially at-risk teens, who oftentimes are more natural with moving image media than with the written word.

Research shows that video is an especially appropriate medium for the at-risk student because learning activities presented using a range of technologies, including video, produce positive attitudes toward learning, and contribute to the success of low achievers (Hancock, 1992). Furthermore, at-risk students, many of whom are tactile/kinesthetic, tend to need high-interest materials that involve them emotionally, which explains why they respond well to video and films (Carbo, 1997).

But above all, video’s strength is in its exceptional power to engage young people at the level where they make most of their behavioral decisions — their emotions. And it is by touching their emotions that teachers are able to use video to turn many of these kids around. Numerous teens have written to us saying how moved they were to see kids like themselves struggling with moral issues and describing what they were experiencing. They felt relieved to find that they were not alone, that other youngsters had similar thoughts, feelings and problems. This validation alone can open a door toward reaching the at-risk middle school child, who often feels disenfranchised and alienated (Brendtro, L.K., Brokenleg, M. & Van Bockern, S.,1990).



Without getting into the debate about whether or not television contributes to the lack of literacy, thereby creating an at-risk climate, we have found that teachers can make good use of video, as a point of departure, to encourage literacy even among the toughest at-risk students. The Learning Technology Center (LTC) at Vanderbilt University has been conducting a longitudinal study on the use of new technologies, including video, to encourage literacy among at-risk children. The LTC cites the 1983 studies by the National Commission on Excellence in Education that indicate that whereas 13% of 17-year-olds can be considered functionally illiterate, illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as 40% (Bransford, Sharp, Vye, Goldman, Hasselbring, Goin, O’Banion, Livernois, Saul, with the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1996). As a remedy, the LTC has designed a program it calls MOST (Multimedia Environments that Organize and Support Text). The researchers have concluded that MOST environments that include dynamic visual support for comprehension can be much better for accelerating linguistic and conceptual development than typical school environments, which are primarily language-based. In addition, when dealing with primary school children, they have found that these programs are more effective than traditional environments for helping students learn to read (Bransford, et al., 1996).



Educators and researchers have found other good reasons for using video in the classroom. Vicki E. Hancock, Assistant Director of ASCD’s Curriculum/Technology Resource Center recognizes that learning activities delivered with a variety of technologies are especially useful and appropriate for minority and disadvantaged students because technology is effective in producing positive attitudes toward learning and promoting success for low achievers (Hancock, 1992). Hancock stresses how video can effectively increase at-risk students’ involvement with subject matter in the classroom. She writes of the psychologists’ “participating hypothesis” for effective learning: the more involved we are in the process, the more likely we will learn what we are doing (1992).

To ensure that students become involved, a well-facilitated discussion should follow the video. In other words, watching a video in the classroom is just the first step in successful video-based learning. Especially for the at-risk student, a conversation about ethical choices, for instance, that begins on the screen should continue in the classroom. It is during the class discussions, with memories of the video fresh in their minds, when significant learning takes place. As Prager points out, the education lies in the debate, the exposure to a diversity of attitudes (1993). And once the teens are engaged, the discussion is an opportunity for them to become alert to the real-life choices they make and the consequences of those choices. The dialogue which opened this article is an example of how teachers can guide the discussion to elicit positive solutions and educate for character in the process. It demonstrates how to prompt students to think about their values, and to think about how their behaviors affect other people. But, as Prager suggests, while the teacher facilitates the discussion, it is the students themselves who should provide the solutions (1993).

The dialogue in this sequence is also an example of the facilitation technique known as the Socratic Method, wherein the teacher asks a series of questions that lead the students to the discovery of “truth.” This dialectical teaching method is ideal for examining ethics, values, and other character issues, because it actively engages the students and forces them to think critically. The Socratic Method is also dramatic and entertaining and triggers stimulating classroom discussion from even the most reluctant students.

