A few days ago I sat with my young children at our local kids’ museum, watching them watch a high school student volunteer perform magic tricks in the hall by the dinosaur room.
Another pair of high school students were re-organizing the town exhibit nearby, and their conversation drifted over to me.
“Korean wood block calligraphy. That’s literally the only thing I remember about AP World. And now I’m in AP Euro,” said an outgoing girl I had met earlier.
I sat thinking about this for a moment as the teenage magician wowed my kids by flicking a card and turning it into another card. Out of nowhere, or so it seemed to me, he said, “just be glad you’re not in high school” to my kids.
Ack. I immediately chipped in with some rushed positive thoughts on the subject of high school, backed up by my friend the museum director who had just walked by. The magician, wanting to fix things, popped in with “oh, you’re right. Middle school is really the worst.”
Ummm. Perhaps sensing my panic, his friend holding the deck of cards behind me began to tell what was apparently his happiest academic story from middle school.
“Oh, we had fun. We got to take care of trout for an entire year and then release them into the wild!”
OK. Let’s unpack this for a minute.
Three wonderful kids who volunteer as interns in the local children’s museum. One, an AP student, was wondering aloud about the purpose of her AP classes when she was seemingly unable to retain any information. Another, a whiz at magic tricks that obviously took many hours to practice and perfect, had only negative news of school for my kids. A third, fondly remembered the one project in middle school where he felt his work was somehow relevant and exciting, connected to the world around him.
More and more in recent years, I’ve felt the importance of connecting our curriculum with what is going on in the world, prioritizing relevance over tradition, depth over breadth.
Sometimes this connection means reading outside the canon, choosing modern and diverse voices for our literature that bring up world issues that feel really relevant to our students. Sometimes it means building a unit around a modern topic, like fake news, allyship, or social justice. Sometimes it means designing projects that feel relevant to the skills of our real-world discipline beyond the classroom.
I’ve been reading Sarah Fine and Jal Mehta’s new book, In Search of Deeper Learning. I’ll be interviewing Sarah on the podcast this year, and I can’t wait to bring you deep into the research they spent years doing on where deep learning is happening in American high schools. One thing I’ve noticed is how often these two educators discover that deep learning is taking place where students feel they are doing real world work in the classroom.
One of my best friends runs a science lab at a children’s hospital in Ohio. As I sat with her on her back steps last week I asked, “So when you were in high school, did your science classes remotely resemble the work that you do now as a scientist?”
“Nope,” she said. “I’ve kind of been hoping that’s better now.”
Hmm. As Sarah and Jal discovered in their research, traversing the country and doing deep studies of many different types of high schools, it is and it isn’t. There are places in America where students are doing the real work of academic disciplines. Often these are in project-based learning classrooms, I.B. classrooms, or electives. Or they’re in tiny pockets of awesomeness, led by gung-ho creative teachers who have decided to connect their classrooms to the wider world.
Through my own work, I have a fun lens on how it might be possible to integrate real-world ELA skills into the classroom. Because my work now is to read, write, research, argue, podcast, blog, speak, and make videos about teaching students to read, write, research, argue, podcast, blog and speak.
Isn’t that a little hilarious? Hilarious and awesome. I get to road-test my own ELA skills every day, as I write interview questions and Instagram captions, research podcast guests and talk to publishing houses, record videos and podcast episodes, write blog posts and guest articles. Most of these skills I never really practiced as I studied English in high school, college, and then graduate school. Mostly, I read a lot of books and wrote a lot of papers, memorizing the odd bit of contextual history along the way.
But would it be possible to build these practices into an English class? To design projects around this kind of work, so that students are able to practice their ELA skills through work that feels real and relevant to the world?
Yep. For sure.
So let’s talk about it. Let’s imagine some projects in which students use their ELA skills in the kinds of ways they might in their future careers within the discipline, or even outside it. I’ll share a list of ideas, and then you keep the ball rolling by adding a project idea in the comments. Sound good?
This is one of my favorite easy mediums for getting students plugged into the real world of ELA skills. Especially if you give them a chance to write about what really matters to them, it’s very easy to get them engaged in writing on a blog that can potentially be read around the world.
Blogging lends itself well to teaching different types of writing – opinion, narrative, memoir, research, interviews – as well as exploring how to effectively create different types of media like audio clips, video, photo slideshows with captions, etc. The skills that go into blogging are really useful across many jobs.
Design Thinking for your Community
Last year it seemed like I heard the phrase “Design thinking” every day. With design thinking, students deeply consider the people they want to help and the problem they want to solve before creating some kind of prototype to make a difference.
In an English class, a design thinking project could easily revolve around helping the community that you’re in, and involve using ELA skills to help solve local problems. You could let students choose the community issue that’s important to them and come up with ideas for making a difference, whether it’s to start a social media campaign, create the posters and press releases for a community drive of some kind, host a fundraiser poetry slam to raise money for a new community resource, write letters to local and national government about their chosen issue, create a film about it to bring to a local elementary school, or something else. There are a million possibilities.
Connect Research to their Lives
Research projects have the potential to be one of the most fascinating elements of education, and their skills certainly are transferable to the workplace. But often, students end up researching topics they aren’t that excited about.
