Draw on Student Interests to Make the Common Core Work for You

August 26, 2014
By Educator Innovator

This was originally posted at Common Sense Graphite.

As the new school year begins, articles and resources dedicated to helping teachers develop curriculum and assessments aligned to the Common Core literacy standards are popping up everywhere. But, as every teacher knows, it matters little how perfectly your lesson meets Reading Anchor Standard #3 if 30 students’ eyes are glazed over while you teach it.

Sociocultural learning theory reminds us that students become engaged in their learning when they find the content relevant to their experiences, their aspirations, and their interests (check out Vygotsky 1978, Mind in Society); however, in the midst of all of the pressures facing teachers as they revamp their teaching materials, tapping into students’ interests can easily seem like one more thing to do with precious little time or support.

I know that overwhelmed feeling all too well. What I’ve learned over my years of teaching, however, is that starting with student interests in my planning actually reduces the workload—instead of being one more thing to think about, it is the place to start in order to make the learning process flow more smoothly and, most important, make it fun. Luckily, we now have digital tools at our disposal that can make it even easier to develop lessons that are both standards-based and student-centered.

Here are some tips that I hope can help you take your practice to the next level this school year.

1. Let your students teach you about their interests—don’t make assumptions.
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you know what young people are into these days—which music and pop culture references will resonate, etc. I know that I’ve done this with disastrous results—I cringe when I think about some of the looks I’ve gotten from students when I tried to base a lesson on something I mistakenly thought was relevant (note: Students don’t watch MTV anymore. And Facebook is over). The problem was that I didn’t let my students teach me. Every student and every class has different interests, and the beginning of the school year is best spent learning about those interests and sharing your own.

Poll Everywhere (http://www.polleverywhere.com/) is a great digital tool that you can use to survey your students about anything, from fun, getting-to-know-you questions to provocative questions related to your subject matter. Students can immediately see how they and their classmates responded to a given question, which is a guaranteed classroom discussion stimulator. If you don’t have access to the necessary technology in class, you could go the paper-and-pencil route and then input student data into a program like Survey Monkey, Geddit, or Kahoot to display to your students the next day. The best part: survey data is a perfect way to help students meet Common Core Writing Anchor Standards 6 and 7, which focus on using technology to produce writing and conduct research.

Another crucial point about student interests is that they are much more than hobbies. As teachers who spend time with teenagers know, they are developing citizens with amazing idealism and passionate opinions about real-world social issues, and we need to respect them as such by organizing our instruction around the topics they care about. One powerful digital tool that can help you take the first step toward facilitating civic discussions with your students is the KQED Do Now website (http://blogs.kqed.org/education/category/do-now/), which helps students use Twitter to develop and share opinions each week about current social issues. Tap into digital literacy and civic education skills at the same time!

2. View technology as a tool—don’t let it become the answer. 
We know that many of our students are interested in social media sites, games, and other forms of technology; as a result, it is sometimes tempting to think that any lesson that uses any form of technology meets the criteria for interest-driven learning. While the Internet is an amazing resource for connecting people and ideas, it does not automatically create those connections—we do, through careful planning and selective choice of resources for the lesson objective at hand.

In order to help my students learn how to use evidence to support their claims when constructing an argument in an American literature class (Common Core Writing Anchor Standard #1), I engaged them in a yearlong action research project in which they developed research questions about community challenges they were interested in and then conducted surveys, interviews, and observations in order to find answers to those questions. Along the way, we used plenty of digital tools—Facebook to recruit students to answer survey questions, survey software to analyze results, digital photographs to document our stories—but the tools were in service of the academic goal, not the goals themselves.

To learn more about how classroom teachers have tapped into student interests using digital tools to support student learning, check out this free ebook, Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom (http://dmlhub.net/publications/teaching-connected-learning-classroom).

3. Make the standards work for you—don’t work for them.
Finally, always remember that if you have an idea for an activity or lesson or project that connects content area knowledge and skills to genuine student interests, I can almost guarantee that you can bring that idea to life in a way that is aligned to (and probably surpasses) the standard required by the Common Core. Some of the curriculum that has been produced to meet Common Core guidelines has given the (false) impression that teachers need to look at subject area content devoid of any real-life context or relationship to student experience. This is NOT the case.  Lesson repositories like the Digital Is website from the National Writing Project (http://digitalis.nwp.org/) offer many standards-based lesson plans that integrate digital tools in ways that get students excited about learning.

It may sometimes seem easier to focus more on content than student interests, but sticking with what matters will help you and your students learn more and have more fun doing it.

By Nicole Mirra, former high school teacher and current post-doctoral scholar at UCLA.

Photo/ “[skateboard]” by RHiNO NEAL. Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.