One of my favorite courses in my art history graduate school program was Museum Studies. It was one of the only classes I took that felt extremely applicable to me as I considered a career in the museum world. One of the major end-of-semester projects included working with a local museum to create a K-12 curriculum based on an exhibit they had on display. After writing the curriculum, we had to present the lessons in front of our peers and the museum staff onsite at the museum. This project involved innovation, creativity, and problem solving. It was complex, meaningful, and relevant. I still remember details from that project because it was connected to a real museum exhibit and real staff.
Bringing real-world challenges into the classroom engages students, and demonstrates to them how their education applies to the world around them. It takes education from abstraction to reality, and prepares students for real life outside of school. Knowledge sticks because students can relate to it outside of the classroom.
Here are four ways to bring the real world into your classroom:
1 Pick a social issue and find an organization that supports it.
Or better yet, ask the students to pick a social issue that is important to them. Once you find an organization that your class wants to support, do some research on the organization prior to taking any action, to figure out what might be helpful for them (with or without the kids). If possible, get into contact with them to see what needs they have. Chances are they have some ideas, and this will give your students an opportunity to brainstorm solutions that will actually be helpful for the organization. When I worked at a science center, we got in touch with the local animal shelter to see what they needed, and they requested cat toys. Asking them first narrowed down the problem for our students so they could focus on something tangible much more quickly. This made it less overwhelming for students, and they were able to figure out how to make their own cat toys. And, this type of work can still be tied to standards. A project where students make something might address engineering and/or other STEM standards. If you decide to lead a fundraising campaign, this could be tied to ELA or social studies standards by focusing on the economics of the fundraiser, or on its advertising by writing a letter for the local paper or school newsletter, creating posters around the school and other community spaces, and making video ads to be played around the school.
2 Pay attention to what is going on in the local community.
Always keep your eyes open for current challenges or problems happening within the school’s community. When students can be part of the solution in real time, it is engaging and rewarding for everyone. Students can see the impact they have on their community, and discover how they can truly make a difference in the world. It demonstrates the power of their actions. Many of us remember in early 2020, when students across the country helped first responders in their communities by 3D printing face mask holders. The Time Kid of the Year in 2020, Gitanjali Rao, saw a problem with communities around the world drinking contaminated water. So, she invented a solution to help detect lead contamination to keep people safe. It doesn’t have to be a STEM challenge either. When I taught sixth grade, my colleague informed me that a local shelter needed blankets, so our class made blankets to donate.
Don’t know how to get connected to local organizations? Pay attention to caregiver occupations and don’t hesitate to collaborate with colleagues. Although it was difficult for me to reach out at first, I discovered that when I was able to collaborate with other teachers and get support from adults in the community, the result was that my students had extremely valuable and engaging experiences in my classroom.
3 Do the work at your school and/or your school grounds.
Start the work at your school. One of my favorite days teaching sixth graders was when we took the afternoon before Thanksgiving break to help staff around our school. Teachers, office staff, and media center specialists told us what support they needed in advance, and then small groups of students signed up to work on the projects that were listed. The students had a blast, they worked hard, the adults loved the extra sets of hands, and it gave students positive interactions and relationships with new adults around the building. Is there a teacher who needs help hanging student work on the wall? Can your students be mentors or peer tutors for younger grade levels? Making improvements to your school grounds is also something students can do to help. Challenge your class to start a garden at the school (I found this blog post helpful). Or pick up trash, debris, and/or weeds around your school campus. A school I recently visited had their students work on removing an invasive species from the forest behind their building. What a fantastic way to teach students how they can make a difference in their own community!
4 Empower your students to become citizen scientists.
Show students that they can be scientists and help the world by finding a citizen science opportunity for your classroom. Citizen science is when scientists collaborate with the public to crowdsource data on a project to solve real-world problems. There are many ongoing projects out there and I found the sites below particularly helpful in getting started.
- Citizenscience.gov- This is a website set up by the government to help people find and start citizen science projects. It has a large database of projects you can search through to find one that is relevant for you.
- SciStarter- This site has some helpful information about how you can become a citizen scientist. It also has a Project Finder with over 1,000 projects to explore.
For more ideas on weaving real-world learning into your classroom, see my post To Spark Student Interest, Lean into Student Curiosity and Real-World Experiences.