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Teacher Strategies for Making Learning More Relevant to Students (Opinion)

Today’s post is the fourth in an ongoing series exploring relevance in the classroom.

‘Authentic Projects’

Michael Hernandez is an award-winning educator, author, and speaker whose work focuses on digital and civic literacy, social justice, and student-centered learning experiences. His book about using storytelling as a framework for learning by igniting student curiosity was published by ISTE in fall 2023:

The pandemic shone a light on the flaws of traditional learning methods, both in terms of their effectiveness and the willingness of both students and teachers to play the game of direct instruction/memorization/regurgitation, which often only benefits privileged students. We struggled to give ourselves and our students a good reason why school (in person or remote) was important. Suddenly, everyone had new clarity on what was most important to them, their lives, and the good of the planet—and school often wasn’t.

Now with AI presenting an existential threat to our curriculum and how we assess students, it’s time to redefine what we mean by “learning” and the role teachers play in providing meaningful learning experiences that help our students become digitally and civically literate and productive citizens. Creating assignments that have purpose and are relevant to students’ lives are often the key to igniting passion and engagement.

1. Leverage student curiosity as the engine for learning

Science, math, literature, and the arts all start with observation and wonder—noticing something about our world, asking questions about it, and seeking the answers. Begin lessons with student questions about their community to reframe our curriculum as learning quests, which create a sense of ownership and helps students personalize learning.

Start units with these activities to engage curiosity:

· Quest Questions: Have students write a set of questions they have about a topic.

· Empathy Interviews: Students interview experts or stakeholders related to a topic to get background information, hear diverse perspectives, find their blind spots, and inspire further research on the topic.

2. Authentic Projects

If student work just ends up in the trash, it sends a powerful message about what we value in our curriculum and the effort we ask our students to put into their learning. For me, authenticity often means creating something useful as the purpose and outcome of the learning experience. This might include:

· Designing an infographic about data collected in a community-based science experiment.

· Curating and editing a digital literary magazine for ELA students.

· Offering financial-literacy tutoring for the community by math students.

The end product of these learning quests is a tangible, useful product, which provides an uncheatable assessment of student knowledge. Everyone involved wins.

3. Publish publicly

The best way to learn something is to teach it. When we ask students to present or perform for an audience beyond our classrooms, the experience increases student motivation, elevates quality, and provides purpose for their effort.

In the examples above, posting infographics on a website or social media accounts helps people around the world see and use the student scientists’ findings and maybe even drive people to take action or change policy. Publishing the literary magazine as a digital book is an easy and low-cost way to distribute student work globally, while simultaneously providing context for student work when it’s placed side by side with work created by other students. A financial-literacy tutoring project helps connect students to their community as well as math curriculum and builds bridges between generations and demographic groups that wouldn’t have happened if projects stayed in the classroom.

In each of these cases, the students can palpably sense the public’s need for accuracy. Their work can make a difference in peoples’ lives, so they need to get it right.

Climate Change

Xochitl Bentley is a high school English teacher and NBCT in Los Angeles. She is a co-director of the CSUN Writing Project and a contributing writer at Moving Writers:

Students increasingly encounter the word “sustainability” but rarely with any situating context. Taking the time to unpack this concept benefits students and teachers alike. In the U.N. Brundtland Commission report, “Our Common Future,” sustainability is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition highlights the need for cultivating intergenerational awareness as we prepare students to mitigate the harmful human impacts associated with climate change.

Often, teachers are hesitant to bring up climate change, feeling they lack the disciplinary knowledge to competently address it. In these moments, I remember a piece of advice often shared in teacher-preparation programs: “Remember your why.” Thinking as a future ancestor means remembering to think beyond ourselves with a sense of solution-oriented urgency and modeling this commitment for our students.

One way to help students become climate stewards is to model how reading paired climate texts enhances our ability to both problem-spot and problem-solve. While reading the novel Dry, for example, my students and I pore over local newspaper headlines concerning water scarcity. As we zoom in on passages, I still guide students to consider foundational questions, such as, “What does the text say?” “What does the author mean?” “Why does this matter?” But I then layer on questions such as, “What are the stakes?” Who gets a say?” “How do we repair and restore?” This means that we’re considering who will feel the most immediate impact of prolonged drought conditions.

It means we’re getting specific about who makes decisions concerning how water is allocated and shared. It means we’re identifying water-efficiency models that can be replicated in a wide-scale manner. Layering questions in this guided manner helps us think about how the environmental problem appearing in a fictional story is emerging in recognizable real-world contexts.

