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Choice and Curriculum: How a Coach and a Teacher Negotiated a Peace Between Two Superpowers

Last week, in my role as department chair, I was showing one of our new teachers the various titles available for 11th graders. We were looking for possible book club books to accompany a larger unit she was developing on the American identity.

“How do you do it all?’ she blurted out. “ How do you fit it all in?”

I looked up. I could see she was overwhelmed, but I needed clarification as to precisely what she was referring to so I could better assist her. “Tell me a little more,” I said.

“Well, how do you encourage students to choose their own books and fit that in with the anthology and the writing?” she replied.

I was happy for the question, because she’s not exactly a “new” teacher; she’s newly back to the profession, new to our district, and new to the idea of incorporating student-chosen texts as more than just sidebar independent reading. This question tells me she is nervous but wants to try, and that’s enough of an opening for me.

She’s not alone in trying to address both choice and curriculum. Many of us, inspired by the work of Penny Kittle, Jeffrey Wilhelm, Kylene Beers, and others, are working hard to take advantage of the increased motivation that comes with the power students feel when they are given choice. When we witness this uptick of advocacy firsthand in students, we know what we are seeing is the tangible manifestation of the desired “engagement” and “agency” we want in and for them. It’s exciting to know these are states of being our learners can actually realize, and that we have the power to make it possible.

This work is not easy, though. It upends the traditional model, challenging many of the norms that have guided the field for a long time:

  • Teacher-determined topics

  • Teacher-chosen texts

  • Teacher-focused discussions

  • Teacher-led lessons

In the traditional model—the model of most English classrooms— teachers have all the agency. They make all the rules, have the first and last word. It’s time for learners to have greater agency, and here is how this new teacher and I designed it. The gist: it comes down to using a new mindset to do a lot of good old-fashioned planning.

The Goal

My colleague wanted her students to have a full length work to accompany the shorter pieces from the anthology for the Age of Realism and Transcendentalism. She also wanted her students to start an argument paper. She wanted her students to come away from the experience knowing that they had been able to bring a lot of themselves to the table.

Our Planning Steps:

1. Give students some degree of choice as writers. We decided to use the argument paper as a tool to help students synthesize varied readings. They could work toward an answer to an inquiry question of their own, perhaps along the lines of drawing connections between these literary worlds in the effort to understand the historical and cultural roots of contemporary American ideology.

2. Use a calendar to plan. We sketched an outline of how to manage this. I always find that a calendar is a helpful visual organizational tool to map things out. So, we pulled out a calendar and made some determinations for the course of about one month under the theme of “American Values.”

3. Build in some choice of books. She would choose six to seven titles to bring in for students to “shop” from; they’d select their top three choices and she would make groups of no more than four based on their choices.

4. Give reading groups empowering decisions. Student groups would determine their reading schedule for three Fridays of discussions. The final Friday would be reserved for the ending, and planning for their presentations. The presentations would convey the values held by the characters and author, and how those values are an outgrowth of the anthology pieces.

5. Be ready with some scaffolding to help the reading groups with lengthy discussions. As Fridays would be reserved for book club discussion days, she felt that her students might need some structure to increase their focus over a full period, and we noted that there were many options, especially if students were given leeway to identify possibilities. Some options include creating categories for discussions based on story elements, writing style, significant quotes, motifs, allusions, author’s purpose, conflicts and controversies. Groups could start on their own, and ask for help if needed, and she’d be ready.

6. Plan Monday-Thursday around the anthology texts. The teacher would tackle the shorter texts in the anthology—works by Ben Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, and others which students might have difficulty comprehending —as whole-class texts to create a framework and build a common foundation for discussions and later analysis.

7. Incorporate “in-context” lessons on grammar and style. She would explore these concepts in a way designed to foster knowledge, identification, practice, and application. For the sake of ease here, I’ll use semi-colons for complexity of expression as an example. Students will record each step in their journals:

  • Knowledge - using the anthology text as a mentor text, show and explain the semi-colon use;

  • Identification - students find examples of semi-colon use in their book club book;

  • Practice - students look at their most recent writing, copying either examples of semi-colons used properly, or sentences that might be combined with a semi-colon, and then revise accordingly;

  • Application - students would be required to use semi-colons in the argument paper, annotating this usage prior to submission.

8. Utilize collaboration as a bridge between group and individual work. For the presentations, groups would conduct research collaboratively (GoogleDocs is amazing for this!), and present together. They’d then have the sources needed to write individual argument papers focused on the relevance of their chosen text.

​With these eight steps, a teacher can manage a number of things that seem to conflict with student-choice:

  • Curriculum topics / texts that come with labeled courses (i.e., 11th grade English - American Literature);

  • Consistency in complexity of common texts;

  • Student agency in selecting a companion text, directing a reading schedule, designing a presentation, organizing a written argument;

  • Embedded differentiation.

Using an overarching theme or concept to guide the exploration is a helpful tool in drawing connections between teacher-chosen texts and student-chosen ones. This eases the process of teachers who are nervous to “let go” of the reigns, and serves either as a great transition to increased student agency, or as a tool to balance the demands of a centralized curriculum with student choice. Win-win!

Michelle G. Bulla is an English teacher at Monroe-Woodbury High School at the foot of the Catskills in New York where she has taught for over 20 years and also serves as 9-12 Department Chair. She is a Past President of NYSEC, the NY affiliate of NCTE, where she serves on the Executive Board and blogs. Find her on Twitter @china93doll

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