By the time I was seventeen, I had been on two separate trips to rural Mexico where I worked in week-long intervals building houses, digging irrigation ditches, assembling concrete walls, and pouring roofs. I stayed with Mexican families, sat at their dinner tables, slept on their living room floors, and I learned to speak conversational Spanish faster than I ever would have thought possible.
There is no question in my mind that these experiences have shaped my life in an extreme way. I learned more about the world than I ever had living in a small town in central Wisconsin. These experiences meant I was exposed to racism and poverty, cultural differences and family dynamics, ethics and morals that were different from my own.
With this came a large variety of instances in which I was able to draw on my time in Mexico and the things I was exposed to there to think more deeply about the world in new and interesting ways. While reading a novel for a literature course, completing a purification experiment in chemistry, or sitting in a psychology course, discussing theories of behavior, I could think back and relate my experience to the content of the course. When asked to share my own experiences and opinions related to things, I was not only able to help strengthen connections I made personally using these stories, but then illustrate those real-world connections for other students in the course. (And they did the same for me!) It became a lot easier to understand a new concept when I could see it fit together with something I had experienced first-hand.
Asking students to draw on their experiences and express their opinions provides opportunities for learning that can deepen understanding and involve collaboration. Setting up discussion boards or allowing time for personal sharing in relation to a prompt provides pathways for students to consider that they may have otherwise overlooked. These pathways equivocate to personalized learning that requires little to no extra effort for you, but that has a big impact on student retention and understanding.
Provide students with plenty of opportunities to recall their own experiences and discuss them with classmates or yourself. You may be amazed at the sort of connections that can be made.
Written By: Jessica Moser