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A Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Assignments for Secondary ELA

    a teachers guide to more meaningful assignments

    Giving students more meaningful assignments will facilitate learning, encourage engagement, and keep student moans, groans, and eye rolls at bay. Learn how to get started with my top tips for making ELA assignments more meaningful in your classroom.

    While you likely love reading, writing, and all things English language arts, your students might not share that enthusiasm. I mean, I can’t be the only one who has noticed a decline in student interest in reading and writing as they move up the secondary grades. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t have to settle for disinterested students—right? (Right.)

    I’ll be the first to say that you won’t necessarily be able to turn all of your students into avid readers or lovers of language arts. However, by looking for ways to make our assignments more meaningful, we can teach students the necessary skills while creating engaging and authentic learning experiences. Additionally, we can help students see the relevance of what they are learning, answering the inevitable question, “Why are we learning this?” and addressing the classic “I’m never going to need this beyond school” complaint.

    The Need for More Authentic Learning

    Here’s an undeniable truth: students need to know how to communicate effectively in the real world, whether responding to an email at work or engaging in a friendly (but well-supported) debate. They need critical thinking and information literacy skills to help them learn about and interpret the world around them. The problem is, they don’t always see the connections between what they learn in the ELA classroom and the real world.

    Don’t let your students’ learning experience be stifled by state standards or required curriculum. While we need to teach specific skills (and maybe even texts), that doesn’t mean it has to be boring and monotonous. After all, how many traditional five-paragraph essays do we need to grade in any given school each year? And, when you start thinking about it, there are so many high-interest texts, contemporary references, and real-world scenarios that we can weave into our classrooms. (Don’t worry—I did some of that thinking for you in this post!). By shifting our focus to more authentic, real-world applications, we can foster deeper connections and engagement in our students.

    Let’s get to it, shall we?

    Teaching Tips: How to Make Learning More Meaningful for Students

    1. Use Essential Questions

    Framing a unit with essential questions helps engage students in deeper inquiry as they explore thematic concepts and assigned literature. The best part? These questions can’t be answered by Google, Siri, or SparkNotes. Instead, they inspire students to think more broadly about concepts explored in class, providing a framework for real-world context. Additionally, students can share their perspectives and experiences, building stronger connections to the material.

    2. Promote Independent Reading

    Most students view reading as a task, something they have to do (or pretend to do) just to pass a class. However, giving students the choice of what they read can transform reading from a chore to a more engaging experience enriched with deeper connections and meaning. Start incorporating independent reading in your class by creating a high-interest classroom library, making personalized recommendations to students, allocating class time for reading, and hosting book talks.

    3. Provide Student Choice

    While you might not be able to do this all the time (and that’s okay), giving students a say in what they read or how they express their knowledge helps give them a sense of autonomy and ownership over their learning. Whether it’s giving them a say in what they read or giving students choice around which assignment they complete, know that even small choices can make a big difference in engagement. This will allow students to express what they’ve learned in a way that resonates with their strengths and feels more meaningful to them.

    4. Make Connections to the Real World

    Making connections between literature and real-life experiences helps students deepen their understanding of themselves and the world, making reading more authentic and meaningful. Whether you’re drawing links between historical events, cultural movements, famous people, or current news, these connections help students see the relevance beyond the pages, getting them to think about the broader implications of the themes, concepts, and texts you teach. Similarly, showing how writing skills translate to real-world scenarios help students understand the transferability of skills. 

    5. Mix Classic with Contemporary

    While you may be required (or simply want) to teach some of the literary classics, don’t be afraid to throw in a contemporary novel or poem here and there. While making connections can help, students may find it hard to relate to classic literature. Balancing classic literature with contemporary works can maintain student interest while meeting curriculum requirements. Don’t hesitate to introduce modern novels or poems alongside the classics.

    6. Shift to Student-Centered Learning

    Encourage students to take a more active role in their learning journey with student-centered activities. That doesn’t mean giving them total control over all of the things, but it does encourage students to take a more hands-on approach to their learning. Let students take the lead during discussions, try project-based learning, or have students run their own literature circles. Whatever the activity, student-centered learning promotes active engagement by having students do the heavy lifting.

