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Classroom Q&A

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

Best Practice on Making Learning Relevant, From Teachers

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 20, 2024 12 min read
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Today’s post is the third in a series on how teachers can structure lessons so that students see them as relevant to their lives.

‘Guiding Questions’

Whitney Emke, the associate director of communications for EL Education, is a former special educator. She is a first-generation college student who spent five years in the foster care system and is passionate about the power of education to disrupt intergenerational cycles of poverty and violence:

“How can we keep guns from falling into the wrong hands?” “How healthy am I?”

“What are stereotypes? How do they create problems for people?”

“Why do I need to wear a seatbelt? What style of seatbelt protects me best?”

Questions matter; that’s why all good learning expeditions begin with guiding questions like those.

Those questions frame inquiry into a topic and lead students to an enduring understanding of broader issues and fundamental concepts within and across disciplines. More importantly, though, they provide or offer an opportunity to explore the “so what?” and the “who cares?” for students, enabling them to find relevance and connect to lessons, projects, and case studies while seeing the big picture of their learning.

Students answer those questions and others by conducting research and fieldwork, gathering and reflecting on data, and talking to relevant experts while practicing rigorous, grade-level academic standards in real-world contexts. This long-term, interdisciplinary learning experience is known as a learning expedition. It is the signature structure of EL Education’s expeditionary learning model, which can be instrumental in making learning more relevant to students’ lives.

Creating learning experiences grounded in asking culturally responsive questions can have transformative outcomes for students.

Educators foster a deep understanding of self and others by intentionally designing lessons that explore and celebrate students’ identities, diverse perspectives, and unique backgrounds. This approach cultivates empathy, compassion, and an appreciation for the richness of cultural diversity. As students delve into topics that reflect their lives, peers, and communities, they develop a sense of belonging and become active participants in their own learning.

Equally important?

As they explore topics that don’t reflect their own lived experiences but rather reflect the diverse lived experiences of people worldwide, students increase their cultural competence and ability to navigate complex global issues with empathy and humility. By answering these culturally responsive questions, students are empowered to become engaged citizens, equipped to contribute positively to their communities and create a more inclusive and equitable society.

At Midtown Academy in Baltimore, middle schoolers were once asked, How can we keep guns from falling into the wrong hands?

This was a profoundly relevant question for residents of a city with the second-highest rate of gun-related deaths in the United States in 2020.

It was also the basis of “Gun Violence and the Right to Bear Arms: Linking the Foundations of American Government to Our Community Today,” a model learning expedition written by Whitney Ward, a former educator at Midtown Academy, with support from EL Education school coach Jaime Stone.

Midtown students spent weeks conducting case studies comparing gun laws from colonial America to the present day and gun violence in Baltimore compared with other major cities. From there, they organized a series of guest lectures from community advocates and experts like the police commissioner, a crime reporter from a local newspaper, and a district court judge. Their learning expedition culminated with a public screening of a podcast they created. Students invited the community for a conversation about gun violence and a memorial featuring student work for those impacted by it.

Jean Hurst—a longtime expeditioner and curriculum designer—believes that a public culmination of learning like this and the sense of responsibility it instills in students are vital to their character development. She says students who engage in real-world, consequential expeditionary learning “aren’t waiting to grow up, to become adults, to get jobs . … They’re already active citizens who understand that they have a responsibility to share their research and the solutions they have uncovered or designed” with their community and the world.

Expeditionary learning and learning expeditions ignite relevance, engagement, and purpose in students’ lives. By merging real-world experiences with academics, educators cultivate meaningful learning that connects to students’ interests and communities. This approach develops essential skills like problem-solving, communication, and empathy, which are vital for success. Moreover, it empowers students to recognize the links between education and the world, motivating them to shape their learning journey and contribute to their communities.

By embracing expeditionary learning, educators can design relevant learning experiences that equip students for academic success and fulfilling lives of active citizenship that begin right now.


‘Provide Choice’

Valerie King is a spirited educator who champions relevancy for her young learners to promote their awareness that they can have world-changing agency. Valerie’s first book Make it Relevant: Strategies to Nurture, Develop and Inspire Young Learners (Scholastic) was published in February 2022:

Do you remember your teachers? I do. I often find it challenging to recall the lessons, entirely, but what remains vivid in my memory is the relevance of the small moments where my teachers were instrumental in providing encouragement, comfort, or tempering, even if the context was challenging.

From Mrs. McDonald tirelessly searching the shelves of the kindergarten workroom to find me something to read, to Miss Hill allowing our class to vote on the shaggy rug for the front of the classroom (we insisted on purple!), and even the occasion when I signed my father’s name on a social studies test in Mrs. Compton’s class—each of these experiences stands out as a testament to the relevant space my teachers created for me.

As education professionals, we have a responsibility to be both cognitively and emotionally relevant to our learners. According to Webster’s, relevance means “being closely connected or appropriate.” While this definition captures the essence of relevance, it lacks the impact that educators need to establish with learners. Educators need to think about the big picture, not just specific lessons, and how they can make a significant impact on their learners. In today’s world, where information is readily available, teachers are no longer the sole keepers of knowledge. Therefore, educators must establish relevance with students for learning to be valuable.

