The daily musings of a substitute teacher in East Central Illinois.

Relevant Teaching

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign (but not for my mother-in-law). I was only there for half the day (really a lot more – about five hours instead of the typical seven), but it was a good day. The class is really used to me by now and were happy to have me as their sub (except for the few who are determined to be difficult for every teacher they encounter). We spent the morning doing science, math just before lunch, and Language Arts afterwards.

Whenever possible, I strive to make my teaching as relevant to the students’ lives as possible. So I was quite pleased when the science lesson was on the history of the development of the cellular phone. After all, these boys and girls are 11-12 years old, yet almost all of them own cell phones already. Those who don’t want them soon. I contrasted this with the fact that I didn’t get a cell phone until 2005 (which actually elicited laughter from the class). We talked about the different kinds of phones that exist and what model they would most like to get. Having piqued their interest in the matter, it was easy to get them to start working on the assignments.

The math lesson was on measuring the volume of rectangular prisms, which is was harder to make relevant, but I started off by having the students identify the various rectangular prisms in the classroom. An interesting discussion arose when someone suggested a piece of paper was a prism, but others disagreed. We established a rectangular prism has to have six rectangular faces with a measurable length, width, and base. Having determined that these were acceptable criteria, the class decided that a standard piece of paper does indeed constitute a rectangular prism. I then tried to help them understand the concept of volume. I used an example I had stumbled upon last year that seems to work really well: just about everyone knows what volumizing hair products are for. They understand the result of using such products, and from there they were able to understand the concept that volume is the measure of something taking up space. So that connection also worked.

Going for three-for-three, I spent the afternoon teaching about adjectives, and managed to get the students to provide several examples of adjectives before they even had a clear definition. I asked for someone to give me a noun, and he suggested the name of a girl in the class. I then asked the students to describe her. After we created a decent list, we discussed how adjectives are words that modify, or describe, nouns. Just as the students started to work on the assignment, their teacher arrived. It was a pretty good day all around.

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4 responses

  1. You sound like the kind of substitute teacher we’d all mow other head teachers down to get to! Lovely post, thank you.

    March 10, 2011 at 4:07 pm

  2. Thanks for visiting and for the kind words! I definitely try to remember that my job as a substitute teacher is to be a teacher first and foremost!

    March 10, 2011 at 9:08 pm

  3. Not to be UNkind, but your discussion as described strikes me as more a lesson on American consumerism than the science and technology of cell phones. I would like to know more about the actual assignment. Was there any effort to teach them about microwave communication technology or about the advances in computer technology that make such devices possible? Or how satellites intersect with phones? Not to mention how the phone today is so much more than a phone–USB, video camera, gameboy, and on and on? Oh, and how about the fact that the rare metals required in the production of these phones have been the center of a new wave of western colonialization of Africa that continues the misery of whole peoples so 5th graders can text “what up” to each other from across the room?

    This whole notion of “relevance” has been in my head lately, since our earlier discussion. Clearly, the point of highest relevance is at the beginning of the learning process, if we define relevance as that which I know or am familiar with or that affects me in some personal or already known way. But if new material is introduced, to what degree does relevance either fade or change to something else? Must good education continue to be relevant and is it the educator’s responsibility to continually establish relevance? What responsibility does a student have to find or establish relevance? Could an awareness of relevance be part of what is assessed? What should be the target for establishing relevance: the product of learning or the process of learning–meaning what A. R. called meta-cognition the other night? Must relevance always begin with the individual student or class, or is there perhaps a generational relevance or zeitgeist that is assumed? Or must the educator never assume that a class of students is aware of such collective relevance?

    I would enjoy reading your thoughts on any of these points.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:03 am

  4. I use the term relevant teaching to refer to making connections outside the classroom. I attempt to make these connections as early on as possible in the lesson so as to grab the attention of the students. Once they realise that the lesson is something that is applicable outside the classroom, they are more open to participating in the experience.

    For example, the cell phone lesson included a discussion of the history and development of cellular phone technology (including why it was conceived and developed in the first place), the basic workings of the devices, and an understanding of the key components. We also talked about how cell phones have become much more than simple two-way communication devices. As they are 5th grade students, we did not get into all of the details of the science of how they work, although we did discuss the concept of signals being transmitted to towers (or cells) that then transmit to other cells and sometimes even bounce off of satellite dishes, thus allowing the communication between individuals on different sides of the earth. I just didn’t feel like including the full lesson plan in my original post.

    Relevance in general has several different applications, but I think the overall concept, when speaking of education, is that the skills and ideas being taught do not exist in a vacuum; that there is a reason it is useful to know that if Car A leaves St. Louis at 5pm and is traveling at 70 mph and Car B leaves Peoria at 5:30 pm and is traveling at 75 mph, you can determine, to a fairly accurate degree, at what point they will cross paths. So relevance is both personal and general.

    March 11, 2011 at 11:11 am

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