What brings students from the traditional school system to YouthBuild programs? One reason is that students do not find rote memorization, textbooks, worksheets, and class-long lectures engaging. For this reason, especially in urban environments, youth are fleeing this system in record numbers. A lack of culturally relevant curriculum is another major piece of this equation. Students who cannot find real-world application to their work simply do not want to engage in it. In the current information age, because students possess so many avenues where they can learn and gather what they want to know, teachers and the education system as a whole must begin to shift to helping them gain the skills they need while the students control the content. The two most effective ways to facilitate this are by using culturally relevant teaching methods and playing to our students’ real-world expertise and experiences to develop a student-centered classroom.

Culturally relevant teaching is one of the most important parts of the student-centered classroom. By presenting students with real-world problems to solve, or by asking them to decide on problems or content that connects to their own lives, they will be more interested in the work they do. This is most important when working with students who have been or feel they have been disenfranchised by the system. These students have difficulty connecting with a traditional education system that does not meet their needs or engage them with material they see as meaningful. By affording these students the opportunity to engage with content they see as relevant to their lives, they can find success. For more information on developing real world, problem-based projects in your classroom, see Problem-Based Learning: Collaborative, Student-Driven Learning in Real World Contexts.

In addition to providing students with culturally relevant experiences, teachers in the student-centered classroom must be willing to incorporate technology and develop students’ Digital Literacy. Students in the 21st century classroom have grown up with technology. If the teachers who engage these students do not integrate technology into their teaching, the students will no longer find the work to be worth doing. Teachers, therefore, must present students with purposeful and rigorous uses of technology. Unfortunately, many teachers simply do not understand how to best use technology. Moreover, they are unwilling to allow the students to teach them or help them understand technology. The student-centered classroom must be built on the foundation that everyone in the room is a teacher and a student. If that is the mentality, students can help teachers to understand how technology can be implemented and used most effectively and collectively, students and teachers can develop their digital literacy together.

By incorporating both real-world problems and digital literacy into your classes, students will begin to engage more deeply in their learning and will be able to make stronger connections between their learning and their lives. To further instill these skills in students, a different approach to teaching numeracy and literacy is also important. Students need to have the opportunity to dive deeply into the materials and texts to improve their reading comprehension, abstract thinking, and analytical and problem-solving skills. Students are now being asked to think more critically on their high school equivalency tests, and this shift has to be taken into account in the classroom as well. YouthBuild instructors must create learning environments, curricula, and activities that allow students the opportunity to hone the skills they will need to succeed not only with high school testing and earning a high school diploma, but in post-secondary environments and the workforce as well. These skills can be best developed by teaching close-reading techniques that give students the chance to chunk larger texts and think about them more deeply, rather than a superficial reading of a larger text. Close reading involves the use of critical thinking to interpret key ideas and concepts and make inferences about the content based on textual evidence. Rather than encouraging students to respond personally to text, teachers focus on text-dependent questions that lead students to delve more deeply into a text.

In addition, providing students with reading that is connected to their lives, and having them complete projects that allow them some choice in what they take from these readings, is vital to preparing students for the 21st Century workplace. Numeracy skills must also be linked to this ideal. It is not enough for students to simply memorize math facts, but they must also have a deeper understanding of the concepts and procedures that make these facts true. By providing opportunities for students to manipulate formula and math concepts, students will develop stronger analytical, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. This will then carry over to success in high school and post-secondary institutions and build skills that employers are looking for in entry-level employees.

To learn specific ways that Math and English Language Arts (ELA) YouthBuild teachers are incorporating the Common Core State Standards’ instructional shifts into their classrooms, watch this an archived recording of the November 2014 DOL YouthBuild webinar, High School Equivalency in Action: ELA and Math Lessons that Support Student Success.