It is a curious aspect of our jobs that we are preparing students for the adult world while they are yet in the child or teenage world. The challenge being many of the skills covered in our classes are currently irrelevant to them. Working to make my course content as relevant as possible, I have found the following the most beneficial.
1. Allow choice in writing topics and genres.
Early in the year, I promise my students freedom in the topics of their writing assignments. “I will choose mode, you get to choose the topic and genre,” I tell students. Common Core focuses on writing mode, not content or genre. Students should be free to choose these. For example, consider CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.2.A, which focuses in part in using graphics to aid in the readability of a text. This skill could be achieved through including a table in a lab report or using text wrapping to incorporate an image in a periodical article.
A survey of different writing genres early in the year can pique interest in students of the type of writings they want to do. I even prompt students to conduct brief research on the characteristics of genres that interest them. Class instruction then focuses on the targeted skills while students apply them to their unique genres and topics. The skills become relevant through application to topics in which students are interested.
2. Get rid of the whole class novel.
This requires releasing a measure of control, which can be scary for teachers; however, the result includes higher buy-in of the standards being taught. Remember, it is not the content of the book we are teaching that is important – it is the skills acquired through reading it that matter.
A couple years ago, I reorganized the booklist of the titles my department owned. Instead of selecting my favorites from this list of which I would teach as whole class texts, I organized them by value of which Common Core standards they would lend themselves. For example, considering CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.5 concerning structure, I selected, among others, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald for its first-person removed narration, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer for its nonlinear narration, and Grass Roof, Tin Roof by Dao Strom for its flashbacks. Each student selected which one he/she wanted to read and was put into a group based on that selection. Shorter texts, such as short stories or articles, are used in lieu of books as whole class texts to study structure. Students then applied the analysis to their selected texts within their groups.
All three texts serve the purpose of teaching how an author’s structural choices impact the reading and contribute to the text’s meaning. While each of these – if taught individually as a whole class text – would only engage a fraction of the class, letting students select which ones they read makes the targeted standard relevant because the content is relevant.
3. Replace vocabulary tests with authentic application of new words.
Early in my career, out of curiosity, I quizzed my students on many of the words we had covered throughout the year on vocabulary tests, which were lists of words according to an online source were beneficial in preparation for the SAT. They received completion credit for this “test” as they were not aware of it ahead of time; I just wanted to see how many of the words they retained. The results were dismal, prompting me to revamp how I integrate vocabulary into my instruction.
Common Core standards prescribe vocabulary acquisition through context, not rote memorization. Answering this call, I started including vocabulary development as part of my students’ reading journals. As students read (their self-selected texts, of course), they record words with which they are unfamiliar. Yes, their assignment is to look up the definitions to these words, but more importantly, they are challenged to start using them in their daily academic language as they write for other classes. Part of the requirement of their reading journal is to include pictures of assignments
showing organic use of newly acquired words. They initially grumble over the ostensible added effort but soon learn it is as easy as updating Snapchat.
Last year I gave a pop quiz in June, testing students on the vocabulary they included in their reading journals. The scores were almost triple that of the test I gave previously after lists of SAT words. What are ways you make course content relevant to your students?
When outside of the classroom, I enjoy mtn. biking, skiing, running, and grilling good food, but don’t enjoy karaoke or green beans, mainly because I can’t sing and was afraid of the Jolly Green Giant as a kid.
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