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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

Ways to Make Lessons ‘Relevant’ to Students’ Lives

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 26, 2020 16 min read
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Researchers have found that one key way to encourage intrinsic motivation to learn is by making classroom lessons relevant to students’ lives.

This element is constant—whether we’re doing remote teaching or are with students in our physical classrooms (you can see this video we made showing specific ways to apply it in distance learning).

This six-part series will share multiple strategies to put this concept into practice.

You might also be interested in The Best Ideas for Helping Students Connect Lessons to Their Interests & the World.

Today, this series is “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.

Building relationships

Blanca Huertas is a teacher at Kranz Jr High in Dickinson, Texas. This is her fifth year working with English-language learners in Texas. She previously worked as an ESL teacher in Puerto Rico for eight years. She is passionate about helping her students acquire language and instill in them that they can be successful in everything they set their minds to do:

One of the struggles that teachers have when developing a lesson is thinking about: How will the lesson be relevant to students? How will students engage to the class in a way they feel is relevant to what they live on a day-to-day basis?

I have learned that the first step in making your lessons more relevant to students’ lives is getting to know your students. How can building relationships with my students help teachers’ lesson planning? By building relationships with students, teachers can motivate and understand the background of each student. Developing relationships with students provides teachers the opportunity to motivate students to use their capabilities and direct them in a path that can give them a successful outcome in school and in life. By making your lessons more relevant to students’ lives and experiences, you can engage and help them.

Provide space in your lessons to:

  • Celebrate culture and have students teach others about their culture.
  • Allow students to share their stories and value their experiences: Students need a voice.
  • Lowering anxiety levels and giving students structured time to speak about who they are gives them the space to be heard and gives teachers the opportunity to build relationships with them and get to know who they are.
  • Have students write: Writing assignments can give us a clear view about who our students are, their interests, and their life experiences.

When you get to know your students, you can develop themed units that can relate to students’ lives and motivate them to succeed. Themed lessons have helped me provide my students with motivation for them to be successful regardless of the struggles they have encountered in life. In themed units, I provide students with readings that reflect their backgrounds and lives.

Examples of themes:

  • I have a dream: Focuses students toward achieving their dream by working hard to achieve it and never stop believing in it.
  • Soar to success: Focusing students to succeed in everything they do.
  • Making a difference: Motivating students not to conform to social standards and making a difference in their community.
  • Attitude is a small thing but makes a big difference: Helping students understand that it does not matter the limitations they have had in life; it is all about what attitude they have.

Through these themes, teachers can:

  • Lower the affective filter so that students feel more comfortable to express their struggles.
  • Help students realize that they can be successful in life regardless of their struggles.
  • Drive students to establish goals in life and not give up on them.

The impact a teacher has on students can make or break them. Teachers must look deeper. The great majority of “difficult” students have lived through difficult experiences. Teachers should take advantage of the opportunity to make a positive impact on their students through positive relationships and the development of lessons that can impact their lives.

Making connections to learning Spanish

Marcy Webb is a Spanish teacher at Watkinson School in Hartford, Conn. Miss Webb will begin her 15th year at Watkinson and her 26th year in the profession:

I teach Spanish. So, the main objective is to teach content and strategies to help students develop their communication skills, i.e., listening, speaking, reading, and writing. That said, I do strive to help students make meaningful connections with the material.

Whenever a particular topic is taught, such as food, for example, I ask the students to express their likes and dislikes, make suggestions re: where to get their favorite foods, what time they eat meals, what they like to eat for specific meals, etc.

Re: The topic of pets, which was a hugely popular unit with my 6th grade Spanish 1 students. I asked them to talk about their pets. From there, we did a project where they searched actual animal shelters online and wrote profiles in Spanish for their chosen pet for “adoption.” It was real life, in that many of the pet-adoption profiles are often in English and not in Spanish. Additionally, it connected with a real interest, which were pets.

With my Spanish 4 students, I teach a social-justice-oriented curriculum. This past year, I taught a unit on El Camino de Santiago, or, The Way of Saint James, the historic pilgrimage trail in Spain. It was a long unit and a very academic unit at that. Although these two factors are not necessarily bad, I knew that many of my students were struggling to maintain interest and engagement. So, I did a pivot and interjected the following into the unit:

  1. I was able to locate a woman via a colleague who had made the pilgrimage on several previous occasions and was about to embark on yet another pilgrimage. I invited her to speak to my Spanish 4 classes. This experience made the unit come to life for the students. During her visit, they asked very insightful questions.
  2. Using a purchased unit created by another Spanish teacher, the students embarked on their own “pilgrimage walk” around school. It truly heightened engagement and helped the students to make a direct and personal connection to what they were learning.
  3. Students enjoy films, and they watched the feature film, “The Way.”

