curriculum, education

Curriculum Overhaul

Netflix just came out with a documentary called “Making a Murderer”. Parts of it are profoundly sad; specifically the parts where law enforcement officers manipulate a young man into giving a false confession. How do they do this? One of the worst and best tools at our disposal–and certainly the least costly and most valuable: Language.  


When you think about it, language can start, and end, wars. Language can make or break a relationship. Language gives us access to–or blocks us from–opportunities. Language is love. Language is money. Language is life. If it wasn’t, then we wouldn’t need it to survive.


As a(n American) culture we have gotten away from viewing language with any sort of reverence, and it’s high time we begin to give language the respect it deserves. One way to do that is to offer a curriculum that truly values language and all of its complexities.


Here is my proposal.


Each year, the “themes” for the units would be the same, but the works/content/difficulty of language explored within each unit would vary. Here’s a skeleton outline of what I mean:


Q1: Types and Functions of Language

Essential Questions: Why do we read and write? What is the purpose of language/literature/essays?

Content: Literature and Nonfiction

Focus: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works)

Example: Grade 12: Literature-Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (propaganda)

        Nonfiction text-Supreme Court case transcripts (complex/specific language)

CCSS: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works); RL.1-10 and RI.1-10

Q2: Manipulation of Language

Essential Questions: How is language used as a means to achieve a particular end? How do we make language effective?

Content: Literature and Nonfiction

Focus: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works)

Example: Grade 10 or 11: Literature- Animal Farm by George Orwell (logical fallacies)

                                             Nonfiction text- Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (satire)

CCSS: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works); RL.1-10 and RI.1-10

Q3: Persuasive Techniques

Essential Questions: What are persuasive strategies and how are they used?

Content: Nonfiction

Focus: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works)

Example: Grade 9: argumentative essays/speeches about various topics and discussion of arguments of definition; use of persuasive strategies such as logos, pathos, ethos, rhetorical questions; argumentative model: debate. (Students will write argumentative essays based on what they examined/learned.)

Example: Grade 12: argumentative essays/speeches about various topics and discussion about and practice with deductive and inductive arguments, use of persuasive strategies such as inclusive and exclusive language and connotation; argumentative models such as Toulmin or Rogerian. (Students will write argumentative essays based on what they examined/learned.)

CCSS: RI.1-10, W.1, and W.2

Q4: Narrative Techniques

Essential Questions: What are narrative strategies and how are they used?

Content: Fiction/Literature

Focus: Varies from 9-12 (depending on the works)

Example:  poems by Maya Angelou, Wm. Shakespeare, our current poet laureate, etc., various short stories, plays, narrative nonfiction, etc. as mentor texts (examining narrative techniques and modeling them) for writing their own poems, narrative nonfiction, and short stories

CCSS: RL.1-10, RI.1-10 (for narrative nonfiction), and W.3


The above is, of course, a rough outline–planning and implementing curricula takes years of prep, practice, and reflection–but I think this is a good start. It still keeps in mind what students will encounter on their state standardized tests and prepares them accordingly, but it makes more logical sense and focuses on the necessity and beauty of language in our culture and in our world. It also allows for a broader use of content depending on what is popular, interesting, or necessary to read (and write). The topics or themes stay the same while the content is flexible. (Which–side note–is part of the beauty of the CCSS.)


Maybe, someday, we can think about English curriculum from the standpoint of language as opposed to making sure we cover the necessary literature and standards. Such things will take care of themselves when language becomes the true focus of the curriculum.


What do you think?

education, engagement, high school, learners, students

UDL: Differentiation at Its Best

UDL. Another acronym, I know. But this one I think you’ll like.

Universal Design for Learning has been around since the 90s and at its core, it is really about flexibility, differentiation, and helping students find their “flow”. (I’m a big believer in flow. Basically it’s about being so motivated by something that you don’t even realize the time or space you’re in. You’re essentially locked into what you’re doing and you enjoy this true engagement.)  If you want more info about UDL in general check out this video.

Although purist supporters of UDL believe in creating curricula using the techniques outlined in the philosophy, I find that using it in my classroom regardless of the curriculum for the course is highly effective. (Please note that my district uses a very open design for curricula which allows for such flexibility. It’s really a beautiful thing.) Allow me to offer an example:

We are reading Hamlet. (I know, it’s so exciting!!) This is by far one of my favorite units to teach because it allows for great use of the Multiple Intelligences and UDL theories. For instance, not only do we read important scenes together in class, but we also listen to them and watch them. I want students to see the language, hear it, and see how it is applied on stage or screen with actions. We also watch different interpretations of the play so students can see how the language is used and understood in different ways. (Shakespeare is the perfect vehicle for exploring multiple interpretations of complex language….but, I digress.)

Also, as a grade level team, my colleagues and I came up with various creative projects for students to complete to prove their understanding of the text and more specifically their understandings of the functions of the language, characters, and settings. Students can rewrite the script and create a movie, choose songs that characters might listen to that describe their relationships with others, create a comic book that details scenes and soliloquies, or create a scrapbook of character relationships and how those relationships relate to and function within the various settings of the play.

