The inevitable question that boldly emerges in some form or another at the conclusion of a lesson well-taught, from the teacher’s perspective at least, or that whispers in the ear of the student as they work to make meaning of a number of competing feelings after an impassioned class discussion, is one that taunts both the rigid and freethinking educator. It is a question that pierces the consciousness of both the seasoned and rookie teacher, the motivated and the jaded: When am I going to use this in real life?

It is as if we spend 59 minutes collectively blowing up a balloon: we begin with some kind of warm up (or Do-Now), a prompt that engages the students’ prior knowledge or personal experience as a means of offering students an access point into the content. We then embark on the intellectual journey of responding to essential questions and making sense of pivotal concepts, all of which build one atop another. We make our way back to our overarching question or idea and reflect on the major concepts established. This all works in tandem to set the stage for the metaphoric pin to prick the very balloon we’ve spent 59 minutes bringing to life: When am I going to use this in real life?

One imagines the educator who has designed a course around social issues of the past and present having the autonomy to dance around such a question. The Social Justice course is described as an exploration  of relevant social and political topics that shape the very context in which we live today. But students have demanded, both knowingly and unknowingly, more than the promise of personal connection to our course of study. This has led me to an age-old inquiry question: How might we create space and opportunity for students to connect to the content on an authentically personal level? 

The challenge in doing this with the Social Justice content has slowly revealed itself to me. We began the semester with a mini unit on identity. We studied an article that challenged students to think about the internal and external factors that contribute to their identities, and had them define (in numerous ways) their own identities. They each created a Personal Emblem where they were asked to divide their identity into 4 categories and to gather images (from magazines and the internet) that represented these categories. They chose categories such as school, culture, hobbies, music, sports, etc. They were then asked to write a reflection about what they included in their Emblem and how they felt it contributed to their identity. We then progressed into our unit on race. We began with a TED Talk given by biracial actress Thandie Newton, titled “Embracing Otherness: Embracing Myself,” where Newton discusses the freedom one enjoys when they focus more on their humanness and less on their distinguishing attributes. The students have done everything in this unit from filming racial autobiographies to writing letters to our senators and congresspeople about the racial issues that impact our country most.

Yet still the question–whether directly posed or passively suggested–makes its way into our shared space: Is any of this useful outside of class? The question has appeared by way of students sharing they they’ve “learned enough about slavery” or that they’re “just not as passionate about this stuff” as the teacher.

While my initial instinct is to suppress such questions from public forum, I appreciate when they are posed. In my yearning for authentic practice and an authentic intellectual exchange with students, it seems counterproductive to suppress such questions because they inspire perhaps the most authentic moments a teacher and student can enjoy in the classroom.

I continue to draw inspiration from students as I design curriculum in collaboration with them. Perhaps being more intentional about including students in the content-building process is what it will take to bridge the gap between their lived realities and the content they engage in class.

Personal Emblem #1