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How Teachers Can Keep It Real for Students (Opinion)

Today’s post is the second in a series on how teachers can help students feel like lessons are more relevant to their lives.

Listen to Student Voice

Georgina Rivera is a voice for equitable mathematics instruction. Georgina currently works as a principal in West Hartford, Conn. She has previously served as a mathematics teacher, coach, and elementary STEM supervisor.

A memorable lesson for students is a lesson where they are able to connect with and expand upon their knowledge. These memorable lessons also highlight and share the students’ brilliance with others. When designing lessons, teachers have almost too many choices, so the question then becomes which lessons and activities do I design for my students. This question can be simplified by instead asking which lessons and tasks are most relevant to my students. Here are some ways to make lessons more relevant to your students, which will increase their engagement, discourse, and excitement.

Get to know your students

Begin by getting to know your students and their interests. This may sound simple; however, it is often a step that teachers skip. Instead of investing in deeply understanding their students, their students’ interests and experiences, they tend to begin with the content.

A few simple ways for teachers to know their students is: They can give interest surveys, teachers can have students create identity boards, ask students to bring in collections of items they want to share, or just ask students to make a list of their top five interests. After collecting this information, teachers can use this to select tasks and books and create lessons that are centered on children and their interests versus the standard lessons that are provided in many textbooks.

Connect to their names and interests

Another strategy is to include student names and ideas when designing the tasks in the lesson. As a classroom teacher, I often inserted the names of my students into tasks or shared interesting tasks or texts they shared within our lessons. Students are much more engaged and excited when they see their names, ideas, questions, and areas of expertise as the focus of our lessons.

Of course, there are times we use many other topics and could we consider asking students what they are more curious about. Then, teachers can use the students’ ideas to launch new lessons. In addition, why not consider having students lead the learning by sharing their interests or writing questions for their classmates and inserting those into your lessons? When provided with models, students can create the presentations, select articles, or write questions so they can help to grow the knowledge of their class. When students see teachers take the time to give them ownership or design lessons just for them, students see how much the teachers value and honor them.

Start With a Story

Stories provide an on-ramp to make lessons relevant for all the children in the classroom. Incorporating a quote, poem, read aloud, or short article related to a current event or topic they are interested in provides a great launch to a lesson. Students are more engaged when teachers begin a lesson with a story that is relevant or of interest to them.

The story could be read aloud reflecting a shared experience they have had as a class or highlight a culture of one of the children in the class. Inviting a community speaker that is connected to the school or one of your students also makes the lessons more relevant. When students see people they know share their knowledge or stories to launch a lesson, the lesson is much more relevant. Stories provide a very special way to connect content standards that help make lessons relevant and joyful for students.

Listen to Student Voice by Providing Choice

Finally, providing children choices in the topics they study or the product they want to create helps to make any lesson more relevant. All students are curious, so when we provide choices about a biography they will give a summary of, a topic they will research, or selecting a math strategy that works best for them, all of these actions help lessons to be relevant. In addition, when children are given options on how they will present their learning including but not limited to an oral presentation, a book talk, a play, a podcast, a short video, song, or poem, these choices also help to make the lessons more engaging and relevant because as teachers we are opening up the opportunity for them to showcase their brilliance. When we provide choices in content and presentation of learning, it creates a learning environment that is relevant because it centers students and their choices and ideas versus what a teacher is selecting for them hoping it will engage them.

How will you challenge yourself as a teacher to create relevant lessons that are especially made for your students so they showcase the genius that lives inside each and every one of them?

Prior Knowledge

Kelly Gallagher taught English at Magnolia High School in Anaheim, Calif., for 35 years. He is the author of several books on adolescent literacy:

Sitting at my desk, I am reading a cartoon by Suerynn Lee that shows a man sitting across the desk from his lawyer. The attorney is handing him documents to sign. The caption reads: “Harold, I’m really going to need you to sign the divorce papers in blue or black ink.” Upon closer look, Harold appears to be holding a crayon. This cartoon is funny—but only if you have knowledge of Crockett Johnson’s children’s classic, Harold and the Purple Crayon.

For secondary readers, having prior knowledge is the key to reading comprehension. As in the Harold cartoon example, my students can read and understand every word in the caption. The words on the page are not the problem. The problem resides in what they do not bring to the page. If the reader has never heard of this children’s classic, then the cartoon instantly becomes a head scratcher. You have to know stuff to read stuff.

Let’s take the reading of articles, for example. Unlike a sentence or short passage, reading an article requires the activation of prior knowledge to connect numerous ideas across paragraphs. This morning, for example, I read an article by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman titled, “Wonking Out: International Money Madness Strikes Again.” Here are some of the concepts referred to in the op-ed:


investment prospectuses

medium of exchange

store of value

unit of account

the Federal Reserve

debt ceiling


Having prior knowledge of these terms is a prerequisite for understanding the article at a “What does it say?” level. First, it helps to know what “wonking” means. Krugman begins by discussing hyperinflation. If you do not understand the concept of hyperinflation, you cannot follow his argument as he segues to the idea that hyperinflation may be putting the reserve-currency at risk. And if you don’t understand what the reserve-currency is, then you will not understand what he means when he suggests the government could sell off some of its $5 trillion holdings of Treasury debt or $2.5 trillion in mortgage-backed securities. And if you don’t know what a mortgage-backed security is, well, you get the point. A leads to understanding B, and B then leads to understanding C, and so on. The reader needs a lot of prior knowledge to make these connections throughout this 20-paragraph article.

