How to Survive Your High School English Class When You're Just Not Into It

High school: it’s the best of times, and it’s the worst of times. Among the best parts are the clubs, sports and school spirit and among the worst are are homework, stress and the lack of freedom. For many pre-collegiettes, these three fears coincide in one class: high school English. While websites like Sparknotes and CliffNotes make English classes a little easier, sometimes, they can feel like a real drag. Here’s how you can survive and thrive in your high school English class. You may actually end up enjoying it!

1. Read more and learn to love reading

How much do you read? If you don’t read outside of school assignments and the occasional summer reading book, you’re really missing out.

Books allow you to travel and imagine the impossible. Don’t let one bad book experience ruin reading for you entirely. If you don’t like hardcover or paperbacks, try reading e-books through apps like OverDrive that connect you with your local library.

Dagny Bloland, an adjunct instructor at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, recommends applying what you’re reading to your own life. “Try to make connections between what you’re reading and your own life,” she says. “For example, it’s hard to read Shakespeare. But, the human emotions are in everybody’s life.”

Make connections between what you’re reading and what’s going in the world around you. For instance, Frankenstein has obvious applications to genetic engineering and designer babies, real life ethical dilemmas of today. It’s not just flowery language and an Oedipal complex.

“Literacy is about you,” says Bloland. “Reading and writing and speaking and listening are all about you finding your voice in the world and listening to the voices of other people through other times and cultures. It’s a conversation. Think about how English will help you to understand yourself in the world better.”

Developing reading skills takes time. Start at a comfortable reading level, where the number of vocabulary words you don’t know per page is less than five. Most importantly, though, keep in mind that any time is a great time to read. Try reading rather than scrolling through your social media feeds. Take a book with you on your train (everyone in Paris does it!) and imagine the story taking place right in front of you. “Run a movie in your head as you read,” says Bloland. "Imagine the characters being up on the screen as you read the story so that as you read, you’re making images.”

You don’t have to limit yourself to just reading classics...unless you love classics, of course. Here’s a Her Campus-approved list to get you started. Find books or magazines that are related to your hobbies and interests. In addition, reading doesn’t have to be a solitary activity—you can do it with your friends (book club, anyone?) or a family competition.

2. Talk to your teacher

Your teacher’s job is to help you learn, but their job isn’t to babysit you. Teachers want to know if you’re struggling or even if you’re just not liking the class. It might seem a little embarrassing at first to admit that you need help, but reaching out is an important step in developing a positive relationship with your teacher and improving your experience in the classroom.

“Sometimes, you don’t like the literature or you don’t enjoy reading it because you don’t understand it very well,” says Bloland. “You’re not comprehending it, especially if it’s challenging or written a couple hundred of years ago. If that’s the case, your English teacher is your best friend. Find a time to sit down with your English teacher and say that you’re having trouble understanding the text. See what suggestions they can give you because English teachers want kids to love literature.”

Emilie Trepanier, a senior at the University of Utah, suggests that you keep in touch with your English teacher. “This doesn't make you a teacher's pet or a kiss-up,” she says. “If you're struggling with an assignment, or experiencing writer's block, let them know! You'd be surprised by how helpful your educators can be.”

From academic and transition assistance to feedback on all of your papers, there’s so much that you can learn from them your English teachers—and all of your teachers, for that matter.

Kayleen Parra-Padron, a senior at Florida International University, recommends reaching out for help in other ways as well. "Get to know the teacher really well,” she suggests. “If that doesn't work, there's always tutoring after school or study groups with friends!”

“If your school has a librarian, ask them for help,” suggests Bloland. “A librarian can find you books on the same theme as what you’re reading. If you find one book to be interesting, think about how the same theme works in the book that seems a little more distant from your experience. Either your school librarian or your local city librarian is a great resource.”

In addition, don’t forget about your counselor. “It may be that your counselor can find you tutoring, if you’re really having trouble, or maybe recommend a book club,” says Bloland.

Another option is seeking help at a support center that provides academic resources. These centers help you find success in your studies, with study skills workshops, one-on-one consultations, student-athlete coaching, disability support, and so much more. They’re not just for students who are struggling or have fallen behind on their assignments. They’re available at any time for anyone, and it’s better to safe than sorry. Going in for help at the beginning of the semester and then not needing help later on is better than rushing in the week before finals only to find that there aren’t any tutors left.

