Writing a Knowledge-Driven English Curriculum


A few years ago, we started to re-imagine reading instruction, but the thought of writing a curriculum never entered our minds. There were things we thought reading teachers could do differently (some of which Doug described in his 2016 book written with Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway, Reading Reconsidered), but we thought it would work to simply make the case to teachers directly. If we explained useful ideas and our case was convincing, teachers would apply the ideas, each in their own unique way, and better teaching would spread and evolve.

It turned out it wasn’t that simple.

Being knowledge-driven was a good example of “something we thought teachers could do differently.” Let’s say a class was reading Number the Stars, Lois Lowry’s novel set during the Nazi occupation of Copenhagen in 1943. A teacher who provided background knowledge on topics like the rationing of goods such as sugar and butter would help students to better comprehend key passages, like the one where the protagonist, Annemarie, scoffs dismissively at her little sister’s desire for a pink frosted cupcake. Understanding how rationing affected characters they had come to care about would cause students to comprehend the book more deeply and glean more knowledge for next time through their reading. They would come to understand both the psychology of rationing – the childish fixations of a younger sibling; the snappish responses of an older one – as much as the logistics – long-lines; distribution schedules; black market goods. They could apply this knowledge to other contexts in their future studies. Students would understand the text more deeply, in other words; but with the right reflections in the course of reading, they would also increase their knowledge far more quickly for next time. Add a dozen short articles on, say, resistance movements, how small children understand complex realities or how occupying armies interact with civilians, and suddenly not only would the book be a richer read, it could become a knowledge-generating machine. The knowledge might seem at first unique to the book’s setting but facts, understood deeply, don’t stay disconnected for long.

There were other things we believed about improving the teaching of English. For example:

  • Students should be comfortable with challenging texts and the idea of struggle. This would be one of the fundamental experiences of their lives at university and as professionals. They should have tools they use to attend to and unpack the written word when it proves complex. Proficiency with such tools can be improved through steady exposure and deliberate practice.
  • Reading a book should be a writing-intensive experience, and that writing should be a tool students use not just to express and justify existing opinions, but to discover what they think in the first And students should be taught to expand their syntactic control — their mastery of tools to help them write sentences that capture nuanced and sophisticated ideas — in a methodical way.
  • Reading a book is a social phenomenon. Reading a book together as a class means everyone laughing or gasping, together in a room, hearing and coming to understand both shared experience and how others may have viewed it differently. The power of this shared experience was a primary reason for the rise of written language as a source of enjoyment and wisdom rather than the mere transfer of technical information. Good classrooms could recreate that feeling of deeply shared experience. Perhaps if books are to survive in the age of the smartphone, they must.
  • Vocabulary is the single most important form of background knowledge and teaching it well requires constant opportunities to use and play with words in different settings, so good vocabulary instruction should start with, rather than end at, the definition.

Useful ideas, we hope, but even when teachers agreed with them, they struggled to implement them into their teaching. They weren’t able to go home and source short non-fiction passages about resistance movements in wartime, for example. Who knew where to find such an article; and once you found it, it needed editing – there were long digressions about less relevant topics, or part of the key information was in one article and part of it was in another. It took time teachers didn’t have, especially when preparing lessons after making dinner and just possibly putting their own children to bed.

Developing just the right writing prompts or the text-dependent questions that would allow for successful close reading of challenging books took time as well – more time than people teaching four preps and grading 150 papers had available on their lunch break when they were – whoops! – also supposed to be covering the lunch room. And it took expertise. Your 150th close-reading question is better than your 3rd, we have since discovered, especially when a team of colleagues gives you regular feedback on them.

Teachers rarely take courses in instructional design, Robert Pondiscio pointed out in a recent commentary. It’s a completely different skill from teaching a lesson, but one we assume teachers will naturally be able to do well. “It’s like expecting the waiter at your favorite restaurant to serve your meal attentively while simultaneously cooking for twenty-five other people – and doing all the shopping and prepping the night before. You’d be exhausted too,” Pondiscio writes.

It took us a long time to discover the wisdom in what Pondiscio was saying. Just because teachers believed in an idea didn’t make it feasible for them to do it. And just doing it didn’t guarantee anything about succeeding at it. We spent a lot of time talking about what kept teachers from having the lessons they wanted. Finally there was a meeting where someone said, “I’m just not sure there’s any way to do this without writing an actual curriculum with daily lesson plans and the like.”

After that, the room went absolutely silent.

