Friday, June 28, 2019

Dear Teachers: Don't Make Your Lesson Relevant

When I was getting my teacher training way back in the 1970s, we used to hear a great deal about making our teaching relevant. It took me several years of teaching to figure out why that was terrible advice. And it hasn't ever gone away.
It seems to make sense. Connect your lesson on parts of speech to a current popular song. Assign persuasive essays about something the kids are into today. Could we do an essay about the rap? I hear that teens very much like the rap these days.
Looks tall to me.
But the problem is not teachers who are clueless about what a relevant connection might be. That's correctable (I still want back the hours of my life I spent watching The Hills so that I could follow student discussions). The problem is less obvious than the natural consequences of living on the other side of the generational divide.
Nobody says, "Let's think of a way to make mountains tall." And if your spouse says, "I'm looking for ways to make you interesting and appealing," that is not a good sign.
Once you look at a lesson and ask, "How am I going to make this material relevant," you have admitted that the material is not actually relevant. If that's true--if the lesson is inherently irrelevant--then you need to ask a bigger question. Why are you teaching it at all? Because it's on the test? Because your boss said you have to? These are lousy reasons to teach anything. More importantly, no amount of stapling on pictures of movie stars will convince your students that you aren't wasting their time, and wasting students' time is one of the unforgivable sins in the teaching biz.
Know why you are teaching what you're teaching. Know why the material has value for your students. This is not always obvious, but this is where your expertise in the subject matter is supposed to come in. You're the teacher--you're supposed to know what the connection is between your content material and the business of being fully human in the world. If you don't see a connection, you need to go study and look to find it, or you need to reconsider whether you should be teaching it at all.Those connections don't need to be profound. For instance, I maintain that one of the benefits of being a well-educated person is that you get more jokes. Education makes the world funnier. Some disciplines are about building mental muscles. When I inevitably heard the "when are we ever going to use this" question, my reply was a sports analogy. Our football players always spent the offseason lifting weights, even though no football game in history ever stopped for a bench press competition. The players are never going to use their bench pressing skills, so why bother? Because they would use the muscles that weight lifting built.
Literature connects us to the human attempt to make sense of how the world works (a daily activity for students). The questions of history (What happened, how did it happen, why did it happen, and what will happen because of it) are the same questions that students ask about last Saturday's dance. Math and science help us understand how to build and evaluate facts. We all bathe in the arts every single day. And there is plenty more to unpack about what teachers teach in school. And while students may seem caught up in small, petty things, they are deeply busy figuring out how the world works and how to be in it. There's your connection.
It is easy to get caught up in the details, to miss the forest as we stare at the bugs on the leaves on the branches on the trees. It is easy to get caught up in figuring out how to get another question on a worksheet and forget to ask why you're assigning the worksheet in the first place. This is why part of the summer work of teaching should be not just stepping back and reconnecting with the material, but reconnecting with life out in the world where students live so that we can better see the connections between the two.
"Why are we learning this?" is the question that no teacher should ever be afraid or unable to answer because the answer to that question is the foundation of everything else that happens in the classroom. That's why the answer should always be real and well-considered, not just something we make up.


  1. Student: "When are we ever going to use THIS"
    Teacher: "You'll probably be using your BRAIN every day."

    I always felt that making content knowledge interesting and powerful was more important than making it relevant. Drawing students into the discipline through expertise and passion was a far better approach than making those often long reaches for so-called relevancy. Trying to open new doors for kids is our job, not forcing ourselves through their door.

    Teachers have to be filters for knowledge, separating the interesting, meaningful, inspirational facts and ideas from the trivial and ordinary. Anyone can teach directly through a textbook, chapter by chapter, plowing through unfiltered material. The best teachers rarely use a textbook approach but instead distill those 700 pages of seemingly uniform information into the powerful ideas that shape a discipline.

  2. I don't think I've ever known a teacher who came out of college who did not try in some way to make poetry relevant to the typical skeptical student audience. Most student teachers tried to teach poetry by using popular songs. (I may even have tried it during my first years of teaching--if so, I've repressed the memory.) If I had a student teacher who wanted to try it, I always said go ahead. They all tried and all were disappointed in the student response, which was usually something like, "Don't mess with our stuff." But it was better for the student teachers to find that out in practice teaching. That saved later disappointment. If someone figured out how to do it, let me know.