I talk about relevancy all the time but had it smack me in the face last week. I have an 8th grade student who “conserves energy” when it comes to schoolwork. He would be the last one to participate in class, and not handing in an assignment doesn’t bother him in the least. I’ve taught him for three years and have gotten scarcely a sentence a year from him.
This year it was his turn to teach me. We are doing public service annoucements in tech class. Each student chooses who they would like to work with and the topic and format for their project. As predicted, “Sam” was reluctant to commit to a topic other than “I don’t know.”
I was in a particularly persistent mood the day we chose topics, and took a little more time with Sam than I would normally have. He was n0n-plussed, knowing he could wait me out if he had to. Then something happened- one of the topics I suggested hit a nerve. When I mentioned the idea of supporting medical marijuana, he offered up a story about his grandmother who had been a cancer patient and wanted to use marijuana medicinally but couldn’t, and died before seeing the legislation change. He talked on and on about her situtation- then agreed to move forward with the necessary research to begin the PSA on this topic.
Did I cure his learning malaise? Hardly. But what he taught me is that if I am flexible enough to make the learning available on a personal level, the student will move towards the goal just a little more willingly. I am fortunate. My content area leaves me great latitude when it comes to letting students choose topics that address their interests and passions.
As teachers we really need to shift our thinking. As technology progresses, it gets easier and easier for students to just “google” the answers to questions we ask. They can text answers to tests quickly and effortlessly. They can bypass learning when all they have to do is put the right answer into the blank on our handout.
It’s a little tougher to do when we ask them to apply the knowledge we ask them to acquire. It can be done in a number of ways. One teacher has students take their knowledge of forensics and create a crime scene. Another asks them to put a historical event into today’s world to look at similarities and differences. In each instance, the student is asked to take what they learn and put it into their context. It’s a ginourmous shift in thinking- and a strategy that makes assessment much more difficult for the teacher.
Why? Because it breaks the “teacher-answer key” bond. It requires that we look at each student as an individual. It makes us see learning through our students’ eyes. What gift! Seeing how our students can take what we give them and run with it far outpaces the ability to put what we teach them back on paper in the same format they got it. Sometimes it shows us that the lesson WE thought was brilliant was far from it. Back to the drawing board we go.
Many teachers strive for relevancy. I have seen math teachers struggle to give concrete examples to those students who say “Why do we have to learn this?” I’ve seen students who resist every opportunity to learn why they DO have to learn this. Just because they push back (after all, isn’t that their job as teens?) doesn’t mean we bail on them. Keep up the good work- keep showing them the benefit of learning what you have to offer. Give them every connection known to man. Get tired but don’t give up.