One of the reasons the room went silent was that we’d seen a lot of the curriculums English teachers were being given – even in schools we loved and respected. Curriculum was done to teachers; it told them what to say and discouraged their own decision-making and precluded their own interests. Plans were unwieldy, dense documents, precisely scripted to make sure the teacher didn’t say the wrong thing. Emily had a colleague who burst into her room one morning, marked-up lesson plan in her hand. Twenty-two years old and desperate to do right by her students, she had spent hours memorizing the detailed lesson plan provided by the network. Like an actor’s script, her lesson plan was highlighted, annotated, dogeared. But her copy of the novel was blank. She was so busy trying to remember what she was supposed to say, she hadn’t had time to finish (or think much about) the book yet. How would she react when a student asked her something unexpected about a character or idea?

We wanted a curriculum that loved books and teachers, that supported them and could respond to where they were in their own teaching journey: question by question for a new teacher, with suitable autonomy and flexibility for a master. There had to be a way to help teachers without giving them a straitjacket. We were imagining something that gave teachers great lessons to use and that respected their knowledge even while supplementing it. If we wanted to help teachers approach teaching English differently, we’d have to make it so they were happy with the trade.

One of the ways we tried to do that was to rely on teachers like Emily as designers – people who had experienced a variety of approaches and would always see the lesson through the eyes of someone who had to stand up in front of 30 young people and bring it to life.

When Emily first started teaching, she remembers, her students often did everything she asked of them, but her classes still felt all wrong. Her pupils diligently annotated the texts they read and crafted written responses, memorizing five types of character inferences and eight steps to find the main idea. Anchor charts papered the walls; chants echoed down the hallway. Each of her lessons was organized around one transferable skill. The class would master it, and then (she hoped) they’d forever be able to infer a character’s motivation from their actions, dialogue, and thoughts. Over and over, text after text, they’d find a handy character and chart the relevant evidence, then dutifully slot the evidence into the rigid format of a paragraph response.

In discussion, Emily was taught to use a prompting guide, a spiral-bound document of questions aligned to each reading skill. The ideal discussion was one in which teachers asked no “text-specific” questions, the thinking being that universal prompts would be more broadly applicable to future texts. As student discussion veered off course, Emily would find herself flipping through the prompting guide, trying to diagnose the skill gap and find the perfect question to bring students back on track without asking about specific characters or plot points. In the midst of this process, the novel seemed to die. She and her students talked about the prompt and the evidence needed to answer it, but less often the book itself.

Their writing was just as troubling. It was painful to read. Tortured syntax, ideas crammed into strict frames supplemented by carefully copied but completely irrelevant evidence from the text.

The moments in class that felt electric were often accidental. One day, Emily and her students were reading the novel Chains, a beautifully written but challenging work of historical fiction set in 18th-century colonial America. In one scene, a servant attempts to explain the dynamics of the household to the protagonist, a young enslaved girl. About the master’s widowed aunt, the servant explains:

She’s old and rich, and owns land in three countries. The master hopes to inherit the lot when she dies, so they treat her like the Queen herself. To her face at least.

In their written responses, students had been struggling to make inferences about character motivation; asking, ‘What does the character want or need?’ led to blank stares. Out of ideas, Emily remembers closing the prompting guide and rereading the scene as a group, pausing to define the word ‘inherit’ and explaining whom the phrase “the Queen” alluded to. The resulting discussion was enthusiastic, accurate, and even fun. Students were able to live in the text in a different, richer way when they weren’t trying to force each scene into a tidy formula of Motivation + Obstacle = Conflict.

Curious about other approaches to teaching reading, Emily switched schools and, ironically, went from one flawed model to its opposite.

She began teaching at an arts-based, progressive charter school in Manhattan with a less structured approach to reading that she hoped would be more effective for students (and more sustainable for herself). The model was student- led and self-directed. The ideal lesson started on the carpet with Emily in the middle, occasionally reading aloud to students, who then created projects in groups based on the stories. While this model preserved the joy of reading and freed teachers and students from the pressure to support every argument with three pieces of evidence from the text, the emphasis on group work and self- directed learning had other costs.

The model valorized choice reading. Every week ended with “Library Friday,” an entire class period in which students read books of their choice, snuggled into bean bag chairs in the corner of the classroom. The thinking was that each child knows best what interests them, so students should be most motivated to read if they pursue their passions and select their own books. But it was hard to tell how much and how well each of 25 children was reading. And the model was strangely isolating. No one ever changed their opinion about a book because a classmate pushed them to see it differently. Kids rarely read something that they didn’t think they’d like at first but that moved and inspired them. It was a bit of an echo chamber; a monument to the idea that as long as kids were reading something, all was well. The students who already loved reading adored this time, devouring book after book. But for the students who didn’t love to read, or were easily distracted, or who struggled to read attentively, or who did not read on grade level but were embarrassed to choose easier texts, it was 60 minutes of idly flipping pages.

