As a teacher I liked to provide my students with choices. I taught English, which made it all easier; I could do book clubs and invite kids to choose any book from a list of authors, and then group them (after they’d chosen) by either similar writers or theme. It was energizing to see a student who’d read The Color Purple sitting next to someone who’d read If Beale Street Could Talk, joined at a table where two others had read Juneteenth and Toni Morrison’s Jazz.
Some constraints were forced; if we were finishing a unit on Asian literature, the author list would include Haruki Murakami instead of Alice Walker, but even as I imposed parameters, I believed that the freedom I gave my students had the potential to inspire more relevance.
I’ve been out of the classroom for eight years now, and in that time the world around us has become even richer with choices. Students have the Library of Alexandria on a rectangle of plastic and glass tucked in their pockets (at least tucked away when the teacher is looking) and the ability to tailor what they read and watch and listen to specifically to their own tastes.
Looking at the present, and as much into the future as my fortysomething eyes can discern, I wonder what I’d do to promote relevancy if I were teaching today.
I always felt, in the less interconnected world in which I taught, that I had an obligation to direct my students toward the good stuff: Shakespeare, Sartre, and Sinatra, but information, examples, and even experiences abound outside the classroom and are increasingly available to kids online. Asked the right questions, they’d need me less, and could learn even more. …if they were interested.
Digital literacy and the exponential growth of quality online make my book groups feel quaint.
In this new landscape, I think I’d serve my students better if I put as much time into thinking about the questions I ask as I once did the information I presented.
Then, getting to know my students and using their own curiosity to fuel inquiry, I might be able to ignite learning.
Relevancy helps to counter the “what’s in it for me?” mentality. I know I’d put emphasis on asking good questions, and work to be sure students could articulate why they were learning what they were.
Does that mean Jazz and Juneteenth would drop off the classroom map? No. Sharing what we’re passionate about is a part of the teacher-student relationship that is at the heart of all learning. But it would mean that I’d approach my own role in the classroom differently, my time spent asking better and more questions, and my focus turned from instruction to sparking curiosity.
But back to that fact: I’ve been an administrator for eight years. My trips to the classroom to teach are stints substituting in emergencies and single lessons a couple of times a year in English classes (which I love). How do I apply this relevancy test to what I do as a principal?
In a nutshell I think the answer is twofold: I am at my best when I help teachers articulate the “why” of what they’re doing, celebrating learning, and the learning-focused relationships between students and teachers. I can also bring this attitude of relevancy to my campus by actively encouraging my school community to try new things, think differently, and be willing to risk failure in pursuit of something that really matters.
When a student asks rhetorically “What’s in it for me?” I want her to know how the learning is relevant, how it matters to her own life. Asked “What’s in it for me?” I want the answer she gives herself to be: “Everything.”