We’ve all been there. You walk into a class, unveil your lesson plan with all the joy and care of a museum curator lifting the veil on a new Van Gogh, and your students just… don’t care.
They’ve got their own problems. Their own stresses.
They decided in 4th grade they didn’t like reading.
In 5th grade that they “weren’t creative.”
In 7th grade that they needed to give serious attention to social media if they wanted to stay cool.
And now they’re sitting in your class, eyes not-so-subtly glued to the little glowing screen under their desk or the clock above your MLA poster display.
So what do you do? In today’s podcast, I’ll share five different paths you might take to help them tap back into ELA. Choose your favorite, connect the dots on two or three, or try them all.
You can listen in to this episode below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.
Focus on Connection
One way to chip away at apathy is to focus on connecting with students on a personal level. Maybe you come up with fun nicknames for kids you’re trying to gently attract back into the ELA sphere. Maybe you make it to some sports games and get to talking with your student-athletes about the season. Maybe you work on some templates for positive notes home, and you send a slew of them every week. Maybe you do some serious student surveying about their interests, past reading lives, favorite types of projects, favorite EVERYTHING, so you can keep their personalities and histories in mind as you design curriculum.
When you focus on connection, you help student start to feel more at home in class and more interested in paying attention. The relationships you have with kids can help them overcome their apathy, often in connection with some of the other strategies we’re talking about today.
One of the quickest, easiest ways to get started with relationship building in my experience is to use Attendance Questions. This quick five minute activity for the start of class is an automatic point of connection with every student. Whether you go with silly or serious questions, you give every student a chance to tell you something about themselves. You can grab three weeks of fun questions to get started for free right here.
Incorporate Student Interests in your Work whenever you Can
I was reminded of how crucial student interests can be last year when I interviewed C.J. Reynolds about enjoyable classroom management strategies. He shared his wish that his teachers could have explained the hero’s journey to him in terms of the movies he was loving as a teen, and how quickly that would have helped him understand it.
C.J. tries hard to keep a handle on the T.V. shows, movies, Manga, etc. that his students love so that he can build it into class content and assignments, and ask kids about it in the in-between times.
It’s a strategy worth trying.
Might your students be excited about writing argument practice about the One Chip Challenge?
Might they enjoy analyzing the tone in Taylor Swift Songs?
Might they look up in shock when you reference the crazy trend their favorite Tik-Toker just started as you move into your rhetorical analysis unit?
Incorporating your students’ interests anywhere and everywhere you can will help you build relationships with them (which we already talked about!) and it can also help you reel them in to be more interested in the work. A kid who dreams of being a Youtuber might be a lot more interested in creating a video documentary about a local change-maker than about writing a research paper about a historical changemaker. And you can build in a whole lot of the same skills…
Ride your Choice Reading Program to Better Relationships and Motivation
As an introvert, it wasn’t always easy for me to chat with my students between periods. I wasn’t the teacher out in the hall cracking jokes and inventing hilarious nicknames. But once I started working seriously on my choice reading program, it became a major vehicle for helping me connect with my students and motivate them more across all of our class content.
I vividly remember my student Toran, in Bulgaria. He seemed to survey our class from some higher plane, smiling ironically at my attempts to engage him and generally staying out of every activity and discussion he could manage to avoid. He was smart, but he didn’t really seem to care.
After a few reading sessions in our choice reading unit, I realized he was reading nothing but super dense history books, many hundreds of pages long. He was incredibly interested in history, and willing to spend hours poring over it any time he was given the opportunity.
Our conversations changed entirely. When he realized how eager I was to help him find books that matched his interests, and to hear what he was learning, he warmed up to me and the class in general. I still remember his incredible slam poem about living in Bulgaria from later in the year, when he was one of our class slam winners. What a long way he came.
I could tell you a lot of stories like this, but instead I’ll encourage you to go and find your own! When you focus significant energy on your reading program, you’ll find new ways to connect with kids, see their reading skills, motivation, and stamina improve, AND oten see their interest in your class go up. That’s been my experience across classes, years, and even countries.
Not sure where to start with independent reading? I boiled down all my best advice and resources into one epic toolkit for you. Grab my free choice reading toolkit here.
Choose Projects with a Hook
If you’ve been around here for long, you’ll know I think projects can be a powerful motivator for any unit. I like to use the name “Showcase Projects.” With a showcase project, students are going to be sharing something amazing that they create, and they’re going to be working on that amazing something all through the unit. In fact, that showcase project is going to function as their motivation to learn the skills needed in the unit.
To follow up on the documentary project I mentioned before, maybe you’re going to host a film festival of short documentaries your students produce at the end of a unit on research and interview skills. As you teach them about hooks, B roll, researching background information on their documentary subjects, building interview questions, effective film angles, media mixing, and more, they’ll have a powerful reason to pay attention. Their documentary will soon be competing in your school film festival, and more people will be watching it than just their teacher.
Wrapping a poetry unit with a poetry slam, a theater unit with a play performance, a nonfiction unit with a podcast project, a novel unit with a literary food truck festival – these are all examples of connecting a project with a strong hook and an authentic audience with materials students may or may not be excited about at first.
I have had consistent success using special projects as a hook to help students get interested in all different types of content, so I can honestly recommend it as a great way to fight against apathy and disconnection.
Try Different Types of Texts
Let’s hand the mic across to Jason Reynold for a sec.
Doesn’t he make a great point? Sometimes kids who have been turned off to ELA just need another way to engage with a text than a long novel. A novel-in-verse is a great option, and Jason Reynolds has some stellar ones, but so do a lot of other folks! Check out this fun show from last year about a novel-in-verse book club unit that kept seniors engaged all the way to the end of the year in Caitlin Lore’s classroom.
Book clubs in general can be a great way to reel students back in, since they provide for choice within any genre or theme focus you want to share. A memoir book club with books by people students admire could work well, or an identity book club with titles that students can relate to.
Graphic novels are another amazing option. This genre has exploded in recent years, and the research tells us that graphic novels are a major hook for student readers. Swapping in Gareth Hinds’ versions of classics like The Odyssey or Romeo and Juliet might help students re-engage, and you can always bring in parts of the traditional text to complement the graphic novel once students have become interested.
Then there are all the options available through the media, like National Geographic’s amazing series of short documentaries, podcasts, and short films. You can teach ELA skills with such a range of texts, and online multimedia is freely available, so you can always build a short and engaging unit around it to help start a new chapter with students who aren’t engaging.
Choose your own Adventure
You know best which of these pathways might best help you help your students. Maybe it’s a combination, but remember, you don’t have to put it all in place at once. Try out some attendance questions this week, start working on some content based on students’ interests next time you’re building new writing or speaking prompts, think about your choice reading program or start previewing some graphic. novels… whatever you can fit, whenever you can fit it. And slowly but surely, I think you’ll see more engagement. More students caring. More classes that gain momentum instead of feeling like a struggle.
I’ll be cheering for you!