We’ve all had some version of the question, “When will I use this in real life?” from students. Just because we’re now delivering content through blended learning and incorporating technology does not mean we have magically made all content relevant to our students. To keep students engaged in content in a meaningful way, we have to continue to connect to their experiences and goals. At Cornerstone Charter Health High School in Detroit, MI, we do this though a required class called Relevance that is held twice per week. Relevance has three key focuses: College Readiness, Career Preparation, and Service Learning Projects which take what the students are learning in the content areas and apply it to real problems.
As a healthcare-focused high school, we are constantly seeking opportunities to engage students in career experiences related to the healthcare industry. We have partnered with the Detroit Medical Center, Beaumont Hospital, Whole Foods Market, American Heart Association, and Price Waterhouse Cooper to educate our students on a wide variety of career options available to them. Without fail, the feedback from each of these opportunities is overwhelmingly positive. Students are hungry for ways to experience their learning first hand and apply it to their real lives. At CCHHS, we are using blended learning as a tool to increase the amount of time students are able to spend on these types of experiences. If students are able to get ahead on coursework, they can spend time on internships, job shadowing, pursuing their own learning, and eventually earning college credit.
These opportunities provide students with incentives to work hard and efficiently. I had a student who wanted to be a nurse, but was falling behind on her coursework. When she learned about an immersion opportunity at Beaumont Hospital focused on nursing, something clicked. Suddenly her time on task skyrocketed and in a few weeks, she had caught up to her on-pace peers. As a result, she earned a competitive spot in the program and spent four hours on a Saturday gaining hands-on experience with professional nurses. That same weekend, I received an email from her guardian. Her guardian said that this student’s actions in the classroom had never aligned with her career goals before and that she did not communicate much information with her guardian. After the program, she could finally see the progress the student was making, and the student could not stop talking about her day in the program. These types of opportunities can really be life-changing for students who lack motivation or resources.
College Readiness is more than just a 22 on the ACT and a good GPA. There are many soft skills that students must master in order to be successful in college such as time management, teamwork, communication, leadership, and organization. To build these skills, we brainstorm what these skills are, teach how to do them successfully, and give them opportunities to practice through projects and interactions with professionals. Because college is the next “real-world experience” that my high school students will have, field trips, guest speakers, and simulations are a great way to prepare students for the challenges they will face there. These skills can and should be built into all content classes, homeroom or advisory classes, etc. because empowering students with these skills will lead to greater confidence in all coursework. They require explicit teaching, modeling, and practice.
Service Learning is a great way to incorporate cross-curricular projects that work to solve problems that occur in the communities where our students live. This year, we brainstormed issues that are facing the city of Detroit. From that list, my students decided that the prevalence of vacant lots was a problem they were interested in working on. We wrote research papers on the causes and effects of vacant lots in Detroit, which allowed students to practice research, formal writing, citing sources, and organizing their thoughts and also invested them in finding a solution for this problem. They learned that some of the causes include the decline in the economy, government corruption, and the failing education system. They also learned that one of the biggest effects of having a high percentage of vacant lots in the city is an increase in crime rate. They decided that they would take over a vacant lot and convert it into something positive for their neighborhood, such as a community garden. Since then, we created a project plan, divided roles, built our teamwork skills, planned fundraisers and contacted the city government as well as other local organizations involved with beautifying the city. We are on track to begin the conversion this summer, and the students cannot wait to get started. Our next steps include recruiting community volunteers and creating a sustainability plan. It is my hope that students will leave this project having gained a sense of empowerment to affect change and the skills necessary to follow through on large-scale, long-term projects.
Whether you are working in a traditional or blended learning school environment, there is no better way to engage students than to make learning relevant to their lives and goals. I am continually impressed by the things my students are capable of when they are empowered to take control, and they are developing essential skills in the process. Blended learning is a tool that can provide more opportunities for students to have these experiences.