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What Would Be In Your Best High School English Class?
July 17, 2014 3:21 AM   Subscribe

I'm teaching high school-level English next year for students who need a high level of academic support and I want the class to be both highly engaging and content-rich. If you were a kid who LOATHED writing for school, struggled with boring English classes, or can remember what elements you truly enjoyed in your high school English class, what advice would you pass my way?

I'm a seasoned high school teacher/administrator and next year I'm moving from Geometry and Trigonometry to English. I was an English major in college and I'm a professional writer, but I've never taught high school English.

This class is for native English speaking kids who struggle with writing and reading. They all have reading or writing disabilities. Their ages are 14 to 21.

The goals of the class will be to get them up to speed learning grammar conventions and ultimately, be able to read for meaning and write a 5-paragraph essay.

So far, I have daily 5 minute creative prompts, "The Grapes of Wrath," a Sandman graphic novel, some decent grammar and writing curriculum and...

no, that's all I have.

I have the freedom to choose whatever I want for the kids to read, but this is a therapeutic high school so highly triggering literature like "Go Ask Alice" would be out.

Any ideas for kickass curriculum, lesson plans (paid is fine but free is always better), books, units, ANYTHING you liked in high school would be very helpful.

**Take it as a given that I'm already a highly engaging teacher filled with special education knowledge and tools. I just need the tools for an English class, not necessarily the tools for being a good teacher.
posted by kinetic to Education (46 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Let them write lyrics... or improve known lyrics. Get them to write lyrics with a narrative. For the love of all things holy, don't make them do haikus.
posted by taff at 3:55 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


I love Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O'Connor. I think she has some other good books, as well.

When I took English in high school, I hated discussions about symbolism ("What does it mean that this character smokes a pipe?"). It all seemed like BS to me (and still does).

We read very few, if any, books that seemed relevant to middle-class kids growing up in suburbia. I wish we had been assigned readings that we might actually enjoy, instead of readings that were regarded as Great Literature. We read a lot of William Faulkner. I think very few kids could relate to his writing.

With regard to writing assignments, I would have enjoyed some creative writing, or assignments that related to something relevant to me, as opposed to discussing the meaning of Hamlet or whatever.

To be honest with you, I didn't like my English classes. The teachers seemed totally out of touch, the books were irrelevant to my interests, and the written assignments were tedious and pointless.
posted by akk2014 at 4:00 AM on July 17 [8 favorites]


I really loathed academic writing and never saw the point (despite being OK at it) until I encountered a few writing courses with a rhetorical focus-- i.e., acknowledging that all writing is directed toward a particular audience, in a particular situation, with a persuasive purpose in mind.

Thinking about writing as a series of deliberate choices you make to change someone else's mind or achieve a definite goal (vs. just arbitrarily expressing yourself or displaying your smarts) really helped me see writing in continuity with lots of other practical life activities. A rhetorical approach might be particularly helpful in a developmental context because it allows you to break out of strictly academic, high-stakes genres to include more fun daily-life stuff; you could practice, for instance, writing a persuasive email asking for something from a teacher. Commenting on blogs. Writing facebook posts that don't make you sound dumb. Writing letters to the editor. Composing school board proposals. Putting together a compelling cover letter. Even if these students never take another English course, writing will still be part of their daily life, so there's value in helping them prep for that, as well.

(And sorry, but I don't know that there's anything in the world, even now, that'd help me to see the value of the five-paragraph essay!)
posted by Bardolph at 4:04 AM on July 17 [13 favorites]


My english teacher for a lot of secondary school had us read the book we were reading together aloud, passing to a different student for each paragraph (he'd tell us when to pass it on if it was a lot of short bits). This resulted in hilarity, which we loved, and got people reading ahead sometimes to see what their line might be.

Another teacher who I loved dearly, used to tell us stories if we were bored of doing something, or lots of us were a bit ill with the colds and coughs that used to go round during winter. They'd be about bizarre moments from his youth, were frequently a bit risque, and told with such wit and eloquence that he had us all enraptured, which often would carry over back into the lesson.
posted by greenish at 4:34 AM on July 17 [6 favorites]


I am an avid reader and was always good at school, particularly English. One of the books that I had trouble getting through? Grapes of Wrath.

