Responsive“Some of the [positive] openings are freedom from covering a certain amount of curriculum in order to prepare for state exams. And that means we’re able to be more responsive to what kids are really interested in the moment. We’ve been able to focus much more on the history of race and racism and social movements and organizing and data around inequality and ways that COVID has affected our communities.”

Students engage more in school when they can see how it relates to their own lives and when they see it has value and purpose. When middle and high school students believe that school matters and that it can help them become the person they want to be, they will connect more. And when they are learning things they care about and find important, they will engage more in learning.

Educators we talked to emphasized the need to make big shifts in what they were teaching so that they were tying in the important moments of the outside world and helping students see the connections between school and their lives. While we have long known the importance and power of relevance in curriculum and instruction, the recent pandemic and movement around racial injustices highlighted the importance of making sure students feel connected and that the curriculum felt meaningful and culturally relevant. Schools and districts should provide teachers with the resources they need to integrate current events into classroom teaching and learning and to continue to get to know their students’ interests, passions, values, culture, hobbies etc.

Studies published
in the journals Nature; Science; and Mind, Brain, and Education support the idea that relevant, meaningful activities that both engage students emotionally and connect with what they already know are what help build neural connections and long-term memory storage (not to mention compelling classrooms). (Edutopia)

Guiding Questions

Young hispanic ethnic teen girl college student using laptop computer writing on pc working from home office or studying on tech device in classroom sit at desk. Online education, elearning concept.

  • How do we ensure that curriculum and instruction are culturally relevant and anti-racist?
  • What resources do leaders and teachers need to begin this process and ultimately accomplish it?

Professional Development Connections

  • PD is an essential part of winning hearts and minds to ensure that curriculum and instruction are culturally relevant and anti-racist. Giving staff voice and choice here is critical as is offering multiple, ongoing modes ranging from facilitated discussions in teacher teams, to district- and school-wide forums, to self-guided learning such as self-assessments and articles.
  • Include PD on connecting classwork to purpose and relevance. Teachers often underestimate the importance of purpose and relevance in building motivation and overestimate how good a job they are doing making the purpose clear. (Mindset Scholars Network)
  • Combine formal PD with encouraging teachers to learn about their students and use it to spark engagement. If teachers know who their learners are, they can find texts they will read and tasks they will care about, thereby motivating them to participate. Quick online surveys are one way to ask students about their interests and passions, in order to then target and design activities that they genuinely find personally relevant. (The Science of Keeping Kids Engaged—Even From Home, Edutopia)

See related resources in Anti-Racism, Bias, Relevance, and Cultural Responsiveness 

Use these selected strategies and resources
High-leverage Strategies Aligned Resources

Provide World and Community Connections

Give your teachers what they need to connect their classrooms to the real world. Provide:

  • Suggested lessons for incorporating specific historical and politically relevant topics.
  • Flexibility to address current events, including local community events, both positive and negative, that may loom large for young people.

I Could Be Changing the World Right Now, But Instead I’m Solving for X is an article from that provides strategies for educators on designing homework or class assignments that encourage students to connect classwork to their personal life to enhance learning.

Build Connections for Classrooms (Character Lab) is a protocol that encourages students to connect school topics to personal interests in their daily life.

Teachers Fold Wildfires and Other Crises Into Lesson Plans is a 7-minute interview with two teachers about bringing current events, including wildfires, protests and the coronavirus, into their teaching. (National Public Radio, September 15, 2020)

Address Racial Inequity as a Shared Issue

Encourage and support class discussions around racial inequity. Recent events have highlighted the inequities in our society. Whether your district is diverse or not, it is important to help young people process what they have seen in the news and in their own communities.

Use these resources to help facilitate conversations about race in the online learning environment:

College and Career

Many students may need additional support creating and meeting goals for transitions from high school to college and career given the financial and health uncertainties that students – particularly those who are marginalized and traditionally underserved – are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Districts and schools need proactive strategies such as:

  • Increased access to counselors
  • Updated School
    Profiles that communicate how COVID-19 played out at individual schools.
  • Curriculum that helps students create explicit links between the present and the future.

Guidance and Support for Students Moving Into Postsecondary (EdResearch for Recovery) provides strategies to consider and to avoid for helping students transition from high school to college and careers during and following the novel coronavirus pandemic.

This unit on 21st century skills from JFF’s Possible Futures Curriculum (6-8th grades) offers interconnected lessons that help students learn about and practice skills like communication,  self regulation and growth mindset, all of which they will need in high school and as they go forward in life.

Student and Family Belonging

Provide teachers resources and encourage them to tap into their students’ lives and cultural heritage to create a strong sense of belonging.

Is My Voice Heard? Does My Voice Matter? is a video on why it is important for students and educators to feel seen and heard in education and on what we know from research and practice about changing curriculum, pedagogy, educator experience, and structures in K-16. (Mindset Scholars Network)

Support teachers in using these belonging strategies:

  • Create a ritual for starting your online class in which every child speaks and every child hears their name spoken by somebody else.
  • Incorporate fishbowl discussions online and encourage students to “speak from the I perspective.”
  • Co-create class rules and norms with your students and post them on the first page of each unit on your learning management system; revisit and renew the norms periodically.
  • Have each child share their preferred pronouns with you instead of making assumptions.

(Teaching Tolerance)