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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

School Is Relevant. How to Help Students See That

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 26, 2024 9 min read
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Many of us educators hope that our students see what we are teaching is relevant to their hopes, dreams, and interests.

I’ve previously posted about strategies we can employ to increase the odds of that kind of relevance actually taking place, but the issue is so important that you can’t have too many ideas.

So, today kicks off a multipart series on the topic.

Cross-Curricular Connections

Meagan W. Taylor is a director of consulting at McREL International, where she supports educator effectiveness and early learning for the REL Pacific program.

Tonia Gibson, M.S., a senior consultant at McREL International, works with teachers, schools, districts, and other stakeholders to develop sustainable plans for improving the professional practices of teachers and school leaders. She is a co-author of several McREL books, including Learning that Sticks and The New Classroom Instruction That Works:

Try as we might, we can’t remember everything we learn. But when something is relevant to our lives, it sparks our curiosity and motivation to learn, which are inextricably linked to deeper learning and storing information in long-term memory. By using strategies that help students make personal connections to content, our lessons can become more relevant and impactful.

To do this, we must get to know our students to make the material relatable. For example, teaching 10th grade students about conflict and resolution in U.S. history must look and feel different depending on the students you’re teaching. Before launching into content, find out what experiences your students have had with conflict and how the conflicts were resolved.

This initial conversation, especially with students who have different cultural backgrounds or experiences, can help everyone understand how the way people address challenges varies. For example, there are differences in the way tribal or islander cultures deal with conflict or even who is invited to resolve issues according to gender, political systems, or ideological institutions. After students have shared their experiences, we can be intentional about the way we connect those examples throughout the unit of work, showing them how similar or different their modern-day approaches are to historical examples.

Building on students’ prior knowledge is another great way to make learning relevant. For example, when deciding where to plant crops in some places in the Pacific, farmers use the Pythagorean theorem to ensure optimal growing conditions. The process may not be identified as this theorem, but when we as teachers are aware of this, we can help students understand Pythagoras using this specific and personal connection. Or in a classroom with students who adored soccer, Meagan used examples from the game to make problem-solving contexts more meaningful and to illustrate math concepts such as angles and shapes.

When you demonstrate how classroom learning is applicable to life outside the classroom, you can hook student interest as well. This approach can work for all grade levels. For example:

  • Why should we learn to write? So we can write a letter to Santa!
  • Why do we need to add and subtract decimals? So that we can make sure we’re getting the right change at the store or so we can make sure we have enough money to buy something we want.
  • How do you convince your parents that you need a new phone? Use the skills you’ve learned and write a persuasive essay to present to your parents.
  • How do you get more hits on your YouTube channel? Put your statistics skills to work and find out who currently gets them, why, and what is most effective for your target audience(s).

Contextual applications also go a long way. For example, in Australia, environmentally friendly housing is a very big deal. One elementary unit designed by Tonia combined math, English/language arts, science, and social studies and required students to research, design, write a report, and build their own 3D scale model of an environmentally friendly home.

The many cross-curricular connections and relevancy to where the students lived made the learning not only relevant, but also engaging and motivating for them. Over the years, past students have shared that they still remember the things they learned, and one recently shared that she used her learning from 5th grade when designing and building her new home.

Essentially, making a lesson relevant means connecting it to your students’ lives. When you get down to it, the possibilities for connections are endless, and the closer the connections are to your student’s reality—the more relevant learning can become!


Teaching With Film

Alexis Wiggins has worked as a high school English teacher, instructional coach, and consultant. Her book, The Best Class You Never Taught: How Spider Web Discussion Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders (ASCD), helps transform classrooms through collaborative inquiry. You can contact her or sign up for her newsletter at www.ceelcenter.org:

When I was a junior in high school back in the early ‘90s, my school’s history department did a wonderful thing: It offered only electives. Gone were the dull survey courses we’d been taking all our lives up until then, replaced by a panoply of tempting options to choose from. That year, the class I chose was The Vietnam War, taught by a young, dynamic teacher who envisioned a history course taught through film as much as print media. Every Wednesday night, the class would come back to campus and view a film that helped us better contextualize the history we were learning in the class.