Compare this video-based classroom learning to the more traditional reliance on reading assignments. Some students are better readers, some are weak or even non-readers. Some understand the material better, interpret it differently, finish at different times (Rewey, 1992). Especially when reading has been assigned as homework, the classroom teacher needs to regenerate a climate of spontaneity to spark a fruitful class discussion. Since some of the students may not have done their homework or found the text difficult to understand, before a discussion can be started, a teacher is often required to summarize the material or read long passages aloud just to bring the class up to speed. By contrast, a major advantage of video is that the entire group shares the same experience at the same time, as noted by Randy Pitman, publisher/editor of Video Librarian. The viewers follow the interaction of the people on the screen, observing body language, subtle behavior, and tones of voice. They receive the information simultaneously and can immediately discuss afterwards what they’ve just seen. The enthusiasm generated by the program can be tapped into at once (R. Pitman, personal communication, February 11, 1997).



An effective video program can — and should — do more than make contact with at-risk students. Video can encourage connectedness by taking advantage of the momentum of the classroom discussion. As students share their personal experiences and honest thoughts, they let down their defenses and begin to recognize that everyone has something worthwhile to contribute to the group. As Galbraith and Jones have pointed out, in discussing moral problems, students develop their moral reasoning. They need the opportunity to confront difficult decision-making situations; they need to endorse a position and to think about their reasons for selecting their positions; and they need to hear the reasoning used by others on the same problem (1976). The class clown and the gang member, the cheerleader, and the scholarly student learn that they all have similar fears and dreams. They recognize that no one is perfect; no one has all the answers. This revelation helps to develop human relationships within the classroom. The students express themselves freely and listen to one another with respect.

But perhaps the greatest benefit of a critical examination and sharing of ideas in the classroom is the sense of community it produces. Ultimately it is the quality of the relationships which emerge that benefits the students, the class, and the society as a whole. Researchers have indicated that the quality of these relationships in schools and youth service programs may be more influential than the specific techniques or interventions employed (Brendtro, et al 1990). The development of a community within the classroom creates a support group and encourages a deep sense of connectedness. These diminish the sense of alienation of the at-risk student. And, for these students what takes place in the classroom is, in effect, an experience in practical democracy.

Jackie York, an eighth grade Language Arts teacher at Buffalo Middle School in Kenova, West Virginia, includes a variety of videos in her school’s “Responsible Student Program.” This all-school program incorporates writing, group projects, discussions and other activities in conjunction with videos, reports York, the program’s coordinator. The purpose is character education/responsible behavior. She notes that many students, including students at-risk, demonstrate tremendous improvement in their grades as well as attitudes from her school’s custom-designed program, which shows character education videos about once a week. York says that many educators around the country are using video to teach character education. She emphasizes that she has found this to be an especially effective method in reaching at-risk students. She describes the success of the program by noting that a significant number of students made definite improvements from below average to honor roll. “There have been a few students who were really on the road to destruction. There was one boy in particular who was in trouble, making poor grades, even though he had the potential to do better. He had no self-esteem, didn’t feel like he could do anything, felt like ‘what’s the use?’ And then those once-a-week classes, which is when we showed the videos, began to help him turn himself around.” (York, V. personal communication, February 12, 1997).



There is a natural progression of learning in the classroom as students move from viewing the video to participating in discussions. The best way to complete the process is often through writing assignments and group activities. Viewing a video increases students’ power of observation. Discussion helps kids in speech, debate and clear thinking. Writing assignments help students organize their thoughts and develop their critical thinking while providing yet another opportunity for personal expression. A well-designed group project reinforces the sense of the classroom as a community while bringing students together in the process of thinking and creating together.

Projects and activities complete the video-based program and leave an indelible mark on all of the students. Teachers who use videos in the classroom recognize that the videos must include class discussions and additional activities and assignments to be truly useful. Researchers and educators have found that video is a an effective tool for reaching at-risk students, because it can launch them on a path towards literacy while teaching valuable lessons in character education.

Showing videos in class is not a substitute for the written word. It is the beginning of a process that includes three stages: 1) The viewing of the video, 2) The conducting of probing class discussions, and 3) The incorporation of writing assignments and group activities. The purpose of providing video-based learning for at-risk students is to move from the video medium with which the students have a natural affinity, to classroom discussions that develop a sense of community and a working familiarity with democratic procedures, to activities and assignments outside of class that reinforce the concepts explored in the classroom. Using video in such a creative way can truly inspire at-risk students to read, to analyze critically, and to learn.


