Tuesday, November 19, 2019

How Can We Make Lessons Relevant to Students' Lives?

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 look at Webster's definitions of the word relevant:
(a) Having a significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand
(b) Affording evidence tending to prove or disprove the matter at issue or under discussion
(c) Having social relevance

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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 connected via discussion boards and chat rooms. These days, we videoconference and use Google tools. When time zone differences prevent real-time communication, we've shared video recordings and blog posts for partner classes to view and read as convenient and respond accordingly.

Paired Reading. Pairing fictional reading with informational text is a great way to bring relevance to academic content. Pairing current events or non-fiction reading with academic content takes learning to a whole new level. Add 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 this LA Times article. Students were reading a fictional 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 my 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 energizes our lessons and helps students find meaning and purpose to their work. While an in-person speaker is ideal, time and travel sometimes make scheduling classroom visits difficult. Furthermore, when connecting virtually, our students can hear from people all over the world. And as remote work becomes ubiquitous, getting students comfortable with remote conversations is very valuable.

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.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Thankful for the Starfish

Have you ever had one of those days when you feel like you are spinning wheels and going nowhere? Whether you are a classroom teacher, an administrator, or in a supportive or coaching role, we all have those days. Sometimes, it's not just a bad day, but a bad week, month or year. Perhaps you may be wondering if you should explore other career opportunities, or you may have considered leaving the education profession altogether. While I haven't felt lead to explore opportunities outside education, there certainly have been many times when I'm not sure I am making a difference. And then when I find myself hanging by a thread, someone - a student, a colleague, or a supervisor - will say something that will turn everything around and will help me reclaim my calling. Even if I impact one life, I know that my work is not in vain. What I find fascinating is that once I realize I am making an impact, I suddenly find that I am actually touching many lives.

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It's November and I've committed to practicing gratitude and looking for good things around me and blogging about it. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude will not usually change my circumstances, but it does shift my perspective and alter my reaction to challenges, which in turn do sometimes change my reality. 

So, my fellow educator, as you go about your day, I challenge you to search for that one starfish in your building, focus on saving that one life, and be thankful for the impact you’re having. Whether it may be a student or a colleague, let this person reignite your passion for teaching and learning. I'm certain that once you find that one, you will soon realize you are making a difference in countless lives.
Image Credit: Reader's Digest