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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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

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

Hi, Mark,
We work closely with the schools who have our program so they contact us directly. Our contact information is provided online. In the fall, we will have Lesson Plans on the Educator's Side that will correlate with the (over 50) topics on the Teen Side. The LPs will have PBL, service learning, and many other avenues to teach the topics, plus an open forum for teachers to share what worked for them.
I really appreciate connecting with you. SEL is so very important and finding people who further the cause is always tricky. Traveling the country speaking, selling and meeting people can be frustrating as many, many teachers love our program (and therefore the whole SEL idea) but fail to get their principals or admin to make the move.
If a lightbulb goes off in your mind as to whom you think would be a good fit for what we do, I'd appreciate your introduction or thoughts.
Fingers crossed and thanks for your work!
Paula

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

At times, we are definitely boats against the current... sometimes even without a paddle ;) but getting the boat to safe shores is tremendously rewarding!

My teaching experience was a result of needs & a miracle in the making. I did not get there the regular way... I was thrown in, hands on, sink or swim with the very clear responsibility to have my kids reach their potential... and then some.

25 years later they are still an integral part of my life and that is just priceless. The school where this magical journey began is a top notch bilingual school where students graduate from HS with an Associate degree in Computer Programming... this in a third world nation in the Caribbean.

As a clueless rookie teacher guided solely by my desperate need to survive, bring up my child with dignity and the determination to have my students exceed all previous expectations I catapulted into an educational frenzy of sorts where I would have to implement new ways to meet all students' needs.

I had a significant high number of Asian students who did not speak English or Spanish. I had to find a solution for these highly disciplined students with a different culture and language to learn English and Spanish as soon as they could in order to remain in this school and in their proper grade. Watching them tense and uncomfortable in most classes except Mathematics or PE broke my heart. So I began to tutor them during recess or study periods and privately at home.

What worked was their realization that I genuinely wished for them to succeed. In six months time many of these students were excelling in all mainstream classes. They outscored native English speakers on PSAT's and SAT's!

All this got me interested in exploring how brains process information. Back then research was just beginning and brain maps were unheard of. Today it's quite different. the tools we have available give greater insight on how brains learn. What remains the same is the impact of connecting meaningfully with students... Even the tough ones succumb to opening and learning once they internalize that others do genuinely hope to see them resolve and overcome concerns and reach their goals.

Fonldy,
Alina

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

What a wonderful story Alina. There's a lot I relate to, having also begun as a high school teacher without teacher training and only my good History knowledge base and my intuitive connection to adolescents to guide me.

Your experiences also remind me of those of my daughter, who teaches in a wondrously diverse school in Hayward.

Lots of hope and renewal for each of us in these exchanges.

Mark

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

And thanks for your work Paula.

I will most definitely keep in touch.

Mark

[quote]Hi, Mark,

We work closely with the schools who have our program so they contact us directly. Our contact information is provided online. In the fall, we will have Lesson Plans on the Educator's Side that will correlate with the (over 50) topics on the Teen Side. The LPs will have PBL, service learning, and many other avenues to teach the topics, plus an open forum for teachers to share what worked for them.

I really appreciate connecting with you. SEL is so very important and finding people who further the cause is always tricky. Traveling the country speaking, selling and meeting people can be frustrating as many, many teachers love our program (and therefore the whole SEL idea) but fail to get their principals or admin to make the move.

If a lightbulb goes off in your mind as to whom you think would be a good fit for what we do, I'd appreciate your introduction or thoughts.

Fingers crossed and thanks for your work!

Paula[/quote]

Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

Great work , do keep a contact with me , i love how you have raised the topic of student concern a great one indeed because people actually miss the topics of student concern they just deal about student minds but not about their concerns great one indeed here.

Catherine Shaheen's picture
Catherine Shaheen
International Facilitator at Kagan Publishing & Professional Development

Dear Mark,

Thank you for this great entry.

I am writing on behalf of my employer, Dr. Kagan. He is writing a book on Brain-Friendly teaching, and was very impressed with your Lesson Plan "Miracle Workers." He has asked me to request permission to include the lesson plan in his book as a great example of how to make the curriculum relevant for students.

I haven't been able to locate your email online, or I would have contacted you directly. If at all possible, can you contact me at catherine@kaganonline.com.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely,

Catherine Shaheen

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Staff

Hi Arnold, can you please elaborate on which tool you're referring to? It's not clear from your question. Thanks.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Staff

Hi Arnold, I saw that you posted the same question in another thread and responded there.

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