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Teaching Opinion

Make Learning Relevant by ‘Getting to Know Your Students’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 14, 2020 16 min read
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(This is the final post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four 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.

Part Two featured responses from Shawn Wooton, Dawn Mitchell, Kevin Parr, Michael Haggen, Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman, Dr. Nicki Newton, and Keisha Rembert.

In Part Three, Rhonda Bondie, Akane Zusho, Cindy Terebush, Kimiko Shibata, and Donna L. Shrum shared their commentaries.

In Part Four, Jocelyn A. Chadwick, Ph.D., Andrew Simmons, Leslie Atkins Elliott, and Kristin van Brunt contributed their commentaries.

Today, Dr. Rebecca Alber, Andrea Keith, Dr. Pronita Mehrotra, Steve Peck, and Caitlin Krause finish up this series.

“Personal inventories”

Dr. Rebecca Alber teaches in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA. She is a blogger and consulting editor at Edutopia, a literacy specialist, and a compulsive reader. She dips into the Pacific Ocean as often as she can get away with:

We talk a lot about making learning relevant in our classrooms, and the first step begins with getting to know your students. And this takes some work on our part as teachers—really getting to know the children you teach. Start by surveying them as a whole group at the start of the year and then also have each child write a personal inventory.

In surveying the whole class, the entire group, I suggest having students name interests and also problems. These will vary with age group and with different demographics and location. For problems, they might say things like not being able to use their cellphones at school, or how school gun violence across the country worries them, or how unfair it is having to wear school uniforms.

My high school students lived in a heavily policed urban area of the city. A recurring concern they had was how often they were stopped and questioned, particularly if there were several of them walking together. This was important data as I planned curriculum. During our reading of Henry Thoreau and a discussion of civil disobedience, for example, we also explored habeas corpus and individual rights when it comes to being detained by authorities. This was a lead in to a unit project where students chose to make pamphlets or public-service announcements that taught their peers important rights in these regards. In their final reflections at the end of the year, many students wrote how much they enjoyed this assignment. Really, it was curated straight from information they had shared with me, a concern directly from their lives.

Having our students write personal inventories provides information about them as individuals. These I would do at the start of the year and, again, just after winter break. I liked to ask them to describe in a sentence or two: their relationship with reading, writing, school in general, and working in groups. I liked to ask them what they liked to read, what activities or hobbies they enjoyed, a memorable moment in their life, and to write down a favorite TV show, movie, or song and why it was a favorite. As we got into the assignments, this individual information would help me personalize a writing or thinking task for that student. If we have just read something as a whole class, and I am sitting with and assisting a student, I can relate the reading to an experience that student shared in her inventory.

What I found was that there are often similar patterns in some of their personal-inventory responses; for example, several may have shared the same TV show or song title as a favorite. What I can then do is educate myself on that show or song and find different ways (and instances) where I can connect it to the learning.

And routine chats and check-ins with students throughout the year always provided surprisingly fruitful moments where they shared interests, pet peeves, worries, and passions. These moments helped me immensely to better understand the daily lives and experiences of 16-year-olds. And as the curator of their learning, it is my job to make relatable those historical events we study, the literature we read, and current events we discuss. So, take a minute or two to follow your student out the door when the lunch bell rings so you can finish hearing their passionate critique of the final episode of Game of Thrones. It’s worth it for a multitude of reasons.

Help students “find their own relevance”

Andrea Keith started her career in education more than 25 years ago, spending time as a classroom teacher in California, Colorado, and Illinois, before working for some of North America’s leading ed-tech companies:

Students are usually more invested in their learning when they can make personal connections with the content and concepts in their educational experiences. The key to making lessons more relevant must first be to realize that relevance is in the eye of the beholder. That means that teachers have to know their students―not just their scores and daily presence, but what affects them, what excites them, even what upsets them. Relevance must be identified by each student, so well-meaning teachers who present a connection based on their own experience can run the risk of missing the mark. We certainly see frequent reminders in our own society of insensitivity and inequity and should strive for better in our classrooms.

