This year has been a year of unofficial professional development. I’ve had to develop not one but three new curricula mostly from scratch. All of the things I took for granted in the past were suddenly challenges: what books should I teach? Well, crap. I haven’t read most of the books available in the book room. How do I teach advanced writing skills? What do I do when my seniors still don’t understand the difference between literary analysis and plot summary? Needless to say, I made a lot of mistakes.
But mistakes are good. They are humbling, and grounding, and extremely educational. I learned that I need to go back to the standards, something that I thought I was doing at my old school but, as I learned this year, I was lazy about it then. I kind of knew the standards, but I really knew what I wanted to teach my students. Then I wondered why they weren’t getting higher scores on their standardized assessments at the end of the year. And, I’ll admit that I didn’t look at the standards as closely as I should have this year either. I was overwhelmed, and I was in survival mode. But today, I am focusing on my learning, not on my mistakes.
I’m moving to the ninth grade next year. Officially, my job is to realign the ninth grade curriculum by bridging the communication gap between the freshman teachers and the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth-grade teachers. I’m expected to help the freshman teachers take the awesome things that they are already doing individually and channel their ideas into a collaboratively designed new curriculum that aligns with the new standards, the new PARCC assessment, and the English department goals.
After spending a considerable amount of time developing my English 11, English 12, and AP Literature curricula this year, and after developing the first two of units for my English 9 curriculum, I’ve realized that my original method for curriculum mapping was missing one key component: I didn’t fully understand the standards. I looked at the standards as separate entities requiring separate lessons instead of as connected skills. I treated the CCSS document as a checklist instead of as a roadmap. Once I “covered” a standard, check! I was done! No need to cover that again!
I forgot that the standards are end of year goals, and they need to be addressed constantly. They also were not designed to be taught in isolation. For example, Anchor Standard RL 1 requires students to cite textual evidence to support analysis of a text. To truly achieve student mastery, teachers need to expect their students to use that skill any time they complete an assignment targeting RL 2 (analyzing theme), RL 3 (analyzing characters), RL 4, (analyzing words and phrases), RL 5 (analyzing authors choices), and RL 6 (analyzing point of view) – and those are just the Reading Literature standards.
Any time students write anything, they should be expected to pull textual evidence, which means they should always be writing about a text. Every time students are expected to interact with a text, the specific tasks should target one of the five standards categorized as Key Ideas and Details and Craft and Structure. The two standards under Integration of Knowledge and Ideas are much more specific and would best be taught using specific lessons, but even these lessons require students to cite textual evidence (RL 1), and they can easily be connected to RL 2-6. Basically, everything the students do in class should target multiple standards.
In order to prepare for next year and become better acquainted with the 9th grade standards, I broke out my handy-dandy notebook and outlined the standards, intentionally moving parts of one standard to another to make connections and create a unit framework. Observe:
The CCSS Writing standards are on the top, and my simplified notes are on the bottom. As you can see, I’ve narrowed down the specific skills the students will need to learn. You will also notice that I’ve arranged the key skills to align with the specific text type. Simply by looking at my notes, I now know that I need to have my students write at least three large texts this year: one argumentative text, one expository text, and one narrative text. Suddenly, the standards seem much more manageable.
Woah! Light bulb alert! The standards list the most important skills first, and the least important skills last. Don’t believe me? Think about the PARCC assessment. Every question on the ELA PARCC assessment targets R.1: using textual evidence to support claims. Appendix A specifically states that Argumentative Writing (W.1) is the most important of all three types of writing (skip ahead to page 24 for Common Core’s explanation). As for Language, L.1 requires students to “demonstrate command of the conventions of Standard English when writing or speaking,” and SL.1 focuses on the students’ ability to collaborate and communicate with any person in any situation.
So, when preparing students for high-stakes assessments (especially if they are expected to pass a standardized test to graduate), prioritize the standards listed first over the standards listed last.
It isn’t enough to simply break down the standards into manageable pieces, however. The next step is to connect the Writing standards to other parts of the curriculum. I did this by connecting each piece of writing to the texts my students will read next year: The Odyssey by Homer, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I know that I want to start the year with writing in order to establish good habits from day one, and I also know that the students will need something text-based to write about (this targets the RL 1 standard as soon as possible). From what I can remember about my high school experience with The Odyssey, the students will also need some prior knowledge about Greek gods and goddesses before tackling the text, so they’ll need to read some informational texts and conduct some research (Ooh! Reading Informational Texts, here we come!).
The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Teach writing habits and writing structure by writing an expository text on Greek gods and goddesses. Since this is the first expository text I will expect the students to write, the focus will be on basics such as sentence structure and purpose, paragraph structure (I use the eleven-sentence paragraph format for many reasons, which I plan to explain in a later post), and Standard English. If you refer back to the Common Core State Standards, you’ll see that lessons on paragraph structure target RL. 1, W.2a, W.2b, and W.2c, and lessons on sentence structure target L.1a, L.1b, L.2a, and L.2b. When trying to pound the nitpicky specifics of grammar and mechanics into students’ heads, I’ve found that it is best to teach the lessons after the students have realized that they need it, not before. By creating the need, you create relevance. And by creating relevance, you create engagement. Engagement leads to learning. Bam.
