Saturday, November 13, 2010
Do Those Jeans Fit You?
These and other issues dictate the coming of a common curriculum in my district.
What do I dislike about a common curriculum? Students are different. Students have different needs.
Assuming that one work, like one pair of pants, can fit all students' needs is as ridiculous as the cowboy dog from Disney's Halloween pet parade. Those jeans don't fit that dog, nor are they engaging. So will one work, a common text, engage all students?
Intriguing how different schools in one school district truly operate differently. At my former high school, and the one before that, departments taught nearly everything in common: short stories, whole-class novels, plays. One school gave teachers a choice of which stories, novels and plays and other dictated certain works each quarter. We had curriculum maps (after the district brought in Heidi Hayes Jacobs) and we revisited or updated them each fall. One school eventually moved to requiring specific skills (standards/benchmarks) be taught each quarter, connected said skills to genres on the maps and left specific work choices to teachers. By that time though, so many teachers were mired in the familiarity of x, y or z, few changed the works they taught.
What do I like about teaching common works? Students talk to each other about English class and literature outside the double wide (my teaching portable). I know they do because I hear them when I'm standing on the porch in between classes. I also know they do because I have a contingent of students begging to read Speak. They've been talking to Mrs. Owens's students. They are amped up to read the book. Talk about an anticipatory set--they want to read!
I like that common works builds a reading culture at our school. It builds a common core of literature we can talk about at any grade level. It helps me know what my eleventh graders have discussed or dipped into before they arrive in A.P. language and composition. Yes, discussed or dipped into--they've been exposed to the literature. Shouldn't that be a bad word? If my A.P. juniors have never read Greek myth or delved into The Odyssey, they will miss many literary allusions in the texts we will read. That's just a fact and a difficult fact to take if you're a teacher who wants students to always have choices. But couldn't students get to the same common texts or ideas within a workshop setting which gave them choices?
Am I holding students back if we do a whole-class work? Or am I giving many students who wouldn't choose that particular work an opportunity to participate. Participate in a conversation--a conversation about big ideas, that began long before either of us were in school and will continue long after we are gone?
Nancy Atwell's presentation at Middle School Mosaic last year is still with me. I'm still thinking about how she railed against the whole-class read. I'm reading about it. As Cris Tovani says in her foreward to Sam Bennet's That Workshop Book*, "I [am] struck by how much I still [have] to learn. Oddly, it [is] comforting. Knowing that I [am not] there yet [feels] invigorating" (xi). The book is on my "to-buy" list for NCTE. I've read about it on blogs and at Heinemann, but I haven't held it in my hands yet or talked back to its text in the margins, so it's not quite mine yet.
Students have choices in my English class--but do they have enough choice? I don't think so. People tell me I am incredibly organized, but I haven't felt organized enough to jump into a full-time workshop. Isn't choice, choice of reading materials, after all one way to differentiate instruction? That's where I'm heading and this is what I'm thinking about.
*Bennett, Samantha. That Workshop Book: New Systems and Structures for Classrooms that Read, Write, Think. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2007.