What if research projects were more connected to the issues that are most important to our students?
They will use the same important skills of collecting and citing information, digging deep and learning about different types of sources if they are researching current issues like the #Metoo movement, the border wall, Black Lives Matter, immigration policy, global warming, our prison system, school funding and policy, restorative justice, or whatever else feels vital and important in your community.
Take it a step further by giving them the option to move their research into some kind of action, whether that’s creating a bulletin board about the issue for the local public library, pitching themselves as a guest on a podcast or radio show on the topic, bringing in a related documentary or speaker to your classroom or school to share more information, or something else.
As a podcaster, I get to talk to education leaders frequently throughout the year. Every time I do it I love getting a window into their life and work, and I find I go back to what I’ve learned from all these different guests often.
Students rarely get the opportunity to conduct interviews, but a great set of ELA skills comes along with them.
First, there’s the query – writing a thoughtful note to your intended guest to explain what you’re doing and why you’d like to interview them. Then there’s the research you need to do about their work to prepare to interview someone. Then there’s the interview itself, and finally either editing a podcast, film, or article based on the interview.
So how might you incorporate interview projects into your class?
Well, you could start a podcast around a theme chosen by your students, and have everyone interview a guest for the podcast, releasing them every two weeks throughout the year. Watch your students’ amazement when they discover people they’ve never met are listening to their podcast around the world.
Similarly, you could start a blog or video channel featuring interviews around a theme that’s important to your students. Again, the great thing about ELA skills is that you can practice them around virtually any topic.
A key skill in the working world is pitching an idea confidently. Standing up and explaining what you think will work and why. We don’t know what careers our students will end up in, but creating something similar to a small business incubator in your classroom is a really cool way to give them a chance to practice inventing and pitching ideas.
Try a unit in which students think up ideas for their own businesses. Send them out to pay attention to the types of businesses around them in their world – online and locally. Then give them time to create video pitches or short oral presentations. Let the class vote for their favorites. Maybe you’ll be part of helping a student or two start their own business as teenpreneurs.
Make Argument Writing Relevant
For most students, writing argument means writing a thesis to prove a point about a book or area of academia that they don’t really feel personally connected to. And while the skills do transfer from academic writing to other kinds of argument, the passion often doesn’t really transfer from other kinds of argument to academia. If you want the passion, let them argue for something that really matters to them.
For example, ask kids whether they think curriculum should focus more on modern books and diverse voices instead of the canon, and I think you’ll have a room full of students ready to argue passionately.
Ask them what electives they wish your school had, and you’ll be overwhelmed by ideas.
You can teach the skills of argument – coming up with a thesis, making points, defending them with evidence, showing how the evidence supports the points – in soooo many contexts. Let your students argue about things that matter to them.
Maybe they can propose new electives to the school administration by creating argument videos. Maybe they can write to your department chair sharing their feelings about the choice of texts at your school. Maybe they can write editorial pieces to send to the local paper about community issues that are important to them. Make argument relevant, and you’ll bring it to life.
Discussion Skills + Learning to Listen
Ever since my first year of teaching, I’ve relied heavily on the Harkness method to teach my students how to be good members of a discussion community. For some, that means learning to listen. For others, it means learning to share their opinions. For many, it means learning about subtle things like eye contact, referencing text, making transitions, and supporting other speakers with attention and follow-up questions.
This all works great when we talk about books. I’m proud of the huge strides my students have made over the years in their ability to carry on a strong discussion independently, without any one student dominating or remaining silent, and without help from me. But maybe it’s time to take it a step further.
What if the subject matter was something a bit hotter, like a political issue? In a time of deep divisions in our country, is it possible our classrooms could be a place where people with highly diverse views could learn to stay in the room and listen to each other? Share opinions without getting too angry or sad to carry on the conversations? Most adults can’t do it, but if we want that to change, our classrooms are one place to start.
I don’t know, but I like to think it’s possible. I like to think we might teach our students to talk to each other about these big issues in the classroom, respecting each other and listening, disagreeing, agreeing, sharing opposing evidence and experiences without writing each other off. I like the idea of letting students suggest topics important to them for discussions in class sometimes, working on their discussion skills with contemporary topics.
You could frame this kind of discussion as practice for a future for our country in which people respect each other and talk to each other across the lines of difference, seeking common ground and understanding instead of falling back on hate.
Since you’re a teacher, you know the old adage is true – you learn something far better when you have to teach it. Putting our students in the role of the teacher is one way to help them feel the relevance of their work.
Is there a summer reading program your class could help design posters, contests, bookmarks, and video book talks for?
Is there a local group working with younger kids on their reading that needs audiobook narrators and book video creators?
Is there a classroom down the hall or down the street at the elementary school with kids who could use one-on-one help with their writing?
Turning your students into teachers will change their perception of themselves and their abilities, as well as give them a chance to engage in real world work in English.
OK, I could go on. But I think I’ve floated this idea out there to you. What do you think? Are you on board? Do you think you’ll experiment with more connections to the outside world inside your classroom? I’d love to hear your ideas, or the amazing things you’re already doing in this sphere! Drop a comment below if you’re in the mood.