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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 woul