Over the course of many years, I have learned that there are no two schools that are the same. Even within a city, you will find that there are significant differences between the resources that schools have and their cultures. Regardless of where I have taught, I had to create learning experiences relevant to the students. Sure, this seems like a common-sense notion. Yet delving in and ensuring that the content that I provided was appropriate meant something different for each community.
Once I worked in an impoverished urban area where the students lived an hour away from the beach. Yet many of them had never seen it. As I struggled to connect with the students, I realized that music and poetry was one way to reach them. I love music, and it was a language that we had in common. My students were surprised that I liked many of the same artists as them. Once we delved into how music connected to real-world issues, the students were much more engaged.
In another school, I found that the catalyst for connecting with the students was to also involve their parents. This was a rural community where multiple generations often attended the same schools. Students were frequently taught by the same teachers who taught their parents. If you could “hook” the parents by making them believe in your purpose, then the students would follow. In that community, I had evening reading programs for the parents to participate in with their students. I also sent newsletters home to the parents and attended a lot of community events. Family and community connections were cherished. I had to make the students feel as if they were part of a family every time they came to the library by emphasizing interpersonal connections. These students relished tradition and openly appreciated a caring environment.
In some cases, it took me a few months to build interpersonal connections with my students, and I did not have the opportunity to meet many of the parents beyond open house. For instance, in another community, I had students that were very guarded. My way of making connections with them was a lunchtime book club where I served food that was not available in the cafeteria. For this group, I could not choose just any type of book. I carefully watched the genres that were checked out and surveyed the students about the books that they liked to read. I determined that they enjoyed urban literature that included gun violence, gangs, teen pregnancy, and domestic violence. As I sat and listened to them, I learned that reading and discussing the books was therapeutic to them because these were some of the issues that were impacting their lives. They were looking for literature that could help them to solve problems.
Though these students were only in middle school, they were wise beyond their years. As I worked with them, I learned that they were far from sheltered and needed to be talked to as young adults. The complicated part of this was that they were also just learning who they were and how to navigate life. As tough as they could be, sometimes they did need someone to give them extra attention.
Recently, I completed some work in an elementary school and was surprised by the students’ viewpoints. This was a suburban area. Yet these elementary students were quite different from the ones that I worked with at the beginning of my career. These students were also wise beyond their years, but in a different way. I could tell that they had access to technology and that the access influenced some of their behaviors.
After completing a study, I sat with them to ask them about what they thought about the activities. One young man quickly told me that he needed his activities to be meaningful to his life. It was his way of articulating that he needed authentic learning experiences to make learning attractive to him. We were working on a unit about engineering and how it relates to our daily lives. Another student said that they enjoyed the unit because they were able to share some of the information with a grandparent to solve a problem on the family farm.
These students really made me think about ways to develop learning experiences that relate to the standards and challenge students to think about their lives. Here are some ideas for authentic learning projects that teach research skills:
- Create an app that solves a community problem. Teach students to create an app to help your community locate recycling bins.
- Help students understand demographics, poverty, and their impact on your community. As a culminating activity, have students organize and implement a blanket drive for homeless people in your city.
- Host a career day. Then assist students with interviewing various professionals about their job responsibilities.
- Encourage students to identify their favorite historical fiction books. Then allow them to create displays that illustrate the events in the book.
In conclusion, our current national standards encourage us to “Build structured and information opportunities into the school library space and schedule for learners to use personal learning networks, have personal conversations, or create products to visualize research and knowledge” (American Association of School Librarians, 2018, p. 110). This is important because today’s students recognize that learning should not just be about abstract concepts. Our students are expecting tools and experiences that they can use right away.
We should indeed design authentic learning experiences for our students. Being able to conceptualize the concepts that we implore them to learn through authentic experiences can positively impact academic achievement, by keeping them interested in learning. The types of activities that will be engaging for students will often depend on a variety of factors that include the communities that they reside in, their cultures, ages, and personal experiences. It is up to us to find the things that matter.
American Association of School Librarians. (2018). National school library standards for learners, school librarians, and school libraries. Chicago, IL: ALA Editions.
Author: Daniella Smith
Daniella Smith, PhD. is a former school and public librarian. She is currently the Hazel Harvey Peace Professor in Children’s Library Services at the University of North Texas.