Welcome to Core Connections, a blog by Success at the Core. You'll find stories of best practices, inspiring experiences, and effective strategies related to leadership development, classroom instruction, and student engagement.

Making Content Relevant: “By Words, the Mind is Winged”

Andrea Brixey

Last spring, I wrote on this blog about making content matter.  There is a funny thing that happens when you write a blog that comes together nicely–a blog that others read, a blog that your boss shares at staff meetings, a blog that your husband brags about at dinner parties. You can think that you’re done.  If you can write about it compellingly, you’ve got it.  Right?

Teaching is never like that.

Last week, on a Monday afternoon, I was looking at a bunch of nice kids doing their best imitation of being interested in the beginning chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Every teacher knows that moment.  You are one step away from them acting on their total disengagement with the class.  You are one step away from confiscating smart phones, intercepting notes or dealing with a mouthy kid.  Four chapters into the 31 chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird, I needed to do something with my class to hook them and reel them back in.

In the blog last spring, I quoted Mahatma Gandhi: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him … We need not wait to see what others do.”  Thinking about that, I was faced with a lame truth: To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t doing it for me either.  A book I know and love … I have taught it so many times, I had not even bothered to start reading it this time around.  How was I going to change my nature?  How was I going to make them want what I had to offer if I really was not offering anything?

So, I went back to what I know, what I learned from Success at the Core‘s featured math teacher Mark Egger in the Supply and Demand Made Relevant video:

  1.  Ask students what they care about.  Listen to their answers.
  2. Present the content in the context of what they care about. Give them authentic, real-world questions that they can answer if they understand the content I am teaching.
  3. Give them time to express their ideas and get excited about the learning process.

Here was the answer to the first point: my students care about music.

Here is what I did with the second point: first I assigned pairs of students one of the many characters in the novel. Then, I told them to find a theme song for that character from the music they know. Finally, they were to present that song and their argument for why it was a good choice.

Here is a bit of what happened in the rest of the class period: Chasen and Colten matched Maella Ewell with “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” from the Annie soundtrack; Greta, Taylor and Brooke matched Boo Radley with the song “Pompeii” by Bastille; and Jack, Riley and Jose matched the ancient, racist, morphine-addicted Mrs. Dubose with “Something in Her Way” by Nirvana.  All of their connections were insightful, and many were quite surprising.  Plus, I learned some new songs.

The last thing I included in last spring’s blog was a quote by Aristophanes: “By words the mind is winged.” Here was the brilliant thing about finding away to make To Kill a Mockingbird relevant to my latest group of student. Their words, their ideas, gave my mind wings.  Their comparisons and connections reminded me of why To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful, relevant story.

So, again, what’s your experience in making content relevant to your students’ lives?  I’d love some new ideas!

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3 Responses to Making Content Relevant: “By Words, the Mind is Winged”

  1. Tyler Rice says:

    Andrea,

    Great question!

    My most successful method for doing this in science class has been to let the students’ questions drive our experiments.

    This usually begins with a common experiment that they all do. This may be a quick lab just to get an idea. This is followed by a discussion of questions they have about what happened in the lab. After that, they design new experiments to answer their questions and the engagement level often goes sky high.

  2. Deb Gribskov says:

    Dear Andrea
    I love Mark Egger’s “Supply and Demand” teacher development video! I have used it again and again for the many different good teaching strategies he uses and talks about! You use of Mark’s approach is a new one for me, and I will share it with my ELA teachers today! Thanks for opening my eyes to yet another way to apply the learnings available in the teacher development section!

  3. Beth Ashley says:

    It is so important for us to make content relevant and to push students to use higher-levels of thinking. I agree. The first step is to listen to the students. Then we can design lessons that allow them to bring their own experience to the learning. As a teacher who has taught To Kill a Mockingbird many times, I love the Andrea’s fresh, new way for students to synthesize their understanding of a character and connect that person to a current song. Great idea!

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