Now, these projects are nothing new. Teachers have been using them for decades, but what I find to be so great about them is their ability to appeal to all different types of learners. For instance, there are several students in my classes who participate in our school’s morning news show. They are interested in visual media and its construction, so the movie project is perfect for them. It serves their interests and they have access to the proper equipment in order to do justice to such a project. When they feel they can properly complete the assignment, make it their own, and enjoy working on it, they are achieving “flow”. And that type of motivation is what we want for our students in school. Learning has to be engaging, or students will lack the buy-in needed to make learning happen in the first place. (And please don’t get me wrong, not every assignment is like this, but I work in the fun where I can!)

In everyday classroom life–whether we are working on Hamlet or not–I use UDL to appeal to students’ interests. I will present to them the goal of the class (I call it “The End Game”) and I will allow them multiple pathways in order to achieve that goal. (Note: I teach seniors and they have enough independence and know-how to complete a task in whatever way they please. This does not always work as well with freshmen and sophomores unless you spend time “training” them.) I give students hard copies of things, I post assignments on Google Classroom, I offer helpful websites, allow them access to multimedia, and various texts, etc. I also allow them to work at their own pace, yet within a time constraint. For example, during the research paper unit, I will teach a mini lesson and then allow students time to write; I call it “workshop”. Some students will keep up with the pace and work on what they learned in the mini lesson, and others may be behind or ahead. Either way, students can sign up for writing conferences with me during their workshop time and I will help guide them through the process. In the end though, the due date stands–so they must find ways to finish on time–and I am there to help during lunch and after school.

Ultimately, I truly enjoy using UDL. It allows for differentiation, emphasizes that we all learn differently and are motivated by different things, and allows for reaching goals in multifaceted ways. It’s not always easy, and it is a lot of work for me, but it’s worth it in order to help kids see that learning is fun and worthwhile. And that’s what I want for them. I want them to see that learning is not a one-size-fits-all activity. And when they walk into my classroom, I want them to know that I will do whatever it takes to help them see that.


Does the Common Core Expect Too Much?

Rigor.  Yes, we have talked about this before.  Rigor. It is not only intellectually-based, but also a cultural idea that teachers must embody.  But are we—the government, the administrators, the teachers—pushing too hard?  Are we asking students questions they couldn’t possibly answer because their brains just aren’t ready yet? Are we asking too much?

Well, honestly, it doesn’t matter. Even if we are asking too much or pushing too hard, it doesn’t change the fact that the Common Core is here to stay for a while.  We need to adapt to its framework.

I teach 7th and 8th grade special education Language Arts.  Writing an argument is hard for my kids.  Like, really hard. It’s hard for most 7th and 8th graders.  So here is what I did to get the concept across and make it understandable for them.

I started with the whole.  I found an exemplar essay and, yes, I modified it.  (Of course I did.  That’s my job.) We read the argumentative essay together as a class.  We examined it after the initial read and talked about some features we saw such as the title, the author, the source, the quotation marks and the citations.  We discussed some difficult vocabulary in context (merely for the teachable moments—teaching vocab in context wasn’t my goal for this initial lesson), and we determined the overall topic.

Then we broke it down.  In the next lesson we looked at the essay in terms of…well, terms. The students were given general argumentative vocabulary terms such as claim, evidence, counterclaim, rebuttal, etc. They had to define the terms themselves and after that we came together and looked at the exemplar essay.  We identified and labeled examples of the terms and wrote some annotations in our own words: i.e. “This is the counterclaim because…” and “This is the claim, it is located at the end of the introduction. It states that…”

Then we had some lessons in isolation. We talked about what an argument really is, what its purpose is, and why arguments are important. We discussed reliable sources and where to find them.  We talked about vocabulary in context and how to determine the meanings of words when we don’t have any dictionary tools. We even practiced identifying counterclaims and rebuttals. There were also some lessons and teachable moments about grammar, mechanics, spelling, structure, and diction.

Then the students put it all back together. I gave the students a topic and two sources.  I did this for a few reasons.  First, this is essentially their initial encounter with argumentative writing and they needed a bit of direction.  Also, by controlling their topic and sources I could modify the articles so that the students could read them independently. (The students will use databases to find information later in the year, so I figured this would work well in the beginning of the year.) After reading the articles the students extracted evidence (with much help).  Then they wrote their argumentative essay on a graphic organizer that required them to fill in the information asked for: the introductory sentence, the claim, the topic sentences, the evidence, and the closing sentence.

Now, did they write an entire 4-5 paragraph essay?  No.  Did they type it up and hand it in so I could write comments all over it and hand it back? No.  But they did their best work and they wrote all the important parts of an argumentative essay.  They learned about argumentative writing and they put something on paper. That is a step in the right direction.  It wasn’t a perfect unit, not at all. But it was a good start. We took something that felt really overwhelming and difficult at first and we looked at it as a whole, we broke it down, and we put it back together.  We did it and we learned.  Is there a ways to go?  Absolutely, but what I did with my kids in that unit…that was success within the Common Core. 


So, About the Common Core…

Read the following blog about The Common Core:  

Some insights:
The common core offers skills that need to be taught through content. I can’t speak for history, I don’t work with those, but I can speak for language arts. I have always believed that content is the vehicle through which we teach skills. Yes, books are ‘good’ or enjoyable and there should be room for that conversation, but if you leave me with a knowledge of ‘that book was good and I liked it’ instead of how to determine why an author made a literary choice and how that affects a theme, the audience, etc. or how to cite information from that text, then I haven’t done you justice. I haven’t given you the education you deserve.