I worked in a library for a while and it was surprising to me to see summer reading lists for the local schools, because they included more YA or "hip" books than "great literature." (Though if I recall, the honors classes and AP classes included more "great literature".) Speaking to one of the teachers, they told me that they were more focused on getting the kids to actually read something that they might enjoy, even if it was not chock full of SAT words and symbolism, rather than having them struggle through the first couple of chapters and then give up because it was hard and not interesting or relevant to them.

I would suggest going to your local library and speaking with the teen librarian (if they have one, if not, the children's librarian) and asking them what books have been popular with your ages group.
posted by firei at 4:50 AM on July 17 [6 favorites]


Not dissimilar to greenish's experience: in high school when studying Shakespeare, we'd often get assigned different parts and have to read from a particular scene. Depends on your personality, but I always really enjoyed these, and because we were teens, it was always hilarious when two students who didn't like each other ended up having to read Bassanio and Portia for example.
posted by Ziggy500 at 4:51 AM on July 17 [3 favorites]


My favorite Steinbeck is Cannery Row, which might be easier to get through - and is also less blah with the symbolism and the breastfeeding of old men. Plus, who doesn't love a beer milkshake?

If you've got students who have a hard time with reading, having them read out loud is going to be terrible and anxiety producing, plus it'll end up getting other students to zone out while their classmates are sounding out words.

A dystopia unit would be cool. You could do some high school classics (1984, Brave New World), and also some modern YA (Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver), and have students write their own set of dystopic laws, or argue for a way to fix one dystopia, or compare government structures, or use of language to control people, or any number of things.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:58 AM on July 17 [6 favorites]


I hated English classes even though I loved reading. I particularly hated writing and it's really hurt my life and career. I wish my English teachers had discussed that writing was hard work, even for writers. I thought writers had some miraculous ability that I lacked and didn't realize otherwise until grad school. I personally really appreciated Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.

And ditto on Grapes of Wrath and symbolism generally - ugh. I loved Cannery Row though.
posted by hydrobatidae at 5:13 AM on July 17 [3 favorites]


Depends on your personality, but I always really enjoyed these

A contrary experience: I always really hated these. It was torturous to listen to students with reading difficulties struggle through their assigned parts, and I can only imagine how much worse it was for them.

No one ever had fun with it. Even people who could read fluently just got through it as quickly as possible. Maybe it would have been different in a smaller school where the students in a given class were more likely to know each other.

Seriously, when I think of bad high school English experiences, this is up there with the teacher who tried to teach us grammar but couldn't identify a noun.

I don't have a specific suggestion, but a more general one. I would avoid assigning a novel unless the students get some choice. These are remedial students; reading a novel is going to be a lot of work and I can almost promise you that many will hate it no matter what novel it is. I was an advanced reader and I still hated being assigned novels, because if it wasn't one I chose it was a slog. I really preferred shorter works--short stories, etc. I got exposure to a wider variety of stuff, and if I didn't like something it was over soon.

I think the graphic novel idea is awesome.

I also like the idea of having a cool theme, like dystopias. If you do that, you could have an exercise where the students write a propaganda piece! That would be fun.

(As a linguist, I feel like adding this: Teaching conventions is necessary, but telling kids that they way they naturally speech is incorrect is alienating, dispiriting, and unscientific. If you need to teach them how to phrase something in Standard English, frame it as translating into the variety that is used in that context, rather than correcting bad English. You may already know this, but.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:17 AM on July 17 [14 favorites]


Books I remember most folks enjoying in high school: Kaffir Boy, Huckleberry Finn, Black Boy, Raisin in the Sun, Alas Babylon, Oliver Twist, 1984, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Doll's House, Rashomon, The Handmaid's Tale (how awesome was that teacher?), pretty much all Shakespeare

Books I remember most folks hating in high school: Steinbeck (sorry), Hemingway, Out of Africa, Jude the Obscure, Beloved (but some more accessible Toni Morrison might have gone better), Siddhartha (but a better introduction to what the hell we were reading would have helped)

I never succeeded in writing a 5 paragraph essay that made my English teachers happy, and that had zero effect on my life in college or through 9 years of grad school.

On preview, Bird by Bird is a great suggestion!
posted by hydropsyche at 5:19 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


Fie on the 5 paragraph essay. When I taught, my students thought that this was the be all and end all of writing and attempted to go no further. But I digress.

One assignment that really fired them up was: Imagine that you're locked in overnight somewhere. It could be a store like Wal-Mart, or a Theme Park, or a museum. What would you do if you had the chance to do anything you wanted? What would you eat? Where would you sleep? What would you do for fun?

