Rob Levit | October 2013

Creating Context and Relevance Part II

Last week I shared a simple method to create a context and relevance process after being inspired by the book Making Learning Whole by Project Zero founder David Perkins. Creating context and relevance is crucial for student engagement. Sometimes, in the rush to deliver content that our students will be tested on, we forget that learning itself is a conduit to helping students and ourselves understand how the physical world works and how our minds work. There is an unbelievable opportunity to do this in math class where students often fail to see how solving problems relates to their lives. If we can demonstrate that they are using math skills everyday day of their lives, them relevancy can be built. Relevancy is a major pathway to engagement!

Using an actual lesson from a middle school math class, here’s how you can add relevance, and thus excitement and engagement, to your classroom:

1. Ask students what they do everyday, find out what they are interested in.

In this case, our assignment was graphing distance and time. I asked a very simple question: “How do distance and time play a role in your lives?” Their answers?

“I walk to school everyday.”

“I take the bus.”

“We took a train and a plane on our last vacation.”

“After school I stop by the convenience store and get a soda and head for the basketball court.”

These simple answers are actually quite interesting and as an educator you are demonstrating interest in the students (aka engaging them) and giving them the opportunity to speak casually and reflectively in a sometimes rigid environment while stealthily transitioning into a math lesson!

2. Make the lesson visual.

Based on their answers, students created graphs that demonstrated their knowledge of distance and time. They used art paper, not graph paper. They used colored markers, not pencils. Even though the graph is a bit less formal because of it’s “sketch-like” nature, students were able to work quickly and I was able to use a formative assessment by determining if the shape of the graph reflected an accurate understanding of distance and times. Several students graphs showed lines moving backwards and down diagonally. I was able to explain to them that even though they may go back home during the day, they are not moving back in time. It was only through this informal activity and assessment that they were able to understand the concept and make an easy fix to their graphs.

3. Add one or more extension activities.

Our class chose to make comics of their graphs and in the picture included here demonstrates how the student graphed and told the story of her family vacation. Comic books are a simple and effective way of engaging students. Another great idea is to do a simple improvised skit based on student graphs!

4. Share!

Get the students in front of the class and have a few share their graphs AND their stories with the class.

So there it is – with some good questions, making the lesson totally connected to the lives of our students and creating a simple, visually-based activity, we create context and relevance for our students.

Context and relevance = engaged learners!

About the Author

Rob Levit, an acclaimed musician and artist and 2013 Innovator of the Year from the Maryland Daily Record, has created award-winning innovative "Life-Skills Through The Arts" programs for adults with mental illness, the homeless, adults in drug and alcohol recovery, youth in domestic/sexual abuse counseling, foster children, hospital patients, veterans and many more. He is currently Executive Director of Creating Communities and was the first Artist-In-Residence at Hospice of the Chesapeake, where he created and infused healing activities for the well-being of staff, families and patients. Email Rob.