The Evolution of a Curriculum

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When I first began teaching, I walked into an 8th grade Language Arts position and innocently asked, “May I see the curriculum?”  The conversation went something like this…”Well, here are some novels we teach, a few short stories, & poems.  That’s what I teach, the other teacher teaches some of the same stuff, but does a few different units as well. Grammar?  Do you like grammar…if so then you can teach it.  The kids come to us all over the place because some folks teach it and some don’t.”  Needless to say those first few years were quite a challenge. I taught what I taught and sent my students on to high school.

About three years into my career and lead by our new Director of Curriculum and Instruction, our district jumped on the ‘Curriculum Mapping’ bandwagon.  While some departments were just filling in their subject’s scope and sequence for content, skills, etc…our English Department, in a sense, looked at each other and went, ‘uh oh.’  We calmly, coolly, approached our director and said, “We don’t have a common curriculum, just a list of books.”  Without getting into the specifics of the reaction to a curriculum that hadn’t been updated since the 1980s, books that were being taught that weren’t necessarily approved, and students not getting any sort of common experience across most grades, we had a lot of work and a long road ahead of us.

So where did we start and where did we end up? While the middle school had an easier time getting everyone on the same page because of the teaming and interdisciplinary nature, the high school was a bit different.  We are an economically, ethnically, and religiously diverse district.  In an attempt to help reach all our students, our high school moved from the classic, 9th grade western lit, 10th grade global, 11th grade British, and 12th grade American Literature, to a more global approach.  Each year was framed with an essential question relevant to our students’ stages of development: 9th grade- How do I define myself and my values? 10th grade- How do I inhabit and embrace the global community? 11th grade- What are my obligations within an evolving society? 12th grade- Who do I want to become and what impact do I want to have on the world around me?  Along with this, each marking period was anchored with a ‘core text’ that drove the reading skills, writing skills/assignments, vocabulary and grammar taught.  We also made sure each year covered 1 African or African American author, 1 Latin or Latin American author, 1 European author, and 1 Asian/Middle Eastern author. For example, our 10th grade titles are Like Water for Chocolate, Things Fall Apart, Night, and Interpreter of Maladies. We also looked to balance both male and female authors, novels, short stories and plays.  Outside of each core novel, we could bring in supplemental materials such as art, poetry, music, short stories, folktales, etc…  After spending roughly four years with this format, we realized a few things:

1. Pros- our students were reading a very diverse set of literature, reading mostly modern/current titles and authors (which helped with buy in), were sharing a ‘common experience’ across classrooms and grades, and were being exposed to a variety of cultures.

2. Cons- lots of repetition of ideas and resources, loss of many classics, being ‘limited’ to choosing texts that had to fit a certain criteria, and having both our Honors and Academic levels sharing the same core text either led to our honors kids not being challenged or our academic kids being at frustration levels (in some cases).

So where are we now and where are we looking to go?  We are beginning our curriculum review and are looking to re-establish balance.  Instead of starting with a discussion around titles, we are starting with a discussion around ‘big ideas or topics’ that flow naturally out of each year’s essential question and that that level of student can handle.

Some topics that have been kicked around: good vs. evil, the hero’s journey, identity, ethics and morality, family and tradition, and perception, understanding and acceptance.  We are hoping to frame each mp or semester with these, develop essential questions and enduring understandings for these topics, then choose titles.  Instead of locking in one book per mp, we may be able to pick three core novels per semester, and look to establish genre, cultural, and gender balance over the course of the four years.  This will help us balance out modern texts with classic texts, as well as provide some different options for our core novels for the different levels of students (academic and honors).

While we will still have to have some common core texts and writing assignments, as well as a scope and sequence to our grammar and vocab instruction, we are hoping to frame more of the ‘common experience’ around skills taught and the students’ experiences with the over-arching topics and essential questions.  Again, it’s a long road ahead, but exciting none the less!

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