Why Do We Have to Learn This? Making Content Relevant

We're well into the school year now, and into real content in my classes -- delving into Article I of the Constitution in Civics, and starting the Revolution in American History. I can hear teachers throughout the building shifting from classroom procedures and reviewing prior learning to new information and ideas.

Plus, the first progress reports were mailed out to parents, so students are coming in, wide-eyed: "You mean I really have to hand in those assignments if I want to play in the game this week?" Yes, grasshopper.

Relationships, relevance, rigor -- these are the keys to effective teaching, according to what we learned in our teacher training programs and most of our professional development sessions, and is the consistent message from our principal and master teachers.

The relationships part is pretty simple; hard, but simple. The kids need to feel a connection to the teacher, and have to believe that the teacher knows and cares about them before they're ready to move on to the content. This makes pretty obvious sense, and there are as many effective and appropriate ways to accomplish it as there are effective teachers. Some teachers are actually liked by their students -- this is especially true at the elementary level -- and it's usually because students are reflecting back the love and commitment the teacher brings to the task. Other teachers are respected, either because the students see the teacher's love for the subject matter, or because the teacher expects more of them and kids rise to the challenge [cf., Stand and Deliver and To Sir With Love].

Once the relationship is in place and is continually monitored and nurtured by the teacher, the trick is to migrate or transfer that connection to the subject matter. Of course, teachers have to present lessons that are interesting and fun and challenging, but we also have to model a genuine engagement with the material. If the students respect and/or like us, and we respect and like the subject, the kids will follow us down the path.

The relevance piece comes at this point, when we have the students ready to listen, but they don't quite know why they should. Sure, they can see that we care -- we have a science teacher in our school who gets so visibly excited about the subject, the kids can't help but smile and go along -- but they still want to know "what they get out of it." And this is where, at least from what I've seen, that the strong teacher captures his students -- the combination of a student who's been enticed into open-mindedness, the presentation/performance of an interesting lesson, and a direct answer to the question of why they should care -- and real learning starts to occur.

This is what teachers work for -- not power or prestige or pelf, but that moment of clarity when a student's mind opens just a little more, and takes in that new idea.

Rigor we'll save for another day.