As we work daily to develop the skills of young readers, writers, speakers, listeners, and thinkers, we constantly consider this: What will engage them? How will I relate the school content to their lives?
As teachers striving to be culturally relevant, we do our best to include relatable materials into our curricula—articles, media, song lyrics, speeches, websites, and film and documentary clips. For many teachers, this is exciting stuff, but for others—particularly new teachers who already feel overwhelmed by planning, grading, and management—it’s worrisome. Finding relevant, engaging material to use with students definitely takes time and effort.
Snag Ideas From Students
What’s the easiest way to know what students are interested in? What are the issues most on their minds? Ask them. Ask them often, and in multiple ways. Find out what they are into—the latest music, fad, or Netflix series they’re all watching. It’s our job to know the culture of our students. (And culture goes beyond ethnicity and includes also age group, trends, concerns, and interests.)
As teachers we become researchers of the lives of the specific group of students whom we teach. So be sure to routinely:
- Read the latest children’s books or young adult novels and magazines.
- Visit websites that cater to the age and interests of the grade level you teach.
- Be caught up on local trends that are specific to the community where you teach. (Trends can sometimes be limited to a specific region.)
- Be aware of national kid/teen trends, like the current craze of fidget spinners.
Regarding that last one, wouldn’t the seventh graders you teach be interested in reading an article about the origin of those spinners as well as the history of other fads—yo-yos, pet rocks, Slime, or the Slinky, for example—that have captured the attention of young Americans in the past?
Mine for topics of interest by presenting students with questions, and then look for any patterns in their responses (around music, for example). Next, ask yourself: While teaching students the required skills and academic standards in the curriculum, in what ways can I center this as a topic in our unit of study? Here are a few general questions for a survey to get you started. Included are some responses that might be typical from secondary students:
- What is something or someone you personally would like to know more about? ([insert name of popular singer], computer coding, break dancing, construction, spoken word)
- Make a list of all the things that you don’t currently learn in school but wish you could. (how to get your first job, saving money, cooking, designing video games)
- What is a career/job you are super interested in? (FBI agent, going to college, hairstylist, journalist)
- What are things that personally bug you about the world? (younger brothers, adults not trusting kids, pollution, that fast food is bad for you)
- What is a problem of concern for people your age? (gossip, unfair rules, not having money, gangs)
If you and your students have access to the internet in class, a great way to develop student surveys is by utilizing free online survey tools such as Socrative, PollEverywhere, Kahoot, and Survey Monkey.
Consider designing surveys using questions, and also pose a few statements using a five-point Likert scale. The latter can help you gauge student interest before a unit. You can say to students, “I tallied the numbers and there were twelve 5s and fourteen 4s, so that tells me the topic of _______ is of interest to most of you. We are going to explore that next.” (With anonymity, students tend to be more candid and honest, so make including a name on the survey optional.)
Along with digital or paper surveys, you can collect student-interest data by listening in on small-group discussions. For example, have groups of four or five students brainstorm “problems of concern” for kids their age.
Student Choice Is Key
If we’re going to use the culture of students as a teaching tool, we need to let go more than we currently do when it comes to student choice. If you’re teaching expository writing, for example, be open to having all 32 students in your class write on a topic of their own interest rather than having the one or two or even three topics you’ve typically assigned in the past.
I recently asked my university students, who are studying to become English language arts teachers, this question: “What was your jam when you were in high school?” Some of their responses: manga, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Amy Tan, sports writing, and hip-hop music. I then inquired, “What if your English teachers had asked you this question and had designed learning activities and given you reading and writing choices that included your interests? How might that have impacted your effort, and your development as a reader and writer?” A lively discussion followed.
The beauty of this craft is that as teachers, we can keep academic standards high and at the same time have our students engage in topics of interest, expertise, and concern. It just takes a little research to find out exactly what those are.