And project-based learning was fun, but was it teaching students to read deeply? Had a student really grappled with Island of the Blue Dolphins, for example, if their major project was to make their own version of Karana’s skirt out of paper feathers? Without a grounding in historical context to help them understand early contacts between native peoples and traders, without independent writing that caused them to think about loneliness and isolation, without a closer look at Karana’s decisions at the end of the book – the two marks she makes on her face, her acceptance of the western dress her rescuers make for her to wear – it was hard to say that students had fully read it.

The truth was, students had to write frequently to understand a text – and to be able to feel its full emotional resonance. They had to be able to unpack a thorny patch of resistant text instead of skipping over it. They got more things, unexpected things, out of shared reading but they had to learn to listen carefully during discussions. And hands-on experiences like role-playing or debating what a character should have done in a crucial scene were a lot more beneficial when they were grounded in knowledge (and therefore reality), so students weren’t guessing, often erroneously, about life in the 19th century. “I’d tell them to go away,” wasn’t an especially useful response to the arrival of the Russian traders in the opening scenes of Island of the Blue Dolphins, no matter how heartfelt. In other words, a funny thing happened when Emily started to design more rigorous and demanding activities for her students while also giving them knowledge to support their understanding: they liked reading more. A lot of the activities designed to motivate and engage students had the perverse effect of replacing the core act of reading. But there were moments that proved that reading, done differently, could be just as engaging and motivating as making posters or acting out key scenes.

Our first step was to build a model – a unit that tested all of the elements we wanted to include. For this, we used the book Esperanza Rising, a novel set equally in Mexico and California describing the journey of the daughter of a once wealthy rancher killed and dispossessed in the aftermath of the Mexican revolution as she migrates to the United States. It took us six tries to get our “knowledge organizer” – a summary of key background knowledge students would need to get the most out of the book – right. We included historical readings about the Mexican caste system. We included a study of Dorothea Lange’s photographs to understand the plight of the Okies who arrive later in the book but refined and tweaked the questions to create a wider range of writing experiences (e.g. “Write a page from Lange’s journal from the day she took this photo”). In asking students to unlock the symbolism of the produce for which chapters were named – figs, onions, roses – we provided background on how each was often used: people often referred to the layers of an onion, or to the fact that they made one cry in chopping them, or to the fact that onions were simple and cheap, often peasant fare. Did one of these meanings apply? Or something different.

Once our unit was built, we tried it out in the classrooms of four or five willing teachers. We observed and solicited feedback. They loved the vocabulary; the pacing was challenging. We guest-taught some lessons ourselves and then made changes, especially changes that teachers said would make the lessons easier to use. We developed support materials: an overview and a unit plan for each book; a curriculum guide to explain all the parts of the lessons; and we shot videos of quality implementation to show what ten minutes of vocabulary or close reading should look like so teachers could see and study models.

Our curriculum was always designed to be built around books – exploring and unpacking their layers, hearing the increasingly familiar mannerisms of an author’s voice and persistent echoes of a time period, getting the jokes and perceiving the subtle hints. These experiences form a relationship between students and books that shorter forms of text cannot replicate. It makes books an irreplaceable part of one’s schooling. Books get inside us and stay there. What’s more, the books themselves matter. Books like Animal Farm and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass matter, not just because people will allude to them at university, but because of the way deeply reading a book can change who you are. To “pass over” into the mind of another person, to understand their perspective intellectually and emotionally, is to live part of their experience and to “return enlarged,” the scientist and philosopher of reading Maryanne Wolf writes.

With that in mind, we set out to choose the books. (Our curriculum has poetry and short story units, but these are designed to be “book length,” i.e. about six weeks in duration.) We thought a typical teacher could teach five or six books really well in a year – in a way that modeled what it meant to become immersed in a text, that is. That meant that a book was a scarce and precious resource. Each choice had to be of immensely high quality. But what were the right six books, the ones that let students read books of historical significance but that also represented a diversity of perspectives? Were the right six books for 30 seventh graders in Dallas the same as those for seventh graders in New York or Fresno – or Liverpool for that matter? Or for two teachers right down the hall from one another in Dallas but with different interests and passions? How could we balance the benefits of choice with the benefits of shared knowledge — the idea that if you wanted to make connections across texts, you couldn’t get — very far unless there were books you could reliably assume all of your students had read. We called this an “internal canon”: each school needed a balanced selection of shared books that everyone had read and could talk about. We looked for books that were diverse, challenging, important, and inspiring. Books that gave rise to rich conversations about knowledge and that were challenging enough that students could take on the best the English language had to offer without fear. And books that, brought to life in the classroom, would be unforgettable. We decided early on to make the curriculum “modular” to give schools and teachers an array of books to choose from and let them each choose their ideal six. The right decision in one school need not be the right decision in another.

