Tag Archives: curriculum

What Should We Teach?

“I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.” —Sir Winston Churchill, Roving Commission: My Early Life

Background

Raphael's "The School of Athens"

With all the education reform going on in the U.S. right now, it’s sometimes hard to keep up. But one of the more disturbing changes is the emphasis on “core” content areas (specifically, math and science). As Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, wrote in a recent CNN article, this shift is not only doesn’t make sense; it may end up having a negative effect in the long run. Liberal arts education are what have made the U.S. one of the most innovative countries in the world, and as he says, “Innovation in technology companies, automobile design, medicine or food production will not come only from isolated work in technical disciplines. Effective vaccine delivery programs, for example, require technical expertise, but they also require cultural understanding, economic planning and ethical reasoning.” This is his “philosophy of education” – that students should learn a broad set of skills and habits in order to better the world around them.

When I was doing my Masters in Education program, one of the first activities we did was to define our own “Philosophy of Education.” We took an inventory of roughly 30 questions, and the scores helped us determine which of 5 educational philosophies we were: Essentialist, Perennialist, Progressivist, Social Reconstructivist, or Existentialist. As it turned out, I came up strongly Perennialist:

Perennialists believe that one should teach the things that one deems to be of everlasting importance to all people everywhere. They believe that the most important topics develop a person. Since details of fact change constantly, these cannot be the most important. Therefore, one should teach principles, not facts…The focus is primarily on teaching reasoning and wisdom rather than facts, the liberal arts rather than vocational training. (Wikipedia)

Now, I have long considered myself a classicist. From a young age, I have loved reading and studying about ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Israel. In high school, I enjoyed reading The Odyssey, Hamlet, and other older works much more than I enjoyed, say, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I simply found the stories more engaging and more interesting to think about. In college, those interests lead me to study philosophy, Shakespeare, and metaphysical poetry. Really, I agree with the Churchill quote at the start of this post – studying the ancients is as much a privilege as it is a necessity. So it should come as no surprise I came up as a perennialist – I did (and still do) believe that there are subjects and topics that ought to be taught because thinking about and discussing those topics make us better people.

For example, I think the subject of ethics and the nature of morality is an absolutely essential part of becoming a rational human being, and as such should be part of every educational curriculum in the world. We all have our own innate preconceptions about morality (largely based on that of our parents), but the majority of us likely have put little to no critical thought into the foundations of those ethical beliefs. It seems that this is the sort of thing that should be studied and discussed in an educational setting. Regardless of the conclusions students draw, there ought to be a place where they can safely study other perspectives, discuss and debate with their peers, and develop their own sense of morality.

What we do now

As an English teacher, I think there is a very clear place for this sort of discussion in the Language Arts classroom if we intentionally design it as such. Lately, as I have been reflecting on our curriculum and the content we teach, I see a lack of this sort of “great idea” thinking in what we currently teach students.

Right now, we teach 5 literature units in 9th grade English: The Foreshadowing, a Reader’s Workshop focused on the Hero’s Journey in a selection of YA literature (such as The Alchemyst and House of the Scorpion), Poetry (with a focus on forms such as odes and sonnets), Romeo and Juliet, and an introductory Film as Literature unit focused on genre and basic film elements. It can be a fun curriculum to teach, but there are times when it feels as though our units lack real substance, real depth of purpose. Primarily, we are focused on using the content to teach skills that will be assessed on state tests, so rather than go into great detail on the moral dilemmas and choices faced by Friar Laurence, we focus on whether students can use context clues to interpret vocabulary – certainly a valuable skill, but lacking that “human” value.

Unfortunately, some of our existing units simply don’t allow for extended discussions of philosophical ideas like morality, existence, or knowledge. Novels like The Alchemyst make for good reading and for talking about the Hero’s Journey, but there isn’t a lot of room for discussing those deeper issues.

What We Could Do (My Ideal 9th Grade English Course)

Rodin's "The Thinker"It’s one thing to raise a problem or complain about something, and that’s not my goal here. This whole discussion is the byproduct of some reflection on myself and my teaching – namely, what would I teach if I had the freedom to teach whatever I want?

Now, I must note that this discussion is focused mainly on traditional 9th grade English/Language Arts content – things that are taught in many classrooms worldwide. Thus, as much as I want to, I will not include much in the way of philosophical writing in the curriculum. Rather, since this is my “ideal” course, I can assume students are already discussing these writings in the imagined “Introduction to Philosophy” course, which would cover everything from Plato to Descartes to Kant and would, of course, be mandatory.

