Can School Be More Fun and Relevant? Yes, with Practical Learning

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Each year, I cover the reform era in American history. For those of you who may have been sleeping during history class, it was a time of change (or attempted change) in pre-Civil War America. Among many things, the reformers worked to abolish slavery and improve working conditions, prisons, treatment of the mentally ill, and education. To cover the education reform of the 1800s, I have students write about a reform they would like to see within our current educational system. It was during this project that I came up with the idea for practical learning lessons in school.

Year after year, the one response I heard over and over again from my students:

“We want to learn about real-life.”

My students orginally showed me this video

My students have felt frustrated over the years by a curriculum that hasn’t had a significant facelift since the Industrial Era. They want to learn about things that matter to them and they want to make real-life connections between what they’re learning and the world around them.

Time for a Change

After a few years of hearing this same sentiment over and over, I decided to give them what they want. I continued to make as many real-life connections to their lives within the history curriculum as I could. But I also began creating a practical learning curriculum within my class.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in the Social Studies curriculum frameworks that allows for any of the practical learning ideas I had. So how did I do it?

There are a few factors that helped make this possible.

First, the administration at my school has always allowed us to “teach outside the box” and I have always felt supported by the unorthodox things that I have done. They realized the value of the lessons to the students even if it meant one less day of traditional history lessons. I will always be grateful for that.

Secondly, I teach a subject that does not have a standardized test attached to it. If I were a Math or English teacher, I probably wouldn’t be able to get away with spending multiple days teaching outside of the curriculum.

The Plan

I decided to create nine different practical learning lessons to spread out over the course of the school year. Each would take up a class period and I covered one each month.

I allowed my students to vote on the practical learning lessons they thought would be most useful and impactful to them. After analyzing the results, I started to formulate the nine lessons that I thought students would benefit from the most.

Practical Learning Lessons

Here is a list of the 9 practical learning lessons that I teach to my students over the course of the year in school.

1. Fostering Creativity

I feel that creativity is one of the most important skills for my students to cultivate and grow. Additionally, creative thinking is one of the most sought-after skills for employees to have.

Related Post: 7 Ways to Foster Creativity in Students & Why It’s So Important

Riddle – I always like to start class off with some sort of hook. For the creativity lesson, one of my goals is to get them to think outside of the box. I use the following riddle as the opener to class.

A man has married 20 women in a small town. All of the women are still alive and none of them are divorced. The man has broken no laws. Who is the man?

Answer at the end of this section

Video – I show this excellent TED Talk video by Sir Ken Robinson titled, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” It’s a real eye-opener for the students and it fuels our class discussion that follows.

Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Class Discussion –

  • Why is Creativity so Important?
  • How do you use creativity every day?
  • How might you use creativity in your life as you grow older?

Activity – “Pass It” – Students sit in a circle and make up a fake object to throw to another student. The other student needs to “catch” the object and try to guess what it is. Objects could be heavy, light, hot, cold, slippery, prickly, etc.

Activity – Incomplete Objects – I give each student a piece of paper with the following two images on it. They then draw two creative pictures that incorporate the original drawing. (My students did not complete the pictures below, they are just examples).

Image result for most creative incomplete figures

(Answer: A priest or pastor)

2. Public Speaking

As a teacher, I have seen some great student presentations as well as a significant number of cringe-worthy ones. But as the years have gone by, I’ve noticed that there are two types of bad presentations. There are the presentations where the student clearly has not spent a lot of time preparing, and then there are those presentations where all of the information is good, but the execution of the actual presentation is lacking. It was after this realization that I decided that we needed to really work on what makes a strong public speaker.

Discussion Questions –

  • What are you afraid of?
  • What one thing are more Americans afraid of than anything else?

Image without a caption

Video –

This video uses the acronym “PVLEGS” to improve public speaking skills. We look at this video first and then I leave the acronym on the board for the rest of the class to remind students when they are presenting. PVLEGS stands for:

  • Poise
  • Voice
  • Life
  • Eye Contact
  • Gestures
  • Speed
“PVLEGS” for Public Speaking

Activity – Interviews –

Students are broken up into pairs to interview each other. Students can ask each other anything, but I do give them a few suggestions. Ask what sports or clubs they are in, favorite book, movie, and song, what they are most proud of, something funny that happened in their childhood, etc. They then use the information gained for a brief introduction speech about their partner to give to the whole class. They try to focus on “PVLEGS” while presenting.

Activity – Merging Public Speaking and Creativity

There are 20 random items in a bag at the front of the classroom. Without looking, students pick out one of the objects and tell a fictional story about it. Students can come up with whatever they want, but I do give them these starters as examples:

  • This … {insert the name of whatever it is the speaker has in their hand} saved my life. It happened like this…
  • Whenever I see a …{insert the name of whatever it is the speaker has in their hand} it reminds me of the time I…
  • I collect …{insert the name of whatever it is the speaker has in their hand} and this one is the prize of my collection. It used to belong to …

3. Personal Finance – Credit, Debt, Credit Cards

I write a lot about personal finance. It is certainly one of my passions. Fortunately, at our school, we do have a personal finance course, but it is an elective course that many students do not end up taking. It’s amazing, but more so scary, how little students understand about credit cards and debt.

