Creating Relevance in the Classroom

One aspect of teaching, which can be quite difficult, is how to make what we teach relevant to students today. Kids seem to think they cannot possibly connect the writings of yesteryear with the hectic, technological, global lives led today; however, creating relevance need not be too difficult.

I teach English and one of my favorite pieces to read (an excerpt anyway) with the kids is Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Not only do the students love the ideas of independence and questioning authority, but they also can quickly apply the principles to their daily lives or to pop culture.

One example right now which fits in quite nicely with Emerson’s teachings is the sports story centering on Brett Favre. I might give a quick rundown about how Brett Favre has decided he does not now want to remain retired and how he would like to return to the NFL as a starting quarterback. I could give a short article from a sports page as well, which wouldn’t be a bad idea, and then give the students this question: “How would Ralph Waldo Emerson feel about Brett Favre’s decision? Use lines from Self-Reliance to support your answer.”

Most likely, the students would use the following lines:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.

If the students really wanted to push this idea (as they did when I used a similar prompt about the 2004 presidential elections) even further, possibly to an exaggerated level considering the prompt is about football, the following lines could be used (which were used with the 2004 presidential prompt):

Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood. — Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

Students have used these lines often, partially because I think they like to believe that their teenage resistance to authority will be seen one day as appropriate and wise in retrospect, but also because they want to be the generation with the new ideas to change and shape the world. Their names may one day be placed among those in Emerson’s list, but I digress.

Past students have used these lines in my classes, in speeches and in essays, to defend the positions of figures as opposing in views as George W. Bush and Al Gore. They begin to realize how the same text, even the same lines, can be used to support completely opposing viewpoints. Inevitably, someone will mention how The Bible is used in this manner as well, but I tend to try to steer away from religious perspectives because we have such a dividing line in our community over religion and I don’t need a holy war in my classroom. Still, it’s a good point.

Plus, using the current events of our diverse, contemporary society brings relevance to the texts we read. I can give the students a prompt or allow the students to discover relationships on their own. Here are a few examples I have used:

  • Is it possible that Brutus’ preemptive killing of Julius Caesar could be used to discuss the war in Iraq?
  • Is the trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird in any way related to the political detainees in Gitmo?
  • How doe Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, relate to the situation in Darfur?
  • How does the desperation and blind faith of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath relate to the plight of the illegal immigrants in today’s America?
  • Are the “breads and circuses” of the ancient Roman Empire similar to today’s tax refunds and focus on tabloid news?

No matter which side of the aisle one finds oneself, these questions not only spark passion in the students, but these questions force students to relate today’s world with the content taught. Students will remember these assignments, and they (usually) will develop a new appreciation for the content.

Side note: These types of prompts also help reduce instances of plagiarism if you are worried about that as well.

8 thoughts on “Creating Relevance in the Classroom

  1. Katie

    I agree that relevance is an integral part for student learning. In the past, I found that students tended not to want to learn something if it was not relevant in their life. I now teach in the elementary school and for the most part the students do not question why we learn something. However, I noticed that when I make it relevant to their lives, making change for example, the students seem to understand it better or have a greater desire to understand it.

  2. drpezz Post author

    My high school students seem motivated primarily by money, so any time I mention money (which I rarely do) they perk right up.

  3. Pingback: Reading in the Contemporary World « The Doc Is In

  4. David Fordee

    My students did a great job last year in a Philosophical Chairs discussion about this statement: “The United States of America will cease to exist someday for similar reasons that the Roman Empire fell.”

    Connecting current events with my World History class is also made easier by showing CNN Student News – a quick 10 min newscast devoted to kids. There is always something (many times multiple themes) that I can connect to what we are learning in class.

    I rank relevance a close second in my ranking of the new 3 Rs: Rigor, Relevance, & Relationships. I think it’s reversed in order of importance: Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor.

  5. drpezz Post author

    I use the same question when reading Julius Caesar, and the kids go crazy on both sides of the question. It’s nice to know my English class and your History class are on the same wavelength.

    With your history classes, is there much crossover or team teaching with the language arts teachers and curriculum?

  6. David Fordee

    Drpezz – I’ll be attending a training in two weeks that is going to attempt to help the PreAP English and PreAP World History teachers get on the same page. I am really looking forward to it. Right now, all i do is be sure I read their novels that they read in class so I can use them during the school year as reference. Plus, we teach some writing elements in similar ways – for example, thesis statements.


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