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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles: Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment

Classroom Connections to Real Life Experiences
Sharon Pettey-Taylor

Recognizing a student’s prior knowledge and life experience contributes to new learnings in the classroom and helps us to build motivation and interest for an introductory lesson.

Engaging Students in Learning, one of the major components of the Professional Teaching Standards, clearly states: “As teachers develop they may ask [themselves] how do I help students to see the connections between what they already know and the subject matter?”

One effective strategy is to make the content relevant and meaningful within the framework of a student’s social, emotional, and physical development. As students take in new information (listening and/or reading), teachers are strongly advised to avoid “mindless drilling... [but] to include opportunities to learn new material about the world and to connect to prior knowledge wherever possible.”  (American Educator, Spring 2006, p.35).

Many teachers have expressed their appreciation for cultivating these cognitive skills as they introduce new learnings. Three highly-innovative staff members in the English Department of Boys & Girls High School, Brooklyn, NY, participating in the mentoring program, have generously volunteered to share their insightful reflections.

(l. to r.) Ashley Carlisle, Monique Pearson, and Michael Clarke conference about "classroom connections to real life experiences."

Ashley Carlisle, 9th Grade English Teacher

As a discipline, English Language Arts lends itself readily to lessons that build upon students’ “real life” experiences. Reading, writing, listening and speaking – these are the building blocks of communication, a process that is central to the lives of my very social ninth graders! Each day in the bustling hallways of my school, I see my students searching for ways to express their unique identities and perspectives. Inside the classroom, I encourage them to continue working towards that goal by asking them to think critically about issues that are relevant to their lives – and then to read, write, and speak about those issues. 

One lesson that generated great enthusiasm was a two-day introduction to short story writing. After suggesting to my students that images often provide powerful inspiration for writers, I digitally projected three narrative paintings onto a blank wall in the classroom. I asked students to record their observations about the scene depicted in each painting, and then to choose one painting and transform it into a brief fictional narrative. I tried to select paintings that would appeal to the wide variety of interests in my class, and that would reflect themes we had encountered in literary works throughout the year. The paintings were: “The Problem We All Live With,” by Norman Rockwell; “Birthday,” by Marc Chagall, and “Gypsy,” by Henri Rousseau.  Because I wanted the students’ narratives to develop spontaneously, I did not provide any background information about the paintings.
Not only were students engaged and focused throughout this lesson, but the stories they produced were outstanding. It was fascinating to see how each student internalized the themes and issues they perceived to be present in the paintings. Their writing echoed themes ranging from justice, equality, individualism, and loneliness to victory, courage, grief and love. One student, who had previously resisted writing in class, produced a six-page story written from the perspectives of each social group represented in “The Problem We All Live With.” This assignment proved to me, once again, that students will strive academically when curriculum reflects and extends their concerns and interests.

* * *

Michael Clarke – 11th Grade English Teacher

It is evident that technology has added to the many distractions that today’s students face. Serendipity is quickly becoming an archaic concept; students have lost their zeal to embark upon the joys of reading a novel or any literary work. My task was to introduce a novel, over five hundred pages long, to my high school juniors, who fit in the aforementioned category. I prepared them by devoting a full class session that provided them with strategies to activate their prior knowledge.

Before introducing the book, Richard Wright’s Native Son, I instructed the students to discuss in pairs, the meaning of three words: fear, flight and fate. After a brief discourse, students were instructed to write a paragraph connecting the three concepts. Afterwards, students were encouraged to share their responses aloud. I was extremely satisfied with the results. Students provided various interpretations.

Below are excerpts from their responses:

  1. Fear, flight and fate represent the three stages of life: infancy, adolescence, and adulthood.
  2. Fear is the vehicle for flight (action) which inevitably leads to fate.
  3. Fear of the unknown (fate) determines action (flight), or no action - stagnancy.

Following the discussion, I distributed the books and we discussed the image on the cover. At this point, I demonstrated the correlation between the three concepts and the three sections of Wright’s novel. The reaction was surprising; students were amazed by the correlation. There were a few negative reactions; however, most of the students were prepared to start. So, I began reading the first two pages to an attentive audience.

Without activating prior knowledge, it would have been extremely difficult to get the students to read a book this long. However, now that they have made a connection and have a conceptual framework, many have read ahead of the assigned pages.

* * *

Monique Pearson, 11th Grade Special Education English Teacher

As educators, we know that students come to the classroom with a wealth of knowledge to share and a plethora of experiences that contribute to their academic environment. They are not empty vessels to be filled, instead, the positive exchange of experiences and knowledge promotes growth amongst all in the classroom . . . the students and teachers alike. 

As an English teacher, I have realized that my students’ own concept of the world affects the way they interpret literary works, discuss current events, and even answer questions. They find symbolism and themes in works that are vastly different from my own views and they are able to support their points with textual evidence. I encourage them to delve into a literary text and internalize it based on their own perception of the world, and they do just that.

The students create an academic environment where feedback is both informative and innovative to their peers and me. Do students contribute to their educational experience? The definitive answer is  . . . YES!

* * *

There we have it – unanimous support for providing a forum for students to internalize, reflect and evaluate concepts based on real life experiences!

All the best in making your own real life connections,

Engaging and Supporting Students in Learning.  The Professional Teaching Standards.  New Teacher Center at The University of California, Santa Cruz, 2004.

Many thanks to the staff and administration of :

Boys and Girls High School, Brooklyn, NY
Spencer D.A. Holder, Principal
Sheila Shale, AP Administration
Douglas D. Clarke, AP English

Do you have a comment, question, or suggestion about this article? E-mail Sharon.


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