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Bringing the Real World to Your Classroom

Jordan Catapano


My students couldn’t believe we were actually talking to a real-life author. The awkward silence that preceded our conversation guarded the secret that my students had, for weeks, been reading this author’s work and preparing to grill him with questions. There was something surreal about this person before us, like an alien presence invading our comfortable environment.

Once the students got over the enchantment of the moment, their questions flooded out and our conversation acquired a racing-rapids pace that quickly drained our class period of time. For days afterwards, our class excitedly talked about the genuine learning they had acquired from our guest. It was a great way to learn how to motivate students.

Prior to this event, I had e-mailed, on a whim, several authors and other culturally prominent individuals whom I thought my students would enjoy talking to. It shocked me when one of them – Mark Bauerlein of “The Dumbest Generation” – accepted our invitation. Our class had a blast reading his controversial work, disagreeing with him, and preparing for our confrontation. And during and after our conversation, the students remarked that it was “new,” “interesting” and “worthwhile” that we had shared a conversation with him.

What’s remarkable sometimes is how distant from the real world education can seem. Students often sit within the same four walls of a classroom, surrounded by the same students and listening to the same teacher, day after day after day. English, history, science and so on seem confined to their assigned space and assigned time, and any infiltration by these subjects on any other space and time confounds students.

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But, as we know, there is a real world of ideas and experience out there. A real world that requires us to prepare the generation adequately enough to take responsibility for it. So while the instruction we give students provides them with truly essential skills, at the same time those skills can appear deceptively non-essential when there is little opportunity for authentic application.

How to Motivate Students: Bring on the Real World

The traditional way of bridging the gap between the classroom and real world has been the field trip: Loading students onto buses and transporting them to a unique destination for hands-on learning. Field trips should continue to occupy their share of the curriculum. But it can be equally, if not more, meaningful to attempt to bridge the gap in the opposite direction, by bringing a piece of the world into those same old four walls of the classroom.

Classrooms, as a learning space, can seem remotely distant from any genuine learning experience beyond them. However, when something unique – be it a person, an event, or an object – invades that learning space, then the classroom is automatically modified into dynamic, enriching environment far beyond what the same old students and teacher make it on an ordinary day.

Thanks to today’s technology, opportunities abound for making real-world connections right from the comforts of the classroom. Here are a few of the ways teachers have begun to bring the real world right into the heart of their learning environment and demonstrate how to motivate students:

  • Invite individuals from the community to come in and speak with your students.
  • Invite individuals from around the world to speak – via Skype – with your students.
  • Find a sister school from someplace else in the world, and create numerous communication channels (i.e. letters, emails, phone calls, gift exchanges, etc.) between the classes.
  • Have students create blogs, videos, and other electronically social forms of expression that can be posted, shared, commented on and exchanged with other classrooms.
  • Create extroverted class goals, such as a school improvement idea, a fundraising initiative, or a community contribution, that gets students working together towards it both inside and outside of the room.
  • Pursue sponsors who can donate books, materials, or even cash towards transforming your room into a more meaningful learning environment.

With so many communication tools at our fingertips, we have no excuse for having students who hold the notion that the real world is distant. We teachers can help propel our students towards understanding the rich, meaningful depth of their educations by paving the way for them to see how what they learn has true relevance to the people who populate the real world outside of our classroom walls.

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