But wait! I’m not done with The Odyssey! In fact, my hypothetical students and I haven’t even started reading it yet! Now that I’ve started building proficiency toward the expository Writing standards and the Reading Informational Texts standards (and notice that I said started, not accomplished), I can segue into another standard: Reading Literature.
I’m going to pause for a minute to ask you a question, dear reader. Why do we teach literature? Seriously. Take a moment to ponder this question. Why do we insist on making kids read stories that were written however many years ago? Why read poetry, or drama, or any other works of fiction? If you don’t have an answer to these questions, you had better figure it out before you make the kids read a text, and that answer should go beyond “because the district makes me do it” or “because it is in the standards.” If you cannot articulate the purpose for reading a specific text, your unit will be unfocused and pointless.
Why am I going to read The Odyssey with my students? Several reasons: because it provides insight into the unchanging human condition across cultures and eras; because it is alluded to in many of the texts the students will be expected to read before graduation; because it is an excellent mentor text for students to use to analyze various narrative techniques; because it teaches the students valuable lessons about their own lives; because reading strong writing teaches students to become better writers; blah blah blah. I could go on and on.
While reading The Odyssey, we’re going to focus mostly on the Reading Literature standards – but I’ll assess my students’ progress on those standards mostly through writing, which means that in addition to teaching the Reading Literature standards, I’ll also have to teach Writing standards. Endlessly. How do I possibly do that in the little time available for this unit? By teaching reading through writing, and by assessing students’ analysis of craft and structure through writing.
Most of the big important Reading Literature standards require the students to analyze technique: How is the theme developed? How are characters developed? How does the diction impact the reader, the mood, the tone, the setting, etc.? How does the structure create suspense or surprise? How does the point of view relate to concepts outside of the text? These are excellent questions to ask the students because they are all standards-based, and they would make excellent exit tickets, discussion questions, one-pager topics, and bell-ringers. Notice how every question will require students to pull textual evidence to support their claims. Oh, and they need to avoid plot summary while answering these questions, because the standards require analysis, another skill that requires explicit instruction (check out my post on teaching analysis here).
So, as we’re reading The Odyssey, I need to provide lessons on:
- Specific techniques used by writers
- How to analyze texts for those techniques
- How to write about the significance or impact of those techniques
- How to avoid plot summary while writing a textual analysis
- Writing strong sentence structure and paragraph structure (because let’s face it, kids need constant exposure to proper sentence structure and paragraph organization).
Oh, and I need to make sure I’m preparing the students for the summative assessment as well, which has been on my mind while planning the entire unit. Whew. That’s a lot.
Speaking of, on to the summative assessment. After carefully studying various techniques, the students need to put these techniques into practice by writing their own narrative poem. I will expect them to use the same techniques they found in The Odyssey, but requiring them to create something ups the ante, nudging some students to proficiency and others to mastery. Furthermore, it also targets the narrative Writing standard and reinforces the standards taught while reading.
Geez, and I haven’t even created my daily plans yet. That comes last.
When designing curriculum, you have to know where you’re going before you can possibly know how to get there. In fact, that is true for any type of leadership position. After all, isn’t that what good teachers do? Lead their students through a year’s worth of learning opportunities?
When planning curriculum, it is tempting to start with strategy. Teachers have to do something with their kids every day, so they are first tempted to ask themselves “what will I actually do with my students during this unit?” and “what will daily instruction look like?” instead of “what is the point of teaching this unit?”
I’ll say it again, you have to know where you’re going before you can possibly know how to get there.
Don’t plan the daily details until you know the structural details. You cannot fill a house with furniture before you’ve built it.
But once you have planned the structural details, you can use Marzano and AVID strategies to create daily plans. You can decide when to use technology, when to hold a Socratic Seminar, and how to balance individual, small group, and whole class activities. You can add time for routine lessons and tasks such as notebook checks and unit-based vocabulary quizzes.
Finally, you need to make sure the students are aware of the standards you’re teaching. I do this by writing unit objectives and daily learning objectives on the board and by listing the targeted standards on rubrics, project descriptions, and my class website. I even have the standards hanging in my classroom so I can point to them during lessons.
Basically, when planning curriculum at the beginning of the year, follow these seven steps:
- Break down the Writing standards. I start with writing because most standardized assessments test students reading comprehension and analysis through writing.
- Connect to anchor texts. Basically, your summative assessments for each literature unit should be one of the three types of writing, if not a combination of all three.
- Break down the Reading standards. Make connections! How can the Reading standards support the Writing standards?
- Use “smaller” Reading standards to create text-based writing tasks. Each task’s prompt should target one of Reading Literature standards 2-6. These could be bell ringers, one-pagers, discussions, exit-tickets, etc.
- Design writing lessons connecting smaller Language and Writing standards to reading tasks. This is where you can create mini-lessons to tackle the tedious rules of Standard English, discuss diction, practice embedding quotes, or reinforce sentence structure and paragraph structure.
- Create daily plans using technology, AVID Strategies, and Marzano Strategies. Make sure you’re communicating the learning goals to the students, preparing them for the summative assessment, and checking their progress for proficiency!
- Fill in routine lessons and tasks. Design vocabulary quizzes to reinforce reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition, plan time for notebook checks, etc.