Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How Do I Choose What to Teach?

I’m a slow learner.

It’s taken me 9 years of teaching an English 10 course inherited from generations of teachers before me—tweaking year by year—to make it mine, incorporating most of what I’ve been learning about content, assessment, and instruction. Now I get to design an AP English 11 course from the ground up. 

It’s a little terrifying, a little exhilarating. After a some deep breathing, I realized it was just a chance to put into practice everything I’ve learned over the last 9 years:

  1. Start with the target: 10 AP English Language and Composition curricular requirements broken down into 16 scoring components. 
  2. Establish significance: Is there a reason to master the target other than the test? Oh, yes. Just look around the internet today at the really significant issues  under discussion (from the relationship of US law enforcement to communities of color to instability in the Middle East), and the extent to which the discussion is polarizing and unproductive. Students (we all, actually) need to become even more critical thinkers, readers, writers, speakers, and listeners in order to more effectively enter the conversations all around in written, spoken, and visual formats. This ability helps us to avoid becoming victims ourselves, to develop our God-given gifts of thought and communication, and with those gifts to exercise responsible stewardship of the potential of creation, and to love our neighbors by serving them as effective citizens of our local, national, and global communities.
  3. Articulate content: what students need to know (facts, procedures), understand (why does it matter? how does it work? when do I use it?), and be able to do (skills). Students in AP English 11 need to know a lot about rhetoric, logic, and style; about analysis, argument, research, synthesis; about writing and speaking—what makes it trustworthy (or manipulative) and persuasive (or dull, or offensive). They need practice in understanding what people are saying and how they are saying it, taking many perspectives into account while developing their own. They need to practice, then, how they will write and speak their perspective into the conversation.
  4. Determine how students will demonstrate that they have mastered the targets: Any tests or quizzes I give will assess only the first step toward mastery—do students know the vocabulary? understand the reading? If the ultimate goal is participating in the conversation in productive ways, the most authentic assessments will be their writing (informally in journals and creatively in other genres as well as formally in essays) and speaking (informally in discussion and debate as well as formally in speeches). 
  5. Make an instructional plan: Students need some input (from the teacher or the text), some modeling (by the teacher and the text), a lot of processing and practice with classmates and on their own, focused feedback (from the teacher and classmates) to incorporate into their practice, and reflection (on how they are growing, need to grow, will grow). They need to read widely and deeply and write and speak frequently. They need to engage with relevant topics and with many different people who have engaged with those topics in the past and in the present, from a wide variety of perspectives and genres. 
  6. Identify resources: I kept wanting to start here—choose a textbook and design my course around it. And I kept remembering that the best practice is to first identify the targets, the big ideas, and the content/skills—that’s what I’m teaching, not the textbook. The textbook is just a resource. But looking over a number of textbooks recommended by other teachers on a thread on National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) website, by the College Board, and by a real-life connection, I began to see patterns, what seemed like core content—common ideas, common sources, borrowings from each other. I gained confidence about what I wanted to teach. I made a list of criteria for textbooks. I chose a text. And switched. Twice.

The process is definitely recursive. Maybe for someone with a lot more organization or a lot more experience designing new courses it wouldn’t be. But for me, it is. 

Models help. I started out looking at 6 finished syllabi, from the College Board and from friends who teach the same course. The syllabi were wildly different—developed historically or by issue, assessed by an intricate grading system including tests and quizzes or by just a writing portfolio at the end to encourage risk-taking. In confusion, I looked at the AP curricular requirements, and I began to see the ways the syllabi were the same. Then back to the models with specific questions, like what is the range of possibilities for the extended research project?

Sometimes the recursiveness feels like spinning my wheels. I panic at “wasted” time. But that’s how learning happens, how final drafts are made, how life is lived: Seldom in a straight line. And that’s okay.

Lessons for teachers, lessons for students: So often the same.

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