Another was Garbology. I collected items of "garbage," I made 5 distinct things. One for a single lady who was going out on a blind date, so that had a shoe box, tags cut off from an outfit, a scrawled phone number with the name "Charles" on it, etc. Another was from a middle aged single guy, newspaper with circled ad for hair restoration, take out menus, playing cards box, you get the idea. The assignment was to prowl through the garbage and then write a profile of the person it came from.

My favorite was "Island Nation". Sort the kids into groups, they're now the founders of an Island Nation. They have to write a National Anthem, create tourism documents, write a charter, make a flag. It's fun, it's provocative and it can go on and on.

Scrabble and Boggle are good for Fridays if you're inclined.

I also did a Cause/Effect lesson using a Simpsons episode. Who ever wrote down the most cause and effect sentences won a box of movie candy.

Newspapers are AWESOME, kids love 'em.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:31 AM on July 17 [14 favorites]


Okay, I must have read a completely different Cannery Row as it was about a girl who worked there through highschool and ultimately was the first girl to win a full ride college scholarship from the owner for college.

I'd go for the graphic novels, totally, and if you do "assign a novel" it's read and discussed as a class.

I prefer tortilla flats
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 5:33 AM on July 17


I think one really cool assignment you could do is take whatever you are reading -- maybe a dialogue heavy short story -- and have them rewrite it into a different format.

Like --- if these were interactions on Facebook or Twitter, how would they appear? Or some such thing. But, basically, creative rewrites might be a good way to get them to participate with interest.

Also --- Weird Al conveniently just came out with Word Crimes. So you could look into the art of parodies and their purpose and what they mean in writing, etc. Then have kids write their own parodies of a song or a poem or whatever.

FWIW, I was an honors and AP English student who majored in literature and a foreign language in college, and I freaking hated Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath is a book I cannot stand to this day. You could have them read The Hunger Games and achieve some of the same ethics and and lessons from it and they'd probably be more engaged (theme:responsibility of rich and powerful to the poor ---- overexertion of powers --- right to life as any one person sees fit (imminently debatable in high school English) --- actions to take against a broken system and so forth).
posted by zizzle at 5:44 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


Would The Fault in Our Stars be too emotionally upsetting or problematic in your high school? An underprivileged, non-honors-student teenager went out of their way to ask me if I had that book and could they borrow it, and they loved it, because wow that book. And there is way more than enough in it to talk about in an English class.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:48 AM on July 17


I loathed Grapes of Wrath. And boy is it hard to even look for hidden meaning if you're gritting your teeth trying to make it through the book. I was a straight A student. I can't imagine attempting it if I were having difficulties. I like the idea of having students have a choice, even if it's from a list of five books you've chosen. Sandman is a great idea. If Poe would qualify for whatever standards you're looking at, I'd also suggest his work. Oh, A Modest Proposal might engage them. It's parody, it has a hidden (or not so hidden) meaning, and it's incredibly well written. Obviously not a novel, but still. if you feel they would be upset by it, preface it with the disclosure that it's a parody, and he's not really suggesting eating babies.

Writing to order is a pain. I hated it. I hated it in college, although I pulled A's out of it. The particular teacher I got for those terms was big on you writing about something you were passionate about, though, and that helped.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 5:52 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


One thing that worked well in my AP English class so many years ago was listening to the RSC perform the Shakespeare plays we studied as we read along at the same time (similar to the suggestions above about reading aloud). It's easier to absorb when the information's coming at your eyes and ears at the same time. And not suggesting Shakespeare, but any good YA or good book in general will have an audio version out there.

Also our teacher let us bring in and play one song on random Friday's and tell the class what it meant. That was my introduction to REM's first EP....
posted by digitalprimate at 5:55 AM on July 17


I taught high school English and one thing that my students really liked was "book circles," where we had a general theme but three or four books to choose from. At the beginning of the unit I'd tell them a bit about each of the books and pass around copies, and they each chose the book they wanted to read (or thought they'd hate least). During class they'd meet in groups to discuss their books or to read together if they wanted. Some units included some sort of group project, but students were graded on their contributions to the whole, rather than the overall project, so one jerk kid couldn't sink the whole group.

I snuck in a sci-fi unit that I called "Perceptions of the Future" with Jennifer Government (lots of swearing! machine guns!), Feed (I hated this book so much but many kids really liked it - it's about an internet implant in brains, sort of), and a bunch of Ray Bradbury short stories.

