For Administrators

Schools Need Great Electives; Here's How to Get Them

By Brian Gatens April 7, 2014

There is so much more to school than core classwork. The schools that serve children best focus on essential academics, but they also realize that when students look back on the major influences on their college and career choices, they often recall their favorite electives.

How then can schools forge the best elective class offerings? Here are a few ideas to consider:

Establish an electives mindset

Electives courses often create the most memorable experiences in students' lives.It’s easy to get caught up in the notion that school is about seat time, grades and academics, and that electives are little more than “throwaway courses.” But the best schools realize that the “e” in electives is also there for exposure and enrichment.

Rather than viewing electives as places to offer prep time to core teachers, your district should realize that electives offer strong opportunities for student growth and heightened interest in school. I found this out when I noticed the dedication and attention my eighth-grade twins paid to their Broadcast Journalism elective during middle school. Their focus on the small details was incredible, and this spilled over into their core academic classes.

Offer electives before high school

Don’t hesitate to establish an elective program as early as possible in your district’s curriculum offerings. Students as young as early elementary will benefit from nonstandard coursework that exposes them to unique topics, skills and careers. Many schools integrate these activities into indoor recess periods during the cold winter months or offer them after school.

Check your teachers’ elective capacity

When hiring new staff, ask about specific skills or life experiences that can translate into original elective offerings. I know of one school that brought on a science teacher who could teach an elective related to writing computer code.

Another example would be a second-career teacher who brought her experience as a news reporter to the high school’s Journalism elective. If you have an elective you want to offer but no staff member who can do it, consider sending out a staff member for the necessary training.

Ask for community input

I’m a big fan of community input — getting feedback on possible electives is a nice way to develop support for the schools. From time to time, you’ll discover a “hidden gem” in the community who can bring significant skills and experience to a new elective. The community is also an excellent resource for identifying trends in elective offerings.

Build private/public partnerships

Electives also offer opportunities to develop partnerships with community groups and private companies. For example, an allied health elective could work with a local hospital or the school could offer an internship with a local business. Be sure to tap into your district’s community supporters when considering new electives.

‘Sneak’ in core academics and new skills

When writing the curriculum for new electives, always make it a point to integrate essential academic skills. Lean toward “21st century skills,” focusing on collaboration, higher-level thinking and real-world problem solving.

Electives can also help to reinforce the attention to studying, preparing for new assessments and creating  authentic work products that typically are components of the standard classroom.

Look down the road

Be sure to stay attentive to trends in society and education. The rise of coding, for instance, could be a good activity for a student elective these days. It’s essential to read both education-specific articles and national mainstream publications to identify these trends.

Electives often are the “flavor in the soup” for our schools. One way to see the long-term influence of electives is to ask your colleagues about their favorite school coursework. You’ll be surprised how many speak of these classes.

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