The aforementioned are just some of the ways that I created opportunities for learning, which in turn made the lessons more relevant to the students. Sometimes, it requires reflection, being honest with yourself, restrategizing, and doing things differently.

The definition of relevance

Anabel Gonzalez has been teaching since 1996 and is currently a CTE instructional facilitator with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter @amgonza:

Learning can’t always be fun and interesting, but it must always be relevant. This is at the core of my educational philosophy. But what does “relevant to students’ lives” really look like in the classroom?

Let’s start by looking at Webster’s definitions of the word relevant:

  1. Having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.
  2. Affording evidence tending to prove or disprove the matter at issue or under discussion.
  3. Having social relevance.

Relevance in learning is not only about the “matter at hand,” the age, and/or the intellectual level of our students, it’s also about social relevance. Inarguably, we can analogize the material so learners can assimilate the content, but a crucial aspect of relevance is presenting lessons that contain true, authentic, updated information, applicable in the “real world,” theirs ideally, but certainly to society at large.

One of the ways we can help students find relevance in lesson plans is to tear down classroom walls and virtually connect with classrooms and experts outside of the school building. Here are some ways I have facilitated connections without having to leave the building:

  • Global Communications & Collaborations. From across the district to across the globe, students collaborated on projects with other learners using technology. In my early teaching days, students communicated via discussion boards and chat rooms and co-created web pages. These days, we videoconference and use Google tools. When time zone differences prevent real-time communication, we’ve shared videorecordings and blog posts for partner classes to view and read as convenient and respond accordingly.
  • Paired Reading. Pairing fictional reading with information text is a great way to bring relevance to academic content. Pairing current events or nonfiction reading with academic content takes learning to a whole new level. Adding a Skype session with an author or an individual featured in an article can energize a unit. Last year, I connected a Spanish teacher at my school with a professional translator who had been featured in a Los Angeles Times article. Students were reading a novel, and the plot closely resembled the content of the article. After reading the post, I emailed the writer, who connected me with the individual. After a few emails and a Skype call, I introduced him to the Spanish teacher and we planned a lesson that brought the novel to life.
  • Virtual Guest Speakers.This works perfectly in Career & Technical Education courses, but it can work in any content. Regardless of our subject area, we are all preparing students for the workplace. When young people hear from industry experts how their content connects with “real life,” it will energize our lessons and help students find meaning and purpose. While an in-person speaker is ideal, time and travel don’t always permit classroom visits. Furthermore, when connecting virtually, our students can hear from people all over the world. And as remote work becomes ubiquitous, getting students to be comfortable communicating virtually is a valuable skill.

Most of my learners have found these experiences to be fun and interesting, but there were always moments that were not so enjoyable. My goal in connecting with other classrooms, pairing content, and bringing in virtual speakers is not about enjoyment but about making content relevant. And relevance is about bridging gaps and moving our students forward in their learning journey.

“Hooks & Bridges”

Cheryl Abla is a former teacher who now, with McREL International, leads professional learning and coaching for K-12 educators on research-based strategies for effective instruction, use of classroom technology, English-language acquisition, and classroom culture and climate. She’s a co-author of Tools for Classroom Instruction That Works, which provides easy-to-use tools and learning activities to help teachers get CITW strategies into the classroom on a daily basis.:

Hooks and Bridges might sound like a board game—and it can be fun—but actually, it’s a technique for drawing students into academic learning via something they already know, feel, or suspect. The “hook” part is what you can do at the very start of a new unit or lesson to capture students’ attention and interest. The “bridge” comes next. It’s what you say or do to connect the hook to the key concepts of your lesson.

In Tools for Classroom Instruction That Works (Silver Strong & Associates and McREL International, 2018), my co-authors and I identified nine varieties of effective hooks:

  • Present a challenge
  • Spark curiosity
  • Stimulate debate
  • Appeal to students’ interests
  • Invite speculation
  • Involve physical movement
  • Inspire creative thinking
  • Ask students to make personal or real-world connections
  • Trigger an emotional response

Here’s an example of a hook that asks students to make personal connections. A primary-grade teacher asks, “How do the changing seasons affect your life? Do they affect the way you dress? The activities you do? Anything else?”

