With many schools already returning for the fall, and even my return tomorrow, I thought I’d do a different, more teacherly post today. There has been a lot of talk about Common Core the past few years and how it is going to “ruin” our students. Now, while that is a matter of debate, the theory behind Common Core is actually a good idea. The theory is to have all the states curriculum united so that when, say a student from North Carolina attends college in California, they should have the same exact skill set. We can’t disagree with that. However, the way Common Core has been rolled out, starting with testing and then the creation of a curriculum, is what has many folks up in arms (at least for English/Language Arts).
A few years ago I attended a conference designed for teachers to learn about the Common Core standards and how it would change our teaching. A teacher asked about curriculum plans, and when the responder stated that the plans would not be available until 2018, yet testing would begin in 2014, the room was filled with a thousand gasps. My co-worker and I glanced at each other and chuckled. See, I haven’t used a purchased curriculum plan in…oh never. I’ve been given textbooks, but I’ve always used them a supplemental to the curriculum I create. In fact, I stopped using my literature textbooks a few years ago and now they’re just decorating my shelf. I’ve completely switched to novels and supplemental non-fiction articles that I find in the news and on sites like the New York Times Learning Network Blog. By creating my own curriculum I can tailor my units and lessons to content that will be of high interest to my students. All of the writing that they do is relevant, in some way as best I can, to their lives allowing them to take ownership of their work. Of course, not all assignments are popular and sometimes just don’t work, but I do have students asking me “When are we going to do _______ project?” They are excited about learning, sometimes excited about the novels (can’t win them all) but most of all, they learn about their world and even discover what types of literature they like and don’t like. Most importantly, I choose novels that have diverse leads and all of my students are able to see themselves as the hero.
So today, I thought I’d give a little bit of insight into my thought process and how I chose the books for the first semester. I will also be including the Common Core standards to underscore how the novels and the assessments meet the standards.
First unit is titled “The Elements of Fiction” and has students looking deeper into what constitutes a fictional story and evaluating a novel for its elements. The students get to choose a book from a list I will give them; and based on my experience from last year, none of the books will be current movies. Students will either write a 500 word book review or create a new book jacket that evaluates the character arc, plot construction, the writer’s style & theme, and finishes with their own brief review of the book. The Common Core standards this meets are: Reading Standards for Literature 2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text; and Writing Standards 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content. Of course, throughout the unit I will be addressing other standards that will help the students meet the two main standards I have chosen to assess.
The second unit is titled “The Hero’s Journey” and builds off the previous unit. This time, students will use the knowledge they have gained about the elements of fiction and will use those skills to write their own fiction. In the past, I’ve told students “just write a story” and many floundered, so a few years ago I changed tactics and now give them more specific parameters. The parameters change depending on the unit. Last year, the focus was on the theme of Coming of Age, this year is the Hero’s Journey. The novel they will read is Ellen Oh’s Prophecy. I chose this novel because I want the students to see a girl as the hero, as the special one, and to experience a culture outside of their own. Prophecy fit the bill perfectly. In addition to reading the novel and studying Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” students will actually write their own “hero’s journey” story. Students will chose out of a hat, the age and gender of the character, an external conflict (all are required to have internal conflict) and to throw in some research, their story must be from a geographical region they studied in 7th grade. This bit of research also meets one of the Common Core writing standards. Students will, again, choose to present their story as a graphic novel or as prose. The Common Core standards this unit meets are: RSL 3: Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of character or provoke a decision; and WS 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experience or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences. Just as in the unit before, there are other standards in addition to these two main ones that I will use to asses students.
The third unit, and last unit of the semester, is currently titled “Fight for Freedom” and is reboot of a unit I did a few years ago. In all the excitement over the Hunger Games, I decided to do an experiment and teach the entire series. The third book, Mockingjay, and its theme of revolution fit perfectly with the U.S. History curriculum my students were learning at the time, which was the start of the Revolutionary War. In addition, the Arab Spring was still in the news and I thought that tying the three revolutions together would be a good idea. In theory, it would have worked, but I was tired of Hunger Games and so were the students. The unit kind of ended up a dud, but what ended up happening was an issue with the city and my school, so the students were actually able to take the lessons learned about standing up for their beliefs and putting them into action. They were able to truly be a part of a real revolution. Anyways, I’d been toying with bringing back that unit in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and how my students who feel they don’t have a voice (many of them are immigrants, or are the children of immigrants) can somehow find a way to share their voice. I hadn’t decided on a novel until I read Jason Reynolds & Brandon Kiely’s All American Boys. If there ever was a novel that was timely and full of protest, this is the novel. I know my students are asking questions about the topics they see in the media, and even hear from family members, and I want them to be able to learn to express their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs about issues that directly effect them. So while I haven’t exactly decided how I’m going to asses them, I do know what standards we will be addressing. The Common Core standards this unit will meet are: Reading Standards for Informational Text 2: Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of a text, including its relationship to supporting ideas, provide an objective summary of the text; and Writing Standard 1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence. Last year, I had my Honor class choose a Social Justice issue that had meaning to them (a few even did police brutality) and had them create a Prezi presentation that persuaded us to their side. They had to provide research and facts to support their opinion. Those went over very well with my students, with many of them referencing what they learned from their classmates later in the year. At this point in time, that is the assessment that I’m leaning towards because the project allows them to choose a topic, research, present an argument AND use technology (which is another Common Core standard).
And that, my dear readers, is how my first semester is structured. If you have read all the way to the end, I thank you for your time. As you can see, teaching and creating relevant and interesting content for our students can be time consuming and require a significant amount of thought. It requires a teacher to truly know and be aware of their student population, and also be current on what is being published in YA literature. We don’t have to stick to the classics to find quality literature to teach. In fact, second semester my students will be reading two award winning books (Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson) and William Shakespeare. It’s all about how you present the material. I routinely change up my units (I even changed twice mid-year last year) to keep my teaching fresh and to meet the student’s needs. For example, with William Shakespeare, I always paired it with Sharon Draper’s Romiette and Julio, and as much as I love the book, I was getting a bit bored with it, so to keep it fresh, I changed up the novel. This year my students will be comparing Romeo and Juliet to Una LaMarche’s Like No Other (and it meets RSL 9). I read the novel over the summer and found it to be a sweet quiet story that retold Shakespeare’s R&J in a unique way. We shall see how it goes.
Fellow teachers (and librarians who help teachers), I implore to think outside of the box and try to create your own curriculum. It takes a bit of work, but it is worth it. Teachers are some of the most creative people around, but are often forced to used purchased curriculum plans that don’t have a lick of relevance to our students. These cookie-cutter plans continually exclude children of color and they rarely get to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. It is up to us to help change that, and until your district requires you to use the plan of the month, create your own. You will be liberated with what you can create, what you can do in your classroom, and what your students can achieve. Because at the end of the day, we want our students to be betters readers and writers when they leave our classroom than when they enter it.