Saturday, May 9, 2009

Making Learning Relevant to Student's Lives and Interests

In a recent post titled "Seven Thoughts on Implementing Positive Change in the Way We Teach our Students," (click on the title of this post to read it in its entirety) I discussed making learning relevant to students' lives and interests. This is a way to engage students and get them excited about learning. When that happens, the sky is the limit. But how to do it?

Here's a couple of ideas tied to the teaching of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare that could be adapted for use with other works as well. I'm sure these ideas are not completely original with me, and that there are many of you out there who do these or something like them, if so I'd love for you to share your versions here on the blog. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

1. Texting
We should all pretty much be able to agree that cell phones and texting are common to most high school students. They text each other all the time. So why not bring it into the classroom? After reading the balcony scene, which many students are asked to memorize, why not have students re-imagine it as a texting conversation? Rather than memorization, this is something that students will get excited about and really get engaged in. They have to really read the material closely and understand it before they can "translate" it into texting language. To make it even more powerful, two students could take the parts and actually text each other the assignment. This would also lend it more authenticity. Sharing this in class would be a lot of fun, and fun in the classroom should not be discounted.

2. Romeo's Song
There are not too many high school students who are not into music in a very big way. So isn't it natural to bring THEIR music into the classroom? Won't they be excited to share what they listen to? Here's one way to do it: after reading about Romeo's unrequited love for Rosaline in the first scene, ask students to go home and choose a song that would fit how Romeo is feeling at that moment. Then they can write a paragraph on why this song is appropriate and include some evidence and analysis. They can bring the song into class the next day on an ipod, a CD, or just bring in the lyrics. Then you can turn the class over to them and let them present their song, usually the first verse and the chorus will do, and say why this song fits. I know of one student who chose "I Want You to Want Me" by Cheap Trick. How perfect is that! Letting them group around the sound system will enable them to be able to move while the song is playing and really enjoy the experience while learning. Great concept.

My high school experience with Shakespeare, and poetry as well, was mostly painful, as teachers did an excellent job of sucking all the fun and joy out of both. It wasn't until I got to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where professor Normand Berlin breathed life and joy back into Shakespeare, that I really fell in love with it. Thanks Dr. Berlin.

But that's part of the power we have as educators- to bring enthusiasm, joy, empathy, and creativity into our classrooms- no matter what the subject. If we have passion for what we are doing in the classroom, it will have far-reaching positive effects, not only on the students but on us as well.

Making what we do in the classroom relevant to students' lives is an important step.

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