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Incorporating Student Interests in the Secondary Classroom

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

A few minutes of class time and a little extra effort can turn your classroom into a feel-good community. Resources included!

Unpopular teacher opinion: Kids don't learn from people they don't like. And while my goal is not necessarily for my kids to "like" me, it is for them to feel like I like them, respect them, see them, and care about more than just the grades they receive on my assignments. This doesn't solve every problem ever, but it helps A LOT.

I don't know about you, but I don't remember much content-wise from middle school or high school. I do, however, remember the teachers who made us laugh, who noticed when my head was down and something was wrong, who took a moment to connect with us, even if they had nothing in common.

One of the most important things to me as a teacher is building community and getting to know and love on my students. Year after year, one of the ways I make sure to accomplish this is to leave class time at least once a week for things like ice breakers, games, check-ins, and/or team builders.

Funny enough, did you know that the number one resource that most teachers seek are community builders? I've come across plenty of teachers who want the same thing, and maybe sometimes just don't know how. So this post is dedicated to y'all - any teacher who needs a little push or guidance to incorporate these types of activities in the classroom.

That being said, every time I post an icebreaker resource, I get the same type of question - "how did you choose what to use?" - and my answer, in short, has two parts: 1. pay attention to what's trending, and 2. pay attention to your kids/get to know them - like really know them. It only takes a few minutes here and there, but it makes a world of difference.

As an ELA teacher, sometimes getting my kids to do even the most minute assignments is like pulling teeth, but even when the unit is tough, I try to find a way to incorporate either choice, student interest, or an element of fun at some point. And yes, even high schoolers still deserve the space to have fun, be silly, be intrigued, and say, "Yo, that was pretty cool..."

We're not always going to get it right, and I'm not saying tough days will magically disappear if you spend time trend-hunting and looking for ways to incorporate them in class, but I can tell you that doing this will add some pretty awesome memories to your year.

What's Trending

Following the teacher community on social media platforms is a tremendous help. Seek out accounts from other educators that you vibe with, and see what they're doing - you don't always have to reinvent the wheel. Trial and error works because it's the effort that counts. Eventually, you'll develop your own favorites.

Twitter is also a great resource! They literally have a page called "What's trending" where you can get the brief on current events, pop culture, and anything that the kids are probably buzzing about.

A third idea is to listen to popular radio stations where you live - in the mornings on the way to work sometimes, those radio shows spill a lot of tea that your kids are very interested in. Several of my daily attendance questions have been inspired from something I heard about on my morning drive, and the kids just think that you're always "in the know". Worth it!

Even if you're not on social media or don't feel as confident in the 'what's trending' arena, don't fret - you can find out day one with your kiddos. Give them a survey, talk to them, ask them what they're listening to BEFORE you decide to take their headphones away, etc. Kids love to talk when they know they're actually being listened to, so all in all, my biggest advice is simply to listen.

Getting to Know Your Students

This section could be an entire blog post on its own, but in short, don't be afraid to talk to them, and ask a lot of questions!

For example: one day, I saw one of my student's laughing at her laptop so I moseyed on over and inquired what she was watching - YouTube - does she watch a lot of YouTube? - sometimes, to laugh - and eventually, she tells me that loves this Asian boyband BTS, and I asked her to show me one of their videos.

While watching, I asked her questions about the members, what she likes about the group, etc., found out she's excited to go to their concert in the near future, and that she memorizes even the Japanese lyrics! In a short 5 minutes, I learned something new about her, validated her interests, and got a new idea for another icebreaker - maybe a battle of the bands; ranking boybands then and now; guess the song, boyband edition - whatever I end up creating, I'm definitely going to add BTS in there specifically for her, and that's all it takes.

Once you have a good grasp of what your kids are into, try everything and anything to include some of those interests either in attendance questions, assignments, activities, extra credit opps, and any other place you see fit. Consistent engagement in their interests and opinions will naturally build classroom community (even if they still call you *cringey* 4 months in lol).

Lastly, give them a little choice when you can, and if they ask you 'can I do x instead of y' for an assignment for example, don't be so quick to say no. When I was younger, I used to waitress, and one of the lessons from that time I still hold onto till this day is, "When the answer is no, give them a pickle."

It's this idea that there is often a work around, compromise, or other option to provide for a customer when you can't give them exactly what they want for whatever reason. And don't get me wrong - for our students, sometimes the answer is just no, period, but when it doesn't have to be, try the pickle trick and challenge yourself and them to meet halfway.

So I challenge you - if you're not doing this already - take the time, little things here and there, nothing crazy. As for an added tech tip, a simply survey on a Google Form - interests, snacks, hobbies, preferred pronouns, etc. - can work wonders. You can use the information throughout the school year. When it comes to topic ideas, food, entertainment, sports, and music are always going to be winners, and you'd be surprised how much kids have to say about current events, too.

At the end of the day, our students want what we all want - to be seen, heard, and and validated. We have the power to provide spaces where they experience this. And even if they don't say anything directly, I promise you, they notice.

If you're interested in any of these, check out my Community Building resources library HERE.

Also, if you ever want to chat or brainstorm together, let me be your sounding board and bring your ideas to life by signing up for a one-on-one session with me HERE.


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