Why and How to Make it Relevant
Young people are passionate and full of energy, yet when they step into our classrooms they often appear sloth-like, glossy-eyed and entirely unmotivated. The same students who can’t wait to flip open their phones, hammer out hundreds of text messages and debate with their peers about all sorts of meaningless topics stare incredulously at us when we ask them for a simple paragraph of writing or a few thoughts about an academic topic.
The missing piece? Relevance.
The text messages that your students are desperate to read and answer are relevant to their daily life— sadly, many of our academic questions are not.
This situation can be remedied, however, if we take some time each semester to remind students that book reading, scientific exploration, musical expression, and the other beautiful disciplines offered to them at school are part of a privilege not offered to everyone.
Examples of Subject Relevance:
One of my friends is an English teacher, and he performs the following exercise in his classes each year. He open the class with a short description of the Soviet and Chinese dictatorships of the 20th century, explaining how both Stalin and Mao banned books on a grand scale for over two decades. My friend passes out a few different poems, selections from authors the students would be reading in the upcoming semester: Shakespeare, Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, and more. He has the students read the poems in small groups, discussing why these poems would be banned by a dictator who wanted to control the citizens of the country.
My friend reminds his students throughout the year that reading is a privilege that many people throughout history have lost. Reading improves our critical thinking skills, making us stronger and less vulnerable to dangerous ideas and oppressive philosophies.
Another teacher friend makes scientific exploration relevant by discussing Galileo. In 1609, she explains, Galileo invented a telescope that allowed Venetian merchants to spot ships far in the distance. Because he was curious, Galileo turned his telescope to the sky and began to explore outer space. Through careful study and thoughtful exploration, Galileo observed the planets and discovered that they rotated around the sun. Galileo’s findings were wildly controversial, earning him a prison sentence.
Scientific exploration involves all kinds of unexpected twists and turns, and even the simplest course of study can lead to a great discovery.
A friend of mine teaches music history and musical performance. He begins classes each semester with a story about the Jewish Holocaust. Focusing his lecture on a ghetto in Vilna, Lithuania, he tells a brief story about the Jewish men, women, and children in this ghetto who were brutally abused for many years before the Nazis forced millions of Jews into concentration camps. Even under the brutal oppression of the Nazis, this ghetto became famous for its cultural activity. It was music, according to the people, that allowed them to spiritually and emotionally escape the ghetto for a few hours, to be reminded that although their bodies were in chains, their spirits were free.
Music offers us an opportunity to nurture and engage something transcendent, something spiritual, something dignified in each of us. Those who played music in the Vilna ghetto offered their community a precious, life-enriching gift.
Who are the heroes in your discipline? Tell their stories and see your students’ eyes light up with interest and intrigue. Education is a gift only offered to a select number of cultures throughout history. What will they do with this precious gift? Let your students feel the weight of this responsibility, and you might ignite a fire in a few hearts.