The best way to accomplish connections is to encourage students to find their own relevance. Early in the year or semester, encourage your students to identify a passion or career goal they have, a cause they believe in, or a shared experience. This can be their anchor for relevance, and asking them how a lesson, concept, or skill could relate to or contribute to that anchor not only lets them find their own relevance but gives them practice in self-reflection, critical thinking, and a host of other capacities crucial to their success. You may even want to use their relevance anchors for a classroom display or journal, so they can really see how what they are learning in multiple subjects is related and important to their future. An elementary student who loves car racing might see that measurement and physics are crucial for acceleration, tire size, and fuel mix; verbal and written skills are important for finding sponsors; and that the history of the U.S. and entrepreneurship played important roles in the invention and ongoing iteration of today’s race cars.

Relevance is something that can go deeper than just finding an example that relates to a lesson. Storytelling is an important skill that touches every subject and requires regular practice. Asking students to tell a story about why something is relevant to them can be effective at almost any point in the lesson and can be as simple as a verbal story circle, or integrated writing, art, or innovation. The more chances students have to find and express how their learning is relevant to their lives, the more they will develop not only their skills and knowledge, but also their capacity for empathy.

The value of stories

Dr. Pronita Mehrotra is the founder of MindAntix, a platform to build cognitive creative thinking in students. As an advocate for bringing more creativity to the classroom, she speaks at educational conferences and runs professional-development programs for teachers. In addition, she also teaches project-based-learning programs to elementary and middle school students. Prior to starting MindAntix, she spent several years in the technology industry in different research, development, and program-management roles. Follow her on Twitter @pronitam:

Historical stories have the potential to add meaning to student learning, making subjects like science more relevant. By surfacing the struggles that scientists faced, stories can humanize the subject, bring out the creative hacks that scientists have often had to use, and make science less intimidating.

We recently experimented with this approach for a science program. Our goal was to expose the thought process, especially the creativity, that led scientists to their scientific breakthroughs. In these mini-simulations, we first talked about what piqued the scientist’s interest and what tools they had at their disposal to solve the problem. Then we gave students a challenge—they had to put themselves in the scientists’ shoes and try to solve the problem.

When students recognize that they are now walking in the shoes of a scientist who found a way to solve the challenge, it grabs their attention and makes them more motivated to find a solution. And if they do indeed end up finding a way to solve it, the extra boost in confidence is priceless!

In one example, instead of diving straight into Newton’s laws of motion, we went over what was already known before Newton formulated his laws and the contributions of other scientists. Newton didn’t create the laws from scratch—he was extending the work by other scientists like Galileo. Among other things, Galileo had discovered that falling bodies accelerate, picking up equal amounts of speed in equal intervals of time.

But how did Galileo find that out? They didn’t have clocks to measure time for short intervals like we do now. How would the students construct an experiment to understand the relationship between distance and time for a falling object, using the same resources that Galieo had? That sparked a lively discussion among different groups until one of them figured out that they could use their pulse to keep track of time. Galileo, in fact, had done the same thing before he went on to devise better methods like the water clock to measure time.

These mini-simulations gave students a better sense of how scientists thought through challenges they faced and how real science progresses.

In a study on using stories to illustrate the nature of science, researchers found that students exposed to science stories found science more interesting and were more willing to pursue science careers. In addition, students got a better sense of how science really works. For example, how “invention and creativity are important processes in the development of science knowledge (as opposed to simplistic views that knowledge is simply discovered/uncovered/apparent from experimental work).

Coupled with active problem solving, historical stories can be a powerful tool in helping students discover the beauty in science and other subjects.


Steve Peck is a special educator with over 15 years of experience working with students who have multiple and severe disabilities. He is a co-founder of The Connections Model, an SEL-focused education technology company whose KidConnect app and curriculum teach kids the fundamentals of emotional regulation:

The important thing to remember when designing a lesson is to put yourself in your students’ shoes. Think about what interests them at the current time and try to tie something into your presentation. Your students will be much more engaged in the material they are expected to learn if it is relatable to something they are interested in or is relevant to their current age level.

Another tip to remember when designing lessons is to always take into account that not all students will learn from this particular lesson and material should always be presented in multiple formats to ensure that each student has a chance to find a way that best suits their learning styles. For example, if you’re teaching units of measurement, you could use cooking. You could also use project-based learning and build something that is functional for the classroom or visible to the school.

Remember that learning can take place in many formats while still reaching the end goal of all students retaining the necessary information that you are presenting. Your presentation through lessons is the key to ensuring that all students learn. Finally, take into consideration your students’ emotions around the subject matter and the idea that not every student will enjoy, participate fully, interact with, or grasp the material from each of your lessons. Students’ emotions affect their ability to learn in your classroom, and you should never assume that a student can manage their own emotions to get themselves ready to learn. In fact, making assumptions is something that we as teachers do all the time. We expect that a student sitting in our classroom is able to learn. However, their emotions are always driving different behaviors that affect their ability to learn.

