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?


Michael Bloomberg Gives it To Us Straight Part 1: “It’s too hard for your kid, lady? Think about what they’re gonna do when they can’t get a job. That’s hard.”

Michael Bloomberg weighed in on the Common Core and all the hype surrounding it concerning its difficulty.  (The quote from the title came from a radio show he was on recently—go here to read the short article about it.) He addressed the complaints many parents have about the Common Core being too hard for their children. He said, and I repeat, “It’s too hard for your kid, lady?  Think about what they’re gonna do when they can’t get a job.  That’s hard.”

That is a good, hard dose of reality.  And I like it.  Bloomberg goes on about how testing is a part of life and how we all need to get used to it because kids are always being ‘tested’ whether it’s in school or in life, and I can’t say that I agree with those quips, but my opinions on testing are for another post.  This one is about how teachers and administrators should work within the Common Core in order to make it work for our kids.  (A popular topic here at the Education Conversation.)

I have made it clear that I have a complicated relationship with the Common Core.  It’s academically based, and I like that, but some of the standards are superfluous and need serious revision.   I have also made clear that our jobs as teachers are not to complain about this new mandate, but to embrace it.  When you think about it, what else can you do?  You can quit teaching if you’d like, but I’m not going to do that. I get frustrated, of course, but I genuinely love teaching kids.  Well that’s out.  So, like so many other living things in this world, I will adapt to my surroundings and make them work for me (and my kids). That means making the Common Core work in my classroom.  (It’s hard.  I am a special educator and the CCSS don’t exactly ‘fit’ what my kids need.) But no more excuses.   No more complaining.

First, Bloomberg is right.  The hardships of high school are nothing compared to life outside of it.  Our kids are going to face a lot of difficulties, and they need to be resilient both academically and otherwise. (I am referring to those soft skills that keep coming up lately.  Keep on the lookout for Part 2.)  When our students complain that school is too hard, we teachers get annoyed.  “You have no idea what it’s like out in the real world,” we tell them. So how do we get them to stop complaining? Yell at them?  Tell them they are weak and immature and will never appreciate their education until it’s too late? Tell them that they will never grow up to be anything?  (And I have heard teachers say these things to students’ faces.  Can’t say I agree or disagree, but I can say it makes my stomach turn a little to know young people are being bombarded with teacher negativity.) Sorry, all.  There’s only one way to make the complaints stop—or at least decrease their frequency—and it’s you.  Yes, you.  (Well, caveat: it’s not always you, but it starts with you.) It’s your responsibility as the teacher to break down the standards (unpack them, if you will, let’s maintain the proper jargon) and determine what skills students need in order to master them.  It’s your responsibility to teach them the academic skills they need to succeed.  It’s your responsibility to build upon the skills you have already taught. It’s your responsibility to show them how you are teaching them so they can participate in their own education.  It’s your responsibility. It’s your job.  You’re the teacher.  No more complaining about the CCSS because they are ‘hard’.  Make these standards work for your kids!

Now…will this magically make the complaints disappear?  No.  But it’s a step in the right direction.  You are showing them that learning, like any process, takes time and patience; that there is a foundation that needs to be laid and building blocks that need to be stacked on top.  Show them. Help them. Work for them. They are your clients. Be on their side.  And when you have done all that you can do, then you can tell them to suck it up and get working because nothing in life is easy.  So, if you haven’t stopped your complaining and you haven’t put in the work necessary to make the CCSS effective, don’t expect your kids to stop complaining and suck it up either.


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.