Magazine Feature

'At Risk' of Greatness

Teacher Lisa Weinbaum honors students who break stereotypes, defy odds and make the world a better place.

When Lisa M. Weinbaum reflects on her teaching career -- the past nine years teaching so-called "at risk" students in southern New Mexico -- her memories aren't of standardized test scores or the latest NCLB requirement. She remembers kids who break stereotypes, defy odds and make the world a better place -- every day.

Student writing, while behind him another one is interviewed, other is carrying can good and in the back a student i pushing a full wheel barrel
Illustration by Donald Kilpatrick

Because teachers are human, we sometimes judge our students based on where they live or the language they speak. Students are channeled into honors, regular or remedial classes based on these judgments. Separate sets of expectations are imposed upon separate sets of children, limiting access to information and opportunity.

We teachers must counteract such influences.

We teachers must realize that education should get personal.

We must know that education always should allow children to hope.

We must know children are not empty receptacles, passively waiting for knowing adults to pour isolated, irrelevant facts into their heads. Children have opinions -- and a need to be heard.

The sole purpose of education is not for job preparation. Education should be so much more. As John Dewey stated, "Education … is a process of living and not preparation for future living."

That's what my students have taught me. Consider some of my strongest memories.


Tomorrow On Today

Josh Villegas sits patiently before the camera, along with his mother and twin brother, waiting for the television host to pose his questions. Soft-spoken and squirming, he is obviously uncomfortable exposing his life to a national audience. An 8th-grader who won a $2,500 college scholarship through the Education Plan of New Mexico, Josh is appearing on the Today Show. He earned the scholarship and trip by writing an essay in my class describing the importance of a college degree.

True, many students win college scholarships, but few are 8th-grade special education students living in poverty whose fathers are convicted murderers. The scholarship symbolized that he could prove his father wrong. As Josh wrote, "If I had a chance to go to college, I wouldn't waste it. Even through those bars I can hear his voice saying, 'You can't make it past high school, and especially, not even to college.' But I ignore him. I know I'm smart. I know I can pass. I know I can succeed."

Josh didn't allow his disability to define who he was. Nor did he allow me, as his teacher, to define who he was for him.

Josh taught me about courage, about the necessity to expect more from my "remedial reading" students. Since Josh won his scholarship, many of my other students have won statewide writing awards sponsored by the New Mexico Center of the Book, including the "River of Words" and "Letters about Literature" contests, even though my students are labeled "at risk" or "below grade level" according to standardized tests. There is no such thing as a standardized child.

Group of people cleaning a graveyard

Reaching Across Borders

My students completed a unit titled "Reaching Out Across Borders: Helping Mothers of Juarez Murder Victims through Critical Literacy," funded through the Jordan Fundamentals Grant Program. Students researched the gender, socioeconomic and political conditions that have fostered violence against women, including the murders of more than 400 females in the border city of Juarez, the virtual back door to our city, Las Cruces. Like discarded trash decomposing in the desert, their bodies are strewn about, perhaps never to be discovered. Because many of my students' extended families resided in nearby Juarez, this topic both fascinated and horrified them.

With investigating officials' seeming inability to solve, let alone stop, the violence, we invited a panel of speakers to the classroom, including a New Mexico State University Women's Studies professor; a speaker from a local advocacy group, Amigos de las Mujeres de Juarez; and a Juarez mother whose daughter had mysteriously disappeared.

After hearing these people speak, students composed poems, letters and tributes that were bound into anthologies and sold during our reading department's annual family night. Through the sale of 100 books, we educated our local community about violence against women while raising several hundred dollars for Amigos de las Mujeres de Juarez. More importantly, students recognized that their need for literacy is much more than passing exams, the dominant discourse of today. The real reason for reading is living.


Activism and Justice

A no-name cemetery containing about 100 unmarked graves was located about five blocks from our school, but few of my students knew it existed. Like most of Las Cruces, the small minority who did know of its location believed it was merely a pet cemetery. None of my students knew that human beings, including infants, were interred there, many whose lives were cut short, unable to afford proper housing or healthcare. Death, as in life, continued to be unkind to them, their identities forgotten in a neglected graveyard, their existence erased from our collective conscience.

Even for Las Cruces it was an unseasonably warm late September day and perhaps too hot for a walking field trip. I decided to escort my students anyway, but not all were enthused about making an uphill trek to an abandoned paupers' graveyard in the blistering sun. "What could this cemetery possibly have to do with us?" they demanded.

About 70 percent of my school's students receive free or reduced-price lunch, and many families are relegated to low-paying jobs. Because we were studying the societal causes of homelessness within a unit titled "Homeless but not Hopeless," I wanted to illustrate that poverty affects life as well as death. In short, this cemetery had everything to do with them. Moreover, I knew that middle school students possess a profound regard for justice.

Once in sight of the cemetery, the students' complaining ceased, replaced with a sudden flurry of note-taking. They stared at the small earthen mounds, at the unkempt, overgrown gravesites. Single cinderblock headstones adorned some graves, while others sprouted misshapen mesquite shrubs or prickly pear cacti. Rough, weather-worn crosses lay haphazardly on the ground, nails protruding. Remnants of windblown Wal-Mart bags, broken Budweiser bottles and faded pink plastic roses littered the landscape. But the final disgrace was the presence of tiny American flags, obviously planted decades ago, perhaps to honor fallen veterans. Tattered and torn, they were threadbare and colorless. Clearly, the souls buried within the cemetery had long since been abandoned by our community.

Totally disgusted, my students vowed to clean the graveyard. They were willing to return on their own, beyond school hours, to complete the job if necessary. But upon contacting a government official, I was told that because the cemetery was located on Doña Ana County property, approval must first be granted from government attorneys, which could take months.

