Shake things up in your next English class

Engaging students in your English class can get tricky, especially if reading and writing intimidate or overwhelm them. Some students may think they’re just not good writers, and they feel there’s little they can do to improve. Others may assume that they don’t need the skills they learn in English because their field of study is STEM-based. Still others may be so focused on getting a job after graduation that they feel disengaged from the academic life.

How do you break out of the box when it comes to teaching your English course in order to motivate all students to learn? Below are a few ideas to incorporate into your curriculum. Please let us know in the comments other fun projects that have achieved success in your class!

1. Get students engaged with their community. 

One project that gets students more involved with their writing than a traditional research paper or persuasive argument is one that connects students with a local nonprofit organization or charity. Before the term starts, reach out to local community-serving organizations to see if they’d allow students to visit and get involved by researching grants, interviewing employees and volunteers, and helping to apply to grants. You can also provide a list of local institutions and let students choose one to research and create several reports. For example, instructor Jim Wilcox did just that and had students visit the organizations and do their research before they wrote an objective report, an interview, an evaluation essay, an investigative report, and a letter to the editor of a local newspaper.

These kinds of projects get students thinking about how writing can help others and give students a sense of purpose through their work. Plus, these reports and evaluations are something that they’ll continue to create later on in life for other topics and organizations.

2. Have your class explore composition through media other than writing. (Then get them to write about it.)

Multimodal projects help students get a little more creative with their composition processes, especially those who aren’t comfortable with writing traditional academic papers. Giving them the freedom to explore a topic through a different medium—anything from creating a photo essay to shooting a short film to building a website—might just open up their imaginations and spark more creativity than they expected a school project could do.

Once students create their musical composition, video, dance piece, or project in a medium of their choosing, they can exercise their writing skills by writing a reflection of the process, why they decided on the kind of project they created, and the lessons learned along the way. Don’t be surprised if the written reflections mention how much students prefer this kind of project over others!

3. Test students’ abilities to distinguish fake websites from real ones.

“Fake news” seems to be a ubiquitous term these days. Do students understand how to distinguish true news articles and trustworthy sources from those that are false and misleading?

Center activities around analyzing arguments for their truth and effectiveness, as well as understanding what makes a source credible. On EasyBib’s blog, their in-house librarian Michele Kirschenbaum posted seven fake websites to share with students in order to test how well they evaluate a website’s credentials. You might want to give students these websites to look up, along with a few real sites, for a fun in-class activity that asks them to analyze the wording, design, links, and other elements of the websites to determine their authenticity. They can use these analytical skills next time their friend or family member shares a web article from a less-than-credible source.

4. Ask them to create a soundtrack to what they’re reading.

Engage students with the reading material by having them create a music playlist that matches the tone and emotions of the book or passage. Free music streaming services like Spotify allow easy access to millions of songs, and students can take advantage of these to build their own soundtracks to their readings. Doing so helps them pay more attention to the tone of the piece and become more aware of rising tension, foreshadowing, and more. They’ll begin to empathize more with the characters and identify with what they’re reading on a deeper level.

5. Hold a good old-fashioned debate on a current topic.

Anyone who reads the comments on any online post might feel like reasoning and critical thinking are in short supply these days. People seem to be arguing at each other and not making progress instead of discussing something and learning from one another. While the latter can’t happen all the time because we don’t live in a perfect world, we can still make it happen more frequently than it does!

On Inside Higher Ed’s website, John Duffy, an associate professor of English and the O’Malley Director of the University Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame, asserts that first-year writing programs offer a defense against our current post-truth culture by encouraging students to engage in fact-based discourse. Holding a debate in class gets students to think more critically about their opinions and gives them experience in expressing them through persuasive tactics and research. Maybe even award extra credit to students who take the time to research the opposing side of the argument and those who bring in quality news sources to back up their claims. You’ll be sure that they’ll use these skills throughout the rest of their lives.

What are some other projects that bring a unique spin to English and connect the subject to life post-graduation? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below!


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