Relevance of what we teach

I find myself in a dilemma. I firmly believe that teaching what is relevant to our students is important. Sometimes the relevance might be abstract and “far away”, like when we learn to problem-solve. But I have always tried to make everything as relevant to the group and individual I teach, as possible.

In an inquiry-based approach, students will lead inquiry if you let them, and they by taking control, it will be relevant to them. Basing the teaching/content/theme on a concept that has “global relevance”, it becomes meaningful to them, and to the overall aim of, well, probably international education. But then, all education is somehow international.

Let me get back to the point. My own class is not the problem here. With them, I still stay very close to my believes and my approach matches my educational philosophy. What I really struggle with is teaching English (EAL) in grades 8 and 10. I teach them for 90 (and some for 180) min a week.
I want to focus on grade 10. Their level of English is beginners, absolute beginners. In special schools, teaching English has only just become important and my school has not followed any curriculum, order or guidelines. While these would have to be individualized anyway, a general “overview” would be great.
Every week I am faced with a group that:

  • is partly working hard on being accepted in society (as a special school student) and on finding a job for less than a year from now
  • is partly not interested in anything, and only comes to school because it is a legal requirement
  • is partly planning on going on unemployment benefits as soon as they leave school (and most likely will stay there)
  • probably won’t require the use of English at one part in their life
  • has no interest in the typical beginners materials, which is either made for adults, or for children
  • has no basis of English to work with
  • are at the height of puberty (15/16)

I find this an incredibly hard list to work with. I have no idea where to start (though I started weeks ago, but reflecting on that, I feel I haven’t made a start). Where do I begin, where do I want to go with them? What can I do to make English slightly relevant to my students? Where do I start to find the relevance for them?



5 thoughts on “Relevance of what we teach

  1. Wow! What a challenge you are facing. Einstein’s quotevsprings to mind, “everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree it will live it’s life believing itnis stupid.”

    • Thanks for sharing the quote. I’m working hard on not judging my students at all like this. But it is a great reminder.

  2. Hi Jessica. When I first started teaching I taught students a bit like this too. For some they would eventually go and work down the local coal mine or in the local glass or licorice factory. Others, like yours, would face long stretches of unemployment or the girls would become teenage mothers and stay home with their children. The only way I could find to motivate them was to plan things that were not relevant to their working lives. For example I remember teaching these students how to read a bus and train timetable to plan a day trip to the coast. I also remember using the EuroRail guide to plan trips with them around Europe (then we looked at what things they could do in these cities, what they could eat, where they could stay etc). I never taught them any other language, but now I think back on it I could have done if we had focused on how they could get around in that country, do and buy things etc. Like you I had no resources, I just made them using holiday brochures, timetables, photos etc. Your students might never go and visit England or the USA or Australia, but could you take a “virtual field trip” there? Or would they be interested in skyping other students in those countries – perhaps students who are learning German? Would it help your students to be the “experts” in speaking German when interacting with these other students? Could they prepare something in English for someone coming to visit their city who doesn’t speak German? What things do they think teenagers would like to do and know about their local area? Just a few ideas. Good luck!!

    • Hi Maggie, thanks so much for your reply. It reminds me why collaboration is so important, because even this “short conversation” had a massive impact on me. The idea of virtually travelling somewhere is amazing. I have already started a mindmap of ideas connected to something like this.

      It’s a new situation for me, not only SEN but also teenagers. but I can see this working. Not sure what it will look like, but it is a starting point that is getting me away from the narrow path I was on, that either looked out at a textbook or at random ideas without much connectedness.

      I can see the use of google maps, street view, emails. communication with others, etc etc coming in right away. Ahh! I miss collaborative planning meetings with PYP/IB peeps!

      Thanks… anyone else with awesome ideas to share?

  3. I’ve been there too, and specialised for several years in Special Needs and English as a Second/Foreign language – sometimes in combination. It is a tough one, especially where students do not expect to use the language in an authentic situation. Three perspectives might be considered: your own interests, students’ interests and useful language.

    I enjoy poetry and would sometimes use a poem as a starting point with 15/16 year olds (colleagues were amazed but it worked). Pop song lyrics might be a good choice as international hits are often in English. I have also used adverts. I would look at material in English that relates to the students’ other learning. Although this moves away from their personal interests, it might be worth trying as they may see this as useful revision (reinforcement) and is a possible route to collaboration with their other teachers.

    It is a challenging age group, so if there are no obvious choices use material that you enjoy – enthusiasm is infectious. Students may not show interest whatever you try, but that can be deceptive and I have often been surprised to discover that they learned much more than I suspected.

    Good to see great suggestions already.

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