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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A Curriculum of Concerns

Most excellent teachers have learned what first-rate filmmakers have always known, that to be successful you need to reach your audience emotionally. I want to revisit one the best approaches I know, emphasizing its application at the secondary school level. The purpose is to increase student motivation and foster healthy emotional development.

Teachers know that making lessons relevant helps motivate students. The most frequent approach is to link curriculum to learner interests. As an example, if kids are interested in hip-hop music or in competitive sports and you weave those into your lessons, you'll increase student motivation.

But two educators, Mario Fantini and Gerry Weinstein, in two now out-of-print books, Making Urban Schools Work and Towards Humanistic Education, pointed out that it would be more effective to link curriculum to the concerns of learners. (You can find used copies of both through Book Finder.) What do kids worry about? What anxieties sometimes keep them up at night? What peer interactions churn up their emotions? How do they deal with their fears about the future, college admissions, employment or bullying?

Fantini and Weinstein found that adolescents' concerns fall into three categories:

  • Identity
  • Connectedness
  • Power

We know that adolescents wrestle with figuring out who they are and what their direction is for the future. Relationships with others, acceptance and rejection, and intimate relationships are dominant concerns for many. And kids often struggle with feelings of powerlessness related to their ability to control their lives and determine their futures.

Assessing Student Concerns

Step one is assessment, finding out the concerns of your students. Some concerns are normal for the age group, and of course teachers should always be aware of those concerns. But concerns are often influenced by the social milieu, the family and the dominant peer group. You need to discover the primary concerns of the kids you teach.

Just asking for the information in an anonymous written assignment doesn't often work very well. It can be difficult for adolescents to articulate their concerns to themselves, let alone a teacher, however accessible you may be.

If you establish personal journals as a regular process in your class, and also create an environment where students feel free to selectively share some journal excerpts with you through letters or emails, you may be able to get better information. Roger Hiemstra and Melissa Kelly offer some guidelines on how to proceed with this.

I prefer using an indirect, low-risk and fun approach, so I designed an exercise that can be used both for assessment and as a springboard for teaching kids to deal with the concerns. It's entitled The Miracle Workers. I've found that, in addition to being more fun, this provokes thought and provides options for follow-up.

Students are given a list of fictitious miracle workers and told to imagine that each one can work a miracle for them. They're asked to select the three who would be most valuable to them and to designate one of those as their primary choice. The names of each are designed to be humorous. For instance, Sir Vival provides street smarts and "Pop" Larity . . . well, you get it!

I hand it to students, have them anonymously make their selections, and also write these selections in their journals. Students who have a concern that they think was omitted can add it and even come up with the name of a new miracle worker if they'd like. I collect the sheets and tabulate the concerns to determine which are dominant. Since students will be interested in the results, I spend time sharing and discussing them the next day

(Click the above image to download a PDF of the exercise and a number of ways you can employ it.)

Applying Student Concerns to Increase Motivation

So now what? Once you know student concerns, you need to incorporate them into your lessons.

Language Arts

In language arts classes, it's easy to find readings that relate to the concerns of the students. There are many superb young adult novels that specifically address the concerns of kids. Most of them are so good that adults can also appreciate them. The website Complex is just one of many helpful resources for identifying this material.

If you're a foreign language teacher, you probably know the territory of young adult literature in the language you teach better than I do, but this edition of The ALAN Review is one interesting source that I discovered.

If you're required to teach a book that doesn't relate to the lives of your students, at least find a way of providing supplementary options. Use any wiggle room you have!

There are no formulaic answers to any of this, which means doing the minimal online searching needed to find books they can relate to, or consulting with your school librarian.

Equally important, writing assignments and video productions are great ways of addressing your students' concerns. As one example, the California Film Institute's My Place program helps kids tell their stories through video. The work is illustrative of what could be done in schools as well.

History

In history classes, consider organizing your curriculum around issues. If you do this rather than relying purely on chronology, it becomes easier for your students to find significant connections. Issues related to equality, violence, and power versus powerlessness are just a few of the many learning approaches that you can connect to learner concerns.