The lesson isn’t about choosing a wardrobe, it’s about something that hasn’t even been mentioned yet: trees. Now here comes the bridge. “Have you ever noticed that trees’ lives are affected by the seasons as well? You have? That’s great because today we are going to be talking about some of the different ways that trees respond to the changing seasons.”

Maybe this is the first time the young students realize how much they have in common with trees: As living beings, we’re all affected by our environment. What could have been an easily forgotten lecture on photosynthesis has instead become an opportunity to appreciate the interaction of environment and individual.

The possibilities are nearly limitless. Here, again from Tools for CITW, are some questions to help you design and implement high-quality hooks and bridges:

  • What key idea, concept, or information do you want students to understand as a result of your hook?
  • Will students have relevant background knowledge or experience to draw on?
  • What will you need to do to set up the hook? Will students need a video, visual aid, story, reading, demonstration, or other source of information to make the hook work?
  • Is the hook engaging? Will it capture students’ attention?
  • What do you expect to hear in students’ responses? How will you guide their thinking to broaden their responses?
  • How will you summarize students’ responses?
  • How will you connect students’ responses to the learning to come? What particular angle or way in do you want to use for the bridge?

By connecting the lesson to something that students already know is relevant to them, Hooks and Bridges is a great way to set the stage for future learning.

Skills, not necessarly content

Maurice McDavid earned his bachelor’s degree in elementary education with a minor in history and Spanish. He has taught middle school history, English, and Spanish, as well as high school geography. He was dean of students for three years and is now in his first year as an assistant principal at a bilingual elementary school.:

When introducing a unit of study, it is incredibly important to think from the beginning about how the topics relate to the students’ real worlds. Relevance is often discussed in terms of career, but making an attempt to make it relevant to their current lives is important, too.

Our district has moved toward using a relevancy statement at the beginning of a unit or lesson. Thinking about how the skills that are being taught and how students would use those skills is the key to making lessons relevant. The content may not always be immediately relatable, but the skills that are being taught should be.

An excellent example is teaching the skills of argument development. Those are skills that are relevant for a student who is attempting to explain why he or she should get a position during an interview. Another great example is teaching the skill of figuring rates and percentages. One teacher in our building introduces that unit by discussing car loans and interest rates. The students engage well with that topic, as you may imagine. Of course for true relevance to be present in the classroom, teachers must know their students in order to know what is relevant to them. If you teach at a school where parents buy their students cars with cash, then you may introduce that unit with rate of return on investments.

Letting students know we believe their identities matter

Nadine Sanchez is a current elementary school principal with over 10 years of teaching experience. She has worked as a Teach For America corps member and in multiple school districts as an educator and reading specialist. Nadine approaches education as a lifelong learner:

The perception that teaching is a bubble and that what happens in the community or in the country is separate is a sure fire way to ensure that students are disengaged and continue to feel helpless or powerless. Mission and vision statements talk about preparing students for the real world, yet we are afraid to because we’ve been conditioned to avoid controversy or politics. I listened to Christopher Emdin talk at Seton Hall University, and he asked the audience, “How many of you brought up Nipsey Hussle with your students?” He did this to make the point that it is not about us and our comfort but our students. Do I need to identify with Nipsey Hussle to bring him into my lesson—absolutely not. It’s not about me but rather my students and what they need.

I find that themes are ways to bring in relevance. Many of the themes in humanities classes, for example, have opportunities to connect to children’s authentic experiences outside of class. For example, in our humanities curriculum, we read novels about immigration, and social studies standards address immigration. This is deeply connected to the stories of our children and their families. In math class, it could be connecting the math to application of real issues like student-loan-forgiveness debates. The key is providing multiple perspectives and allowing students to make their own determinations. Or if there is a traumatic occurrence in the community, just name it and give students space to mourn, get angry, or just connect with it. Emdin talks about the “place and space” we create for students as educators. If our students’ worlds remain disconnected from the classroom, then we are sending the message that their identities and communities don’t matter.

Thanks to Blanca, Anabel, Marcy, Cheryl, Maurice, and Nadine for their contributions!

(This is the first post in a six-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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 Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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