“When are we ever going to use this?” a student defiantly asks, rolling her eyes. She wants to know that I’m not wasting her time. And I reassure her I’m not.

I have a rule in my classroom: if you ever think that what I’m teaching you doesn’t matter, please ask. I won’t be offended. I will explain the reasoning behind the lesson, and if I can’t find a good reason, then we will stop the lesson and move onto something else.

This has happened a few times in my class, back when I was teaching students how to understand iambic pentameter, predicate adjectives, or conjunctive adverbs. What are those? you might ask. It doesn’t matter. Obviously you are successful and your life has been just fine without them.

And my students have been doing better, too, since I dropped those time-intensive lessons and replaced them with much more engaging, relevant lessons. I began asking myself, before every lesson, “Do my students really need to know this?”

If I couldn’t answer yes, I didn’t teach it. If it was on the state test and they didn’t need to know it for any other reason, then I briefly told them what it was, and told them that the only reason they needed to know it was because it’d be on the state test. I made sure to tell them that unless they planned on going into a hyper-specific course on Shakespeare or poetry, knowing the difference between an iamb or a trochee wouldn’t make one hell of a difference to their success as a person.

I found that by doing this, my students realized that I didn’t want to waste my time and that I didn’t want to waste their time. I found that when I told them, “This is super important. Listen up,” they actually began to understand that I was teaching them information they actually needed — both for the present and for the future.

Engineering, Planning, and the English Language Arts Classroom?

My 9th English Literature and Composition students have recently begun working on an ongoing project with the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. GDOT and FHWA came to Cross Keys High School last week to brainstorm ideas with students about how to make Buford Highway a safer state road and how to more effectively reach the BuHi neighborhood.

As a part of its community-engagement efforts, GDOT wants to partner with the Buford Highway community – specifically high school students – in order to understand what’s important to the residents. They also want to understand ways that they can disseminate information to the community regarding pedestrian safety and awareness. Since the TV is one of the most common ways to get information out to a broad audience, students will be working with officials to create public service announcements that will make it easy for residents along Buford Highway to understand more about pedestrian and driver safety.

In order to do this, representatives from GDOT and FHWA led my fourth period class through a discussion, and as students pointed out areas of confusion (like “How do you use those crosswalks in the middle of the road?”) or concern, we created five major areas of interest (written on butcher paper distributed throughout the room). These included: “hawk” signals, driving speed, crosswalks at intersections, jaywalking, and sidewalks.

After these five major areas were identified, students decided which group – each headed by an individual from GDOT or FHWA – they wanted to join in order brainstorm ideas for area-specific public service announcements.

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So how does this tie in with our curriculum?

One of the best things about Common Core (rebranded as the Georgia Standards of Excellence) is that activities like this incorporate multiple aspects of the curriculum while simultaneously providing students with relevant and applicable skills. (Obviously, one would hope that curricula would always provide students with relevant skills, but sometimes that is not realized, as in the case of trigonometry, which I have never used since the day I took my final exam in high school. Sorry, Mr. Free and Ms. Sutton!)

In order to demonstrate how this activity meets the English standards for 9th grade literature and composition, I’ve created a chart (below) correlating each activity to a required standard. I do this to show other teachers the flexibility and possibilities that we have within our classrooms – without having to “fight” the current mandates. (There is enough to fight when it comes to the over-testing of our children, so I would rather save my energy for that, as opposed to trying to dismantle the state standards – which actually aren’t bad for 9-10 grade English).

Activity Standard
Discuss pedestrian and transportation ideas with peers and with engineers and planners; use the internet in order to gain deeper understanding of specific topics (using iPads) Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9-210 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. (ELAGSE9-10SL1)

 

Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem: narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation. (ELAGSE9-10W7)

 

 

Collaboratively develop ideas for a particular topic, arranging arguments in favor of certain ideas and outlining the order of importance of certain issues pertaining to transportation and pedestrian safety Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences. (ELAGSE9-10W10)

 

Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source. (ELAGSE9-10SL2)

 

Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word of phrase important to comprehension or expression. (ELAGSE9-10L6)

Listen to presenters from the Georgia Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration and ask critical questions about the subject matter; provide critical feedback after hearing from presenters Evaluate and/or reflect on a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence. (ELAGSE9-10SL3)

 

Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word of phrase important to comprehension or expression. (ELAGSE9-10L6)

Some groups use technology to brainstorm and design their Public Service Announcement (PSA) Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentation to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.  (ELAGSE9-10SL5)
Students designed digital and written “storyboards” to demonstrate their plan to make the community aware of pedestrian safety rules and tips Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentation to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.  (ELAGSE9-10SL5)

 

Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task. (ELAGSE9-10RL4)

After students wrote their drafts, they engaged in peer-to-peer, professional-to-student, and teacher-to-student editing and revising. Since the plans were going to be viewed by others at GDOT, students had additional motivation to care about their writing and their mechanics. Demonstrate command of the conventions of Standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking. (ELAGSE9-10L1)

 

Demonstrate command of the conventions of Standard English capitalizations, punctuation, and spelling when writing. (ELAGSE9-10L2)

While talking with engineers, planners, community strategists, and videographers, students came across many unfamiliar words. They used context clues to figure out what people were discussing, but they also simply asked the professionals to clarify their meaning whenever they misunderstood something. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 9-10 reading and context, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies. (ELAGSE9-10L4)

 

Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word of phrase important to comprehension or expression. (ELAGSE9-10L6)

 

Hopefully this shows other teachers just how limitless our classrooms can be. Instead of simply giving students worksheets to practice parallel structure or determining main idea, we can create space for lessons like this. Not only are you covering the standards (and preparing your students for the state test), but — more importantly — you are showing your students that their education matters, that it’s relevant in the world outside of the schoolhouse walls. Why not do both?

Make the Final Product Something that Actually Matters to the Community

Students have a need for immediate gratification – something that many of us non-students struggle to master – and when possible, we should tap into this need. Many students will not care about your subject just because you start your class with “You will use this one day in college or in the ‘real world.’”

However, if students think that their hard work and their knowledge will be immediately beneficial to themselves or to their community, they will be much more likely to care about their work. If my students think that engineers for GDOT are going to be reading their work, then their effort is going to be much more genuine, the learning much more authentic, than if they simply turned in a worksheet for a homework grade.

Whenever we can, let’s make students’ final product something that can be immediately used in the “real world” in a way that immediately benefits the students’ community.

You don’t have to be a private school, a charter school, or a magnet school in order to do this. You can start by paying attention to your students’ community and by finding out what issues are important to them. Reach out to individuals in the students’ community so that you can strategize how their work might align with whichever class you are teaching. You might be surprised at how responsive many professionals are when a teacher invites them to share their workload with his or her students.

Better yet – if you say you don’t have time to do this – move into the community in which you teach. You make time to invest in your own community – why not invest in your students’ community and your own at the same time?


I will be presenting these ideas and more in just a couple weeks at the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention here in Atlanta, Georgia, so let me know if you have any pertinent feedback!