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The best class I ever taught centered on the history of Washington, D.C. I was so excited to teach this class, I spent the summer collecting articles and artifacts from the local library and historical society.
I have never had students more engaged in the content of class. They knew the locations, buildings and the people we were learning about. They learned about the history of their neighborhoods and the origins of the music they listened to.
It was an incredibly powerful experience and left me wondering why I hadn’t made those local connections years earlier. It also got me thinking about my own schooling and how rare it was to personally identify with what I was learning.
The most important parts of my identity growing up were rarely developed in the classroom. I didn’t explore my Korean heritage until college and only learned about LGBTQ+ historical leaders in my late twenties.
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Still, my love of history had an outlet in school. Social studies was the class I excelled in because it felt most meaningful. I was lucky to find relevance in a core subject area. My friends who struggled the most in school had passions and interests that were never reflected in their classwork.
Too many students are disengaged from the content of school. This is particularly concerning because engagement and cultural relevance have both been proven to have a positive impact on student outcomes. Researchers have found that culturally relevant education can increase grades, participation and critical thinking skills and can lead to higher graduation rates.
Yet, recent Gallup surveys show that less than half of students feel engaged in school. It’s lower after the elementary grades.
This generation of students . . . are experts at filtering, organizing and connecting information. And when content fails to be relevant, it’s swiped away.
Relevant content is the future of our classrooms because it is what our students need and expect right now. This generation of students interacts with more content than any other generation in history. They are experts at filtering, organizing and connecting information. And when content fails to be relevant, it’s swiped away.
We all expect content to be relevant to our interests in our everyday lives. We are surrounded by curated content, from products highlighted on Amazon to shows promoted on Netflix and follow suggestions on Instagram.
This is not to suggest that standards-aligned content should be abandoned, but there is a healthy amount of space between a content free-for-all and the current canon of books that underrepresents women and people of color.
Yet the expectation that content could (or should) be relevant to every student often ends at the classroom door — even though relevant content helps students connect with the ideas and role models that allow them to better understand themselves and advocate for their needs and the needs of their communities. This is particularly important for those of us who have been marginalized.
One thing educators can do immediately is to expand the traditional Western canon. I used to advocate teaching all students Shakespeare, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and the other books that show up most often on high school reading lists. In reflection, this was primarily motivated by a desire to spare my students the embarrassment I felt in college when literary references went over my head. And that’s the problem with the canon: Its primary function is to satisfy the needs of adults rather than be meaningful for students.
In the long-term, publishers and digital content providers must highlight diverse and empowering narratives, particularly from underrepresented communities. It’s not just that existing content fails to adequately represent all our students. The content that does highlight communities of color too often has a narrow focus on oppression.
Those who design content have a responsibility to ensure that it not only represents but also inspires and empowers all our students. As educators, we intuitively know that at its core, school is a place that helps us learn about ourselves and our communities.
The good news is that relevant content, particularly for middle and high school students, is more readily available. In my own work, I’ve found materials from the National Parks Service extremely useful. There are hundreds of national parks, many of which focus on local history. This creates a greater opportunity to elevate underrepresented narratives.
Relevant content allows all our students to better connect with who they are and who they might become.
Noah Dougherty is the CEO and co-founder of Relevant Learner and a former teacher of social studies and ELA.
This story about engaged learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.