Incensed by the county's bureaucratic run-around and the apparent indifference toward the plight of the cemetery and those interred there, my students wrote protest letters to our local newspapers. Intrigued by the students' concerns, the Las Cruces Sun-News featured a front-page exposé about the cemetery, followed the next day by an editorial chastising the county for abandoning the dead. Later, the cemetery story aired on the TV news in El Paso, 45 miles to our south, and Albuquerque, 250 miles to our north.

Embarrassed by the unflattering publicity initiated by my students, the county quickly sponsored a community cleanup at the cemetery. Early on a November Saturday morning, led by my students and their parents with help from other teachers from our school, county employees and local residents, we cleaned the graveyard. Doña Ana County provided heavy machinery, water bottles, gloves, shovels, rakes and trash bags, while a local restaurateur supplied breakfast burritos. In addition, a recreational vehicle dealership made available an RV rest station. One gentleman, so moved by my students' letters, donated a granite monument engraved not only with the names of the departed, but also with the inscription, "For the Forgotten of Doña Ana County, Both Living and Deceased."

My students were so proud of themselves. Through the strength of their collective speech, they learned their voices are valued. They learned they have political power, the ability to help eradicate injustice. Through their passion, perseverance and eloquence, they captured our attention. And perhaps for the first time in their educational lives, they were taken seriously. No longer were they labeled as "at-risk" kids relegated to remedial reading; they were the kids who forced our community to look. They were the kids who forced our community to act.

They are writers. They are activists. They are heroes.

They are my students.

Homeless, Not Hopeless

Before Lynn Middle School teacher Lisa M. Weinbaum's "Homeless but not Hopeless" project, her 7th- and 8th-grade students made fun of the homeless. They thought panhandling was easy and that homeless people were simply lazy and might be "faking it."

The irony is that 70 percent of the students at Lynn Middle School are poor.

Weinbaum thought her students, as well as the greater Las Cruces, N.M., community, had a lot to learn about compassion and the roots of homelessness. Nearly 500 homeless people seek shelter each night in Doña Ana County, where Lynn Middle School is located. The city had just passed an ordinance sweeping indigent people from the streets, leading some to think the homelessness problem had been solved. Weinbaum knew better.

"The dispossessed still starve, and no one knows or cares to know," Weinbaum wrote in her Teaching Tolerance grant application.

Weinbaum's goal was to challenge and debunk stereotypes of homeless families, to recognize and acknowledge the wider social forces tied to poverty, and to foster empathy within her school and community.

"We are all responsible for one another and not just to ourselves," she wrote.


Everyone Benefits

Teaching Tolerance awarded Weinbaum a $2,000 grant that helped her raise students' awareness about the severity of homelessness.

She used the money to purchase supplemental reading material that examines homelessness from contrasting points of view. The funds also helped finance transportation to a homeless shelter and a celebratory gathering, featuring a meal and poetry readings, at the end of the term.

The grant also helped defray the cost of printing and binding a student-written anthology of oral histories, essays, poems and stories honoring the homeless of Las Cruces. The anthology includes moving letters to members of the homeless community, reality-based fiction, a section specifically for homeless children, and appeals to the community to do something to help those people experiencing homelessness.

The anthologies were sold for $5 each at the annual Las Cruces Renaissance Faire, and all proceeds -- $400 total -- benefited the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, a local shelter.

Students made a series of field trips to the homeless shelter to bring donations, tour the facilities and meet with members of the homeless population. During the term, students combined analysis, research and personal interviews with homeless people to produce the anthology.

"We read a number of things before going," Weinbaum said. "We explained that many of them are veterans, that they might have emotional or psychological issues."

Later, to demonstrate how homelessness affects death as well as life, Weinbaum took her students to a neglected cemetery strewn with trash, with only cinderblocks as markers. From there the project took on new meaning.

Weinbaum says her students were "appalled by the cemetery's deplorable conditions" and "vowed to clean it."

Writing letters to the editor of a local newspaper and calling on elected officials and others to address the neglect, and adding their own hard work to the cleanup effort, the students reclaimed the forgotten cemetery.

When teaching through the lens of social justice issues, Weinbaum says she finds her students are more engaged and motivated. "The kids buy into it, this sense of fairness, what's right and what's wrong," she said. "They know what's 'messed up,' to put it in their words."

The "Homeless but not Hopeless" project taught the students that their voices do matter. They learned that, while it's a sad reality that some people live and die in poverty, that doesn't mean they, as young people, have to accept the conditions of social inequality.

"Most student projects are focused around feeding homeless people," says Michael Stoops, acting director of the National Homeless Coalition. "So the activism of [these] students is indeed unique. I hope [this] project can be a model nationwide."

Teacher Reflection:
List three labels that apply to you. For example, one could list "female," "special education teacher," and "Christian." What parts of your identity did you leave off your list? Why? What was listed first? Why? Now, think of your students. List labels commonly applied to each of them. Also list a special interest or talent for each student. How is your identity similar to and different from those of your students? Identify three curriculum changes or new teaching strategies that you will use to bridge differences, empower students and honor all identities.

Professional Development:
Use this essay as the foundation for an in-service activity about labels. Working in small groups, teachers should brainstorm a list of labels that are applied to students in your school or district, i.e. "at risk," "gifted" or "ESL." As a group, discuss: What is the "picture in your head" when you think of each term? What are the positive, negative or neutral connotations for the labels? How do the labels benefit or harm those to whom they apply — and those to whom they do not apply? How can we ensure that our school expands possibilities for all students, rather than limits them?