Making real-world connections in the classroom

“When will we ever do this in the real world?” It’s a question students enjoy asking during a particularly boring lesson. Usually the prime motive is to irritate and annoy the teacher so that he or she will move onto something more engaging (Full disclosure: I know, because it’s a tactic I used on my teachers). While the question may come from a place of frustration, it’s one that we as teachers should welcome and more importantly be able to answer. In the past decade, we’ve seen a tremendous landscape shift in the world of education. In an age where every student carries a laptop to class, teachers have had to adapt their thinking in how they deliver classroom instruction and content.

It was exactly 10 years ago this December that Time Magazine made headlines by selecting “You” as its Person of the Year in a nod to websites that turned average internet users into content creators. At the time, YouTube was barely a year old. Twitter had only been around for six months. Given their ubiquity now, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that we mostly read the internet, but didn’t add our own content. The Web 2.0 mentality where users both take from and give back to the internet has had major implications for all digital users including students who access the web every day as part of their learning.  

In my classroom, I began to the understand the power of letting students create for a larger audience online when I volunteered my English class to take over the production of Miller’s TV production KBRM — A “60 Minutes” style news show that highlighted the many positive things happening in the building. When students knew that they weren’t writing and speaking for me and the grade I’d give, but rather for their peers, school staff, parents and community members, the level of engagement and work ethic skyrocketed. Instead of me having to encourage students to take another shot at revision, they begged to do another take so they could get a segment just right. Not only that, but if you watch the videos (which can be found on Miller’s web page) it’s clear the students are having genuine fun.   

As educators, one of the most powerful ways we can make content relevant to students is by engaging them with real-world problems and asking them to solve them in the same context they would outside of school. In the opening months of this school year there’s been a concerted effort to provide students with audiences outside of their classroom. When most of us think back on our education, the work we did in school was mainly seen by a small group of people usually consisting of our teacher, perhaps our classmates, and, if it was exceptionally good, our parents might have gotten a look. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see Marshalltown students presenting to the county board or gaining hundreds of followers on a class-created YouTube channel. In short, the audience has expanded.  

While the Iowa Core lays out a set of standards for students to achieve in the course of a given year, creative teachers across the district are finding new and innovative ways to meet the standards with relevant and rigorous lessons that allow students to become not just consumers of content, but creators of it.  

When we allow our students to let their audience drive the message and the creation of content, rather than a grade, the connection to the world outside of school becomes increasingly clear. No longer are students asking how their learning applies to the real world, because they see their work can be accessed by anyone in the world with a connection to the web.   

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Lucas Johnson is an English teacher at Miller Middle School in the Marshalltown Community School District.