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Why Electives Matter

By Ernie Rambo — April 13, 2011 5 min read

The classroom buzzes with activity. Sixth graders gather around computers in the classroom, writing their plays. On the stage, a team of students practices their student-written production. Others use the school’s spotlight while more students are working on “backstage” tasks: finding costumes, making scenery, and creating a playlist of sound effects.

The group on stage gathers around one of the girls as she plays guitar. They start singing “I Wanna Be a Billionaire.” Other students join them on stage, surrounding the guitar girl as they hop to the lyrics. I wince, reminding myself to discuss the use of certain lyrics with them before the end of class. Despite a few inappropriate words, the students are all excited about creating programs of interest for their peers. It’s a great day in Sandlot Drama class.

The name of the class isn’t really Sandlot Drama. Those of us who teach electives tend to have more freedom to plan the time that’s needed for creative projects. The freedom to facilitate student-created plays has turned my classroom into a scene similar to when Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney would “get all the kids together and put on a show!” or when the baseball diamond, void of adult supervision, was where kids learned how to call the plays and how to resolve any disagreements that arose.

In addition to three sections of drama, I teach two media production classes and one section of my favorite class of all—Future City—where teams of students prepare for an annual regional engineering competition. Each team first develops a city infrastructure by using Sim City 4. While researching, writing, and editing their problem-based essays, the teams also build scale models of their city. Components of the competition are brought together in five-minute presentations for an audience of local engineers. The class is always hectic. Students use hammers, screwdrivers, paint, and hacksaws in non-conventional ways, as their models (built mainly of recycled and reused materials) begin to take shape.

What is the reward for trying to balance student creativity with some decorum of classroom management? It’s watching a team of two second-language students being led by a student with autism as they describe the features of their city to a panel of engineers. Or watching the shyest girl in the class appear on stage as Lady Gaga.

Electives Help Students Learn to Focus—and Achieve

Electives teachers might not have the same amount of homework to grade as English teachers; we might not feel pressured to cover the curriculum as a math teacher might feel. But despite the “fun” part of our jobs, we play an important role in helping our students to learn, to focus, and to achieve. Electives classes reveal the skill sets of some students that might not be obvious in their other classes, helping them see their strengths and affording them opportunities to be of value to their classmates. Reaching performance goals or learning a new language requires students to be organized, to set goals, and to evaluate if they’re meeting those goals.

Our middle school follows a schedule with seven periods each day. Students attend their team’s core classes for four of those periods, and are in electives and physical education classes for two periods each day. The seven-period schedule allows the teachers of core subjects to have a personal preparation period in addition to a grade level or team collaborative period every day. The seventh period is utilized for explorations classes and is also the time when classes made up of mixed grades can meet. Our school has been using this schedule for the past seven years, allowing us to follow a model for an effective middle school that also provides high quality professional development for the core teachers. While we have made great gains in our student achievement because of the increased collaboration time, the schedule has a consequence.

The Risk of Teacher Isolation

The electives teachers teach six periods a day, with only a personal preparation period, so that core teachers can have both a collaborative planning time and a personal planning period. To compensate for the additional student-contact time, electives teachers have been excused from completing the goal-setting reports that core teachers complete each week. Each week, core teachers have the opportunity to discuss their work with each other, to look at student data and collaboratively plan how to meet students’ needs.

During the grade-level collaboration time, the administrators meet with core and special education teachers to discuss how school-wide interventions will be implemented. Electives teachers are used to planning their own programs, but at our school we have found that we need to know what the other teachers are doing. Instead of feeling independent about the work that I do, I often feel that I should be more supportive of increasing student achievement. Sandlot Drama and Future City could be much stronger programs if I made more connections with the core teachers on a regular basis.

Signs of isolation cropped up among our electives teachers earlier this year. Our principal posted several emails that discussed SRI, RTI screening, and STAR Math information. My electives colleagues and I began to send emails back and forth, asking each other what the acronyms meant. What was going on in the rest of the school that we might be able to support but could not unless someone updated us with information regarding these new programs?

A Workable Solution

Once our issue of isolation was raised with our principal, she suggested that we meet with our core colleagues once a month. The system isn’t perfect, but on the first Wednesday of each month, the P.E. teachers have release time to meet with each other and the electives department chairperson in the morning, and the electives chairperson meets with all electives teachers during their afternoon release time. The critical connection between the two departments facilitates the use of the gym for electives classes’ performances and also provides time for both departments to create activities that support the school’s improvement plan.

The release time also allows participation in a grade-level collaboration meeting for both departments. Electives teachers can more effectively support the core curricula when they are able to communicate with those teachers on a regular basis.

Sandlot Drama continues. Based on a recent suggestion of our history teachers, I can propose that the playwrights focus on an issue that led to the Civil War in their writing. I can write out directions for the scenery crew as a math word problem and discuss the concept of proportion as they create a backdrop. I‘ll know that my job is done right each time a student comes up to me and says, “We were talking about this in history class,” or “Can I go ask my math teacher if I did this right?” The students are making the connections between the arts and their academic classes, and I no longer feel like I’m stranded on my little electives island.

Electives matter—and they matter most when we become full participants in the professional learning communities of our schools.

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