Addressing students’ ability to regulate their emotions and teaching them effective strategies will, in the long run, be more beneficial to their overall ability to be ready to learn when they are actually sitting in your classes.

“Mindfulness and Social Emotional Learning”

Caitlin Krause (@MindWise_CK) is a former teacher and curriculum designer who now runs the consultancy MindWise. She is the author of Mindful by Design, a book about mindfulness, design, and storytelling, with its own set of resources and tools for fostering mindful learning environments and developing leadership skills:

I think about the word “connection” a lot, and it’s one of the prime forces behind the work that led to Mindful by Design, my book all about mindfulness, design, and storytelling. Thinking about design and intentionality, the question about making lessons relevant to students’ lives hinges on that word, “connection,” in my view.

A lot of teachers will tell me that disconnection is one of the greatest threats in a modern classroom. They have high levels of motivation and care, and yet it’s frustrating because they’re low on resources like time, energy, and ready-to-go design strategies that show how to implement certain aspects of mindfulness and SEL directly into learning. I understand this challenge, as someone who has taught in high school and middle school classrooms for over a decade before I founded MindWise. What I realize, too, is that teachers might be tempted to bypass their own self-care in favor of focusing their attention on students. Even this question phrasing itself (“What are ways to make lessons more “relevant” to students’ lives?”) leaves a bit of the agency implied. It’s truly the teachers, as well as students, who are designers of experience, and in creating lessons that are relevant to students’ lives, they should ideally also be connected to teachers’ lives. A teacher doesn’t disappear in the process of co-creation, in other words.

How can teachers secure their own safety belts first, making sure they are well-equipped to focus on making connections authentic and lessons relevant to students’ lives? They can incorporate mindfulness practices into parts of their personal and professional life, which is shown to help reduce stress and burnout, helping us to stay grounded and receptive to what comes up in each moment, during what is often a busy day filled with activities, distractions, and complex challenges. Mindfulness can be a reflective workout, and in many ways, it reminds me to celebrate the small moments and opportunities I have to reach out and connect with my students, fellow educators, and community. Then, the lessons build from there. It’s a practice in mindfulness to start with self-compassion and care.

Studies have shown that when teachers are practicing mindfulness, students can tell, even if a teacher doesn’t announce it or even actively incorporate it into their daily exercises with students. The way that students tell is through a teacher’s demeanor and sense of openness, and this has a deep effect on the ways that they communicate and connect with students and the ways that they approach the learning material itself. So, the good news is that mindfulness helps set the foundation for what becomes meaningful lesson plans, and a teacher’s well-being is part of that process.

My research and work with mindfulness and social-emotional learning contributed to the exercises in Mindful by Design, which focus on the “three A’s” of mindfulness: awareness (of self, others, environment), advancement (beyond perceived limits and boundaries), and authenticity (using nonjudgment with intention, openness, curiosity, and care). For example, one of the exercises, Out of this World, involves students exploring their environment and describing it as if they are seeing it with fresh eyes, viewing from a new lens. Often, when we engage from our core state of curiosity and creativity, indulging in the questions and sense of wonder, new discoveries, innovations, and breakthroughs are possible. We let go of a bit of the rigidity of forcing an outcome, and a world opens up.

The more we can build into lessons the opportunity for this kind of expression, for telling stories and sharing multiple viewpoints, authenticity can increase. We each have many facets to our identities and perceptions, and part of a quest for dignity and inclusion in education is the intentionality of lessons that offer learners a chance to express their views and share stories with each other. This goes for classrooms as well as leadership: The more we can nurture our ability to tell stories and to receive and honor multiple views, the more we can celebrate the diversity that makes our social systems beautifully resilient and equipped to thrive and support each other.

Relevance, too, starts by listening. A learning community that values listening to each other is ready and receptive to what might come up, and what comes up is what matters. The more we can incorporate student voice as well as great listening relationships, the more we’re building a capacity for understanding and growth. After all, learning is a social system, and it’s natural (we are nature!), so teaching and learning give us a chance to prioritize connection in ways that are meaningful, caring, curiosity-driven, humbling, and most of all, human.

Thanks to Rebecca, Andrea, Pronita, Steve, and Caitlin for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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