Using Students’ Interests to Fuel Academic Learning


Fourth-grade homeroom teacher Olivia Poirier is helping students learn and grow, academically and emotionally, by designing lessons that match their interests and tapping into their empathetic nature.

A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Olivia studied elementary education at the University of Boulder, Colorado, and began her career as a teaching assistant and literacy paraeducator in the Boulder Valley School District. She taught for a year at the International School of Denver before relocating to Seattle, where she spent three years as a Montessori teacher in Seattle Public Schools. In Seattle, she first taught a fourth-fifth grade combo, and then a first-second-third grade combo. She joined the Catlin Gabel community as a fourth grade homeroom teacher in fall 2021. The following are excerpts from an interview with Olivia in October 2021.

Working with younger grades in the past, I was passionate about teaching children how to read. As I started working with older kids, fourth and fifth graders, I realized that they were now reading to learn rather than learning to read. I support that by giving them texts that they are not only interested in, but that have characters and scenarios they relate to, as well as scenarios, characters, and settings that are nothing like their lives here.

I’m constantly trying to figure out what students are curious about in their own lives and bring it into the concepts that they need to learn to make the jump to the next grade level. A lot of that is knowing your students, spending a lot of time in the beginning of the year developing personal relationships so you know what they care about, and have a solid cache of facts and interests about each kid that you apply. For example, if we’re talking in science about velocity or calculating speed, and I have a kid who’s really interested in skateboarding or mountain biking, I might ask them to calculate what happens when you go up a ramp. I’m trying to take the necessary and fuel it with their own interests.

In fourth and fifth grade, students can express themselves with more intention, particularly around issues of social justice. Sometimes it starts through a conversation, maybe a conversation with a friend. Or it may start when they’re talking about their identities during SMASH Time, where they’re self-identifying what they care about. And sometimes it comes from exposing them to current events in the world, such as listening to kids’ news podcasts. One of the episodes we listened to was about book bans in Pennsylvania, and why certain books were banned. We wondered, What do the people who make those decisions look like compared to the characters in the books? Why do you think they might’ve been banned? What’s been happening in the world that might’ve triggered that response? And then having them form their own opinions. You kind of light that little spark. And, at this age, most of them are going to get a little fired up.

They’re starting to really develop their empathy. That’s one of the biggest pieces for fourth and fifth: Being able to put themselves in another person’s shoes, and then taking a step back and reflecting on their own actions and choices and other people’s choices to have a better understanding of why people do things that they do. They can read into actions and experiences and develop empathy in a way that I think younger children have a tougher time with. And they can identify their own emotions—they can describe a feeling. Rather than just saying, I feel sad today, they can say, I feel lonely, I feel embarrassed, and so on.

So we’re meeting them where they’re ready, tapping into their empathy or encouraging it. We’re helping them develop that. And it’s a good thing—it’s part of growing up.