With today’s rapidly changing world, traditional methods of teaching may no longer resonate with students who live in a world that is vastly different from the one their teachers grew up in. As such, it’s crucial for educators to find ways to make their lesson plans relevant to their students. Here are tips on how to achieve that:

1. Understand your students

A robust classroom community is founded upon relationships that foster implicit understanding and must be established, nurtured, and treasured by the teacher. This interdependent, community-driven approach to building relationships sets the stage for the teacher to cultivate a positive, inclusive environment that allows for spontaneity. In our classrooms, we must value a natural appreciation of interdependence, warm demands, belief, trust, and the possibility of failure.

2. Make connections to the real world

When students can see the connection between what they’re learning and how it applies to their lives, they are more likely to be engaged in the material. Similarly, when teachers model the connections, learners begin to make their own connections. Creating authentic learning experiences is a challenging endeavor, but the impact they have on students is profound. Service-learning projects and design-innovation challenges are examples of such experiences. Teachers play a crucial role in curating resources that align with learning objectives and are relevant to the world around us.

3. Let them talk

The importance of social interaction among students cannot be understated, particularly those moments when we simply listen without speaking. It can be tempting to silence our students, but we should remember that the questions they ask provide valuable insight into their priorities. When we allow ideas to flow freely in the classroom, we help our students learn to ask thoughtful questions, discern what is appropriate to discuss, defend their beliefs, and engage in meaningful debate. Allowing students to express themselves without imposing our own views on them is key. In fact, often children can be excellent role models for how to respectfully share differing opinions or ideas. By avoiding silencing our students, we encourage the development of student voice as a valuable virtue.

4. Provide choice

Giving students the opportunity to choose what they learn, how they learn, or what they produce from their learning allows them to pursue their interests and passions, making the material more relevant to them. Sometimes, the smallest choices lead to the biggest buy-in. Consider choice seating, choice partners, choice text, and choice tasks and products as a path to relevancy with learners.

It might appear paradoxical to rely on lessons centered on relevance, given how rapidly significant themes in our world change. However, when we consider the combined impact of understanding our students, connecting the material to a real-world context, embracing social discourse, and providing choice, our classrooms become environments where learners recognize the value of being relevant to their lives.


‘Build Relationships’

Samantha Holquist, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at ChildTrends. Tameka Porter, Ph.D., is an affiliate scholar from George Mason University. We collaborate with researchers, practitioners, and students to explore culturally responsive classroom methods in P-20 spaces:

The past three years have offered ample evidence of the impact that engagement has on students. Virtual education systems kept schools operational during the early days of the pandemic, giving many students a new sense of autonomy but with limited hands-on learning experiences or opportunities to bond with both teachers and peers.

To understand how we can better support student engagement in middle and high schools as students returned to classrooms following the COVID-19 pandemic, we spoke with over 200 students and 50 teachers from across the United States. We asked questions about what engagement looks like to them as well as supports for and barriers to engagement.

While data collection and analysis are ongoing, preliminary findings show that students and teachers agree that students are more engaged when lessons are directly connected to the real world or feel more relevant to students’ lives. This finding is not necessarily surprising, as previous research has shown that making lessons more relevant to students’ lives increases student engagement.

Based on preliminary findings from the conversations with students and teachers, we identified three tips for making lessons more relevant to students’ lives:

Get to know yourself. Teachers expressed that taking the time to develop a clearer sense of their own self-identity helped them better understand how they related to and built lessons for their students. By reflecting on your multiple identities, roles, personal values, and characteristics, you can understand how your lived experiences and perceptions may impact the ways in which you speak with your students, create your lesson plans, deliver instruction, and receive feedback. By understanding yourself and the ways in which you enter your classroom, you can build stronger positive relationships with your students and better understand their interests.

Build relationships with your students. Students stated that they were less likely to share information about themselves when they didn’t have a relationship with their teacher. For example, when teachers asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up and students did not have a relationship with the teacher, students would say they did not know because they did not feel that the teacher would care about their response. Positive relationships help students feel more comfortable to share their interests and future aspirations with teachers. These insights are necessary for teachers to make lessons more relevant to students’ lives.

Create connections within lessons to students’ interests and future aspirations. After learning about students’ interest and future aspirations, teachers can begin to adjust lessons to create connections to students’ interests and future aspirations, which in turn makes lessons more relevant to students’ lives. It is important to ensure adjustments made to lessons are open-ended enough to engage students with diverse interests and aspirations. These open-ended adjustments may include (a) incorporating choice into lesson activities, where students get to choose to explore a lesson across different interests and aspirations relevant to them, or (b) develop group-based lesson activities where students with different interests and aspirations can work together to explore a lesson.

Finally, one of the best ways to make lessons more relevant to students is to ask them directly. Giving students the opportunity to provide input on and lead what and how they’re learning gives them a sense of control and ownership of their learning experience. Finding small ways to be responsive to student feedback and make feasible and reasonable adjustments to lessons could mean the difference between an engaged learner and one simply present.


Thanks to Whitney, Valerie, Samantha, and Tameka 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.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. 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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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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