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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Adding Relevance to Instruction

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 27, 2020 19 min read
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(This is the second post in a six-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

Part One of this series was “kicked off” with responses from Blanca Huertas, Marcy Webb, Anabel Gonzalez, Cheryl Abla, Maurice McDavid, and Nadine Sanchez. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Blanca, Marcy, and Anabel on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today’s post features responses from Shawn Wooton, Dawn Mitchell, Kevin Parr, Michael Haggen, Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman, Dr. Nicki Newton, and Keisha Rembert.

Culturally inclusive practices that add relevance to instruction

Shawn Wooton serves as chief academic officer in Spartanburg School District Six in South Carolina where she cultivates a commitment among all district staff to enable all students to achieve high standards through direct academic services and instructional supports.

Dawn Mitchell serves in instructional services in Spartanburg District 6 where she leads the induction and mentoring program as well as provides professional development in literacy and in project- based learning. Dawn is also an adjunct instructor at Furman University where she currently serves as a university supervisor and teacher mentor. Connect with Dawn on twitter @dawnjmitchell:

Culturally responsive practices involve students from all backgrounds. Teachers are not expected to use different teaching methods or curriculum based on a student’s race or ethnic background. Teachers should not subscribe to the misguided notion that students from a certain background must be taught a certain way. Rather, teachers can find ways to engage all students and make academic curriculum relevant and meaningful. Teachers can accomplish this by:

1.Using diversity in stories, literature, and text chosen for students - Are the stories read and used in the classroom reflective of the makeup of students? This means using real-life, authentic text!

2.Using student-centered stories and examples - Can I embed student examples that support cultural awareness, differences, and diversity in an effort to support all students?

3. Incorporating relatable aspects of students’ lives - How can I make connections for students as it pertains to their life


4. Establishing a classroom atmosphere that respects individuals and their cultures - How can I teach students to embrace differences and show how those differences enhance our time together?

Michelle Barker, a professor at the Griffith School for Higher Education, created an excellent resource including research-based practices for creating a culturally inclusive classroom. Barker suggests the following strategies for conducting interactions with students in a respectful and interculturally competent manner.

* Avoid stereotypes and overgeneralized descriptions of other nations/cultures.

* Practice “appreciative inquiry,” in which values and beliefs of all cultures are respected and treated equally.

* Practice and foster respect for student diversity in all its forms among the class (e.g., religion, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation).

* Establish ground rules for group discussions and actively discourage student language or behaviour that is ethnocentric, racist, or discriminatory.

* Emphasize the value of student diversity in the learning context and how learning from different individual and cultural viewpoints and perspectives can be beneficial.

* Acknowledge and reiterate that all students bring meaningful experience, valid concerns, and legitimate questions to the learning and teaching process.

* Speak clearly and calmly (rather than raising your voice), as students may find it difficult to understand your accent, word usage, and meaning.

* Remember that language and humor are highly specific to each culture. Avoid using slang, jargon, or verbal jokes.

Click the link that follows to view more of Barker’s suggestions. Practices for Creating a Culturally Inclusive Classroom

As teachers, we understand the classroom environment is a critical component of student success. There are activities that can take place that create a cultural inclusiveness that values each student along with their heritage, background, culture, etc. Consider the following suggestions:

* Allow students to bring pictures of their family to put up in the classroom.

* Develop an appreciation of diversity day.

* Explore personal and family histories, holidays, etc.

* Integrate relevant information into curriculum

*Bring in diverse guest speakers.

We have also found this website to be a very helpful repository of resources on culturally inclusive teaching.

Delivering culturally responsive lessons can not only help teachers engage students but allow them to make personal connections with content. Greater student investment should lead to other benefits, such as more rigor and motivation. A happier, focused classroom is the ideal outcome.

