Finding Meaning in our Teaching

I’ve been focusing in my preliminary lessons this year on making the content and skills students are learning meaningful. Meaningful to the content and skills they will eventually learn and also to their lives outside school.

Year 10’s study of poetry began with them considering the value of literature and compiling lists of the things they have learnt from studying classic texts over the years. Some of their answers made me proud to be part of a profession that imparts a love of literature to a new generation. They are also part of a PBL-style project in which they will ‘become’ the poet we study and discuss their poetic preoccupations in the form of a podcast. Therefore, they see everything they learn in the unit as building a picture of their poet for this task.

Year 8 are studying a novel based on the life and adventures of Ned Kelly, and they are all very keen to find out how you can commit so many criminal acts and still be considered a national hero. It has already dawned on them that it might all be about the way the facts are presented (perhaps I have the next cohort of lawyers?) Lots of them connect with the downtrodden boy who faced prejudice and discrimination and have made comparisons with refugees in our current society. With them, I am discussing which values shape our nation and why icons like Ned Kelly accord with this view.

But it is my Year 12 group with whom I have had the most success in this area; they started by considering the skills which Module A would develop in them (drawn from the syllabus and their knowledge of the methods of assessment) and how these skills would be useful to them post-school. I was interested to note that they saw the value of synthesis as applying to the purchase of an item, like a car, and being able to compare and contrast the different options to get the best value. I have also shown them where EXACTLY (using very detailed and poorly drawn diagrams) the information we are learning can be used in their responses.

I find that this Module provides a lot of temptation to get bogged down in detail (especially because I love Pride and Prejudice!) and so this approach has really kept me focused by forcing me to ask and make explicit to the students: What is the value of this in terms of assessment? What is the value of this in terms of being able to be an accomplished and fully-functioning adult? The students in the class have also found the contextual information fascinating; some of the more politically-inclined students have been suitably outraged at the lack of rights for females and other minority groups, which has brought out a fierce love and defence of Elizabeth Bennet, a total damnation of white middle-class men and a recommitment to the feminist cause.

Not only does it make me feel like the students are more focused, it makes ME feel like there is more value in my teaching and their learning. Even though, for years, I have been teaching them valuable things, making that connection explicit to them has hopefully made them more motivated to learn.


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