When we were all reading the same book and had time to read in class, either I read to them (which they liked better than I expected) or we did free-form reading aloud, where they got to read if they felt like it, for a page or two, and stopped when they wanted. It meant the kids who wanted to read aloud (and who were good readers) got to do so, and no one was forced to.
posted by SeedStitch at 6:00 AM on July 17 [4 favorites]


My teens enjoyed when they had to read a book, then watch the movie. The assignment then included writing about things like character development and whether the parts were well cast, differences between the book and movie, which did a better job of telling the story etc. It also made them realize that almost always, the book is better than the movie, which hopefully may encourage them to read more.
posted by maxg94 at 6:01 AM on July 17 [3 favorites]


Life as We Knew It

This is a great young adult novel that my daughter had to read for a summer reading book in 8th grade. Not too long, and it is part of a series so maybe if they enjoy it, they will be encouraged to try the others. A lot of the parents read it as well, and really liked it so I think even the students on the older end will enjoy it.

It could lead to lots of great discussions and possible writing exercises.
posted by maxg94 at 6:08 AM on July 17


My 10th grade English teacher had us write a book report as a Christmas Carol and sing it to the class. I remember that as a fun project.
posted by keep it tight at 6:22 AM on July 17


One of my favorite English teachers assigned us each different novels to read, and then we had a potluck at the end of that session. Each student brought a dish inspired by their book, along with a book report.

Not sure if you would need special permission for people to bring food to school, or maybe students could be paired up and make dishes together.

My suggestion would be an anthology, such as Food Tales: A Literary Menu of Mouthwatering Masterpieces. This library link lists the stories and authors. There are many copies available at AbeBooks.

Pretty sure the above is a collection of excerpts, which stand alone as short stories (i.e., Tortillas and Beans, by Steinbeck, is from Tortilla Flat). There might be something more appropriate to your group, in terms of age range and reading ability.

Farmer Boy might be better for some of your age group, in terms of reading comprehension, plenty of homey goodness and food-related descriptions there.

Or, you could have each student pick their favorite topic and read a book or short story based on that. Fishing? Old Man and the Sea.

I too, remember the summer of The Grapes of Wrath :::shudder:::. But I really loved that pot luck meal, and I remember To Kill a Mockingbird and Last of the Mohicans and others from that class.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:25 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


My senior year of HS, 2nd semester we had one project that took the entire semester and made up some unreal portion of our grade, I want to say 50% , but that seems high.


Write your own Cliff Notes. (it was 1989)
Teacher had right of refusal on the book, but he only used if it was a trivially short book, or completely inappropriate. He was really lenient. And it was my favorite project *EVER*. It forced me to read a novel I loved twice, once to take tiny little notes about each character, and setting. To think about themes. And by letting me pick the book, it didn't feel totally like work.

I got an A. and turned in an 80 page project, printed at great expense on one of those fancy Apple computers in the lab. (It was on a ~200 page Arthur C Clarke book, but I actually can't remember which one right now)
posted by DigDoug at 6:32 AM on July 17 [3 favorites]


Was definitely going to recommend Bird by Bird. Anne Lamott is hard to dislike.

If you're going to do Steinbeck, I'd go with The Pearl over anything else -- short, direct throughline of a plot, plus scorpions.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:46 AM on July 17 [3 favorites]


Another vote for avoiding Grapes of Wrath if you can, I HAAAAATED that book. I was an honors/AP kid who read a lot for fun but that was an unholy slog.

I really like the Cliff Notes idea - that's the sort of project I would have found really fun.

One thing that worked really well when we did Shakespeare was to assign groups to translate it into modern settings. We did a Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure-inspired version of a scene from Hamlet.

Maybe consider The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver? We read that as freshmen and I really enjoyed it.

I also like the idea of showing a relationship between characters via a text or twitter conversation.
posted by brilliantine at 6:48 AM on July 17


We did Of Mice and Men in grade eleven and pretty much the whole class loved it (not to mention, it's only about a hundred pages). Other books we did: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, The Perks of being a Wallflower, short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, The Outsiders (everyone loved that one too), The Hound of the Baskervilles.
posted by winterportage at 6:49 AM on July 17


Combining this:

I really loathed academic writing and never saw the point (despite being OK at it) until I encountered a few writing courses with a rhetorical focus-- i.e., acknowledging that all writing is directed toward a particular audience, in a particular situation, with a persuasive purpose in mind.


with this:

(As a linguist, I feel like adding this: Teaching conventions is necessary, but telling kids that they way they naturally speech is incorrect is alienating, dispiriting, and unscientific. If you need to teach them how to phrase something in Standard English, frame it as translating into the variety that is used in that context, rather than correcting bad English. You may already know this, but.)


