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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

Responses to ‘Why Do I Have to Learn This?’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 28, 2020 14 min read
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(This is the third post in a six-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

Today, Rhonda Bondie, Akane Zusho, Cindy Terebush, Kimiko Shibata, and Donna L. Shrum share their commentaries.

“Why do I have to learn this?”

Rhonda Bondie is a lecturer in education and faculty chair for Programs in Professional Education’s online course Differentiated Instruction Made Practical at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She taught for over 20 years in urban public schools as both a special and general educator and an artist-in-residence.

Akane Zusho is an associate professor in the Division of Psychological and Educational Services of the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. Her research focuses on examining the intersection of culture, achievement motivation, and self-regulation:

“Why do I have to learn this?” asks a student as a lesson begins. To move through the curriculum with limited time, this question of “why” often remains unanswered by teachers. But research suggests that such questions shouldn’t be ignored. Indeed, studies of motivation consistently find that students are more likely to be engaged in the learning process when they feel like what they’re learning is important, interesting, and useful. Of course, teachers wonder how to provide relevant learning experiences for students with diverse backgrounds while meeting curriculum goals within time constraints. In Differentiated Instruction Made Practical (Bondie & Zusho, 2018), we provide teacher actions that promote relevance in daily lessons, along with suggestions on how to implement them, and the research base that supports these instructional moves. Here are three practical examples of how teachers can promote relevance.

  1. Listen before teaching

Use short routines to discover students’ questions and connections to the topic as the first step in launching new learning. For example, invite student pairs to generate two questions about a topic that they hope to have answered and then prioritize those questions. Or ask students to check problems or words that seem familiar and to circle something new as the first step in completing a task. Then gather the words that students considered both familiar and new to set goals for learning. These routines enable teachers to deliberately build new learning on student strengths and interests related to curriculum goals.

  1. Help students find meaning in their work

One easy way to learn about your students and to improve their perceptions of relevance is to encourage students to keep a weekly learning journal. Prompts for the journal can be adjusted to achieve different purposes. We often start by asking students to look over work completed during the week and respond to three questions: “What assignment or activity did you find most interesting or useful?” “Why was this interesting or useful?” “Why do you think the teacher asked you to do this assignment?” Students can also look at a slideshow of pictures taken from the week and write about the picture of learning that was most interesting to them.

Younger students can dictate or record their responses. These journals help students to find their own meaning in their work and track their interest in the curriculum while providing teachers with reflections from students that can be used to adjust lessons to increase relevance. Studies attest to the importance of students generating examples of relevance (particularly those needing greater confidence). Through the journal, students also reflect on their values and affirm important identities, which research has found can improve students’ motivation to learn.

  1. Support student autonomy

Promoting relevance isn’t just about connecting content to students’ lives. It’s also about finding ways to empower students to take ownership so that they learn to value their learning. One way to do this is through structured choices. Instead of thinking of student choice as an on-off switch (either allowing total student choice or offering no student choice), think about student choice as a continuum of options, from no student choice (all teacher assignment) to structured choice that includes some assignment and some student choice, to all student choice. Structuring choice can be as simple as directing students to “complete 1 through 5 and then choose two additional questions from 6 to 9.” Or, for a recall task, students might write a story, draw a picture, or make a list of important words and facts from yesterday’s lesson.

Another example of choice is to assign students to either solve the problem, or circle and explain the part of the problem that is new. In this way, students are either solving the problem or identifying their questions so that all students can engage in the task. These teacher actions promote autonomous engagement, a necessary precursor for students finding value in their work.

When teachers 1. Listen before they teach, 2. Help students find meaning, and 3. Support student autonomy, the answer to the question, “Why am I learning this?” becomes clear. By exploring “why,” students will feel learning is more relevant and are more likely to remember their learning, too.

Connecting to prior knowledge

Cindy Terebush has an M.S. in early-childhood studies and is the author of Teach the Whole Preschooler: Strategies for Nurturing Developing Minds:

When introducing new topics to early learners, teachers should always start with what the children know through their prior experience. Learning is about making connections. We need to demonstrate for early learners that new information connects to what they already know and to their lives outside the classroom.

To pique young children’s interest and to teach them real skills, teachers need to be using real items in authentic ways. For example, if teachers would like children to understand what a calendar is and how it is used, they need to use a real calendar rather than what is essentially a pocket chart or grid that looks nothing like the calendar children would encounter outside the classroom. That calendar needs to be used in real ways such as to mark birthdays or special events. It should not be a means of teaching rote memorization of counting. Young children should be counting objects and not boxes in a grid. The calendar needs to be a tool for remembering important upcoming events. Those events are relevant to students’ lives, and the use of a calendar like they see at home helps children to understand that the calendar is relevant to all of our lives.

Similarly, children need to interact with real items from nature rather than plastic representations of natural items. The science area should be filled with real artifacts for examination. They should be taking care of real plants and class pets, examining rocks and shells, and exploring sensory items from natural resources such as sand. The dramatic play area should have real food containers, real clothes for dress up and not just costumes, and real open-ended items such as fabric and boxes, which they can use to build a world that reflects their perceptions.

Literacy also needs to start with the children’s prior experience with environmental print. Children know logos and street signs. They are so proud of themselves when they recognize words from their environment and “read” them. That excitement and pride provide teachers with a great opportunity for introducing letters and their sounds to children in a way that relates to their lives outside the classroom.

