As a student in the University’s School of Education, it has become impossible for me to avoid drowning in the perpetual news coverage about school reform. Everyone seems to have an answer to schools’ problems. As a 20-year-old college junior, I’m not yet in a position to exert my influence over matters that large. What I do instead is look at the different challenges and strategies of teaching kids.

Two of the most relevant examples are the ways in which I spent my last two summers. The summer of 2009 was spent teaching swimming lessons to 10- to 12-year-olds at an upscale country club in the Cleveland suburbs. This summer was spent at a Las Vegas basketball academy training the kids of some of the wealthiest people in the world. You may have noticed the common thread by now. In both situations, I was faced with children of (often immeasurable) wealth.

A lot of energy and time is spent discussing how to improve the poverty-stricken grade schools of this country. But I saw firsthand that some of the wealthiest people I have ever met could use some serious reform as well.

In most cases, my basketball students had been pampered and indulged into thinking that their wish was everyone’s command. In dealing with kids like this, I was faced with a less-publicized side of the education “problem.” How was I supposed to impart knowledge to children who had been taught they were only required to listen if they felt the message was worth their time? Spending six months with children like this taught me that there is really no ultimate solution, but the strategy that worked best is one that ties together all education.

The reform needed is something most students could point out in a heartbeat. If I asked, “Why was this teacher or this class so great?” I would be willing to bet these answers would be among those received, “The material was so interesting,” “The teacher made it so interesting,” or “The material was so relevant.” I learned to get these kids paying attention and hanging on every word I said through the elusive “passion” teachers always long to spark. But it took some work and it took some unusual sidetracks.

When I reflect on learning experiences that stand out, I notice that many of these classes or teachers sparked my interest by starting with some activity that was tailored to my age and interests. When students arrived to these classes on the first day, we weren’t greeted by a stockpile of novels to be ingested and paper assignments to begin. At the most basic level, we were told why we should care about the material and how we could integrate what was being taught and what our everyday lives entailed. The teachers made it clear that they knew who we were as an age group and as individuals and used that information in a constructive way.

Admittedly, this is a solution that is a bit too complicated for grade schools or for the young children I worked with, but the idea remains the same. Sidestepping the X’s and O’s briefly is an easy price to pay if it means children are eager to learn what will come next. This summer in Vegas, I had to consider the everyday life of these 12-year-old kids. What I discovered is that by tapping into their interest in NBA superstars and allowing them to start out each day by practicing the “signature move” of their favorite superstar, I could maintain their attention all the way through the productive drills that came next.

This is the malicious constant among all levels of education: The tendency to see students as a big, faceless obstacle or a task that needs to be accomplished, devoid of personality or interests. Whether the student is age 8 or 18, poverty-stricken or unimaginably wealthy, there is always a way to make the interests of a student a part of the lesson plan. I would not dare to suggest this is anywhere close to a solution to many of the problems plaguing education, but on the small-scale that a 20-year-old college junior looks at it, it is certainly a start.

Michael Tengel is an Education junior.

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