With that caveat, I think it only makes sense to begin with the course focus. And since it is something I already teach (and enjoy teaching), I think the easiest focus for me would be to center the course on the Hero’s Journey archetype. In all likelihood, I would borrow ideas (and probably some materials) from Dana Huff over at Huffenglish, who has shared numerous materials, ideas, and anecdotes about her own Hero’s Journey course.

As we started the year, we would likely look at the concept of the Hero’s Journey as a pattern. We would start with the first chapter from a great book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which is titled “Every Trip is a Quest…Except When It’s Not.” I would take excerpts from Joseph Campbell’s work – including his interview with George Lucas – and we would put together a map (or perhaps a board game?) of the journey that would remain with us throughout the year. This introductory unit would likely be when we discuss heroic traits, as well, such as courage.

From there, we would move through different eras of history, studying the literature poetry of those eras. Where better to start than with the original heroes of ancient Greece? It would be difficult to choose between several smaller myths – such as Hercules, Theseus, etc. – and Homer’s Odyssey, but I would likely go with the latter because it is both journey and poem. We might look at Hercules or another hero to compare with Odysseus, but the Odyssey would be the primary text. It is also a good place to discuss concepts such as loyalty and integrity.

After Odysseus, I would probably move on to Beowulf – something I have never taught, but a work that fits both the focus of the course and is an important historical text. We would be able to incorporate elements of Norse mythology, discuss ideas such as responsibility and sacrifice, and would also give us a good comparison text for the Odyssey.

From Beowulf, we would jump to Shakespeare, and I would be faced with an intriguing prospect – teaching Romeo and Juliet as a hero’s journey. It may be a good chance to talk about the antihero, look at the steps of the journey from a different perspective (the Return Home sure looks different), and still incorporate the best introduction to Shakespeare I can muster. Thematically, I love discussing the ideas of fate and free will, as well as love and choices when we read Romeo and Juliet. The play would, of course, be accompanied by a look at the poetic traditions of Shakespeare’s time, including the sonnet.

A side note: One alternative I have lately considered inserting here is to do some reading on the American Revolution. I would be curious what stories or novels others might use to discuss this time period in literature classes.

From there, we may move to the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, including my personal favorite, “The Cask of Amontillado.” We would talk about the short story as a genre, the strange version of the journey archetype (and the antihero) in some of Poe’s works, and could look at how poetry was quickly evolving during Poe’s lifetime. Poe also gives us a good jumping off point to discuss death, justice, and humanity in great detail.

At this point, I would want to move into the 20th century and read a novel, though I am completely torn about what novel to choose. I definitely want to juxtapose the novel with poets like Robert Frost and modernist poets, so early- to mid-20th century would be ideal. I would also like to use the novel to discuss war, morality, and/or freedom. I’m really quite open to suggestions and would love to hear suggestions.

Finally, I would end the way my 9th grade class currently ends – with an introductory “Film as Literature” unit. We do a Reader’s Workshop style unit where students select a genre, watch 2 films in that genre, and use those films (as well as outside films) to discuss both genre and visual literacy elements. Not only is this a great way to end the year, but is a very solid look at how the medium of storytelling has evolved, especially looking in hindsight at the growth from epic poem to play to novel to movie.

So that’s my dream curriculum. Obviously it’s just a dream at this point, but I would love to get some feedback – what would you do differently? What ideas do you have? What is your dream curriculum?

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Redesign and Refocus

I’ve been noticing as I try to incorporate more visual components to this blog that the theme I’ve chosen simply does not lend itself well to doing so. The space allowed for text and images is just too small. Because of this, I’ve decided to begin a complete redesign of this blog, beginning with the theme and eventually working my way to refocusing the content itself. So if the site looks a little weird over the next week or two, there’s a reason. Hopefully the result will be a better experience for all those who visit and/or subscribe to this blog.

As I considered doing this, I realized how similar this idea is to what we are currently undertaking in our department – a fairly complete redesign and documentation of our curriculum. In fact, we’ve completely abandoned three of the units we’ve done the last two years and are designing new units for next year based around the habits of mind and completely integrating technology. Hopefully the result of this redesign and refocusing in our curriculum will create a better learning experience for all those who are stuck in our classrooms.