The key to keeping the items and lessons in the classroom relevant is gaining an understanding of students’ prior experience. Conversations with children about what they do outside the classroom and partnering with families to learn about their lives can help teachers to know where to start so they can scaffold, or add to, their existing knowledge base. Teachers don’t need to facilitate it all. Encourage families to come to school and help teach about their traditions and experiences. Invite visitors to bring interesting items related to lesson topics. Young children will learn that what happens in the classroom has an important place in the lives of people in their community.

Using analogies

Kimiko Shibata is an itinerant ESL/ELD teacher for the Waterloo Region district school board in Kitchener, Ontario. She can be found on Twitter @ESL_fairy and has a resource website:

In our profession, it is increasingly important to get to know our kids beyond their official files and previous report cards. We need to understand their backgrounds, their needs, strengths, interests, and motivation. ESL teachers who are permitted to do new-student registration and family interviews before a family starts at a school have a huge advantage, in that they can ask the family important questions about prior schooling, childhood experiences, interests, immigration experiences, health, development, etc., with the aid of interpreters as required. ESL teachers can then pass this information along to classroom teachers, in order to help them understand and serve their newcomer populations.

As teachers, we are often called to fill in the gaps in background information for kids with refugee backgrounds and those living in poverty or with limited life experiences. For instance, a standardized reading-assessment tool involving a story about going to summer camp assumes that most students have been to a summer camp. Some students may never have traveled outside of their apartment complex and school neighbourhood. Some students may associate the word “camp” with the refugee camp in which they lived before coming to Canada. These students will need teachers to help “fill their backpacks” with relevant experiences and information if they are expected to be able to respond appropriately to a text about a summer camp.

Teachers can incorporate plenty of hands-on experiential learning, role-play, manipulatives, realia, and visual aids such as highly visual books, photographs from Google searches, and short YouTube video clips to build schema and make both vocabulary and context comprehensible. We can use simple analogies related to the daily lives of our students to make comparisons that are meaningful to their lived experiences.

Teaching empathy

After teaching English for over 20 years, Donna L. Shrum is now teaching ancient history to freshmen in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She remains active in the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and freelance writing for education and history magazines:

“What does this have to do with my life? I mean, these people are all dead.” I expected to hear this question teaching ancient world history after teaching English for over 20 years but thought I was ready for it.

This group also happened to be the largest collection of trauma-impacted students I’d yet encountered. American teens are 40 percent less empathetic than they were three decades ago (Konrath, 2010), and I saw this in my students’ relationships to one another and their complete lack of interest in people from the past. When the semester ended, I dug for more tools for teaching such a population and realized their question hadn’t been asking me to make a connection to the events of then to now, but rather, since they couldn’t connect emotionally to people around them, why did I expect them to empathize with humans who are now dust?

The more connected our students are to their own emotions, the greater their ability to feel for others. The brain develops specialized mirror neurons to register the feelings of others in our own bodies. If a student has experienced trauma, those neurons are missing, or allowing them to fire is too painful (Orloff).

I’d started our study of ancient man the first week by having them write about their clan, their families and friends, a perennially popular topic. For the first time, I met students who were hostile to it. In retrospect, I can see that it rubbed a raw spot.

The next semester, I changed the lesson to tap into empathy through the back door. I’d found an idea on Twitter for simulating a cave-painting experience. I darkened the room, gave them electric tea lights, covered the walls in brown paper, gave them crayons and markers, and turned on cave sound effects. I asked them to write as a Paleolithic teenager before and after the event. Many wrote of feeling relaxed, creative, connected to everyone else who was working in the “cave.” I’d shown them a handprint found in Chauvet with a crooked little finger, evidence of a unique human from thousands of years ago. It resonated with my students, and their handprints covered the walls of our cave. I hadn’t asked them to think about their feelings but just be there and then pretend to be someone else, a safe conduit for any emotions that surfaced.

My first attempt at teaching empathy is called affective, or emotional, empathy, and it can kick a hornets’ nest of emotions. What I’d stumbled on in my second attempt is cognitive empathy. It creates a “what if” scenario as opposed to “remember when you felt.” Showing a student a news event and asking her to write from the opposite perspective from the one with which she agrees is an exercise in cognitive empathy. A game called Empathy Builders (https://www.empathybuilders.com/) gently introduces dealing with opposite perspectives, becoming the basis for the habit of considering alternative points of view.

Teaching empathy not only brings deeper relevancy to our lessons but builds future citizenship skills by showing our students that carrying their own baggage doesn’t excuse them from acknowledging that other people are similarly burdened. Empathy becomes a tool for solving their own problems and those in the world around them. (Franzese 696)

Borba, Michele. Nine Competencies for Teaching Empathy: An educational psychologist and parenting expert offers advice to school leaders. Educational Leadership. Oct 2018, Vol. 76 Issue 2, p. 22-28.

Franzese, Paula. The Power of Empathy in the Classroom. Seton Hall Law Review. Vol. 47:693. 8 May 2017. https://scholarship.shu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1596&context=shlr

Konrath, S. (2010, May 29). Empathy: College students don’t have as much as they used to, study finds. Personality and Social Psychology Review. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100528081434.htm

Orloff, Judith. The Science Behind Empathy and Empaths. Psychology Today. 3 March 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-empaths-survival-guide/201703/the-science-behind-empathy-and-empaths

Thanks to Rhonda, Akane, Cindy, Kimiko, and Donna for their contributions!

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