As I am also a linguist- try and figure out where they're already doing reading and writing in life. Even if they have reading/writing disabilities, they're probably texting, using Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever kids are using. They already know a ton about grammar and usage, it's just a matter of getting it out of their brains. Have them "translate" the same conversation: You just got in a minor fender bender. How do you tell your mom? Your BFF? The cops? Your insurance? Do you text, email, call, do it in person? What do you say in each case? They already know how to do this; the key is to get them practicing and honing their "educated" voice.

I was an English major, but had good times and bad times in high school and college classes. The worst lessons were read a book, write a 5 paragraph essay about the themes. My absolute favorite teachers had us really interacting with the texts: One had us approach "The Scarlet Letter" as a mystery. Pretend you're a detective- who is Hester Prynne's baby's father? Why you think so? Or, write a eulogy for Jay Gatsby. Or tell Holden Caufield a story about a "phony" you know.

Another had us read "The Dark Knight Returns" and then watch "The Dark Knight" and look for similarities and differences in theme. Another built the whole curriculum around "matching" books- Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre; Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart.
posted by damayanti at 7:09 AM on July 17 [6 favorites]


My favorite unit from high school English was entirely focused on graphic novels. We read Maus, Watchmen, and Understanding Comics. You could also throw in Persepolis or Jimmy Corrigan or some Lynda Barry. I'm pretty sure that was the only English class I had where everyone actually did all the assigned reading, and the classroom discussions were enthusiastic rather than tedious. I was a pretty smart kid but I didn't understand or enjoy the "classics" until college.
posted by theodolite at 7:19 AM on July 17 [2 favorites]


Just reiterating that I was also a star english student who could not get through grapes of wrath (I remember "accidentally" leaving it on a plane on the way home from a vacation so I didn't have to finish it - my mom was hounding me to read it in my free time). I still haven't read it.

I've always enjoyed the "matching" books themed classes, book circles, and matching movies to the reading (especially the wackier modernized Shakespeare movies like Scotland, PA if you're reading Shakespeare). I like the write your own cliff notes and graphic novels (take a look at We3) ideas too.

I don't know if it meets your students' needs, but Brave New World was the first book I read (outside of school) where I understood that there was a subtext outside of the plot action and that the author was actually talking about his world when writing the book. It was really magical.
posted by snaw at 7:24 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


One of the best English classes I had held a mock trial relating to Antigone, which was my first introduction to "ancient" writers, and which was surprisingly (for me) readable. The class was split into the prosecution (against Antigone) and the defence. Each group had key arguments to draft and then got to play the "lawyer" for the relevant areas. Perhaps a similar concept would work, but with a more appropriate book / play?
posted by apcmwh at 7:25 AM on July 17


Just dropping in to echo others. I read and write well, but loathed most of the English classes I had in high school (The Scarlet Letter ... shudder, I never did finish it, and I slogged through The Grapes of Wrath but did not get it till I reread it as an adult). You have been getting some good suggestions already and I want to agree with some of the suggestions for including graphic novels (Lynda Barry's One Hundred Demons is great), short stories, or things that read like short stories (Dandelion Wine for instance is essentially linked short stories, so a chapter from that would work.) Also consider having them read some non-fiction short writing or autobiographical writing. As an example, food related essays can be wonderfully evocative in the short form. Here is just one random example, on food and a unique friendship.
posted by gudrun at 7:32 AM on July 17


I was not a great student, but I was a good reader and a good writer, so I might not be the right person to answer this. But the high-school English class I remember most favorably was the toughest. It was a summer-school class that I took by choice with a tough reading list. Crime & Punishment, Tale of Two Cities, Portrait of the Artist, etc. We had to plow through 60-80 pages per night, every night. And then write about 300 words analyzing the night's reading. In class the next day, we'd hand in our writing assignment, which would immediately get handed over to another student to grade (no names attached), and we'd sit around critiquing each other's essays and talking about the reading.

