top of page

Are Electives Really Student Choice?

Newspaper. Broadcast. Drama. Studio Art. French. Chorus. Music Appreciation. Etc. These are examples of some elective classes offered in some high schools.

As the name suggests, electives are supposed to be courses that students have the opportunity to choose based on interest and need, to meet requirements in school. They are meant to enrich students' learning experiences by allowing them choice in addition to their core classes that are prerequisites for graduation.

Depending on the size and resources of the school, the quality and variety of electives can vary greatly. Sometimes it's a matter of current staff and their expertise and other times it's a matter of funds and how many students enroll in the options.

Unfortunately, not every school can provide students with ample choice or when they do actually get to choose the classes that they want, there's a 50/50 chance that the class won't meet expectations or it won't fit into their schedules.

So how elective are these classes anyway?

As education is beginning to shift more and more and schools are beginning to understand that students must be engaged in their learning not just because they HAVE to pass a class or a test but because the point of school is to hopefully instill a love of learning, we need to really examine the way we program students during the day.

Electives shouldn't only be on the fringe as an extra that kids do to fill up their program, but rather should drive the focus of how and what they learn. If we're going to call classes "elective" we must truly allow students to take ownership of what happens in those spaces.

If we are going to offer students an opportunity to take a journalism class or art, we owe it to them to have a professional in front of them who can give them a quality learning experience. Too often in school, teachers are out of license teaching classes that don't cover the content they promised they would in the course description. It's up to the school to ensure that kids are enriched in meaningful ways, not just on a transcript.

As we continue to re-imagine the school paradigm, perhaps we start embedding essential skills into elective classes and let students in high school begin to really make choices about their learning as they will in college. They can still get a survey of classes, but why not make all the learning meaningful and enjoyable all day long - not just in the "fun" classes?

As a newspaper teacher, many of my students didn't select the class, but I do my best to find a space for them that they enjoy and continue to grow and support the student media at our school. Every child participates in a way that works for them and for the team. Class isn't run like a traditional English classroom, students have a menu of items to choose from and are allowed to work on whatever they have chosen every day.

Teaching doesn't happen in the traditional sense either. No sage on the stage, direct teaching to the whole class. That wouldn't be appropriate since students are all doing different kinds of learning. Some are researching for stories, some are interviewing sources, some are getting photos and writing captions while others are maintaining and developing the web presence.

Learning happens independently, through peer feedback and leadership, and through conferring experiences on the spot while they work.

This elective class offers students credit, but more importantly, teaches them how to navigate in a pseudo-news room. The editor-in-chief and student manager, take the status of the class, reviewing the spreadsheet and I walk around helping students when they don't understand the feedback they have received or have questions that need to be answered for them to be successful.

Students have complete control over what they write and how they write it. They select their deadlines although there is a week window that we try to shoot for so there is work always ready to go up on Kids are working together to create their best writing for an audience.

As we plan our classes for students, we must consider their role in learning. What are we putting in their hands and how can we do it as often as possible?

All of school should be elective.

How can make core classes more like electives or create more substantial electives that kids get to choose? Please share your thoughts

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in April 2016


Garreth Heidt
Garreth Heidt
Sep 12, 2021

Starr, Thanks for this reposting this. You've presaged the work of Jal Metha and Sarah Fine in "In Search of Deeper Learning." The description of your class is wonderful. I created a class back in 2016 that also hits all these points. Self-actualization is at the core, ISTE student standards are central (because they're so damn good and no one else is talking about them in my neck of the woods) and self-determined learning, project management, time management, etc are skills we work towards. Each year I have students annotate the "syllafesto" I push out before the year begins. And each year the results are the same, students grateful for a space where they can pursue their own ideas …

Starr Sackstein
Starr Sackstein
Sep 12, 2021
Replying to

Thanks for sharing, Garreth. We are all in this work together and if meaningful change is going to happen systemically so we can ensure equity- we all have to make the effort. And yes, the ISTE standards are amazing!

bottom of page