How Can We Make Learning Relevant?

I don’t know about you, but I get somewhat upset when I feel my time is being wasted.  Sometimes that’s waiting in traffic, listening to someone retell the same story they’ve told numerous times before, sitting in the doctor’s office because they are running behind even though I’ve made an appointment, or zoning out at a staff meeting or PD session that doesn’t seem relevant to me at all.  Can you imagine how students must feel showing up to school 6 hours a day, 5 days a week if they feel what you’re teaching them is a waste of time?

The Problem

I gave my ELA 10 class a questionnaire to fill out at the beginning of the term this year and one of the questions I asked related to how important they believe English Language Arts is to their lives.  I wasn’t surprised to find that most students do not find ELA overly relevant.  They were surprised to learn that a full year English course is the only mandatory course for nearly all University students regardless of their program.  I am an English major and a PE minor; I didn’t take a single math, science, or history class.  But those majors had to take a 6-credit English course.  English is important to everyday life.  I’m sure every teacher of every subject area would argue their subject is important to life.  And I get it.  I do.  But as a teenager, I didn’t.  And this is the problem.  As adults we undertand that the subjects we teach are important, yet most students don’t get it.  Sure, there’s some who understand they need certain courses to graduate, or particular classes to get into the post secondary programs they want, but that’s different, isn’t it?

I’m going to take a moment and argue the other side of this issue.  Readers of my blog have been hearing about how much I hate math.  My students know it, too.  It’s not that I don’t think math is important; I just find it hard.  More to the point, I don’t find it important to my everyday life.  That’s not to say that if math never existed that my life wouldn’t suck.  Because my life would suck.  Math impacts my life in huge ways; however, it will positively impact my life whether I can do math or not.  Others can.  So others can use math to make my life easier.  I don’t actually use math beyond a basic elementary level on a day-to-day basis (I’m a bit ashamed to say that I actually counted on 4 fingers today to confirm that 18 + 4 = 22.).  I get by, yet I had to take math all through high school.  Even though I didn’t see the relevance.  Even though I still don’t see the relevance.  I can make similar arguments for science and social studies.  I’m guessing many of you could make the argument for English Language Arts. I feel like going off on a tangent here and exploring just how important it could actually be to learn all the content knowledge of these high school subjects when I don’t use it and don’t remember it . . . but I won’t.

The Point

The point I want to make with this post is that many students don’t, rightfully so or not, find school relevant to their lives.  I’ve come to terms with the fact that many of my students don’t like ELA in the same way I don’t like other subjects.  I’m fine with that.  What I’m not fine with, are students who walk out of my class not seeing the relevance of what we did.  Whether we are studying poetry, Shakespeare, novel, visual, non-fiction, etc. I want my students to take something relevant away from that text.  Briefly, I have a few reasons for this.

  1. If students see the relevance in a text, they will be more willing to study that text.
  2. If students see the relevance, they will be more open to texts in their everyday lives.
  3. If students see the relevance, they will be more engaged.
  4. If students believe school is relevant, they will be more open to learning.

Teaching kids to appreciate Shakespeare is hard.  I didn’t care for Shakespeare when I was in high school.  I thought the plots were full of illogical holes. (If only Juliet had run off with Romeo–He got away, why couldn’t they both?)  It wasn’t until the years off between high school and university that I came to appreciate the art of Shakespeare’s stories.  I hope some of my experience rubs off on students as I try to explain this at the start of Shakespeare; however, I’m not naive enough to believe all students walk away appreciating Shakespeare.  What I will proudly say is that the vast majority of my students walked away from Shakespeare this year realizing that his plays can speak to them on a very personal level.

The Possibility

Instead of approaching Shakespeare with the purpose of appreciating Shakespeare, this year my students were looking to him to provide possible answers to meaningful questions that were relevant to their lives.  My 20’s, for example were seeking an answer to the question, “Can I know if I, or someone I know, is in love?”  This was the question on the board when my students walked in from summer vacation.  Right from day one, my 20’s were talking about a topic that related to their lives.  And boy oh boy did they talk.  We began with “thought journals” where they recorded their initial thoughts about the question.  Throughout the unit, we came back to the thought journals and revised opinions based on the texts we studied.  Questions were asked, perspectives were explored, in some cases opinions were changed.  We didn’t jump right into Shakespeare.  Shakespeare was NOT the unit focus.  This transcendent question was the focus.  It provided the possibility of engaging in textual analysis, conversation, and learning.  We discussed the differences and similarities between LUST, LOVE, and CRUSH, defining the terms, comparing how individuals act, look, speak, their motives, their goals, etc.  We explored self-love, friendship, patriotism, and romance.  We looked at visuals, read a short story, watched Troy, read Troilus and Cressida (Shakespeare), and watched The Simpson’s.  In the end, some students walked away saying that they believed they did in fact have enough information to determine if they, or someone they knew were in love.  Some said they would know if they were in love, but could never be certain of someone else.  Some said there is no sure way to know at all.  One walked away with a beautifully heartbreaking paper explaining why she believed love doesn’t exist in our world.  It wasn’t about agreeing.  It wasn’t about “the correct answer.”  It wasn’t about Shakespeare or visuals or any particular text.  It was about them.  It was about their lives.  It was about making English class relevant to their lives.

I believe the possibility exists in every subject area, at every grade level, for every “unit,” for every teacher to engage their students every day in learning through the use of Transcendent Questions.  By getting to know your students on a more personal level, it’s possible to tailor-make questions that will suit the needs of the class or majority of the students.  One of my questions later on in the term for my ELA 30 class was purposefully created to have students think about how they were treating one another.  Without prompting, after some study and reflection, their discussion did make it’s way around to the class dynamic.  It was definitely a feel-good moment for me.

The PLN Opportunity

A Twitter conversation I had today with @alicekeeler @jankenb2 @ACEedu and @CraigRusbult led to the notion that more teachers need to start making learning relevant to the lives of students.  Transcendent Questions were mentioned.  We wondered how to create a repository of questions for teachers to take from and add to.  We thought a Google Spreadsheet would be the way to go.  I’ve created one HERE.

***This is the first Google Spreadsheet I’ve ever created.  I tried to set it up as best I could; however, I doubt it’s “properly done.”  Please, if you have any experience with this, fix it up and get it working properly.  I tried to keep it so the filtering would work well to sort both grade level and subject area.  Make suggestions to fix it, or just fix it–I think I left it wide open for editing.  The suggestions I’ve included are ones that I’ve designed to work with grade 10-12 (div 4) ELA.

The Google Spreadsheet of Transcendent Questions to Make Learning Relevant