So that was intense and brutal, but it kept me on track and made me step up my game quickly.
posted by adamrice at 7:34 AM on July 17


The English class I remember most was 10th Grade where our teacher did a huge unit on Arthurian legends. We started with Le Morte D'Arthur, went on to Idylls of the King and finished with The Once and Future King. At the end of the Le Morte D'Arthur unit we were broken into groups and told to come up with a way to tell/summarize the story of one of the "books" within Le Morte D'Arthur. We did great work - a stop motion lego movie, a radio play, talk show, etc...

I would also recommend having your kids read plays out loud. Lots of great contemporary and classic work. They can rotate parts.

Tennesse Williams
Arthur Miller
Tony Kushner
Suzan Lori Parks
Steven Dietz
Sherry Kramer
Caryl Churchill
Tracey Scott Wilson
Jose Rivera
William Inge
Sam Shepard
Oscar Wilde

Great for learning how to read for meaning since there is no exposition and you just have to figure out what the characters want and why and then what it all means.

Plays can be read quickly, most probably read out loud in 2-3 class periods. Of course many contemporary plays involve swearing and complex issues which could be fine or not depending on your administration.
posted by brookeb at 7:40 AM on July 17


(I know you said you don't need teaching advice, but I only offer it because you said you were teaching mathematics, which is very different than teaching English. )

One of the biggest differences between teaching math and English is the volume of work generated by students and how you score that work. You may be slightly overwhelmed with the amount of reading and grading you will be doing. Please read everything you ask students to write. Nothing kills a desire to write more than knowing that no one is really going to read it. Kids learn quickly which teachers really read what they write and which ones are giving lip service. I always make it a point to write at least one thoughtful comment on what they wrote; my students really like that more personal feedback and they know I am really reading their work and they tried harder next time - which reminds me that another difference in teaching math vs. English is the amount of personal investment a student has to make. Students don't need to put themselves out there to share feelings about how they solved a math equation. Asking them to give/write an opinion on something is a much bigger risk for them. Once your students know you're invested in them and you read their work, they will open up more to share ideas and take more chances.

Grading/scoring is very different from mathematics. Use the hell out of rubrics for scoring writing assignments. This generation of young people are being raised on rubrics and are used to them.

Finally, in my experience, a good bridge to teaching poetry is using Rap/Hip Hop. The Rose that Grew From Concrete is a collection of Tupac Shakur's work - one page is his handwritten version - the other the typed up more legible version. Also, "Hip Hop Poetry and The Classics" is a resource I've used a few times to draw kids in.

Good luck!
posted by NoraCharles at 8:21 AM on July 17 [7 favorites]


Just wanted to recommend Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is graphic-novel-ish, and both funny and moving, and easy to read.
posted by suelac at 8:25 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


My best English teacher said that the 5 paragraph essay was a nonsense overspecification of the 3 part essay (introduction, body, conclusion). Changing what you call the end goal into a less arbitrary one might help students feel less groany about it.

I like the ideas of translating the same report to different audiences.
posted by batter_my_heart at 8:33 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


We had a (short) unit on the Vietnam war. We read part of The Things They Carried, read some poems, and listened to music from the time period. The teacher also tied in local news stories. It was pretty great.

In general, two of the best reading experiences I remember from high school were times we had to read excerpts. In one class, my teacher read a part of Dandelion Wine out loud, up until a suspenseful part where a lady was about to stab an intruder. What happened next?!! She wouldn't tell us. Students were fighting with each other to check the book out after that. (We only had one copy.)

If it's an excerpt and the students like it, maybe they can choose that book to read for a longer project later in the semester. If they don't like it, no harm done. They can move on to something else.
posted by tofu_crouton at 8:41 AM on July 17


The thing I hated most about high school English classes was that no one ever taught writing, but we were graded on it constantly. I mean, we were told to write essays and that each paper was a test grade, but we'd only get one shot at writing it, and (from a high school student's POV), what's the point of revising something if your grade is already in and over with? Thus, we were never taught that writing is an iterative process, that it's supposed to start out crappy and get better through the process of revising and editing. Each and every paper was one shot, one grade, you're done.

We were sometimes shown examples of the essays that got good grades, but there was never an explanation of why that writing was better (other than use of more SAT words).

It's not enough to tell students "Your writing must be clear." You have to show them examples of writing that is not clear, explain why it's not clear, then show them how to get from unclear to clear. I actually really found the lessons in this book to be helpful for breaking down some of these concepts in a manageable way for my students.

