Unpacking the Standards for Real-World Relevance

Unpacking the Standards for Real-World Relevance

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a student ask, “But when are we ever going to use this in real life?” I’d be taking more vacations. For years I’ve tried to explain to students that what we work on in the classroom translates to real-world skills, but they’ve never really believed me. Truth be told, that approach has not been successful. It wasn’t until this year, faced with my most challenging group of students so far, that I finally figured out a way to make it work. However, this realization only came when I reached my breaking point. 

It was hard for me to believe that 17 students could “get to me” so much. I felt like a failure for struggling with such a small group of students when most of my classes consisted of 30 or more students. It wasn’t that these students didn’t want to learn, it was that they had become convinced that there was nothing else for them to learn in English – they could speak it, read it, and write it. “What else could I possibly need?” they argued. 

So, I went back to the drawing board and back to what I knew mattered: the standards. When I created the project overview for our new unit, I added a table with the standards focus in one column and the real-world implications and applications on the other. Then came the real work. 

With the project overview in hand and the standards as the focus of their work, students got to work to unpack the standards. With some guidance, students worked together to take the standards apart. They underlined the verbs, determined the number of targets, and identified academic vocabulary. Students quickly realized that just one standard could be asking that they demonstrate multiple layers of learning. Once students simplified the standards for all their integral parts, they got to work finding the real-world value of that learning. 

For this next part, students worked alone as they reflected on what they were looking for out of life. Oftentimes, we instruct students to connect their learning to a job or career but there is more to life than that. Students expanded their understanding of “text” to include people and situations (the way we “read” a room or “read” a person’s body language or facial expressions). These circumstances were more real and relevant to students than thinking five or ten years down the road to a particular job or career. 

Lastly, we shared our findings as a class. Students were engaged and excited as they listened to one another explain how they would use the standard in their lives. They jotted down each other’s ideas onto their own paper, making note of innovative ways they hadn’t thought of to analyze the central idea of a text. While some were comical, like identifying the central idea in a boyfriend/girlfriends angry tirade, others focused on the pressing need for active listening of political candidate speeches in order to analyze the way an idea is shaped and refined. 

As my students work towards mastery of the standards, they have come to understand that multiple attempts at parts of the standard are usually necessary before they tackle the whole of the standard. By working on the standards in small chunks, my students have gained more confidence in themselves. 

Although I do hear a student every now and then ask about the relevance of a particular assignment, it is usually answered by another student as they point at the standards on our project wall and remind them about the real-world implications identified previously. The true value of standards-aligned instruction is that students are all held to the same equitable standard and, with the right scaffold in place to meet the varying needs, all students can succeed. 


Vilma Godoy is a coffee-loving high school English teacher in Shelbyville, KY. Born in Guatemala, raised in California, and transplanted to Kentucky, Vilma has a wide range of experiences that inform her teaching style and philosophy. She is passionate about providing rigorous opportunities for students to learn and grow, not only as English students, but as well-informed members of society. Her desire is that all students leave her classroom better prepared to face the world.