Appendix A


Video programs have an exceptional power to engage young people at the level where they make most of their behavioral decisions — their emotions. And that makes video a valuable ally in any effort to prevent or intervene in drug abuse, school-dropout, teen pregnancy, suicide and other serious life issues. But in order to be effective, we have to select videos that turn adolescents on, not off. And we must know how to use these tools to empower young people to make good choices for themselves.

Not all video programs are alike. In general, for videos to be effective they have to win the teens’ attention, make the content relevant to them, and provoke critical thinking. Teachers are concerned with ease of implementation, integration with other curriculums, and the availability of supplemental ideas to facilitate classroom discussions and solutions. The Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt has shown that a teacher can evaluate the quality of the video based on the nature of the discussion it generates (1993). The following are some of the qualities that are typical of videos that really work.

1.  Entertains and is familiar.

2.  Involves the viewers /Makes friends with the viewers.

   a.  Brings the kids on-board right from the start.

   b.  Involves them emotionally and intellectually.

3.  Shows them that they are not alone with their thoughts, feelings and problems. This is a big relief for most teens, and improves their perspective immediately.

4.  Presents them with people they can identify with. This usually requires some racial and cultural diversity. Without this element, relevance will be a problem.

5.  Gives them positive role models. This can be a very persuasive element, and something which video is especially suited for.

6.  Presents reality. Teens are often more affected by real stories about real people than by dramatized situations.

7.  Uses peer education. Kids listen to other kids more readily than they listen to adults. Videos that take advantage of this fact are ahead from the beginning.

8.  Gives solutions that are realistic in the real world of teenagers. Anything else won’t be taken seriously.

9.  Shows the kids that they always have options. Options give them control.

10.  Empowers them by focusing on what they can do to take charge of situations. This introduces a whole new way of thinking for most kids.



Bransford, J.D., Sharp, D.M., Vye, N.J. Goldman, S.R., Hasselbring, T.S., Going, L., O’Banion, K., Livernois, J., Saul, E., with the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. (1996). MOST environments for accelerating literacy development. In S. Vosniadour, E. De Cort, R. Glaser, & H. Mandl (eds.), International Perspectives on the Design of Technolgoy-Supported Learning Environments (pp. 223-255)

Brendtro, L.K., Brokenleg, M. & Van Bockern, S. (1990). Reclaiming Youth At Risk: Our Hope for the Future. Bloomington, Indiana: National Educational Service.

Carbo, M. (1997). Learning styles strategies that help at-risk students read and succeed. Reaching Today’s Youth, 1 (2), 37-42.

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1993). The Jasper experiment: Using video to provide real-world problem-solving contexts. Arithmetic Teacher Mathematics Education through the Middle Grades, 40 (8), 474-478.

Elkind, D. & Sweet, F. (Producers). (1994). The Three R’s of Growing Up.

volume 1 of the series “Big Changes, Big Choices” (Distributed by Live Wire Media, San Francisco, CA.). The three R’s are: 1. Taking Responsibility, 2. Doing the Right Thing, and 3. Respect.

Hill, J.P. (1980). Understanding Early Adolescence: A Framework. Carrboro, NC: Center for Early Adolescence.

Hancock, V.E. (1992/1993). The At-Risk Student. Educational Leadership, 50 (4), 84-85.

Praeger, R. (1993). Designing an ethics class. Educational Leadership, 51 (3), 32-33.

Rewey, K.L. & Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt University (1992). Small group problem solving in The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury Environment: A preliminary examination of dyads. Paper presented at March 1992 annual meeting of American Educational Research Association in San Francisco, CA.

Slavin, R.E. & Madden N. A. (1989). What Works for Students at Risk: A Research Synthesis. Educational Leadership, 46 (5), 4-13.

Authors’ Bio

David Elkind, a television/video producer and educator, and Freddy Sweet Ph.D., a television/film producer and a former Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, are co-Presidents of Live Wire Media.
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