An important aspect of helping students become responsible climate stewards is articulating the difference between the root causes of our climate crisis and the symptoms that show up as signs of these root causes. One way educators can help students engage in root causes analysis is by modeling the “five whys” strategy. By repeatedly asking the question “Why,” learners can peel away the layers of symptoms that can lead to the root cause of a problem. When pondering the question, “Why do many people feel disconnected from nature?,” my students generated these responses:

· Because people are too busy working or don’t have access to the outdoors.

· Because many communities lack parks/open green spaces.

· Because redlining practices (residential segregation) caused many communities to be “park poor.”

· Because most people don’t strive to live in balance with nature or value this practice/mindset for all.

· Most people see themselves as existing hierarchically above other living beings, instead of existing at one point of a web (within interrelated ecosystems).

Not only did this strategy give students practice in generative responding and building on ideas, but the intersection between environmental and social issues became more perceptible. Once students feel comfortable making these connections, teachers can help them navigate the policy landscape and mull which policymakers are in the best position to effect change. In this instance, my students initiated a postcard campaign about the need for urban-forestry funding (CA Assembly Bill 1530).

By intentionally shifting the focus from passively learning about climate change to actively advocating with future generations in mind, teachers can create learning conditions for helping students become climate stewards in any classroom.

‘Connections’

Dennisha Murff, Ph.D., is an award-winning administrator, author, adjunct professor, consultant, and relentless advocate for equitable education. Throughout her career, she has worked to incorporate equity, inclusion, anti-racism, and cultural responsiveness in her work:

As an educator, I have always strived to look for ways to create meaningful learning opportunities for students. I know that as educators go through the planning process, they desire to develop lessons students can connect with. Many times, I have heard staff members share how they taught a lesson, but students did not seem to retain the information.

During vertical articulation meetings, staff members would ask the previous grade-level team to share if a particular skill was taught. It literally felt like they were starting from scratch! As the school leader, I began to ask staff members to share how they were making relevant connections to students’ lives. In the quest to cover the curriculum, we discovered there were missed opportunities to develop relevance and true connectivity to the skills and strategies being taught.

We all know students need opportunities for differentiated and personalized learning, but there are particular techniques that need to be enhanced to ensure relevance of activities. If we intend to create relevance in daily lessons, we must commit to several concepts during the planning process.

1. Develop clear connections to students’ lives

Building positive relationships with students is a vital first step in this process. In order to develop relevance, educators must get to know their students. They need to understand who their students are in a culturally and linguistically responsive manner.

Students need to be able to share their lived experiences in the classroom. This must be a physically and psychologically safe learning environment where students feel free to share. As you get to know your students, ask yourself if you are able to identify students’ strengths, challenges, hobbies, and interests. Find out what is important to them. Once teachers have a clear understanding of who their students are, they are better equipped to develop lessons that have meaning and relevance.

2. Provide opportunities for hands-on, inquiry-based learning activities

Educators must create learning experiences that give students the opportunity to dive into projects that are hands-on. This approach helps to tap into the various learning styles of students through multisensory engagement. Students are able to develop collaboration, critical thinking, and communication skills. These hands-on options also allow students the chance to engage in learning tasks that have real-world application.

When students have the chance to connect with community partners and industry experts, they can learn more about how the world works. These types of learning tasks also allow students to solve issues impacting their lives (and the lives of others) in a meaningful way. It is important to note that the neural connections made during this process help increase opportunities for long-term-memory storage of skills and strategies.

3. Implement student agency in learning spaces

Student agency is a vital part of this process. Students want voice and choice in their learning tasks. They desire to make valuable contributions to the spaces around them. As students are provided with opportunities to ask questions, communicate what they’ve noticed, and express new ideas in a safe environment, the level of engagement and relevance increases. The opportunity to embed student agency into lessons requires a shift in the power dynamics in the classroom. The classroom becomes a learning space for all, including the teacher. Students will find themselves in a powerful decisionmaking process that enhances their ability to make contributions to the community and, ultimately, the world they live in.

As adult learners, we want to engage in activities that stretch our thinking. We expect to see the meaning and relevance of these experiences. Our student learners desire the same thing! Learning tasks that allow for deep connection are the experiences we remember the most.

Thanks to Michael, Xochitl, and Dennisha 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.

In Part Two, Georgina Rivera, Kelly Gallagher, and Mike Kaechele answered the same question.

In Part Three, Whitney Emke, Valerie King, Samantha Holquist, and Tameka Porter discussed their recommendations.

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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