Students Speak Out on Staying Motivated and Engaged in Learning

Everyone has an opinion when it comes to education, from politicians to reformers and pundits, but we don’t often hear from those with the most important voice—the students. How have teachers impacted their lives? What do they like about their schools? What’s the best way they learn? All of these questions and more were answered during the “Students Speak: Communities, Unions and Districts Listen” panel on the second day of the NEA Foundation’s 8th Annual Cross-Site Convening.

Michael Nakkula from the University of Pennsylvania led the panel that featured three students, Austin Shaw (Junior, Greensburg Salem High School in Pennsylvania), Elexia Alleyne (Senior, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C.) and David Peake (Sophomore and Community Scholar, Georgetown University).

The panel was structured with three concepts – Engagement, Motivation and Student Voice – guiding the conversation that Nakkula described as a chance to “talk with our students, as opposed to talk about our students.” The panelists all had their own unique backgrounds and varying experiences in school, which added greatly to the discussion and allowed interesting stories.

When asked what was most engaging about his school experience, Shaw talked about an innovative program he developed at his school called EMAPS.

“It’s a program where students can make a profile like Facebook for their teachers to look at and see what they’re interested in and see what there skills are,” he said. He went on to explain that the program can help teachers guide unsure students to a career field based on their interests, and that presenting the program to his entire school made him more of a leader and a better public speaker.

Peake talked about his fair share of obstacles he had to overcome before he enrolled at Georgetown. He grew up in the violent Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, and revealed that at a point during high school he was homeless. He credits teachers for continuing to motivate and help him. “I had a couple of teachers who came to my house to visit me and always checked up on me, who were really concerned outside of academics,” he said.

Alleyne talked about her school’s strong alumni support and that having those students come back and talk about how prepared they were is helpful. “Alumni come back and talk about how easy college is because of the skills they learned at Banneker,” she explained. “It’s encouraging to me as a senior that my friends who have graduated are coming back and telling me that they aren’t struggling in terms of their transition into their freshman year.”

When asked the tough question, “If you could change anything in your school,” Shaw and Alleyne both wished they had more time during the school day for studying, but Peake wished he could change the inequality that has afflicted his school.

“I would change the discrepancies of funding, the community my school is in is the worst community in Chicago, and number one for gun violence,” he said. “We didn’t get that much funding in terms of books and laptops and stuff, yet I noticed my friends that went to suburban schools had Macs and their books were new,” he continued. “That definitely plays into your experience as student – what you’re given.”

The three panelists all believe that teachers getting to know their students fosters the best learning environment, and they support being provided different options and ways to learn.

“There’s 180 days in the school year. Teaching is not the easiest job, but there is time to find something to connect with every single student, “ Shaw said. “Just try to connect with them.”

When talking about learning styles, Shaw mentioned a teacher who gives his class the option to prove they read an assigned book in a creative way, which included a girl performing a flute piece based on the story. Alleyne added, “Choice is everything when it comes to educating your students.”