I join my fellow linguists to say that denigrating "slang" or colloquial writing for no good reason is elitist, alienating, and shows you don't actually care what the students have to say. The suggestions about giving the students multiple contexts for communicating the same story or ideas are excellent.
posted by Schielisque at 8:45 AM on July 17 [8 favorites]


As a resource for you, Teaching Adolescent Writers has many activities and examples to help you plan daily activities.

In general, thinking about how you can make the learning more active can help. When I teach organization, for instance, I give students post it notes to write down arguments or ideas about a central question like "Should our school have a skateboarding team?" I have them generate 2-3 ideas in for Yes, 2-3 more for No, and 2-3 more for Maybe (which we interpret as things we may want to check into before making a decision). Then they all head to a wall or the whiteboard and put those arguments in categories, pick the strongest ones, get rid of doubles, and start arranging them. Or you can vary this by having them in groups with one group generating all the ideas for Yes and another doing all the No ideas (we move beyond this dichotomous thinking later, but this gets them started thinking about ideas).

You can then add the rhetorical element mentioned above. "OK, so the athletic director/principal doesn't think skateboarding is a real sport. How do we deal with that objection?" or "There's a big push for students to be healthier in this school right now. Is there any way we can leverage that to make our argument stronger?" Then they have to reorganize the post it notes, put some new ones up, take some other ones down, etc. They will have a better understanding of why writing can be so hard after this because there are so many factors to consider when making an argument, but they'll also have an active learning strategy they can use to get started on other writing assignments.
posted by BlooPen at 9:04 AM on July 17 [3 favorites]


Analyzing lyrics of "old" musicians like the Beatles and Dylan would be good. If the students object, you can explain how it's very likely that their favorite contemporary musicians were heavily influenced by them.

And all my teachers tended to be half-hearted about teaching grammar, and everyone would just end up confused. Writing has become more prevalent because of the Internet, and so has bad grammar, and so has people pointing out bad grammar. So learning what makes something wrong may actually give them a sense of satisfaction. Supposedly there was an English class in Europe that would dissect errors in celebrity tweets.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:28 AM on July 17


Things I hated about English classes: Getting tested on memory of factoids from the assigned reading like minor characters' names, how the characters were related or connected to each other, what dish was character A served when he had dinner at B's house, that kind of thing. Analysing symbolism, imagery and metaphors to death. (This always seemed to detract from actually enjoying the stories.)

Things I liked about English classes: Actually reading the material. These were mostly pretty cool stories and essays; they got anthologized for a reason. (When I was in school, I used to read all the assigned stuff at the beginning of the year so I could actually just read it and enjoy it before it got picked to death in class and we were expected to memorize characters names.) The really rare cases when I got to write an essay about something I was actually interested in. (This happened exactly twice when I was in high school.)

A friend of mine taught college level freshman English for a while. When she was doing it, she had her students write and hand in "responses" to their assigned reading, basically short unstructured essays about what they thought about the things they were reading and whether they liked them or not. This killed two birds with one stone: It gave her students a lot of practice writing stuff, and it was pretty easy to tell if the student had actually read the material or not without testing them on trivia like characters' middle names. I think I would have done a lot better in high school English classes if they were taught the way she taught them. (I don't know if the responses were graded or not. I think she just graded them as handed in and the student obviously read it – credit – and not handed in or obviously didn't read it – fail. Obviously she would have also given her students graded writing assignments.)

When I was in college, I took Medieval and Renaissance French literature, in part, just because it counted as a substitute literature credit, so I would never have to write an essay about symbolism in Shakespeare ever again. I had a great professor for this class. She did an in-class exercise with us that I still remember where she had us go through the introductory part of a narrative and list the words the author associated with different characters. So that's how authors establish characterization! No wonder that character comes across a sleazy! This was all presented as "let's look at how authors do their stuff". It was fun to see how the authors did what they did when she walked us through what they were doing. She never tested us on that kind of stuff at all, but I'm sure it influenced the papers we wrote for class later and how we (including me) understand literature.
posted by nangar at 10:14 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


Grapes of Wrath? Hm. I teach high school English, and would not recommend that title. Other teachers would disagree, but I have not had success with it. To Kill a Mockingbird, plays... Raisin in the Sun (read it aloud as a class)....

My students love quick writes. Give them a starter or prompt, then tell them they have just 3 minutes... stop them mid sentence. Give another prompt, and repeat a few times. Limiting their time gives writing as sense of urgency.