“Family Guy” – Credit Card Debt

Each year, a representative from one of the local banks has come in to speak with the students about how to set up bank accounts, the dangers of debt, and the benefits and drawbacks of credit cards.

Related Post: Credit Card Hacking – The Easy Way

Understanding Credit Card Debt with a Glass of Water

4. Personal Finance – Saving, Budgeting, Investing, Retirement

This practical learning lesson might be my favorite of them all and possibly the most useful in a school. I usually start off class with this clip of Mr. Money Mustache. I spoke earlier of how I like to have a hook at the beginning of each class to pique my students’ interest. Well, hearing about how someone can retire within ten years of starting a career usually gets their attention.

Mr. Money Mustache Interview

I have also been so very fortunate to have some amazing personal finance bloggers come in to speak to my classes. In the past, I have had:

They have provided some amazing advice over the years, and I always think that hearing it from a guest speaker is more impactful and interesting. Let’s be honest, they are sick of hearing from me!

5. Cooking

This is almost always the unanimous class favorite. Our food service director at the school (and one of my good friends) comes in each year to teach my students some cooking basics. The kids get to learn about cooking and they get to eat! It’s a win-win!! We have made everything from chicken marsala to pasta bolognese to specialty omelets one year when we had the class first period.

6. Applying and Interviewing for a Job

For this practical learning lesson, I have my sister along with some of her co-workers come into school. She works in human resources at a large company in Boston.

She focuses on how to apply and interview for a job as well as how to create a resume. One of the surprising wake-up calls for students is when she and her co-workers discuss how much of an influence social media profiles can have on whether someone gets hired or not.

7. Time and Stress Management

Students need this one, even if they might not realize it. Over the years, I have noticed that students are more and more stressed. Anxiety is a significant and widespread problem for everyone, but especially this generation. While many of the causes of this anxiety are for far more serious reasons than their school work, I find it helpful (and my duty) to try to alleviate some of their stress by helping them find ways to cope with some of their stress.

The bulk of the day is spent discussing the amount of work students have as well as the means by which they complete that work. We cover different strategies for both time management and stress management.

8. Philanthropy

In this practical learning lesson, I talk about the various ways in which we can become better citizens and more aware of our community beyond school. I center the class around one essential question: Can one person make a difference?

I use the story of two of my friends who formed “The Next 26” in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. Their success in creating this organization from scratch is a testament to them and their hard work. It shows that one person (or in this case two), can certainly make a difference!

9. Curbing the Technology Addiction

If you have read this blog before, you probably know how I feel about cell phones.

Related Post: I Went Back to a Flip Phone: Here’s Why

I think that we are all at least somewhat addicted to technology, myself included. For teenagers, it seems like it is even worse. So, I teach a lesson on technology addiction that focuses on these two powerful videos.

Blue Light – Living in a Technology Addicted World
Look Up

At the end of the lesson, I ask students to pledge to turn off their phones for the rest of the day and the entire night. Most students do say yes, and many report that they feel much better the next day. There are times that we can all benefit from a technology detox.


I have received great feedback on all of these practical learning lessons over the last few school years. My students appreciate that they are learning something that seems so relevant to their lives. Additionally, they are learning life skills that will hopefully benefit them for years to come. I would love to see practical learning included in all schools.

I have two major questions for my students as they walk out of my classroom in June:

  • Have they thought about their role within their community and the world?
  • Have they learned something that will help them to be successful and happy in life?

If they can answer yes to both of those questions, I know I have accomplished something.

I’d love to hear from you. Can you think of any other practical learning lessons that would be beneficial to students in school?

Can School Be More Relevant and Fun? Yes, with Practical Learning!

3 thoughts on “Can School Be More Fun and Relevant? Yes, with Practical Learning”


    I loved this post. I ended up forwarding it to my college freshman daughter who is currently (whining) about taking a public speaking course and she also hated history classes. I wish you could be her teacher. You have some fabulous ideas and I love that you listen to your students and you incorporate history with practical learning. Keep up the good work and more power to you. Thank you.

    1. minimalismandmoney

      Hi Lucinda, thanks for this great comment. Tell your daughter that I hated history in high school too and look where I ended up! I had a great college professor who made history so interesting for me. I try to remind myself of his impact often, especially in difficult teaching years like this one, when motivation can be hard to come by.

  2. Personal finance is SUCH an underrated topic that isn’t taught in schools. I am so disappointed with the schooling system that does not teach people to save and invest. I have a feeling that’s on purpose.

    The government loves it when people spend money to prop up the economy and I feel like they are refusing to teach those classes so people aren’t smarter about their finances.. Well no more! We have personal finance blogs teaching those advice for free now.

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