Putting the “Real” in “Relevant”

A few years ago, I observed an English Language Arts teacher and her students in a 9th grade classroom.  The students were just finishing a unit on poems, and the teacher surprised them by handing out small books bound with their poems as a classroom set.  The teacher was excited to share this with them and was in eager anticipation of their gratitude for her efforts in memorializing their work.

Instead, the students complained and voiced their frustration, “Had I known you were going to show this with others, I would have spent more time on it”.  Other students chimed in agreement, as they assumed only the teacher would be seeing it.

At the post-conference, the teacher and I processed these statements.  We couldn’t believe the students so quickly connected their focus, quality of work, and effort based on whether it was made public.

If effort is directly related to who sees it, educators need to create opportunities for relevant experiences to take place.

There’s a lesson for all of us in this story.  It’s not just students but I believe adults also, who rise to the occasion better when they know their work will be seen by the public.  It’s the same reason there’s a need for creating relevant experiences with our students.  

The same could go with staff.  Not in a way of calling them out; but with intentional, up-front dialogue, finding ways to “publicly” share information does keep things front-and-center.  As you go into planning for upcoming lessons or staff development, consider these activities and opportunities for the important things and how they can be elevated for optimum effort.

  • Create a Book – Websites, such as Lulu or Blurb, can be used to upload documents or pictures to capture work.  They can be used to share information or archive work in a meaningful way.  This can be used for students as a whole class or per student to showcase their work throughout the year.  Although digital ebooks can be an option, the notion of having a physical, printed book elevates the relevance experience.
  • Involve Others – For student work, invite parents, community members, or students from other classes to attend.  With staff, consider engaging parents or community members to collaborate on projects on building teams for feedback and partnerships.  Have parents serve on a panel to provide feedback on student projects.  A staff professional development session I attended on creativity and innovation included Jeni Britton Bauer, who founded Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.  She not only shared her background and experiences in school and life, but she heard our pitches on future ice cream flavors!
  • Writing a Letter – Develop advocacy and activism through a letter writing campaign to a legislator or organization.  In writing letters to our legislators as part of a class assignment, a student asked if we were really going to mail them.  I asked why it mattered.  Through the dialogue, he shared the difference would be for him to be more thoughtful, research more about the issue, and consider his grammar and punctuation.  Wow! This can also be done with staff when they ask how they can help address a need or issue
  • Taking Trips – If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, then an actual trip has to be priceless!  My son attends a STEM Academy and still remembers his best day of school as observing a knee surgery in a surgical hospital.  For staff, consider setting up tours at local companies and then having them create lessons that make connections to their observations!

Creating relevant experiences definitely takes more time and initiative to plan.  And, there’s always an added layer of “unknown” when things are more public.  But, creating relevant experiences definitely creates more meaning and quality in the work.  And, the impact of time in learning outcomes is tremendous.  It is important, regardless of whether it is students or staff, to create relevant experiences to increase the level of engagement and learning experience that we all ultimately strive to make for true change.



  1. I am part of a Photo-a-Day challenge on Facebook and this made me think what a great application that would be for our students. Words for each day of the month are listed and then participants submit their own photo taken with their phone of that word. Additional explanation can also be added with the photo. Educators could use this with students in a variety of ways, making it clear from the beginning that these photos would be seen by others. This would be a great application in any discipline of study and students could also generate their own list challenges. Actually, we do need to ask permission from authors before we publish and share their work, and this would take care of that.

  2. Neil, I love these suggestions of ways to engage staff with relevant and “public” experiences. My favorite is the last one about taking trips. Sometimes, we (educators) can get caught up in academia and miss out on the industry experiences. How exciting for staff members as well as students (like your son!) to have these learning opportunities.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read it, Jennifer! Yes, the trips are definitely exciting for not just students but adults also! It has educators to stay relevant for sure!

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