I watched films like “Full Metal Jacket,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “The Deer Hunter,” to name a few, and I remember that year’s history course unlike any other in my entire academic career: The facts and the images are still vivid in my mind, while the rest of my courses’ details have faded into the gray mist of the past.

When I became a high school English teacher in my early twenties, it only seemed natural for me to use film in my teaching. Thanks to being paired with a veteran master teacher named George to team teach a 9th grade humanities course, I was exposed to the deft use of films to teach powerful units on war and culture, such as Kurosawa’s “Dreams"; documentaries about the people of Ladakh, India; and Japanese animation like “Barefoot Gen” and “Spirited Away.” Along with detailed readings on the regions of the world we were studying—China, Japan, Africa, the Middle East, and India—students were exposed to dozens of film texts as well, and I saw the power of bringing history and literature to life through multimedia. Students not only were more engaged, they learned more with film as text.

Over the last decade, I’ve had the chance to teach either literature-into-film courses or straight film seminars multiple times, courses wildly popular with students. Some of those students have gone on to study film making or screenwriting in college, but many simply take the classes as a way to learn more about the world and themselves. Not all students see themselves as readers, even by the time they are graduating. Generation Z is a very visual generation, and in my experience, students engage in deep learning, critical thinking, and compassion much more quickly and effectively with great films than with any other medium.

While I’m a passionate teacher of literature and I’m not suggesting replacing literature or print media with film, I do think most English teachers (and history and language teachers as well) are missing the boat when it comes to teaching the most powerful lessons and offering the most engaging, in-depth learning. In my experience, much of that happens through film.

This past year, my colleagues and I were looking to update our 9th grade English curriculum. I had a hunch that building in a short film unit would pay dividends and asked my team for permission to design one. At the end of the year—a challenging year, full of pandemic stops and starts—we introduced a three-week film unit that asked all our freshmen to research each film and its context, watch the film during class time, and discuss it in depth for an hour together after viewing. For the final exam, students could draw upon any of their texts—including the films—to use as evidence in their essay response to the question “What is power and who has it?”

The three films I chose for this unit were “Hidden Figures,” “Whale Rider,” and “Lion.” Each tells the story of protagonists who are denied power and eventually gain it, though perhaps not in the ways we always expect. As one astute student put it during the discussion of the Maori story “Whale Rider,” “We’re not only watching these stories because they deal with inequalities; we’re watching them because they’re about totally different places and lives than our own. It’s interesting to see other parts of the world and how other people live.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Additionally, we knew we wanted to have students learn more about the films, their stories, and their cultural relevance, so I developed a simple note taking and research document that students had to turn in before each discussion. The discussion came alive with these notes; our 9th graders were doing deep dives into Jim Crow segregation laws, Maori religious and cultural practices, and human trafficking thanks to these films and the curiosity they inspired in the students.

And it isn’t just anecdotal: We surveyed the students at the end of the year; they overwhelmingly chose the film unit as their favorite unit overall, and “Lion” as their favorite text. We saw in many of their final essays how deeply they had learned from these multimedia sources, alongside the classic epic poems, novels, and stories they’d read that year as well. The results were so positive that the9th grade English teachers are interested in expanding the unit further next year, and our 10th grade teachers are designing a documentary film unit for 2022.

Most teachers weren’t lucky enough to have teachers that knew how to use film as text, so they may have trouble imagining it in their own classes. But I encourage teachers to use film in English, history, and language courses regularly; to introduce a note taking document like the one linked above; and to offer time for student-led discussion. Teaching with film yields high engagement and deep inquiry that will make not only your lessons more relevant but also the world.

Films that have resonated with my students in the past (please screen first to be sure they are appropriate for the age and setting of your students):

“Princess Mononoke”

“Hidden Figures”

“Whale Rider”


“Barefoot Gen”


“Macfarland, USA”

“Bend It Like Beckham”

“La La Land”


“Living on One Dollar”

“The Great Debaters”



Thanks to Meagan, Tonia, and Alexis for contributing their thoughts!

Today’s guests answered this question:

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

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.

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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