    7. Ask Connecting Questions

    In an ideal world, students would make connections on their own. In reality, students might need a little scaffolding and guidance to draw connections between a text and their own lives. Encourage personal connections to the material with questions like: “Would you be friends with the main character? Why?” or “Have you experienced similar emotions or conflicts as the characters? What was similar or different in how you responded?” These questions make the literature more relatable by encouraging students to connect the literature to their own perspectives and experiences. This approach gets students thinking about how characters, themes, and conflicts transcend the pages of a particular text.

    8. Incorporate Nonfiction Texts

    Not everyone sees the point in reading fiction. (It breaks my heart, but it’s true.) For some students, it’s just too abstract. Provide more concrete context for a work of fiction by pairing it with nonfiction texts to provide a well-rounded perspective. Whether you use nonfiction to supplement fictional literature or teach it on its own, analyzing nonfiction can help students form arguments based on facts and understand real-world applications of what they’re learning.

    Meaningful Assignments for Secondary ELA

    So, you have my top tips for making learning more meaningful for students—what now?   Consider some of the assignments below to help you bring learning to life in your classroom.

    1. Rewrite a Scene in the Modern Day

    When studying classics like Shakespeare or The Crucible, invite students to modernize a scene by updating details such as the language and setting. This activity requires students to closely analyze a scene inorder to retell it with a modern twist. Modernizing a scene of a classic text helps students understand the timeless nature of the themes while making the material more accessible.

    2. Anticipation Guides

    Use anticipation guides to prompt critical thinking and perspective out of the gate. This pre-reading activity encourages students to call upon their prior knowledge and experience as they determine the level to which they agree (or disagree) with statements related to the upcoming text’s themes, ideas, or conflicts. This gets their brains churning before they even start reading!

    3. Song Lyric Analysis

    When planning your next poetry unit, consider adding music into the mix. Have students analyze popular song lyrics to identify poetic devices, bridging the gap between students’ interests and the curriculum. Instead of dreading overly complex and convoluted poems, students will find it more relevant and enjoyable.

    4. Email Etiquette

    If you’re tired of receiving emails littered with slang, atrocious spelling, and poor grammar, consider teaching students how to write better emails—while incorporating other essential writing skills. Teach students the importance of tone and grammar through an email writing mini-lesson. This practical assignment prepares them for real-world communication.

    Check out more tips for teaching grammar here.

    5. Podcast Analysis

    Podcasts are all the rage. Whether it’s two besties talking about pop culture or a couple of cast members breaking down old episodes of a tv show, you can learn a lot from listening. So, why not sit back and learn what your students have to say? Switch it up from the classic essay and let students create “podcast” episodes where they discuss and analyze literature. This modern twist on the traditional book report encourages collaboration and the use of technology, making the assignment more engaging and relevant.

    6. One Pager Project

    Allow students to create a one-page representation of their literary analysis. A one pager project gives them the freedom to express their understanding through various mediums like drawing, quotes, and symbols, catering to different learning styles. It’s also a great way to encourage student analysis through creativity.

    7. Reflection Writing

    Encourage stunts to think beyond the pages of any one book by having them reflect on their reading experiences through personal writing. Reflection helps students internalize what they’ve learned and make connections to their own lives, encouraging them to see the broader implications of a story.

    8. Mock Trials

    Get ready to bring literature to life with mock trials. This interactive activity requires students to use effective communication, strong claims, and supporting evidence in a more hands-on way, making it a comprehensive and engaging assignment that dives into argumentation and persuasion skills. The best part? A mock trial can fit into almost any literary work.

    More Engaging Experiences, Coming Right Up!

    The bottom line is this: Creating meaningful and engaging learning experiences in the ELA classroom is essential for helping students see the value in what they are learning. By connecting literature and writing skills to the real world, we can keep students engaged and motivated. And trust me, that makes a more enjoyable year for you and your students.

    While it might require you to revisit and adjust your unit plans, making space for more authentic learning experiences and meaningful assignments doesn’t have to be that complicated. Consider starting with revamping or replacing one assignment in each unit and grow from there. Whether you take baby steps or plan to dive right in, your efforts are sure to pay off. If you’re worried about pushback, remember that it is possible to meet curriculum requirements while making learning fun and relevant. You can, in fact, have your cake and eat it too. So, go ahead! Give these tips and activities a try, and watch your students’ engagement, enthusiasm, and learning thrive.

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