“What’s the Point?” Three Tips for Making Content Relevant to Students Today
Yeah, I’m a TED Talk groupie—one of those people. Here is why: Poet/artist/actor Lemon Anderson’s recent ten minute piece, Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans, spellbinds the listener with rhyming couplets and answers the question, “Why does poetry matter?”
In age of video games and Facebook billionaires, I need to answer the question “Why does this matter?” more often and more convincingly for my students.
Any classroom teacher knows that there is an achievement gap in the country. In Washington state, according to a 2010-11 graduation report, 77% of white students graduate from high school in four years. For students of color (excepting Asian students) and low socioeconomic means, the graduation rate ranges between 51% – 66%. At Cascade High School, where I work, we want to reverse this trend.
In his best-selling book Drive, Daniel Pink says the keys to transformation are autonomy, creativity, and purpose. In this spirit, my principal Mike Hill encouraged me and a group of colleagues to create our own focus group to strategize how to shrink the achievement gap at Cascade High School. As a group, we’ve brainstormed many ideas to address the issue: home visits, after school programs, and curriculum and grading changes.
But my students don’t have time to wait for a big plan. I need to do something tomorrow.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “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.” So tomorrow, I’m going to begin to earnestly tackle the issue of equity in my classroom. Today, I turned to Success at the Core’s Teacher Development strategies to help me think about a solution. Specifically, I clicked through these resources asking, “How do I make my content relevant to the lives of my students? How do I make them want what I have to offer?”
In my search, I came across the video “Supply and Demand Made Relevant.” In it, teacher Mark Egger says (about math), “They’re not going to try, if they don’t see it’s going to benefit them somewhere in their future.”
This seven-minute video gave me some immediate strategies to start with tomorrow. Mr. Egger compelled me to address this question: Will students understand that the content is powerful just because you tell them it is? Of course not. As a teacher, my job is to know the content and know my students. The video also demonstrated three immediate steps I could take, right now, in my lesson planning to connect content to students’ lives:
- Ask students what they care about. Listen to their answers.
- 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.
- Give them time to express their ideas and get excited about the learning process.
I’m not naïve. I know that my dilemma of providing equal instruction to all students in my class will not be solved in a day. But I am professionally and ethically bound to try. Using Mr. Egger’s three-step instructional strategy to build lesson relevance is a research-based tool I will use at 8:00 am tomorrow.
Aristophanes said, “By words the mind is winged.” I believe that. Tomorrow I’m going to endeavor, again, to connect my content to my students’ lives, and help give them wings.
And that’s why English class matters.
What’s your experience in making content relevant to your students’ lives?