Starting Where Youth Are At

It can be discouraging when efforts to generate student interest are unsuccessful. Whether we are attempting to spark their passion for learning, or their motivation to volunteer or get involved in extracurricular activities, there are no magic answers or recipes. Rather, engaging students is a complex, multi-faceted and long-term process. One thing is certain, however: it is an essential component of character development.

Sometimes, adults may rely upon the participation of a small clique of student leaders operating within a larger context of peer disengagement. What are our options if student interest as a whole seems limited or irrelevant, or unrelated to our curriculum goals? How can we inspire change if peer culture seems to position engagement as "uncool"?

In any school, particularly at the secondary level, the dominant youth culture (as in the larger society) may be shaped by consumer culture. This commercially-driven popular culture can wield a big influence on student interest. The resulting focus may seem unrelated or even detrimental to our goals of academic learning and character development.

While there are no easy answers, nor any single strategy, we can attend to students’ passions and interests, however they are manifested, and begin there. We can survey our students and find out from them where their interests lie.

We need to be with kids where they are at, accept where they are coming from. We need to capitalize on their skills and talents—what they have naturally. It’s important to know each learner—to ask kids what they are good at. The question is: how to organize a school culture to promote what kids are good at?

– Elementary teacher

We can observe their enthusiasm, watching and waiting for those moments when their faces light up and their voices become animated. When we identify their areas of passion, then our own creativity can help us find an angle, connecting this with an aspect of learning or character development.

Trying It
  • Find ways to connect a student’s passion for skateboarding with a lesson in physics.
  • Use a popular singer’s life story to provide a focus for a biographical writing project.
  • Explore ways to turn a much-awaited athletic event (e.g., a soccer match) into a learning opportunity. For example, encourage students to learn a range of skills by promoting and organizing a collective viewing activity at lunchtime.

There are often unlikely leaders in school environments but we don’t know about their lives. While we need to maintain certain lines between kids’ lives and adult lives—we’re there to be professionals and we need some distance—we also need to see kids as individuals, as people. We need to find out what they love, what they’re good at and use that as our starting point to develop leadership skills. We need to teach the whole student. That means that we‘ve got to sponsor the concept of motivation among youth – making links between extracurricular activities and what happens in class. When we find ways to fuel creative talents, those are opportunities for teachers to bridge gaps between students and the system. If kids are feeling oppositional, feeling a sense of injustice, blowing up, we can play the role of bridging the gaps between that kid, their family and the system.

– High school teacher