Reteaching

After grading 5 class sets of 3 different assignments over the last week, I discovered a disturbing trend – nearly all of my students were falling into the D range on each assignment. Sadly, the “outliers” were up in the B range. Obviously there is a problem when this happens, and my interpretation of the numbers is that the problem happened on my end. My reasoning: the bell curve. At right you see a normal bell curve. In my A Bell Curveopinion, the center of the curve is “average,” which I feel should be in the C+/B- range. In a normal situation, there will be a few points well above that, and a few points well below that, but the majority of students will earn grades near the average.

In the case of these assignments, the bulk of the curve was down on the lower end, thus making it look distorted. This indicates to me that it was less a problem with students and more a problem with the assignment and/or my teaching of the content and skills involved.

What’s the point? Simple: I need to reteach some of the skills that were assessed in those assignments. So I’m planning on conferencing with each student about their assignments, and spending some time reteaching comparing/contrasting, and how to write about theme and conflict. I had a talk with my students about this and they clarified a couple of things for me, emphasizing that they felt the same thing about their assignments – that they didn’t really know how to approach certain aspects that happened to be heavily assessed. Ergo, time to reteach.

What is interesting to me is that this arises as our district, and particularly our English department, is engaged in fairly heated conversations about “documented” curriculum. Without getting into how “documented” has been defined, it got me thinking. If this were a move toward a “scripted” curriculum, where teachers are expected to teach the same lesson each day, how would we make room for something like this? What sort of modifications would we be able to make in order to accommodate an obvious lack of learning?

If our “documented” curriculum were to become a “scripted” or “mandated” curriculum, how would we ensure that the students who don’t develop a particular skill are able to demonstrate mastery? It seems that if it’s a day-to-day curriculum, this is no longer an option.

Anyone out there work with a scripted curriculum? What do you do (or can you do) when the students don’t “get” the content knowledge or the skills you assessed?

(photo credit: “Bell Curve” by vlasta2


Six Great Ideas – Journal 2

“Six Great Ideas,” by Mortimer J. Adler – Chs. 3-4

QUOTES:

  • “Precisely because it can be everybody’s business, it should be part of everyone’s general education…Only by the presence of philosophy in the general schooling of all is everyone prepared to discharge the obligations common to all because all are human beings. Schooling is essentially humanistic only to the extent that it is tinged with philosophy-with an introduction to the great ideas.”
  • “If philosophy is everybody’s business, then not only should everyone be able to use these words correctly in a sentence when the standard of correctness is merely grammatical, but also everyone should be able to engage, to some extent, in intelligent discourse about the object of thought under consideration.”
  • “These three ideas [liberty, equality, and justice] are the ones we live by in society. They represent ideas which a considerable portion of the human race has sought to realize for themselves and for posterity.”
  • “I turn now to the other trio: truth, goodness, and beauty. These three ideas are the ones we judge by. Unlike the ideas we live by (liberty, equality, and justice), these three function for us in our private as well as in our public life.”
  • “A great idea is almost always one about which challenging questions have been raised. The great philosophical questions are, for the most parts, questions about the great ideas.

THOUGHTS:

  • On the first quote: I’m encouraged that Adler seems to agree with me (or is it vice versa?) that philosophy should be a required part of the K-12 curriculum. I learned more Thinking Skills and Habits of Mind in my philosophy courses than in all the rest of my education combined. It is utterly necessary to develop such skills just to read philosophy texts, let alone discuss them or write about them. And there is plenty of precedent for the success of philosophy in high schools – look at the International Baccalaureate program, which offers credit for philosophy.
  • Following a discussion on vocabulary and the observation that the six ideas he will discuss are truly simple words, Adler notes something interesting: that the words are simple grammatically, but very complex and layered as “objects of thought.” This seems to be true of so many different words – easy to learn how to use them, but difficult to truly understand what they mean.
  • As Adler concludes the introductory section of the book, he previews his discussion of the two groups of great ideas: the judging ideas (truth, beauty, goodness) and the acting ideas (liberty, equality, justice). Of these, he says that the greater set is actually the former. Truth, beauty, and goodness, according to Adler, are the dominant trio of ideas because they affect the acting ideas. For example, without a concept of goodness, ideas like liberty and equality and justice are just objects of thought. It is the notion that they are good ideas that makes them so valuable to us. Not surprisingly, this is very similar to Plato’s theory that the Form of the Good is the highest of the forms and illuminates all other ideas.
  • On the last quote above, it reminds me of one of my favorite truths about philosophy: Doubt everything. Doubt leads to questions. Questions lead to answers. Answers lead to truth. Without some sort of honest doubt, no great theory (or idea) would ever have been posited. If Martin Luther King, Jr. hadn’t doubted the goodness of segregation, the world would have been a much different place. This is why I continue to advocate doubt as one of the strongest habits of mind (even if it doesn’t get mentioned as such).

