Get Real: Worthy Curriculum for Worldly Adolescents

Helping students make sense of issues that concern them

In September 2015, a haunting image of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi circulated the world, mostly via social media. His lifeless body on the shores of Turkey was a confronting and emotive image for the average adult. For many young adolescents, it was unimaginable. The “why” was complex and difficult to fathom. Soon after, it was widely reported that the image of Aylan Kurdi appeared on 20 million screens within 12 hours of the original tweet. It seems that we no longer need to reach out on behalf of our students to help them connect to the real world. They are already connected in a way that previous generations were not.

An online survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015 found that 71% of American teens ages 13 to 17 access more than one social network site. With nearly three-quarters having access to a smart phone, the potential for connectivity is constant. It is increasingly difficult to shelter students from real world issues, and this increased accessibility means that students need the skills to examine perspectives that may differ from their own. They need to know how to explore the complexity of the problems facing the world. As teachers, we must help students make sense of issues that concern them. While young adolescents value the perspectives of their peers, seemingly above adults, they still seek adult guidance and support, even if they don’t freely admit it.

What is Relevance?

AMLE’s position paper This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents identifies a “curriculum that is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant” as one of the 16 research-based characteristics for successful middle grades schools. An important question for educators is Who decides what is relevant to the lives of young adolescents? While the answer seems obvious, it is rare that schools consult with young adolescents about curriculum content.

Early proponents of a democratic approach to education, such as John Dewey, advocated that schools place students at the center, with relevant curriculum as a key element. James Beane appealed to teachers to begin curriculum development by focusing on the concerns and questions of students. Mark Springer’s Soundings Program at Radnor Middle School has placed students at the center of their learning for more than 15 years, with a curriculum developed by students that is relevant to their own concerns about the world and their place in it. The approach suggested by Beane and adopted by Springer, invites students to ask questions about themselves and the world. In this way, student voice and choice becomes an essential starting point for curriculum development.

If we are genuine about our intention to offer relevant and appealing learning experiences to students, we must listen carefully, expand students’ knowledge of local and global issues, and value their thoughts and opinions.

Listen to Students

At City Cite in Melbourne, Australia students work collaboratively to investigate social issues affecting the city. They develop their own research questions, examine relevant literature, collect and analyze data, and present their findings to peers and teachers.

Anyone who works closely with young adolescents understands that they are capable of compassion, open-mindedness, and genuine interest in the world. This poses a challenge to the persistent stereotype that they care for little beyond themselves. Middle level students do often care about superficial things, like Snapchat streaks and the right shoes/clothes/backpack/haircut, but they also have thoughtful opinions and questions about the things they see and hear every day. The problem is, we don’t often ask them and they may think we’re not that interested.

If we imagine that students are brimming with insightful and complex questions, just waiting to pour them onto the blank poster paper we have placed in the middle of our collaboratively-positioned desks, then we will be disappointed. Of course some are ready and will relish the opportunity. Others might wonder how to get the questions right. Others may worry their questions aren’t smart enough, and some just want the teacher to tell them which questions to write down so they can get it over with. Students won’t always be ready or motivated to ask their own questions. That doesn’t mean they don’t have any.

Expand Students’ Understanding of the World

The FareShare Schools in the Kitchen program in Melbourne, Australia provides a unique opportunity for students to learn about the reality of hunger in the community and begin their own response to the issue through action.

To help students generate their own questions about the world, they need to see themselves as global citizens whose thoughts and opinions are valued by others. They also need knowledge of the real world and opportunities to examine socially relevant issues. Unless it appears in their newsfeed, many students will not seek out world news and current events. Teachers need to make time for thinking about local and global issues and build a toolbox of strategies for exploring them. Select a controversial tweet, an editorial cartoon, an emotive image, or provocative clip and ask students to consider the perspectives that they see. Ron Ritchart’s “thinking routines”provide teachers with proven strategies for promoting deep thinking and learning and are a powerful means to expanding students’ knowledge of the world around them.

Once students have deeply considered an issue, they need to talk about it. Young adolescents are eager to talk to their peers, and teachers should facilitate discussion of a range of local and global issues. Students can practice converting their thoughts and concerns into urgent words, listen to the opinions of peers, and, together, discuss solutions.

Students also need opportunities for real action in response to their concerns. It’s not enough to acknowledge issues and be informed; young adolescents need to know that they can impact the world around them. While social media can heighten awareness of relevant real world issues, many teens (and adults) are accused of slacktivism, where a willingness to “like” or “share” a post on an issue—or with slightly more effort add several lines of crying face emojis—is not followed by any real action. Awareness alone is not enough to solve the world’s problems. Opportunities to serve others shows middle level students that they have something to offer the world and can inspire them to volunteer on their own time or pursue careers in social justice fields. They will meet people and learn things that will help them ask more questions, demand answers, and take responsibility for working towards solutions.

Value Students’ Interests and Opinions

In the 21st century, educators clearly understand the importance of a relevant curriculum that honors students’ questions and concerns about the world, but what about the seemingly less important inclinations of the young adolescent? Many teachers connect on social media to young adolescents in their personal lives outside the classroom. Their newsfeeds are a rich source of pop culture and teen insight, offering a multitude of teaching opportunities that are relevant to the lives of teenagers. During the teaching of a unit focused on conflict, I searched for a way to help students connect to Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum est” and scheduled a lesson for the following day. Sometime during the evening, a teen-aged family member “liked” the newly released “Bad Blood” music video by Taylor Swift and it appeared in tenacious color on my Facebook newsfeed. In the classroom the next day, students compared and contrasted Swift’s video, in all its glitzy glory, with the famous World War I poem, a harrowing account of a real conflict and the mark left on those who lived it. Students compared Swift’s line “Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes” to the vivid imagery in Owen’s poem and discussed which was a more effective and accurate account of conflict. Pop culture can connect the past to the present and draw in students who might otherwise not see a poem written almost a century earlier as relevant to their lives.

Even if you miss the mark slightly with your foray into popular teen culture, students appreciate the effort and love to let you know when the thing you selected is unforgivably uncool. The truth is that once things become popular they quickly become unpopular, especially for the young adolescent who is often an inexplicable oxymoron, wanting to stand out while still fitting in.

Some see popular culture as synonymous with low culture and there is a resistance to its inclusion in classrooms. The sentiment that the “cool stuff” students care about is not worthy of the classroom suggests disdain for the young adolescents we expect to develop relationships with. While some might criticize Taylor Swift’s lyrics as lacking in complexity and sophistication, we should not deride the genuine interests of young adolescents by ignoring the music, stories, and issues they value.