Subject Advice For English Teachers

English teachers will find general suggestions for subjects, lessons, activities and tips on how to bring their classrooms into the worlds of the students.

Every English teacher dreams of having the ideal class - students who are eager to learn and explore the intricate themes of literature from Chaucer to Twain to Shakespeare to Pinsky. They will relish the time spent in discussion and praise one another both in their writing and in hour-long classroom discussions. Breathing the atoms that the canonical authors once breathed satisfies each of their minds in a way only the masters could do. Writing is their forte, as they produce manuscripts ranging from essays to critiques to analyses to poetry. They are eager to share with one another and even more excited to accept constructive criticism from their teacher.

Unfortunately, this is only a dream. The real world does not contain classrooms like this and the students are more apathetic than they are enriched. You're lucky if you get them to write a sentence or read a paragraph, let alone attempt to analyze the most revered of authors and poets. So, what is one to do? Well, there are a number of suggestions that can be offered, however, each teacher must strive to find his or her own style and work to mesh it with the particular students they are working with at the time. What works one year might not work the next; what works with one period may not work with the next. Above all else, flexibility is the key. Remember, the following are only suggestions...finding your own niche and personal technique will only strengthen the success you find in the classroom.

#1 Make sure your students know what you expect.

In the first week of school, the teacher must firmly establish his or her expectations and make sure that each student understands these expectations and the consequences for not respecting them. Having your students sign a contract that says they know and understand the rules helps to avoid possible altercations over school rule technicalities. Particularly of concern is plagiarism. If your school does not have a policy set in place, suggest that they do, but make sure you have your own established. It will avoid a lot of problems in the long run. Also, don't overload on the amount of rules that you have. Stick to the general school rules, but also develop your own classroom rules. A routine often helps students organize what they need for your particular class. Writing the day's agenda and assignments on the board is an excellent way to manage your classroom.



#2 Listen to them.

The best way to get on the inside track with your students is to open up your mind and listen to what they have to say. This doesn' t mean you have to buy into or believe everything, but at least take it for face value. Keep track of what songs they like, what movies are hot, what they do on the weekends, what their interests are, etc. All it takes is to make one small connection with a student, and you will have established a trust that has a personal vested interest. For example, if you hear them discussing the latest Eminem song, don't assume they're talking about candy. Figure out what it is while asking yourself, "How can I use this in the classroom?" Not only will they be shocked that you even know who Eminem is, they will also be astounded when you share how Eminem is the master of approximate (slant) rhyme. Print out copies of his lyrics (censoring as necessary) and use it to teach various forms of rhyme and rhythm. Listen to and feel the beat of the song - then listen to and feel the beat of the language. They will never look at you the same again.

#3 Explain the history behind the lesson.

It is impossible to truly teach Shakespeare without explaining the historical significance of the Renaissance in England and then the greater reaching effects onto the Continent. How can they understand the emotions and ideas present without knowing what the people were like? Too often teachers think that they don't have time to include history, but it's easy to spend one class giving some background information before you launch into the unit. Teaching Spenser's "The Faerie Queene" without explaining Mary, Queen of Scots, and her relationship to Elizabeth I just wouldn't have the proper significance for them. Plus, they will be even more interested if they find out that Bloody Mary's son didn't like the description of the "Fowle Duessa" and perhaps jumped to the conclusion that it was about his mother.

#4 Put it into their own words.

If your students have no previous experience with the language of Twain or Shakespeare, there is no shame in rewording the work or giving them the Cliff's Notes version. They will use them anyway, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, so you might as well become familiar with them on your own. That way they won't be able to fool you into thinking they read the "true" material and you will be able to see what details were left out of the "easy" version. Besides, isn't the point for them to get the main idea and themes of the work rather than struggle through language that they will probably never see again unless they choose to be an English major?

$5 Pay attention to the transcendence of themes.

We all know that the archetypes and symbols established in the very early ages of literature established the foundation for all after it. What we often don't realize is that it is possible to make modern-day connections to the students' world through the literature. You can even slip in some character education if you plan carefully. For example, is it ironic that the reason King Hrothgar's men continue to be eaten by the dragon is that they are all passed out from "feasting in the mead hall"? They are so passed out, they can't even hear the dragon come in and eat their fellow warriors; they only realize it when they come to the next morning and find themselves and Heorot splattered with blood. Students quickly realize what a mistake it is to be binge drinking and over-partying when there are far more important things to be doing (such as saving your fellow citizens.) It takes someone from a far-away land to finally save them. Granted, this example is more appropriate for high school students, but teenagers constantly surprise us with their negatively precocious actions. Use their knowledge to your benefit.

#6 Know your stuff.

If you don't know what you're trying to teach, you might as well get out of the classroom. It is not enough to simply rely on the textbook and the questions and answers provided. The book worksheets aren't tailored for every student in every classroom. There is no generic way to teach the same material to every student. You've got to be aware of the reality of your classroom and the students in it. Don't be afraid to create your own materials. If you have some students who cannot spell well, put your notes on a PowerPoint or a poster. If your students cannot seem to read aloud, seek volunteers ahead of time, find a spirited recording, or read it yourself. If they don't understand the material, provide them with the names of websites or books they can use as resources - recommended sites and references. That way you'll be in control of where they're going for help, and it's no longer considered "cheating," but rather "additional enrichment." Figure out the key points you want to get across and do what you have to do for them.

Although there are a number of specific suggestions one could offer about the teaching of English, the basics are above. Getting the main points across depends on what division you are teaching, what style of teacher you are, and what kind of student's you're working with. Trust your gut and always think to yourself, 'Would I be enjoying this if I were a student in this class?'

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