Relevance via “small things”

Kevin Parr is a 1st grade teacher from Wenatchee, Wash., and a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader:

As adults, teachers are readily able to connect the lessons they have planned to life outside of school and understand why the skills they are teaching are important and useful. Students, on the other hand, are not able to automatically make connections between learning in the classroom and the outside world and often moan, “Why do we need to know this?” Therefore, it is critical that teachers help students realize the relevancy of their learning and experience these connections beyond “needing for the next grade.”

Teachers can help make lessons more relevant to students by helping them make connections to their lives on a large scale and small scale. It is widely accepted that large-scale project-based- learning experiences are the best way to make learning relevant to students. An engaging driving question may inspire inquiry that lasts weeks or months and culminates in a presentation that highlights student learning and how it relates to the outside world.

Although this is true, it may seem out of reach and intimidating for some teachers. Therefore, in this post, I wish to focus on the small things teachers can do to make everyday learning more relevant to children.

Personal response: Even small gestures, like responding to a student’s writing with personal comments related to the student’s story (not only the style and mechanics) can help make learning more relevant. It sends a clear message that their writing is important, appreciated, and made another person reflect.

Urgency: Even simply connecting a lesson’s learning target to an upcoming activity can create relevancy. By the teacher doing so, the student knows what learning to focus on and knows they will be using that knowledge or skill in an activity following initial instruction. Relevancy comes in the form of allowing students to immediately use their learning for a purpose and also gives teachers the opportunity to help students connect that activity to the world outside of school.

Dig deeper: Teachers can also create relevancy by digging deeper into a topic and helping students transfer that knowledge to a new situation. A prompt as simple as, “How could you use today’s math learning to help you plan a birthday party?” leads students to understand that their learning has a practical application in their lives.

Teachers should not underestimate the small things they can do on a daily basis to help student learning be more relevant in their lives. Sometimes, even the small things can make a huge difference.

Relevance = engagement

Michael Haggen is chief academic officer for Scholastic Education. In this role, he ensures that Scholastic is a responsive comprehensive literacy partner to P-12 districts nationwide. In Haggen’s 25 years of academic experience, he has served as a teacher, principal, chief academic officer, and direct report to superintendents. His hands-on approach has led to significant change, most recently in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, where he was deputy superintendent:

The question of relevance can be interpreted in many ways, but what immediately stands out to me is relevance in terms of engagement. As educators, we need to ensure that lessons are highly engaging for our students and that we design lessons in a way that directly aligns with where students are, both geographically and developmentally. We need to think about instructional practices that tap into the issues our students are facing in the present, while still helping them learn about the past.

Provide access to high-quality authentic texts

A crucial step to increased engagement is providing access to robust classroom libraries with high-quality authentic texts that are relevant to the lives of our students. In the “Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report™: 7th Edition,” only one-third of school-aged children said they have a classroom library that has enough of the types of books they’d like to read. The data is clear: Across ages, children who have robust classroom libraries are more likely to be frequent readers. To be robust, these libraries must reflect our students’ experiences as well as introduce them to new concepts, with a strong balance of different types of texts across various genres and topics, both fiction and nonfiction. Let’s also not forget other increasingly popular formats such as poetry, comic books, graphic novels, and magazines.

It’s important that students see themselves and others in the books they’re reading, which opens sliding doors for opportunity. When using these engaging texts during independent reading time as part of a comprehensive literacy curriculum, students can transfer the skills they learned in whole-class and small-group instruction. In the process, they also build social-emotional-learning skills such as empathy and understanding, which will help as they prepare to navigate future challenges.

Student choice also needs to be considered. When students have access to a classroom library with an abundance of diverse texts aligned to instruction, they are able to choose the books they feel connected to on topics they want to learn more about. In fact, we heard in our survey that nearly 9 in 10 kids say they are more likely to finish a book they have picked out themselves.

Provide context

When using authentic texts, providing students with context is a key component of enhancing engagement. To do so, throughout the school day, teachers should connect with their students and understand where they’re coming from outside the classroom. With this information, they can provide context during instruction that is as relevant as possible to students. Teachers can ask questions such as, “What’s happening in your lives?” Initiating and participating in these courageous conversations with students is not an easy task but is vitally important.

