Find an angle.
It is all too easy to find the text, offer the info in the text, do the writing assignments in the text, and nothing else. The text is supposed to offer the students something amazing. (They’re paying $100+ for it after all.) But it shouldn’t be all there is. If they could just read the text, then you aren’t adding anything to the course.
So what can you add?
Find the things you are interested in and do those. My students are doing online writing. I think it is a great way to get a real audience and so I’m assigning that. If I were really into motorcycles, I might look for ways in which bikes are used in pop culture and introduce that during our readings on pop culture. I need to teach literature analysis, so I use fairy tales to introduce literature.
What does this do?
It makes your class unique and it keeps you interested in it. That, in turn, helps hold your students interest.
Offer an example or a visual aid.
I am a big story person, so I try to find, cull, borrow, or cadge stories from life that fit what we are going to be talking about in class.
Today, introducing writing, I talked about the man I knew who lost a $100,000 promotion (It was really $43K, but it was 30 years ago.) because he couldn’t write well.
Next class we are talking about audience, and we’ll be writing on the net, so I will remind them to be careful about the information they publish on the net with the true story of the police investigator who found and followed a local fifth grader to her home. She hadn’t published her name or her hometown or her address. But she said what her team was and the name of the practice field and her number. The police officer knocked on the door and talked to her parents. (Do you think she was ever allowed to use the computer again?)
It’s a story.
But if you’re better with visuals, bring those in. Bring in a real love letter you’re willing to share and a piece of junk mail and compare the audiences. Bring in a dirty smelly trash can and have them describe it. Bring in an old picture (buy one at a flea market) and have them narrate about the people in the photograph based on what they are wearing.
Bring something that is not written words to the class. Not everyone deals with words as well as English teachers tend to. They need something else, too.
Make it relevant.
This goes back to my angle issue, and the stories, but let the students see that what they are studying is relevant to their lives.
I clip cartoons, comic strips, and letters to the editor when they reference a literary work I might be teaching someday. If I get a few on one topic, I copy them and pass them out before we start reading. I have the students look at them and we discuss how much we don’t get about the discussion underway because we haven’t read the book or the poem. It’s an interesting attention getter because students often assume they will never again reference any work they read in college.
In business writing, I talk about the need to be clear about what words mean. I use the Challenger explosion and the problem with the secondary O-rings to illustrate it. The engineers said, “There is a problem with the secondary O-rings at such and such temperature.” The managers heard “back-up O-rings.” Since there wasn’t anything wrong with the primary O-rings, they sent the shuttle off. And an entire school filled with children watched their teacher blow up. And families all over the nation were left grieving. Because of a vocabulary issue. Words matter.
I talk about how a spelling issue, a single one, will push a resume into the trash can.
I discuss revision and how it is important. Then I bring in 15 or so versions of my curriculum vitae. I show them where I started and where I am now. And I show them all the steps in the middle. Revision is important and I show the students that I don’t just say it, but that I believe it. They are more likely to believe it at that point.
If information doesn’t help them, don’t give it to them.
This is kind of an answer to “is this going to be on the test?” If it’s on the test, teach it. If it’s necessary for their homework, teach it. If it’s not something they are going to use in your class, don’t. Yes, it may be cool and interesting, but if they’re not going to be able to use it, then there’s not a lot of point in them hearing about it right now.
You are probably wondering why I tell stories, and bring in cv’s, since those aren’t on the test. I don’t test them over my stories, but I do expect them to learn the principles the stories emphasize. That’s part of why I tell stories, because it gives them something concrete to hang the theoretical knowledge on long enough for them to learn and use it.
If you still want to teach them something, go ahead. But make sure they have a chance to use it in your class.