Last month, I went over a few of the strategies students are helping me share with teachers to address culturally proficient teaching.
The third strategy is Connecting Content and Learning to Student’s Lives.
Think about your own learning, reading, and writing. We are generally more engaged with topics that have the most meaning for us. This goes for our students as well.
Right now, I'm spending my days in a Summer Writing Institute for the high school students in our program. We are in our second of three weeks. Watching them learn and grow as readers and writers, and watching how they engage with ideas, has only strengthened my conviction that when we connect ideas and information to students’ lives—and when we help them see those connections—they begin to make connections on their own and expand their thinking.
Today we read a piece from The Onion about racial profiling. We talked about satire, and how it can be used to drive important ideas home. Then we read one of Leonard Pitts’ recent columns about the Zimmerman trial. It too dealt with race issues in our country. Students then spent some time writing about whatever these pieces sparked for them.
Some wrote about their own experiences with racial profiling. Some wrote impassioned pieces about the death of Trayvon Martin. Some took specific lines from the Pitts column and expanded their thinking about those ideas. In the end, all had powerful pieces. And each one was different.
Their writing is not done, but they connected to nonfiction pieces we read, they understand satire a little more, and they see the value of research and really knowing a topic.
Most importantly, though, they made connections. And without much prompting, they are writing. And writing. And writing.
With some topics and subject areas, the connections we can make to our students’ lives seem more clear-cut than others. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work towards creating those connections across all content areas and units we teach. So where should we begin?
Talk to your students: Who are they? What do they care about? What do they do outside of school? What issues are they interested in?
Listen to your students: It’s not enough just to talk to them—we really need to listen to them. Kids give us clues all the time to who they are and what matters to them. We need to be open to allowing them space to share.
Examples and explanations: We can use examples in our teaching to create relevance. How about a word problem related to prom costs? Vocabulary words or sentences drawn from popular culture or students’ interests?
And give explanations that connect to students’ lives or prior learning. "Remember when we learned…?" "That is related to this concept in this way...”
Connect to future learning or career paths: One student shared how her teacher had a chart she shared with her math class that showed how different mathematical concepts were used in different jobs. The student felt like this made the learning more relevant—even if these weren’t necessarily careers she was thinking of pursuing, just the knowledge that there was a connection piqued their interest and motivation.
Teach kids to ask questions: Who does most of the questioning in our classrooms? Teachers? If so, it means we are the ones engaged and curious about learning. Think about a young child. They ask questions incessantly. I can remember my own boys filling up our driving time with question after question: Why are there bugs? How many types of bugs are there? What are clouds made of?
Questions are a natural response to creativity and the desire to learn. Somewhere along the way in schooling, we teach students that it is the teacher’s job to ask questions and it is their job to answer. It’s time to reverse that trend.
The Harvard Letter had an article a few years ago about the Question Formulation Technique. If you aren’t sure how to increase your students’ questioning tactics and techniques, this could be a good place to start.
Have students create the connections and relevance: Teach a new concept or idea and then challenge students to share how it connects to past learning, or how this concept might be used. Many times, students don’t see relevance or connection because we are doing all the thinking for them.
When we can make learning relevant to the lives of our students, we can increase their motivation to learn.
How do you create connections and relevance for students in your classroom?