Related: 6 Things To Do If You’re So Over High School

3. Take advantage of online resources

There’s a chance that you’ve consulted with your teacher, classmates, friends and school’s academic resources center to no avail. There’s a ton of handy online resources that are available for free.

If you’re lost on what an author’s talking about (seriously, what’s the deal with this door, Hawthorne?), SparkNotes might be your go-to, especially for their No Fear Shakespeare content.

Samantha Burke, a recent graduate from Siena College, often used SparkNotes. "I skimmed books in high school but just didn't have time to read so many chapters every night, so I used SparkNotes and CliffsNotes to have me covered for daily quizzes,” she says. “One of my English teachers even indicated which questions the answers could be found on SparkNotes to try to narrow down who may not be reading.”

There’s also other great resources, like Shmoop. Shmoop identifies and breaks down key quotes and passages from each chapter and connects them to important motifs and themes, unlike SparkNotes which provides a more superficial summary at times.

If you prefer watching and listening to analyses, check out YouTube for helpful videos that talk you through each piece of literature. Crash Course English Literature is a mini-series lead by author John Green. In the videos, he analyzes classic novels, like The Great Gatsby and the poems of Emily Dickinson, and he keeps things interesting and quick—usually his vids are less than ten minutes.

Emily Schmidt, a sophomore at Stanford University, watched her younger sister go through the English class struggle, but found that using technology kept her encouraged. "She's a math and science person, so reading a book like The Grapes of Wrath was hard for her. She works with her friends in that class, so she can better understand the text and point of assignments. I think sending her funny book memes has also made her like it more."

4. Get involved in class discussions

Showing up isn’t enough to show your teacher that you’re invested in the class or in your grade. If you’re not speaking up when your teacher asks a question or when roundtable discussions are ongoing, there’s no way for teacher to know that you’re doing your assignments and finishing your readings on time. Participating in discussions engages you in the class, helping you to become more interested in what you’re reading and learning about. Another plus is that participating reinforces your knowledge of the material and it encourages you to keep up with the assignments so you’ll have something to say in class.

Emilie strongly encourages that you do your readings. “Life is busy and there is so much to do, but knowing how to make time to finish these high school English readings will ensure your excelling in college,” she says. “Speaking up in class is so hard, but if you're doing the readings, you don't need to sweat it if you get called on!”

If you tend not to speak up in class, start small, and soon enough, you’ll be on the right track. In order to keep yourself accountable, speak within the first five minutes of the discussion. You don’t only have to share an opinion—you can also ask a question or share evidence that supports a certain viewpoint.

English class discussions are great because unlike in math or chemistry, there’s no right or wrong answer—just your own opinion (as long as it has textual evidence to back it up, of course). While you’re reading an assignment, jot down some notes and questions to bring up during discussion time. Whether it’s for participation points or simply to improve your public speaking skills, joining in on class discussions helps the time fly by.

5. Maintain a growth mindset

English is an incredibly dynamic class, which thus comes with its pros (easy real world applications) and cons (often associated with a bad teacher or mismatched teaching style).

There are two different mindsets, or ways that you approach the world: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, you resign yourself to the fact that you’re not doing well in your English class—your teacher doesn’t like you, the material is too hard, nobody listens to you when you participate. In a growth mindset, you acknowledge what’s happened but you don’t let it get you down.

“After failing the first test of the year, I thought that I was doomed. It didn’t help that my older sister told me that my teacher was a nightmare,” Valerie Park*, a sophomore at Georgetown University, says. “But, I realized that thinking of my teacher as the devil wouldn’t change anything. I had to find what I could change and actually do it. I ended up getting an A minus!”

In short: your mindset determines your ability to succeed and be happy in any situation—even in high school English.

Above all, Bloland recommends: “Don’t give up. Just don’t give up.” At the end of the day, some classes and things in life are just required, and you'll just have to grin and bear it. For instance, most colleges require you to take four years of English or language arts during high school. Whether it's math or a foreign language class, everybody has their favorite class...and their least favorite class. Here’s to hoping that this year’s English class will be the best one yet!

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About The Author

Rachna Shah is a first year student at Dartmouth College, where she is interested in health economics and healthcare reform. As part of the Board at Bridge the Divide, she uses her words as a platform for change and responsibility, encouraging and enabling youth to stay informed and active in the political arena. Rachna is also a writer and editor for several literary and political magazines, including Young Minds, The Weekly Buzz, and Her Campus. When she is not writing, she can be found munching on almonds and listening to the news in French.