Reteaching

It’s always a tough day when I have 5 classes worth of papers to grade, only to find out 1/5 of the way through that the students didn’t “get it.”

I gave students some questions about conflict and theme after reading the Vonnegut story, “Harrison Bergeron.” As I’ve been grading them, I realized that many students did not understand theme or how to identify theme. Of course, being the progressive, students-first teacher that I am striving to be, this means that instead of completely forward, I need to reteach the concept of theme to my students. This means that I’ll have to find time in the next week or two to address the topic in a new way. After that, I’ll try to reassess (similar questions – different text) and see if they “get it” a little better.

On a brief side note, it’s nice to know that my administration and colleagues will be completely supportive of this. It’s also nice to know that my students will be able to go back and get better at something they didn’t get and I won’t be falling behind on a scripted curriculum.


Teachers of Philosophy

One of my lesser-known passions is the study of philosophy. Along with English, I double majored in Philosophy in college. I student-taught in an International Baccalaureate Philosophy class made up of 11th and 12th graders. I wrote my Master’s Thesis on methods for developing critical thinking skills in high school students, and one of the key methods I discussed was the study of philosophy. I work in a district that values thinking skills and habits of mind above nearly everything else.

I’m still a young, novice teacher, but one of my longer-term goals (alongside the goals mentioned in the last post) that I will begin to work toward this year is to find a place in our curriculum (currently, at the 8/9 levels) for some sort of philosophy course. I believe deeply that there needs to be a place for students to read about and discuss huge issues like knowledge, ethics, and humanity. I believe that the lack of this sort of study in K-12 education is at least in part responsible for the lack of knowledge, morality, and empathy that we see in our society. Needless to say, I value the study of philosophy a little more than most.

Obviously, there are some complications in getting a course like this approved, not limited to dealing with graduation requirements and credits, curriculum development, and how to categorize the course (social studies? language arts? elective?). However, it’s still a bit early to be worrying about these things.

What I am wondering at this point of my process is simple. I have two questions:

1. What is “philosophy” to you? Is that worth studying alongside literature, mathematics, history, and science?

2. If you teach philosophy in a K-12 school, how is your class structured? How are the credits arranged? What was the process of getting the course approved?


Do Teachers Just Want to Teach?

A post today on Seeking Shared Learning got me thinking…a lot. I don’t do it often, but I thought I’d post my own comments on this topic and get some feedback:

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I think you’ll find that most teachers, particularly at the secondary level, would disagree. I find it ironic that this post was inspired by the “Dangerously Irrelevant” blog, because I (and many others I work with) would feel that is exactly what our teaching would become if we lost all control over curriculum. When teachers have no control over what they teach, the content will inevitably become stale, stagnant, and unresponsive to the needs of the diverse individuals we call students. It also eliminates the option to experiment with new ideas, new instructional methods, and even new technologies. And if our goal is to focus on 21st century skills (or Outcomes and Indicators) rather than content, why is it so crucial to teach the exact same content across the board?

When many of the secondary teachers in our district (and, I can confidently say, all of the teachers in my department) read something like this, and when we hear about curriculum binders with scripted lessons, we worry that we will lose all of the things mentioned above. And for good teachers who are committed to providing their students the best possible education they can provide, this is a scary thing. To remove teachers’ ability to be creative and innovative seems to contradict the goals of our district – in fact, teacher innovation seems to be what has made this district so successful. We may also find that when teachers lose the ability to create and innovate in their own classrooms (which most of us share in with our colleagues), they will seek out a place where they will be allowed to do so.

All that said, there is certainly a balance to be sought after. Students in Class A should certainly have the same opportunities to learn as students in Class B – the same skills being developed, the same opportunities to use technology, and so on. There are many positive learning experiences that we can all participate in. There are many other ways to find consistency without having T&L mandate curriculum to teachers – even consistency within a grade level and a department is still consistency, and it is something that can be achieved by allowing professionals, who are extensively trained in their profession, to collaborate with each other and reach a consensus of their own. Does this require more time and effort? Absolutely. But there are a lot of reasons this is not an easy profession, and we knew this when we signed up.

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For those that are currently in the classroom, do you find yourself agreeing with this, or would you prefer more standardized curriculum?