And that’s just one article. If we want to build an informed citizenry, our students are going to need to know a lot of things. Today, I read the front section of the Los Angeles Times. Here are the articles found only in that one section:

· Mercenaries halt march to Moscow after Putin threats

· The latest on Secretary Antony Blinken’s work on patching U.S.-China relations

· Details of a shootout between Israeli troops and a Palestinian gunman

· The threat of forcible expulsion of indigenous people in Brazil

· Details of the latest indictment of President Trump

· Understanding the rules when withdrawing from a Roth IRA

· A Walgreen pharmacist cites his religion for denying a transgender man’s hormone replacement meds

A reader of this issue of the Los Angeles Times would have to possess an impressive amount of prior knowledge to make sense of such a wide range of events.

It seems paradoxical, but to help prepare students to read articles, we have to give them lots of articles (beyond the traditional curriculum) to read. And this should occur in all content areas. This is why I started assigning my students an article-of-the-week nearly 20 years ago. I wasn’t trying to entertain them. I was trying to inform them—to build as much of their knowledge base as possible so that they would be better positioned to understand what they read. In the 2022-23 school year, for example, I posted articles ranging from the rise of Monkeypox to what to know about the debt ceiling to why Montana became the first state to ban TikTok. These articles add relevance to the curriculum.

I once read Humpty Dumpty to my high school freshman as part of a lesson on deeper reading. On a first read, the story seems a simple one about an egg that falls off a wall. However, a subsequent read might lead you to see that the story is a metaphor for a leader who has fallen and has lost the will of the people. Before I could get to that point, a student interrupted the lesson by blurting, “Wait! I always thought that Humpty Dumpty was a potato!” This anecdote is a reminder that we need to redouble our efforts to build our students’ knowledge, and that this building needs to commence on day one of kindergarten.

Project-Based Learning

Mike Kaechele is a middle school teacher and PBL/SEL consultant who believes in student-centered learning that gives kids authentic opportunities to do real work with local community partners. His recent book, Pulse of PBL: Cultivating Equity Through Social Emotional Learning, demonstrates how to develop ALL students’ SEL skills through a PBL framework:

Project-based learning is a student-centered framework that teaches content while simultaneously developing social-emotional-learning skills in students. Some key components of PBL that make school relevant to students include authenticity, student voice and choice, and the creation of a product for the community. In PBL, students explore classroom standards in local situations making connections to their lives and giving purpose to their education. Through PBL, my students desire to dig deep into their learning and make a difference in their neighborhoods.

For example, when addressing standards on the Civil Rights Movement in my integrated American history and ELA classes, I wanted students to make personal connections to historical events that may seem distant to them in both time and location. So my students researched and recorded civil rights podcasts on local aspects of the Civil Rights Movement in their hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich.

I had two enduring understandings for this project:

1. Racism still exists, even in Grand Rapids, and we need to be vigilant in recognizing it at both personal and institutional levels.

2. Progress in civil rights occurred because of the concerted effort of hundreds of thousands of everyday citizens to make changes, not just from the actions of a few civil rights icons.

Content is relevant when introduced in ways that build curiosity. In the civil rights podcast project, students explored two driving questions: “Why did Grand Rapids need the Civil Rights Movement?” and “What is the most effective way to bring about social change?” The project launched with a “notice and wonder” protocol looking at historical pictures of a Klu Klux Klan rally in downtown Grand Rapids on July 4, 1925. Students were shocked to see the KKK openly parading in their hometown and had so many questions about how this happened.

For the final product, each group told the story of one civil rights event in Grand Rapids. We went to the library archives, and students loved using old school tech of microfiche to explore newspaper articles. Students interviewed local people who had participated in various ways in local civil rights events to get their perspective on the struggle for equality in their city. Then the students recorded podcasts sharing these stories with the community. Finally the podcasts were linked together to create a walking tour of Grand Rapids civil rights moments.

Developing SEL skills in students is the “final product” of the PBL process. Through the civil rights podcast project, students cultivated the SEL skill of empathy (social awareness) by understanding diverse perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement in Grand Rapids. They also honed their communication abilities (relationship skills) by practicing effective interviewing techniques and creating polished podcasts. Students were empowered to see that just like the everyday people that they interviewed, they could impact positive change in the community (responsible decisionmaking).

When students learn in a PBL classroom, content is relevant as they see how it relates to their lives and the community. Giving choices in who they work with, what subtopics to pursue, or how to display their learning to others motivates students. Final products that impact the community in positive ways give higher purpose to class standards. I have found that students continue to be active members of their community after graduation. Students enjoy rising to the challenge of PBL when they know that they are making a difference.

Thanks to Georgina, Kelly, and Mike for contributing their thoughts!

Today’s guests answered this question:

What are ways to make lessons more “relevant” to students’ lives?

In Part One, Meagan W. Taylor, Tonia Gibson, and Alexis Wiggins shared their ideas.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on X formerly known as Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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