What about lit circles? Limited choices (maybe 5) and small groups? There are a ton of internet resources for this.

Kids LOVE John Green. His writing is fairly good, not great. You could teach Looking for Alaska and segue in to Catcher in the Rye.

I have taught for 12 years, and I have decided that I would rather get my students to really read, and to enjoy it, than to force the "classics" down their throats. They tend to Sparknote those anyway.
posted by hippychick at 4:20 PM on July 17


Also, read books by Jim Burke. I found this to be instrumental in my first years as a teacher: http://www.heinemann.com/products/E02840.aspx

Also, you can teach excerpts of the cannon-type books that many of us English majors feel tethered to. Close reading... think alouds... Socratic Seminars... these work. If the students cannot relate to or feel daunted by the literature, they will shut down and it will be hard for you to get them engaged.
posted by hippychick at 4:26 PM on July 17


If these students have had English classes before (and I'd assume they have), I think an interesting writing assignment to start the course with might be a short participation-graded paper where they say what they've liked or disliked about previous English classes, and then spend a bit of time going over some of the answers in class the following day in a discussion-style format.

Also, don't do Grapes of Wrath. If I didn't already like reading by that point, Grapes of Wrath would have definitely killed it. Same goes for Catcher in the Rye and The Scarlett Letter, though to a lesser degree. Honestly, you could do worse than just staying away from "great literature" and picking some more fun, "popular" books that might be less intellectually weighty but are at least more interesting and relatable to the kids.
posted by Aleyn at 11:37 PM on July 17


I loved Plato. He's a fantastic writer, it's interesting philosophically, Socrates is kind of a dick. Great stuff. Start with the Apology. There is a good collection here with dialogues relating to the death of Socrates.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:34 AM on July 18


I always enjoyed class discussion and liked seeing my classmates get fired up over polarizing themes in the books and short stories we were reading. I'm almost 40, so we were stuck reading those old chestnuts--Lord of the Flies, 1984, Animal Farm, etc. If I were taking an English class today, I'd like to read more contemporary works that encourage people to form their own opinions on what they're reading. There's nothing more dispiriting in an English class than regurgitating your English teacher's pet interpretations. (Not that all interpretations are utterly valid, of course. I'm talking about my 10th grade English teacher who passed out worksheets that listed the themes of each novel, the evidence for each, and then required us to write essays based on her outlines. It was just a dumb and pointless exercise.)

I like to read YA occasionally, and greatly enjoyed Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series. It was vaguely reminiscent of an old Twilight Zone episode where a conventionally beautiful woman must have disfiguring plastic surgery so that she conforms to a societal standard of beauty. It's dystopian literature and would neatly fit into any theme developed around that concept. Westerfeld weaves the plot around various themes--the place of wealth in society, the "disposability" or easily changed bodies, personality and its relationship to outward appearance, government control, etc. I remember it as a fairly breezy and compulsive read.

Stephen King's The Long Walk is a crisply written, increasingly violent novella that I would rank among his best works. It would pair well with Shirley Jackson's classic short story "The Lottery" and would make sense in context with something like the more contemporary (but not nearly so well-written) The Hunger Games. I suppose The Maze Runner might fit into this genre, too, but I haven't read it. Louis Sachar's Holes would probably fit in here, too. I know, I know, but teenagers and dystopias pair so well. So much angst, so much to discuss.

Another oldie-but-goodie is Ender's Game, if you can ignore the author's bigotry in real life. None of that is evident in this particular book, thankfully. I think the book has more impact if you don't already know "the twist," but it's still excellent fodder for discussion about leadership, the role of violence, labels, etc.
posted by xyzzy at 12:50 PM on July 18


Catcher in the Rye, unless it would be considered too problematic/triggering. I read it my freshman year and just loved it. So much to discuss with that book!

If you are going to have them do book reports, I suggest having them do it in a more creative way than just a standard 5-paragraph theme. There are so many interesting things that you can do with those. The ones I remember are things like writing up a news report about something that happened in the book, writing letters to a character in the book, acting out scenes from the book, etc. Those were so much more enjoyable to do (and I am sure more interesting to grade) than the standard book report.

As far as grammar, they may actually enjoy reading examples of what not to do. Think things like selections from Anguished English. Those were always a big hit, and you can discuss why the sentences are so bad. : )
posted by SisterHavana at 1:24 AM on July 19


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