Electing English by Cayt Mirra

Image by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

It’s really hard to engage Year 9s in English. I could quote a heap of data to support this, but if you’ve ever taught Year 9s, you believe me. I’ve spent a lot of time over my teaching career writing and re-writing Year 9 courses in an attempt to make them more engaging.

This year, my school is trying something different. We are giving students more choice. English is now made up entirely of electives.

Don’t get me wrong – students still have to do English. But they have complete choice over which English they do, out of five different elective classes each semester.

In Semester One, students will all be studying world issues, competing in debates and creating their own advocacy campaign on an issue of their choice. Every student will be building the same skills and will be assessed on the same rubrics. But, each class will look at different issues. For example, students who have chosen ‘The Natural Life’ will be looking at issues that relate to the environment – climate change, pollution, wildlife protection etc. Students who have chosen ‘The Gamer Life’ are studying issues that relate to video games, such as online bullying and gender discrimination, violence and games as educational tools. Students will also study a film that relates to their elective.

In Semester Two, students will complete an elective based on a genre, in which they will do a comparative study of two texts and a creative writing folio. So while the students in the Fantasy class compare Howl’s Moving Castle and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the students in the Sci-Fi class will be comparing Ender’s Game and The Matrix.

We are hoping that giving students some choice over their studies will increase engagement. It has already done this with staff as they fight over which electives they will teach; certainly more English teachers than usual requested to teach Year 9.

This change has come with some difficulties. Firstly, it was a logistical nightmare. It required all English classes to be blocked together so that students could select an English regardless of their other subjects. It also required a great deal of planning – we essentially had to write 10 new courses. We also foresee a challenge in ensuring we are all teaching the same skills despite the different content. The Year 9 teachers will be working in a professional learning community throughout the year, meeting as a whole team every week to look at student work and discuss progress. We hope that this will ensure consistency.

Several factors contributed to our ability to implement this. We had an English team who were enthusiastic and prepared to do the work and we had a leadership team who were supportive of our ideas. But change in a school can be difficult, and this change required a team of teachers who were passionate and relentless.

We taught these classes for two weeks at the end of last year. Anecdotally, the students were excited. In my class on video games, a student said ‘I might actually enjoy English this year’. I will be working hard to make sure that he does.