Connecting Students’ Life Experience to School Learning
December 22, 2008
“Many of the African-American young men we talked to said it’s not
that they don’t respond to education; it’s that they don’t respond to
what it passes for.”
-Governor’s Commission on Black Males 1997
Though this quote is reflective of an African American male’s
experience in school, there are students from all racial and cultural
backgrounds who may not make connections between their own lives and
what is being taught in school. Research confirms that some students
struggle daily with content and instruction that is presented in a
context that is culturally exclusionary. In his book, High Impact
Teaching, Thomas Brown states, “For many students, interest in
learning is directly related to their perceived relevance of the
learning tasks. They need to know how their existing lifestyles can be
influenced by acquiring certain kinds of knowledge and skills. When a
need to know is clear and present, efforts toward skill acquisition
are more energetic.” Brown goes on to attribute the high interest
that students have in driver education, swimming, and computer
literacy to the pertinence these subjects have to students’ lives.
They make an immediate and direct connection to life skills that are
important and tangible to them.
In her book, Building Culturally Responsive Classrooms: A Guide for
K-6 Teachers, Concha Delgado-Gaitan, provides an example of how one
teacher made math instruction relevant to her second grade students.
The teacher was struggling to help her largely ESOL students to master
basic math addition and subtraction skills. When she contacted
parents about the difficulty their children were having in math, many
parents expressed surprise. They reported that their children were
often sent to the store to make purchases and returned home with the
correct change. Immediately the teacher made a connection between
math in her students’ lives and school math. She created a classroom
store where the students’ role played merchant and customer and used
computation sheets to simulate the grocery store environment. Her use
of real-life skills with math content allowed students to excel far
above the standard set by the school. The students not only learned
important mathematical foundational concepts and skills, but the
connection to their lives sustained their interest and created high
Teachers certainly can and do help students make important connections
to curriculum and instruction through knowledge of students’ lives.
But in his book, Teaching the Poor and Children of Color, Thomas Brown
suggests that it may be more effective for students make their own
connections between content and themselves. Brown suggests teachers
begin by making an opening statement before a unit of study that lets
students know that regardless of who they are, where they live, or
what their goals may be, each of them will be affected in some way by
the content they are about to study. The opening statement can also
help students to understand how knowledge of the content to be studied
supports access to colleges and other post-secondary educational
Brown further suggests that teachers use three key questions to help
students make their own personal connections to curriculum. He
stresses that teachers can not simply plug a topic into the blank in
each question. The questions need to be tweaked to the particular
content at hand. Brown’s questions are:
• What activities that take place in your home or community require
some knowledge of __________________.
• How is your participation in these activities improved through some
knowledge of _________________.
• How can the quality of your life be diminished by not possessing
some knowledge of __________________.
Below are examples of how the questions above were used as a guide to
help students understand the personal relevancy of content.
Math Unit on Fractions
1. What are some of the times that you or family members have used
fractions in your home or community?
2. How did being able to use fractions benefit you and or your family
in the situations you named?
3. If you had not been able to use fractions in the situations you
described, what might have been the result?
1. What events or situations take place in your home or community that
requires you to read to function in your daily life?
2. How might daily events that require reading be more enjoyable,
quicker, or more beneficial for you if you increased your reading
3. How might not increasing your reading comprehension be detrimental
to you as a person and student?