Incorporate various media and technology

In today’s educational environment, students are constantly connected to what’s happening around the world through their mobile devices. Teachers are also using tools such as mobile devices and interactive smart boards to become even more innovative in their teaching strategies. I recently witnessed a lesson by a New York teacher focused on August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. She showed video clips and had her class research similar themes using their devices. By incorporating various media, the lesson became more relevant and resulted in highly engaging conversations and the transference of skills.

When we take this approach to instruction—providing students with access to thoughtfully curated classroom libraries, encouraging and guiding students to choose what they want to read, ensuring they have the context needed to nimbly navigate texts, and utilizing various media and technology to enhance lessons—lessons become increasingly more relevant, not for only students, but for teachers as well. As teachers become more engaged, they develop their pedagogy and skills and are better able to meet the individual needs of their students. Ultimately, for this differentiated, relevant instruction to be successful, today’s teachers need ongoing professional development, embedded instructional materials, and support from their peers and school/district leadership.

Creating relevance in learning

Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman is an international educator and adviser who has taught in Singapore, New York City, and Edmonton, Canada. She is an active member of ASCD, president of ASCD Emerging Leaders Alumni Affiliate, and Participate Course Author. Her roles have included elementary teacher, teacher leader, instructional coordinator, and student-action coordinator. She currently resides and teaches in Singapore. Follow her on Twitter: @TMus_Ed:

There are hundreds, or more likely thousands, of articles, podcasts, books, and other media published about how to engage students in learning; how to make learning meaningful. But in all the time we spend reading, writing, discussing, planning, and reflecting about engaging students, do we make a consistent and conscious effort to think about what makes learning meaningful for ourselves personally?

You know as well as I do, that real learning occurs when the learner understands the relevancy to one’s own life. Jay McTighe suggests that when learning goals are relevant, learners see the value in the learning (p.56). Makes sense, right? If this is important to us as adult learners, why would it be less so for younger learners? Our responsibility then is to connect the content, skills, and attitudes to student lives so they see the value in learning.

Then we need to ask: How do I create relevance in learning within constraints in my learning environment? Oftentimes, the push for getting through content strips away the meaningful learning we intend to create with our learners. That push to “fill the vessel” creates this mindset that learning can be completed in a 45-minute block. Instead, it is important to understand that “lessons” should be transformed into authentic learning experiences for students to see the value in learning.

Having said that, ensure that:

  1. Your classroom is an actual learning environment, not a compliance room. In classrooms in which meaningful learning experiences are observed, compliance is not the focus of learning. Compliance and schedules that are too restrictive can greatly interfere with authenticity in creating learning that is relevant to one’s life. Work within large chunks of time if you can and integrate as much as possible.

  2. Your learning space is open for learners to explore, question, and create. This openness creates a culture of value in the learner. The value is placed on each unique person as an individual learner with a different set of skills and needs, yet with an understanding that everyone is there with a common goal.

  3. Your students understand that their job is to find problems that create an emotional reaction. Students of all ages have problems, at home and school. Is life not a giant set of problems to solve? Before we set out to find solutions, it is important to identify and prioritize the problems that require the most attention. Eventually, learners will find problems that impact the school and the greater community. This thinking cycle cultivates curiosity and creativity, leading students to really think about the depth of problems they will eventually (maybe) solve. Open entry points allow for learning to become relevant. This means that everyone can find problems to solve no matter their background, language spoken, age.

  4. You have chart paper handy. Give everyone a chart paper and leave them posted around the room and in the halls. Wherever you can. Leave the space open to jot problems. Hold discussion circles around thoughts written on the charts; however, invite students to discuss in small and whole group as not everyone wants to share their problems in a large group, at least not in the beginning.