Science, Math and Art

In the sciences, there will be opportunities to address concerns related to health, diseases and diet, or natural disasters. In math, the greatest concern is usually the subject itself. Math anxiety is something that needs to be addressed by every math teacher.

And of course, there are numerous ways of engaging students in art projects, especially drawing, painting and collages, to express their concerns.

Directly Addressing Student Concerns

One other way of attending to student concerns is the direct route. Although that's an extensive subject, here are a few preliminary ideas.

In my classes, I had students imagine a dialogue with their primary miracle worker in which they told the miracle worker why they needed the miracle. I also had them address the question, "Since there are no miracle workers, what personal resources do you have for dealing with your concern, and how can you help make this 'miracle' happen?" That latter question became the subject for considerable exploration, individually, with a partner or two, and sometimes with me.

This also points to the importance of creating an environment of openness and trust, a subject I'll revisit in more depth in a future blog post. In this type of classroom environment, there will be many opportunities for students to talk about their concerns directly, both with you and with other students around whom they feel safe.

Challenge Day is a process that many schools have used to help build this environment across a whole grade level or even a whole small school.

This is a vast and rich territory. To explore it and apply what we discover begins with an understanding of why we're exploring. Discovering the concerns of our students provides us with an opportunity to increase their motivation and help them take more control over their own lives.

Comments (17)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
Blogger 2014

What mark says is spot on. These books changed my way of thinking and were instrumental in the development of my work in "Discipline with Dignity." Connecting emotionally matters more than other content. What is more dangerous to us, A poor reader or a man who solves his problems with a gun? I strongly recommend the ideas in this post.

Paula Prentis's picture
Paula Prentis
Author of SEL, self skills, PBL program for teens.

Mark, I love this article! I worked with teens for a few years to find out what THEY want to learn to help them feel successful and purposeful in school and life, and formulated a curriculum based on their input. This is what they want - help with identity development, to be creative, engaged, motivated. To journal, experience their learning, develop SEL skills, play and feel heard by their teachers - to establish connections. Thank you! For free material to further this kind of learning, please visit www.YourSelfSeries.com. I'd love to hear your thoughts. All the best, Paula

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger 2014

I appreciate your comments Rick, particularly knowing how deeply your own work focuses on the feelings of kids.

What we need of course are policies and incentives and training that makes this easily available to and supportive of the many teachers who are ready, if only we shifted our priorities.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger 2014

Thanks Paula. It's always nice to connect with other members of the choir!

Your website looks great to me.

One question, in addition to the books and onsite info, do you provide an avenue for teachers and students to communicate with you and perhaps with each other?

It may be there and I may have just not looked carefully enough.

Mark

Alina Moran's picture
Alina Moran
Curriculum Design & Edufeedback Specialist

Being perceptive to our students' emotions, addressing them respectfully within a safe and meaningful environment allows for solid connections to occur. These connections will aid significantly in the successful discovery and transfer of knowledge. These connections are for life! They will come in handy in the application of new knowledge, & the resolution of problems in this journey we call life. I know this well, I have taught in this manner since 1989. I can honestly say I am still enjoying the infinite fruits of that collaborative teaching-learning endeavor. Of my 23 HS graduating classes and my 23 8th Grade graduating classes no student has derailed. Most are compassionate successful professionals enhancing their communities and embarking in their tasks as proactive parents.

Alina Moran's picture
Alina Moran
Curriculum Design & Edufeedback Specialist

Once you connect emotionally the connections to content will flow and multiply.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger 2014

Thanks Alina. I also note that you have an interest in neuroscience. My wife is a psychologist who is deeply interested in the latest developments in neuroscience and I've become increasingly intrigued by the breakthroughs taking place. Did you know that a study a few years ago showed a 20 year lag time between the latest research in psychology and its application to classroom teaching?

I think we often are boats against the current, but the strong rowing is well worth it.

Please keep in touch, either via this site or my Facebook page, which I primarily use for professional purposes and cultural recommendations.

Thanks.

Mark

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