"Teachers are directed to instruct their pupils... and to awaken in them a sense of their responsibility toward the community of the nation." –Bernhard Rust, Nazi Minister of Education, from "Racial Instruction and the National Community," 1935

How to inspire students

by Wendy Schaetzel Lesko

One of my favorite stories centers on a rough high school where a teacher sought out students who had been suspended for fights. He posed the question to them: “How can we make our school safer?” Weeks rolled by and the students merely rolled their eyes. Young people, especially defiant troublemakers, have zero expectations that their recommendations ever will be taken seriously. The teacher’s genuine interest and persistence finally proved convincing and the group started to talk.

One surprising idea emerged: Hire a 65-year-old grandma as a security guard because she lived nearby and knew many of the students. Equally unexpected, the principal followed through on their proposal. The teacher’s attitude and behavior were essential for reaching out to these students who added a new dimension of moral authority to school security.

A new book entitled “The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business” pinpoints trust and respect as the underpinnings of positive youth-adult partnerships. Even though the overall mission of this book is to showcase a school environment that produces students enraptured by learning and urges whole scale education reform, anyone involved with young people in any capacity can gain philosophical and practical insights from Dennis Littky, a visionary educator with three decades of experience, and co-author Samantha Gabrelle. One measure of success in terms of engaging young people is attendance hovered above 95 percent at one of Littky’s schools—remarkable for any high school.

Here are a handful of gems from “The Big Picture” plus a few of my own comments.

*EXPECTATIONS*. The authors confirm that “Kids are very attuned to adults’ attitudes toward them. They can tell when you have low expectations for them, and it can hurt them pretty badly.” Adults need to believe in their gut that young people have tremendous potential and also give each person the freedom to think and dream. *ADULT LEARNERS.* “The Big Picture” claims the best teaching happens “When a teacher loves kids, is excited about the act of teaching, and is a learner himself or herself.” Young advocates frequently confess how much they like hearing adults admit they don’t know everything. This open-minded attitude inspires imagination and a shared spirit of adventure.

*LABELS*. Take note that at Littky’s schools, the term “advisor” replaces “teacher” and students call adults by their first names.

*INDIVIDUALITY*. “Who wants a standardized kid?” asks Littky in his convincing attack on the current testing craze. This discussion reminds us that every young person is fragile and unique and needs individual attention. After all, great teamwork cannot happen without ongoing interactions on a person-to-person basis.

*RELATIONSHIPS, RELEVANCE & RIGOR.* These represent Littky’s “Three R’s.” Indeed, good rapport and mutual respect between adults and young people cannot be emphasized enough. Sustained interest and effort come from collaborating together to tackle real world problems rather than adult-imposed or hypothetical issues.

*PASSION*. The message from “The Big Picture” is to start with the heart and then engage the head. Instead of learning skills in a vacuum, first identify an issue and that concern will be the catalyst to acquire knowledge about how best to pursue research, influence elected officials, plan a rally, etc.

*CONVIVIALITY & VARIETY.* The authors convey the importance of instilling enjoyment throughout the process: “…birthday balloons, spice up the meetings with fancy pastry and lousy jokes.” Regularly introduce an element of surprise to avoid the routine rut.

Our national clearinghouse recently received an eloquent letter from a 12th grader in Pennsylvania who would love to attend a school that doesn’t boil learning down to filling in bubbles on a test. This National Honor Society student reveals she is one of 96 out of 272 classmates who failed to pass the state standardized test. She argues that “No Child Left Behind” should be renamed “No Child Left Optimistic.” The model described by Littky and Gabrelle fuels optimism and demonstrates how adults and youths can have a great time learning together while trying to address some of the toughest problems in our schools and communities.

Written by: Wendy Schaetzel Lesko
17 October 2004

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