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I am not an English teacher, but I teach a reading/discussion course in science ethics, and I have run into the same kinds of problems; students complain that a reading assignment is too long, too boring, or too hard; they don't write well and hence don't want to write at all, so the never improve their writing.
One thing that I did that was successful with a reluctant group was blogging. I set up a blog and I posted links to three or four short news pieces that each touched on a different science ethics issue. For each piece I asked a open-ended question about the topic, and I assigned students to blog their responses to my questions and to each other. It worked well, as everyone had a voice in the discussion. Since they were on the internet, they were doing the readings and writings without realizing that they were doing them!
Another thing I have seen English teachers do is incorporate the student's favorite technologies. For instance, imagine that Romeo and Juliet had been able to text to one another. Create a conversation they might have had via text at a certain point in the action. Or create a Facebook page (you can find blank templates at this link, so students don't need to actually go on Facebook to do this one) for a character in a novel. If they won't come to you, you may have to go to them.
I struggle with this all the time, but I usually find that if I make the SKILL relevant to them, they do better. They don't want to write a descriptive essay, but they were more motivated to write a college application essay which still served the skill of descriptive writing with a thesis. They don't want to learn how to join clauses, but create some really horrible repetitive short sentences and challenge them to create a long, clear, and cohesive sentence with as few words as possible and they see the value of sentence combining and the power of the semicolon or conjunction. They see first hand how much smarter they sound.
Wow! Do we teach in the same school? I have been struggling with this for the past two years. We read a novel, they complain. They state that we are reading too much. I change it up and work on short stories and they cannot "get into them." Writing? Forget it. Grammar? Same.
The only thing that I have found to motivate students is competition. You would not believe how engaged they are when playing a review game for bonus points. Everyone pays attention.
Outside of that, I hate to say that I am still trying to find the one way to engage students. I know many teachers, today, are.
From my experience, one way to motivate students and get them to participate is to divide them into teams and make to the teams compete. I do this frequently; one half of the room is pitted agains the other half. I ask questions, and they "buzz" to get my attention and get a point if their team answers correctly. It always amazes me how much they seem to enjoy this; it brings out the natural competiveness that seems to exist in human nature.
I'm a workshop junkie, and one thing that I've heard over and over is the idea of giving students choice and voice in their learning. For a unit on Shakespearean literature, for example, give them a "menu" at the beginning of the unit. All of the choices on the menu relate to the unit and the objectives you have for them. The "main dish" would be the main activity that everyone must complete. The "sides" might consist of 3-5 choices for activities from which each student would choose 2-3. These are also required activities, but the key component is the choice each student has. Then comes "dessert." Dessert is optional usually, so you could offer a dessert as a bonus activity that can't be completed until the main dish and veggies have been done. Another option is a Think-Tac-Toe board. On this, you create a board with 9 different activities for your unit. Each student chooses three of those with the only limitations being that the choices must make a tic-tac-toe in any direction on the board. If resources permit (and it has taken me several years of grant writing to achieve this but it is worth it!), have sets of a multitude of classroom novels that students can choose to read. I teach a unit on the Holocaust and the history of prejudice and intolerance, and students can choose from a list of sixteen novels that pertain to this theme. Two of the titles are mandatory reads that we do as a class, and in the literature circle format, throughout the year students choose a minimum of three (but often up to seven) titles to read. Choice and voice really seem to empower my students, and I have been sold on the idea.
I agree completely with the two answers above. If students read relevant literature, they are more motivated to read. I don't use textbooks a lot in my literature classes. I cover the staples, of course, but many of the selections have no bearing on my students'lives. I do a lot of scavenging - I peruse short story and poetry libraries to find selections that will use the same target skills (inferences, summarizing, etc.) but that cover topics that will interest the majority. Many times the reading level is actually higher than what the textbook alternative is, but they don't mind the extra challenge because they are reading what they like (or don't dislike as much - it's baby steps sometimes!). Tim O'Brien is a popular author whose novels many of my students read, so when I pulled out a short story by him, they literally couldn't wait to get their hands on it. Sometimes they have to read things they don't like because that's how the world works - but they do it because that's not the norm in my room.
True differentiation can also make a world of difference for some unmotivated students. Most of the unmotivated students that I've had personally have been either those who were at the top of the class (read:bored) who already knew a particular skill being taught thus saw no purpose in completing homework or caught on much more quickly, or students who were at the opposite end, those who needed a lot of remediation and reinforcement. With differentiated curriculum, each group would work at challenge-level. The upper end students would face something that they would actually learn from rather than rehash the same concept, and the struggling students would see mastery of the new content as an attainable goal rather than the carrot they will never reach.
I hear you. I think all teacher go through this. Here are some suggestions that might help.
First, how about doing a section on something that interests them that has educational value. For instance, many 9th graders might like a section on Greek mythology or Homer's Iliad or Odyssey. Another option would be creative writing or short stories.
Second, what has helped me is to break up the class into teams and they can debate a story or a topic. This can get some students involved and excited. This also reinforces critical thinking.
Third, a play might be a good idea as well. How about you put on a Shakespearean play? You may even want to get the AV department involved and put it on video. This gets students involved and they can learn about Shakespeare along the way. Best of luck!
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