Collaborative Curriculum

I’ve been tasked with putting together a curriculum for CHS’s English department.

Carrie took me aside a while ago and told me that one of the reasons she hired me was so that I could re-work the entire English curriculum; she’s been doubtful about the way English as been taught at CHS for a while now (and I can’t say that I blame her, really; as far as I can tell, there’s really no plan at all there, and there really should be, both for the teachers’ sake and the kids’).  She asked me if I’d be willing to start from scratch and put together an ordered, careful curriculum that would span all four years and hit all the standards for a college-preparatory school.

Of course, I said “yes!”  What teacher wouldn’t jump at the chance to design his or her own curriculum?  Is it a shitload of work?  Hell, yes!  Is it worth it?  You betcha.

The thing is, though, I don’t want to do it alone.  If nothing else, I am well aware of the limitations of my “box.”  There are certain books and poems that I like to teach, certain movies that I like to show, and certain aspects of grammar that I feel have a firm enough grasp of to be able to teach really well.  I don’t want to limit myself, though, to only those things that I think of.

This is where you come in, Dear Readers.  I want your input.

Here are the basics.  I’m looking to assemble four years’ worth of English classes – freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior – that cover the standards of reading, writing, viewing, and communication.  I’ve done some surface investigation and have discovered that the curriculum standards for secondary school English are pretty much the same in most states; there’s some variation of the wording of the frameworks, but for the most part, they all want kids to come out of high school with strong communication (both written and oral), interpretive, and critical thinking skills.  You can go to your own DOE and look up the specifics if you want, but I think that common sense will tell you most of what you need to know about what the kids need to know.

My goal for this is to create a template that addresses the skills and competencies the kids need to demonstrate, and then use that template to fill in the materials – the books, the exercises, the films, etc. – that the teachers will offer the kids to help them get to those skills and competencies.  I want for the curriculum to be flexible – for the individual teacher to be able to scratch out this book in favor of that one, as long as s/he can justify the usefulness of the substituted text – because I know for sure that one of the things that drew most of our staff to CHS is the fact that we’re not told that we HAVE to teach THIS book to THIS grade level.

I’ve not committed anything to paper yet, but I’m envisioning a sort of scaffolding scheme.  The freshman class will start with the basics; the elements of fiction, an introduction to the writing process, some introductary work with poetry and drama, and a little bit of work with persuasion and media.  The sophomores will work a little bit more with what we started as freshman; taking their reading into a more critical exercise, introducing the some fundamental research techniques, digging a little bit deeper into poetry and drama, and beginning work on public speaking and persuasive writing.  The juniors will start getting into extended writing projects that take on both informative and critical approaches to the reading and viewing they do, they’ll start to make connections between literature (in whatever form the teacher chooses to present it) and culture, and they’ll work harder on the ethical practice of research.

The senior year ties it all together; those kids will start looking carefully and critically at the way literature informs (or is informed by) culture and how we express our humanity through the words we choose to commit to paper.  They’ll make connections between literature and history and they’ll think critically about the ethical responsibilities of being a consumer of literature.  They’ll take their writing practice up another level (my goal is to teach essentially the same writing skills to my seniors in high school that I teach to my freshman at Local U.) and focus on using the rhetorical skills they’ve picked up in the earlier grades.

What I’m asking for from you is critque, reading suggestions, and stories about your best high school experiences.  What books did you read that you adored (or which do you think it’s vital for kids to read today)?  What lessons stuck with you, lo these many years later?  What do you wish your teachers had done when you were in high school English class?  What would you like to see teachers focus harder on today – what do you want YOUR kids to come out of high school knowing?

Aaaand…. GO!

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Collaborative Curriculum

  1. Catch-22 was the most enjoyable and memorable book from my senior English class (possibly of all the books I read in high school).

  2. Darci

    wow…really need to think about this.

  3. Teacher A, tell me WHY Catch-22 was so important, if you please. I’ve never read the book myself, so I probably wouldn’t have considered it if you hadn’t mentioned it (See?! That’s why I ask you people! You’re all so smaht!)

    Darci, do think, please, and get back to me!!

  4. Give me some time to think about this. I’ll definitely get back to you with a few ideas.

  5. lazarusdodge

    I’m not a teacher – and certainly don’t play one on TV. Maybe I’m a bit frustrated that I didn’t choose that route and why I’m in the sales capacity that I’m in – an opportunity to pass on lessons and knowledge.

    That being said, just on the subject of books, I do have a few suggestions if I might bring them up. These are the ones I valued most in my teens and early twenties. The ones that brought together both the physical and philosophical rules of the world. Made me think, explore, and move on to new adventures in both literature and experience:

    - Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger
    Although most think of Catcher in the Rye as more widely read at this level, I think that F&Z has more to teach. If I had to explain it, to me it was about relating to the new world that was opening up to me. As frightening as it was, I needed explanation. This book provided it to me in the form of the the Glass Family. In fact, I’d even add Salinger’s “Nine Stories” – a book of short stories that includes the a beautiful piece about Seymour, the oldest of the Glass children.

    - The Old Man & The Sea, Ernest Hemingway
    The only book I remember from high school. Determination, hope, disappointment – it’s all in there. Should open up worlds of discussion.

    - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintennance, Robert Pirsig
    Travel, machines, and philosophy – where could you go wrong.

    - Bladerunner, Philip K.Dick
    Science fiction – but providing a context for technology. What it can be and can do. For us and to us. I think one of his best books. Sent me on a summer spree of reading everything of his I could get my hands on.

    - On the Road, Jack Kerouac
    For the older student, I think. Relating to the world, friends, romance, literature, poetry. It’s all there.

    - Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
    War and rememberance, fiction, science fiction, about being human.

    As far as poetry, I think the most accessible for you students would be Billy Collins, Grace Paley, Jane Kenyon, Anne Sexton. These writers still have a profound effect on me.

    I hope the above helps somewhat. They’re my most immediate impressions….

    - Jeff

  6. Less boring crap. Maybe some genre fiction, throw in some science fiction, fantasy, action/adventure stuff. You can teach fiction structure from anything, so why not skip the “classics” in favor of something entertaining and GOOD?

  7. Jeff, COOL! Thanks! I’ll have to look into the books you suggest; of your list, I’ve only read what you called “Bladerunner” (Dick’s title was “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”). I’d need to get a handle on what themes and ideas are in the books you list.

    Joe, you’re a riot. “Less boring crap” isn’t really helpful, you know; can you be a little more specific, please? And let’s not get down on “classics” just because they’re classics; I, personally, LOVE a couple of stories that are considered “classics” (Hamlet and Frankenstein chief among them) and don’t find them boring at all (and, if my students are telling me the truth, they enjoy the work we do with these pieces, too). Are there some “classics” that I’d just as soon not engage? Absolutely. I’m not going to put them down to my students, though; I’ll just make sure they understand that there’s no one Universal benchmark for what makes “great” literature great.

  8. *Sigh*

    OK. Have your kids read some Harlan Ellison short fiction, or better yet Richard Christian Matheson… no one writes shorter fiction than R.C. Matheson. Plus, there’s movies involved! Young adult novels would be a big plus over the “classics,” so dig up some Robert Heinlein and Terry Pratchett. There’s a lot of relatively modern social commentary in most of that stuff, so that’s something that the kids can connect to… even with the rockets and aliens and little blue men and such.

    We’re all readers here, so I think some of us have a hard time dealing with the fact that most people aren’t readers and never have been. The “classics” are sometimes classic because they are good, but also often because they are complete crap in a way that makes eggheads feel good about themselves by embracing.

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