Teaching young adolescents day after day is taxing. As a teacher and as a principal, I spent many hours and days being a detective, getting to the bottom of adolescents’ problems: being excluded, having a conflict with peers, struggling academically, or being at odds with a teacher, and many more. Most were significant and stressful for students.
Much is gained and much is lost during these years, and it is widely agreed by educators and social scientists that it is both exciting and exhausting for the adolescent and for the caring adults in their lives. Above all, adolescents want adults in their lives to take them and their problems seriously.
Seth, a 14-year-old student, challenged me again and again in both subtle and explicit ways when I wanted him to try a new behavior, routine, or practice.
He would say, “This is baby stuff! I don’t see why we have to do this.”
He raised just enough fuss to disrupt the class and create some moments of anxiety. But behind his words, Seth was asking me to engage with him about the “why” of the new routine or practice I was asking him and his peers to adopt and endorse.
The Developmental Designs approach is built on understanding adolescent development and applying our understanding for the good of our students. Young adolescents have their own vested interests in school, their own reasons for participating and cooperating—or for disrupting. Seth was saying something that mattered to him, and it was my job to get to the bottom of his statement, “I don’t see why we have to do this.” Even before we reached a solution, my efforts to get to the bottom of a problem showed that I do take them seriously.
Getting students to buy in—to endorse what we are trying to do with them—is important. A mantra that runs through the Developmental Designs approach and that I use in my practice is a question that seeks endorsement from students: What can I do to connect them to what I’m teaching and to uncover its relevance to their lives? I have posed this question when planning a lesson or an activity, or introducing a social or academic problem to solve.
Here is a set of questions that I have posed to students to seek their endorsement:
Why is it important to…?
When is it important to…?
When wouldn’t this be as important?
Do you have any suggestions? How can we accomplish this task?
What problems could arise?
The Developmental Designs practice of creating student endorsement has saved many a lesson, routine, and relationship with and for young people. Eliciting student endorsement respects and empowers adolescents and draws forth their voices. It helps them make personal connections and judge whether or not a skill, routine, or project is important in ways that help them in their lives. We want students to be fuller participants in their education. We want to inspire them to think: I don’t sit on the sidelines. I play the game, monitor the game, and tweak the rules of the game. We want full endorsement through robust participation structured before—as well as during and after—the work begins.
Dr. Terrance Kwame-Ross is the former Executive Director for The Origins Program. He teaches at the University of Minnesota and previously taught in the St. Paul Public Schools. He co-founded and served as principal for four years at New City Charter School in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Posted December 2013