Planning Curriculum, Extended Version

Since I'm sick today, I decided to hold class online. Our goal for class was to talk about designing curriculum. I wrote a long note to my students covering what would have taken us 75 minutes to address in class--and what we will revisit throughout the semester. I know that my students will have a lot of questions and will likely need me to flesh out some of what I've said, but I thought it might be a helpful starting point for some of you new teachers out there. Here's what I wrote:

Today's class is about planning curriculum. Novice teachers are often focused on just filling a class period with entertaining activities, but curriculum design requires teachers to think globally, to identify their purposes (otherwise known as objectives) for a unit, to scaffold carefully, to check student understanding, and to reteach and rethink curriculum based on student learning.

Today, there are a couple of things that I'd like you to think about.
1) What kinds of units are there?
2) What do you need to consider as you begin a unit?
3) How do you organize a unit and a lesson?
4) What is scaffolding?

Let's tackle each question.
1) What kinds of units are there?

There are a lot of different ways to organize a unit. You're probably most familiar with the unit centered on a specific literary text, i.e., the Romeo and Juliet unit, the Of Mice and Men unit, etc. There are also units that focus on genre (the poetry unit), literary movement (the Transcendental unit), or writing assignment (the research paper unit). These are all valid ways of structuring a unit.

However, in this class, I'd like you to think about a more contemporary way of structuring a unit, a way that many English Education people are promoting, that is, the thematic unit. The thematic unit focuses on a theme, some idea or question that you want students to explore and form their own opinions about (this should remind you of Freire). Let me give you some examples:

  • finding the extraordinary in the ordinary
  • our neighborhoods, our communities, our perceptions, ourselves
  • overcoming obstacles

These themes allow students to explore ideas that could change their perspective on the world--and the medium, the way that students would explore the theme would be through literature and writing.

2) What do you need to consider as you begin a unit?

So, the first thing you need to do is brainstorm. What are some themes that you are interested in, that you know you could find literature to support, that you really care about, and that you think would be interesting and educational for your students? Come up with a list and bring it to class with you on Wednesday.

Once you decide on one specific theme, then you need to brainstorm some more (they don't call it "writing curriculum" for nothing!). Here are some things to think about:

  • What does this theme involve? What are some of the key words/ vocabulary related to this theme? What sub-topics might I explore in the unit? What assumptions/beliefs do I want my students to consider and re-consider during the unit?
  • Which literary texts could I use in this unit?
  • What kind of end assessment (preferably a writing assignment) could I use to solidify my students' understanding of theme?
  • What background knowledge do students need in order to understand the theme, the texts I select, the writing assignments in the unit?
  • What processes will students need to practice in order to do the reading and writing I assign? Is there something specific about the style of the literature I've chosen that students will need help processing? For example, The House on Mango Street is not a traditional novel, rather it's a series of vignettes. What reading strategies will students need to employ in order to understand each vignette and the ways that the vignettes work together to create a whole?

Use freewriting, mapping, or some other brainstorming technique to flesh out your ideas in each of these sections.

3) How do you organize a unit and a lesson?

One structuring principle I really like is one that I learned here in Fresno, "Into, Through, Beyond." For each unit AND each individual class period, think about how to get your students into the ideas that will be explored. In other words, you don't just say, "Class, today we're going to read chapter one of Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." Instead, you think of a conceptual hook that will make students curious about the content of the class period and the unit. It might be an activity where you get kids to think about the homes they've lived in or it might be a Take-a-Stand where you have students take a position on issues related to your theme. In fact, in a thematic unit, the first activity should be directly related to theme.

Next, you consider how to help students get through the unit/activities for the day. What can you do to help students understand the assigned readings? What activities will help students build their understanding of character? What activities will help students do the thinking necessary during the unit to be successful on their final writing project?

And, lastly, how can you help students think beyond the unit? What is the value of the unit in their everyday lives? The beyond activity is almost always tied to the final project/assessment in a unit.

4) What is scaffolding?

Scaffolding is related to into, through, beyond, but it's a way of focusing on how you organize your unit, how you help student understanding and competency grow. It's based on the work of theorist Jerome Bruner. Here are some principles related to scaffolding:

  • Reduce the size of the task and the “degrees of freedom in which the child has to cope”
  • Concentrate the child’s attention on something manageable
  • Provide models of what is expected
  • Extend the opportunities for practice
  • Ensure that the child does not “slide back” but moves to the next “launching platform”
  • These are taken from Carol Booth Olsen's The Reading/Writing Connection.

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