Connecting with Youth

Gina Desiderio

Gina Desiderio

This time of year—when teachers are prepping their rooms and their lessons for the new year and students are shopping for new clothes and supplies—I always feel nostalgic for the time I spent in the classroom, teaching high school English. For me, one of the most rewarding things about teaching was connecting with students, and seeing them make the connection between the curriculum they were required to study and their personal lives.

As an English teacher, you get used to the moans and groans about how many pages are assigned reading, or how students just hate poetry or writing essays. But the fun part comes when students are motivated to read, motivated to write, because the content engages them. I always found it was easiest to engage students, and to incorporate the critical standards of learning, when the content spoke to them, of their lives and their youth culture.

When it came time to start reading poetry, I always started with song lyrics. Poetry often seemed foreign to students, at first at least. But when they started sharing their favorite songs and seeing the lyrics as poetry, too, then you could feel the energy rising. They would start to pay more attention to their music, easily finding examples of literary devices, such as metaphor, when they’d struggled just weeks before to understand metaphors in other assigned texts. We would have group discussions about the meaning of the lyrics, breaking down the text, analyzing its meaning.

Maybe I’m getting too technical here in my example, but my point is, their engagement, their passion for the music, became the opportunity to engage them, to motivate them, and to help them learn and practice the concepts required for the course curriculum. They loved having the chance to share their music, their culture, with each other and with me. I didn’t hear so many moans and groans about the lesson plan because they wanted to learn.

My example is tied to my experience teaching English, but the concept crosses subjects and topics, from history and math to health education. Knowing how important it is to spark the fire, to engage the youth with whom we work, is what first interested me in Healthy Teen Network’s latest project, developing a graphic novel for youth, with a focus on healthy relationships, self-esteem, conflict resolution, and reducing bullying.

Graphic novels, distinguished by their unique use of text and imagery, are another great example of how teachers, health educators, and other youth-serving professionals can maximize their impact with youth by using content that interests youth.  Graphic novels can serve as a useful tool in the classroom, supporting literacy skills. The popularity of graphic novels among youth has increased dramatically over the past decade. And of course, because youth are reading graphic novels, they can be powerful tools for engagement, bringing in youth culture to the lesson…any lesson.

And so, Healthy Teen Network is asking you to support the use of graphic novels to engage youth, increase literacy, and teach important lessons about healthy relationships and anti-bullying. Your donation will support the dissemination of this graphic novel to Baltimore city middle-school aged youth…but the effort won’t stop there. The graphic novel will be available online, along with a teacher’s guide to support facilitation.

In other words, this will be an incredible resource for use in schools and other program settings, packaged with the lesson plan to support its use. Will you support this effort today?

How do you work to motivate youth?

What are ways to bring youth culture into programming and curricula?

Gina Desiderio is the Director of Marketing and Communications at Healthy Teen Network.

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