  5. Now connect unit ideas or concepts to student lives. You can always make some kind of connection then open up the space for students to problem-find, inquire, and start brainstorming any feasible solutions. If you have not used Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, you can use them to stimulate thought generation. The Thinking Hats allow for a massive thinking exercise in which learners are unpacking the process (blue hat), facts (white hat), feelings (red hat), creativity (green hat), benefits (yellow hat), and cautions (black hat) behind the problem or concept. This thinking creates curiosity and creativity which cultivates people who think like leaders (MacIntosh).

  6. Collaboratively plan because generating realistic solutions to problems will not always occur in one block of time. This problem-finding and -solution generation takes chunks of time that may take you out of the teaching silos. Seems impossible at the higher grades, but it is necessary to create relevancy in student learning.

Opening the learning by making it relevant to their lives will make students’ school experience one that supports them in their lives, which is the point of school, isn’t it?


DeBono, Edward. Six Thinking Hats.

McTighe, Jay & Wilson, Judith. (2019). Upgrade Your Teaching: Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience. ASCD Alexandria, VA.

McIntosh, Ewan. (2017, January). What is the hard work of innovation in schools? Retrieved from: https://medium.com/notosh/what-is-the-hard-work-of-innovation-in-school-e69d5aabd365

Cornfields don’t grow in the South Bronx

Dr. Nicki Newton is an international math consultant. She has written over 12 books, has a blog and a podcast. She loves to learn and travel:

I walked by the 5th grade classroom, poked my head in the door, and the teacher beckoned me to come inside urgently. They were deep into a decimal lesson, with a cornfields in Nebraska example from the book, on the board. Everyone looked a bit confused. They drudged through the rest of the problem.

When they were done, I looked at the teacher and asked if I could just talk about decimals for a few minutes. With a sigh of relief, he said “Please do.” I sat down and asked the kids if they had stopped at the local bodega, across the street from the school that morning. Most of them said yes. I asked, if I had $3, how many hot chili lollipops could I buy? They began to work furiously figuring it out. I asked if they had $1.75 cents, how many of the UTZ bags of chips could they buy? They quickly made lists, drew pictures, and chatted. I then made up some problems with their names about the bodega, and they figured them out, some with errors at first, but they could reason about the context because they knew it.

See, as Marilyn Burns says, “When math makes sense to kids, kids can make sense of math.” We know from the research that students are intrigued, motivated, and engaged with word problems that have their names, people they know, and contexts from their daily lives (Yeh, Neumann & Drake, 2017). See, in the Bronx, there are no cornfields, so starting out with the problem about cornfields isn’t nearly as interesting as starting out with our daily lived experiences. When students can connect their day-to-day lives with math, then they get it. When they get it, they can do anything. The cornfields would come in due time.

Relevancy is about connecting teaching to what students already know, what they live and breathe every day. If we start there, we can soar and take them to where they need to be. Relevancy answers the question of, “What’s this got to do with me?” “Why do I have to learn this?” and most importantly, “How will I ever use this?” As we finished up the lesson, everyone shared how they found their answers. And then we talked about connecting what they were doing to solve the problems with the traditional algorithm of dividing decimals. The exit slips were interesting. Ninety-nine percent of the students said “dividing decimals was easy.” Why? Because they do it every day.

Students as co-teachers

Keisha Rembert is an 8th grade English and U.S. history teacher at Clifford Crone Middle School in Naperville, Ill. Keisha feeds her love of learning by continually refining her craft and has been the recipient of several grants affording her the opportunity to take courses at some of the world’s most renowned universities. She was named Illinois’ History Teacher of the Year for 2019:

The best way is to invite them into the process. Students are co-teachers in my classroom. Throughout the year, various groups of students who expressed interest via a survey partner with me to build lessons around a particular standard or concept. I open up the curriculum to students, and we talk about outcomes and plan, research, implement, and provide ongoing assessment. Students are involved and integral to every step of the process. They teach and reteach. They help create assessments. They find texts and come up with innovative ways to engage their peers. Because they are present and their voice is essential, the lessons become a reflection of them rather than myself

Thanks to Shawn, Dawn, Kevin, Michael, Tamera, Nicki, and Keisha for their contributions!

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