Tips for Teaching an English Elective Class

Congrats! You found out you've been assigned (or “voluntold”) to teach an elective. Maybe it's a course taught during the school day, or perhaps it’s an after-school extracurricular.

...but, what happens when that elective isn't something YOU did as a student, or your college degree(s) didn't really prepare you to teach it? How does one survive and thrive in an elective class that you have the passion, but perhaps not the training, to start?

Below are some tips to help you begin. Sara has taught speech/debate before and coaches an award-winning creative writing team. Julie Faulkner has taught journalism and yearbook for 10 years!
Julie: When I was the newspaper adviser, it was an after-school club.  We produced a four-page newspaper every month. The two biggest hurdles with a club like this one were #1) getting kids to sign up to help and #2) creating material that the student body would want to read. It was honestly my fear that the paper would end up in the floors of the hallways during class change the morning of delivery. That was never really an issue, thankfully. In fact, I would actually see it stuck in kids’ binders later that day or week. Or I would see them reading it or overhear them talking about it.

So as I consider what made it successful, I think the biggest tip I could share is that we published good content that covered as many kids as possible each time.  We took good pictures, and that drew kids in. Since we were a small staff, we asked for “guest writers” or “guest artists” each month to amp up our coverage, buy-in, and ultimately to save ourselves time. We weren’t overly controversial (that’s not my style anyway), but we weren’t boring or predictable, either.   

Sometimes teachers get assigned - or voluntold - to teach a class that's not their particular area of expertise. What do you do when you've been assigned to teach something like journalism, newspaper, or speech and debate? This blog post, co-written by two English teachers, goes into detail about teaching an effective English class. Click through to get all of their tips!

Links to get started: Projects to help your staffers get kids involved...

Sara: Assuming that this is a general creative writing class (and not one that has been defined for you, like specifically a poetry writing class), try to feel inspired by the possibilities instead of overwhelmed by your options!

First, remember that students need to warm up and build confidence, too. A gradual process of quick writes, THEN drafting and revising, is important, especially if they don’t have the endurance to draft longer pieces yet.

Second, try to teach a variety of genres, prompt types, lengths, and styles. Writers hate being stuck with a project they don’t like for too long, and a new assignment or unit helps them try new things. For example, try not to focus on plot techniques for so long that characterization and other story elements get rushed later. (Even better? Allow a certain percentage of your curriculum to involve choice, whether it’s choosing the prompt, genre, or another element of the task.)

Finally, make sure you have writing-specific procedures in place for tricky situations that will come up, such as students who…
  • Don’t want to share their draft
  • Want to read their entire draft out loud and share, every single time
  • “Don’t know what to write about”
  • Don’t like their draft (and want to give up or start over)
  • Want to write about really dark, possibly inappropriate characters/plots
  • Want to submit their work externally for publication (and turn to you for ideas)

Links to get started:

Julie: Yearbook can definitely be a love-hate relationship for advisers. That is certainly true for me, but as I’ve just finished my 10th year in this role, I have grown to love it more than hate it! Being a successful yearbook adviser is all about having the right processes and making personal connections. I do have yearbook as one of my preps, so that gives me students and time during the day. However, I also have to assign grades because it’s a fine art credit. That’s another layer of stress to manage.

First, find procedures that work for your program in terms of managing the money, equipment, and deadlines, and stick with them. The most chaos ensues when there is no process or when people aren’t being held accountable.

Second is relationships, and that’s two different avenues: the staff and the student body. Yearbook seems to draw the kids with the biggest personalities, and therefore a staff that comes of all different “groups/cliques.” But you have to be ready to head-off that drama. I spend a week or so at the beginning on teamwork.  

Also, there has to be a connection between the staff and student body. We strive for maximum coverage of every student in an authentic way. So that means my staffers must get to know the kids in the school on a semi-personal level. I divide the entire student body up and assign each staffer a section to cover and connect with throughout the year.  We have a small school, so that helps. But it is a MUST to generate buzz and buy-in.  

Last, don't’ try to fight every battle or fix everything all at once. It takes time to get things just right, and even after 10 years, I’m still improving.  

Links to get started:
  • LIVE: On my Facebook page, I’ll have a live workshop June 29 @ 7pm EST: How to Keep Your Sanity as a Yearbook Advisor. The link will be available once the live workshop ends, or people can travel over and cruise my page for it.

Sometimes teachers get assigned - or voluntold - to teach a class that's not their particular area of expertise. What do you do when you've been assigned to teach something like journalism, newspaper, or speech and debate? This blog post, co-written by two English teachers, goes into detail about teaching an effective English class. Click through to get all of their tips!

Sara: Since not everyone loves public speaking as much as I do, these classes can seem scary at first. However, video “mentor texts” and playful ice-breaking go a long way in creating good speakers and debaters.

First, check the rules of whatever form of speech or debate you’re doing. (For example, if you’re competing in actual tournaments with the National Forensic League or want to follow legit Lincoln-Douglas debate structure, then the rules really do matter, and it gives your teaching an easy structure!)

Next, spend time diagnosing and treating the issues your students are having - not just mentally (like stage fright) but physically. Even if they “should know better” by now, many will still commit what I call the “Seven Sins of Speaking”, like swaying and having terrible eye contact. There are easy ways to fix them if you’re not afraid to be picky and coach them through it!

Finally, don’t hesitate to use as many real-world speakers and videos as possible, whether it’s watching TED talks, past presidential speeches, courtroom lawyers, or volunteer in-class debaters. Seeing the speaking equivalent of a “mentor text” will help them more easily elevate their vocabulary and style, more than just guessing at what it “should” look like.

Links to get started:

Before getting too far in your plans, consider the following ideas:

  • Ask for feedback on your syllabus, both for clarity and for more ideas.
  • Don’t overpromise, either verbally or on your syllabus. See what I mean in this blog post about Rookie Teacher Mistakes.
  • Check with the other English teachers of that grade level. Not only might they have good ideas for your class, but with a little digging, you can see what THEY are teaching in their classes (and therefore what your students SHOULD already know).

What else do you want to add? Tell us in the comments below!

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