Trying to Motivate Skeptical Urban Youth on an Education’s Value

As Tristan Hann was standing with other teachers at San Bernardino High School awaiting the start of the graduation ceremony, he froze. A tenth-grade math teacher at the time, Hann did a quick count and realized that only six of his original group of nearly 200 sophomores he had taught two years prior would be walking across the stage, diploma in hand.

That experience inspired him to enroll in the PhD program at the Johns Hopkins School of Education last August to, as he says, “decrease apathy that develops disproportionately in so many urban minority kids, and make education more meaningful and empowering.”

While motivation has been a challenge for educators ever since the day children began formal schooling, it can mean the difference between a bright future and prison for urban youth.

“Motivation increases when students see the application of education, especially when they are asked to draw from their personal experiences and are able to do something meaningful with what they’ve studied. Learning becomes a much more authentic experience, and the desire to keep learning intensifies. That, to me, is the ultimate goal—to get students to want to keep learning.”

Hann began his teaching career at San Bernardino about the same time he started working on his master’s degree in education at Claremont Graduate University. Feeling that math was one of the major hurdles preventing students from being eligible for college, he decided to teach remedial math.

“My interest was working with minority urban students who had failed multiple times and were essentially written off by the system. We cannot ignore the fact that these students come from very different places than their middle-class counterparts. Most of them don’t have someone in their family who has attended college, much less graduated with degrees.”

His California high school is 95 percent minority and almost all qualify for federally subsidized lunches.

“Unfortunately, these students do not see the relevance of school to their future. I want to know how to change that without compromising academic rigor. We need to show kids how to connect education with their interests, and help them see that what they’re learning in school can help them cultivate, not destroy, their passion.”

He found teaching at San Bernardino emotionally trying and frustrating. Hann was impressed by the dedication of the teachers, but was thwarted in his attempts to make curriculum changes that he believed would benefit students. The school administration preferred that Hann stay focused exclusively on material that would be part of the California state tests that are given at the end of every academic year.

After three years, Hann joined the nearby Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter school. The Bay Area KIPP school stayed open until 5 p.m. Teachers were on-call until 8 p.m. Homework was a must, and school on Saturday was offered for struggling students. The biggest difference was that students, parents and teachers choose to attend KIPP schools. All parties sign a commitment to support the structured learning and high expectations.

“There’s a strong buy-in from families. At many KIPP schools, they have waiting lists of hundreds just to get in.”

A recent study of KIPP found that they serve a mainly low-income population of black and Hispanic students. Test results show larger gains on reading and math than the more traditional schools, but no overall effect on student motivation, engagement and behavior.

While the KIPP school culture and model is conducive to academic growth, Hann left because of the overemphasis on test scores.

“There were entire weeks blocked off for testing multiple times throughout the year. In April, content lessons would cease almost entirely for three to four weeks. I didn’t feel KIPP was truly meeting their mission of getting kids ready for college; they were just concerned with boosting test scores, feeling that those numbers alone were enough to determine a person’s postsecondary success.”

Hann thinks that while achievement in reading and mathematics is important, it is critical that students have an opportunity to apply their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to real-world problems—issues that matter to them.

“They should be given the chance to see that their education can make a difference in their communities. For so long there’s been a disconnect,” he said. “Students ask themselves ‘why am I learning this?’ and ‘what’s the point?’, and schools don’t give them real answers.”


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