Saturday, November 13, 2010

Do Those Jeans Fit You?

My English department decided to do common texts this year and ninth grade teachers chose 4 common texts: The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, Speak and Bronx Masquerade. We decided "to do", doesn't that sound funny? Who's doing in that sentence? What's the thinking behind studying works in common? At our school some of the thinking revolved around schedule changes and mobility rates. Students change classes at my school--throughout the year we have schedule changes for one reason or another. We also have a 30% mobility rate. Thirty percent of our students move, switch counties, shift apartments, and change schools.
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.


  1. Hmmm . . .I don't think a workshop classroom means there will be no common experiences. That's the beauty of agreeing "to do" common works. It was not agreed on the style or lessons for teaching. It was not agreed that everyone would read every page of those works. And I did think it was odd that 9th grade chose to do 4 common works instead of 2.

    But I think the common experience is important, and as you mentioned, can be powerful. We see that with write-a-palooza. In a school that is so large, it is nice for students and teachers to have a few common points. And I don't think those common works mean you can't do a workshop. Nor that students can't have choice or you can't differentiate.

    Of course, I know that we can teach with no common works, but having done it both ways, I do like having something common that most of the class can relate to. I think it helps in building community and extending that community beyond my classroom walls. (You know, if I had classroom walls anymore.)

  2. I agree with you, Lee. You know I've been thinking about this for a long time. I think we might have even talked about it last year at NCTE. Common experiences can be powerful, for teachers and kids.