The most important aspect of engaging and motivating students is creating professional relationships with them that demonstrate a real, genuine, and empathic interest in their lives, hopes, dreams, and lived experiences as cultural beings. It doesn’t hurt to have fun and a shared sense of humor along with way as we teach our lessons, lead our schools, and counsel our students to be successful in academics, careers, college access/affordability/completion, and social-emotional issues. But how do we accomplish this?
I begin with my experience as a parent of 14-year old high school sophomore. My husband and I have worked hard to provide our teen with varied experiences and activities and have enjoyed assisting our teen to explore interests in dance, robotics, baking, chemistry, and urban planning and design. I always teach and counsel with the idea that all children, adolescents, and young adults deserve great resources and opportunities and the chance to reach their hopes and dreams. All too often, who gets resources that would enable students to pursue their dreams is based on wealth, power, and access to urban or suburban centers where the most educational opportunities are found. And in many countries indigenous persons, immigrants, and in the USA, persons of color, have received the fewest resources.
Engaging and motivating all students means being honest about their lives and how unfair the distribution of resources is around the world. For instance, half of American students who attend public schools live in families at or below the poverty line. More and more educators who live in urban areas in the USA are also teetering on poverty. New Jersey, where we used to live, now regards a family making less than $68,000 a year to be under the poverty line. Yet a majority of nonprofessional jobs pay nowhere near that type of living wage in New Jersey or anywhere else. Motivating and engaging students also mean acknowledging how hard it is to make it out of poverty when so many resources are unevenly distributed.
Then there are issues of sexuality and the need to affirm LGBTIQ students, and not just in high schools. Students are coming out in elementary school and yet we have leaders who are determined to legislate against transgender and LGB students and adults. Gender-Sexuality Alliances are needed in elementary and middle schools as well as in high schools but many counselors, teachers, and leaders have no training in sexuality education or are afraid of pushback if they get involved.
I teach both school counseling and sexuality counseling classes. What I have found to be most powerful for my future school counseling students has been the use of Young Adult novels and picture books to challenge racism, classism, heterosexism, linguicism, and genderism.
This summer I taught three young adult novels in my sexuality counseling classes: Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes A Breath, Bill Wright’s Putting Makeup On the Fat Boy, and Alex Sanchez’s Bait. Since I teach in a primarily Latino community, it is critical that my readings are culturally responsive to my students’ lived experiences and the experiences of their future K-12 students and families. These three novels focus on the intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, language, immigration, and family type in the context of middle school, high school, and college student’s lives. They cover coming out, ethnic/racial identity development, and challenging interpersonal violence, rape, and incest through the eyes of adolescents. We also cover research articles, professional texts, and chapter books such as Harvey Fierstein’s The Sissy Duckling and Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three, both focused on anti-bullying and affirmation of LGBT families within an elementary school context.
The success I have had in teaching YA novels to graduate students in sexuality counseling has led me to do so for the first time in my introductory school counseling courses. This Fall I am teaching two YA novels along with my own book, 101 Solutions for School Counselors and Leaders in Challenging Times (co-authored by Drs. Melissa Ockerman and Erin Mason), The ASCA National Model : A Framework for School Counseling Programs (originally co-authored by Drs. Trish Hatch and Judy Bowers), and Josh Steckel and Beth Zasloff’s Hold Fast To Dreams. These books engage students and motivate them to become outstanding school and college access counselors. I am going further by adding two YA novels due to the increased incidents of hate and violence around the USA against so many non-dominant populations. I am teaching Jason Reynolds and Brendan Keily‘s All-American Boys and Isabel Quintero’s Gabi: A Girl in Pieces. The first novel focuses on two New York City teens: One, who is African American, is beaten by an NYPD officer and the other, who is White, witnesses it. The story gives agency to how adolescents in schools from privileged and non-dominant groups can challenge violence, including police brutality. Gabi is the story of a Mexican-American “first-gen” high school senior and her last year of high school and all that goes on as a Latina, bilingual, overweight, recent immigrant who also experiences drama within her family, relationships, and school to college journey.
I have learned that the best way to motivate and engage my students is meeting them where they are with culturally responsive K-20 readings, assignments, and experiences that place their lived experience and multiple cultural identities at the center of the learning, teaching, counseling, and leading experience. Culturally responsive novels inspire me to be more creative and more energized in my own work of challenging hate and violence.