Our design process is simple but, some might say, backwards. We start each lesson as an adult reader, rereading the day’s section of the book. What’s happening on the page? What moments in the text make us sit up a little straighter, reach for that highlighter, raise our eyebrows? Where is the language doing something interesting? Then, we interrogate those responses — what tiny choices, what turns of phrase, what buildups of tension made that moment happen? Why this word and not another? How can we break down the layers of nuance and connection that created our experience as adult readers, and, through a series of questions, guide a room of 12-year-olds to a similar insight?

This process might sound obvious but the core idea – that the objective for each lesson starts with and is driven by the book – is the opposite of what many curricula do. They start with a learning standard and attempt to make the book support that goal. Over time, we felt, this risks losing touch with the reason one is reading the book in the first place. We wanted to let the book guide us, to write a curriculum by and for people who love books, meant to create more people who love books.

In our curriculum, we draw on technical literary vocabulary: passive voice, alliteration, intrusive narration. We dive deeply into historical context: what would a student need to know about the life of a Victorian-era London cab driver to understand this scene in The Magician’s Nephew? What makes a boarding school uniform so significant in Lord of the Flies? (And for that matter, what is a boarding school uniform? Or even a boarding school?) We track down obscure allusions and references, looking for that grain of context that snaps meaning into place: a text on spiritual chanting to help students understand the power of the community’s chant in The Giver, an article on dissociation and trauma to make sense of fragmented narration in Freak the Mighty.

It isn’t easy, and we’re still figuring it out, but we believe in planning this way because this process – notice, wonder, dig deeper, step back – brings a text to life. We strive for balance: open to an emotional experience but grounded in knowledge. Digging into the granular, word-by-word choices an author makes, while remaining connected to other moments within and across books. Sharing a text with the class but grappling in writing on our own.

This planning process takes time, but it saves time for teachers – an observation that highlights the difference between lessons planning (the process described above) and lesson preparation (the process of getting ready to teach a lesson no matter who has written it). We believe that time spent in preparation is the most valuable a teacher can spend. Great close-reading questions only truly work with a teacher who has considered which students she’ll ask which questions of, who will read each section, and what additional questions she’ll ask when students struggle. We’re happy to research and write an article on the role of the planet Venus in science fiction if that means a teacher has more time to read student writing about Ray Bradbury.

We imagine that the accumulation of units taught in this way will create the bank of knowledge students need in high school and beyond. And then an allusion in Lord of the Flies reminds you of an allusion you read in The Magician’s Nephew years earlier. The feeling of reading a dense, thorny text that resists you, that makes no sense, and then gradually peeling back the layers to find a truth or nuance you would have missed – that doesn’t leave you. Even being able to recognize and name: this is an allusion to something I don’t understand yet. The author is using a metaphor here but I’m not sure why. Imagine how approaching reading in this way can change the narrative for students. What power in being able to shift from “I’m not a good reader” to “I don’t know about this yet.” From “I can’t make inferences” to “What do I need to learn more about?” The mental process of establishing meaning first, then shifting to analysis is replicable across units and years. Normalizing rereading, valorizing research, but above all, putting the book back at the center of class.

Because in our curriculum, the book is the thing – not the objectives and standards and skills and terms surrounding it. If you’re reading with a teacher who breathes life into the text, if you take the time to read closely and someone helps you build knowledge of the parts that are unfamiliar, we believe you will end the unit a stronger reader than when you began it, more attuned to the subtle choices authors make, and better able to live in the next book you open.

Emily Badillo received a bachelor’s degree in English from Stanford University and a master’s degree in education from Hunter College. She has eight years of experience teaching middle and elementary schools students in New York City, and joined the Teach Like a Champion team in 2018. She is currently one of the writers working on TLAC’s reading curriculum.

Doug Lemov is the author of Teach Like a Champion (now in its 2.0 version), Practice Perfect and Reading Reconsidered. He’s a former English teacher and school leader and is now the managing director of a team at Uncommon Schools that provides professional development and curriculum tools for schools.

This article is based on a chapter from The ResearchEd Guide to the Curriculum: An Evidence-Informed Guide for Teachers (John Catt Educational, 2020, $19.95 160 pages).



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