Real Life Topics
Differentiated content involving real life topics should address authentic issues, controversies, problems or provocative questions inspired by student interests, experiences, questions and concerns. “Problems should not be viewed as negative situations to be faced; rather they should be viewed as catalysts for creative production, challenges to curious and intelligent individuals.”
Students may require help focusing, analyzing and/or defining their topic or question. Real life content may or may not be related to the regular, core curriculum. When it’s not, the content is also an “Extracurricular Topic.”
Research-based best practice “calls for the use of student-centered learning opportunities that are issue- or problem-based and relevant to the student’s world.” Such curriculum provides “an important connection between teacher and learner, perhaps accounting for greater gains as the motivation of both escalates.”  It addresses affective needs like motivation and engagement.
Students who are motivated to make the world a better place may not be satisfied with studying one topic. They may need to act on the injustice and/or find a solution to the problem. Stifling or discouraging this drive may reduce their curiosity and motivation to pursue learning in other areas. Supporting and encouraging students can enhance their motivation, lead to their deep commitment to a cause and enormous benefits to mankind.
Simon Jackson is an example of a young man with a passion deserving of this form of differentiation. When he was 7 years old, he began his campaign to protect the endangered, white Kermode Bear (the Spirit Bear). In 1996, at the age of 13, he started a youth movement that became the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition.
On the Coalition’s website, Simon’s statement, “The Power of One”, begins with this paragraph:
“I was seven-years-old when I was lucky enough to discover my passion for bears and learned first hand, through a lemonade stand and a couple of letters in support of protecting Alaska’s Kodiak bears, that each person – no matter their age – can make a difference for all life. It was the most important lesson I ever learned and it was the foundation from which I’ve built my life, my quest to give a voice to the spirit bear. ” [more]
In 2001, due to the Coalition’s efforts, the bears’ habitat was protected from logging and development in the largest land protection measure in North American history through a land use agreement, negotiated among numerous stakeholders.
When student concerns are deep and strong, their energy can be creatively integrated into most content areas. For example, Simon’s concern endangered bears could have been connected to the development of his knowledge and skills in most schools subjects.
- Individual pursuits involving real life topics are wonderful for replacement activities when compacting curriculum (see Pacing).
- Simon could have learned persuasive writing techniques by preparing “Op-Ed” pieces addressing his concern for the Spirit Bear for newspapers. His classmates could have been involved as well, focusing on issues of interest to them.
Real Life Topics include:
- Personal concerns, conflicts, and issues such as health concerns, bullying, student rights, drug abuse, perfectionism, career options, friendships, financing post-secondary studies,
- Issues in local or global communities, including homelessness, human encroachment on the habitats of indigenous animals, hunger, poverty, human rights, endangered species, bio-ethics.
Identifying student interests is sometimes difficult. One informal approach is to have the student flip through a newspaper or magazines to scan articles for topics. A more formal approach would be to use an interest survey.
If the potential challenges of managing a broad range of student interests feels overwhelming to the teacher, Real Life Topics may involve having a student or students choose from a limited number of options determined by the teacher.