Curriculum Planning, Part I

One of my most important tasks as the academic dean is to collect and review the unit plans from the teachers in the “big school,” that is, grades 1 through 12.  Let me tell you, it is a full-time job in and of itself! By the time I’m through with one grade level, I am finished for the day!  But this job is making me think about our role as curriculum developers as well as instructors and teachers.

All curriculum development begins with the standards, right?  The standards documents, whether they are the Common Core standards or standards developed and written by particular states’ departments of education, are simply the objectives that we are to teach to our students; they provide the road map.  It is then up to us as teachers to develop the materials and the resources to teach those skills.  The thing about standards is that they are “open-ended” in a way.  I can use anything to teach a standard.

However, the problem with standards as they are written is that they are complicated and dense.

So. here is how I am beginning to change the way I’m thinking.

In the past, I created units around a text, such as Romeo and Juliet.  At the end of the unit, my students would know everything there is to know about this Shakespeare play.  But now, I think of the text as a vehicle to teach “something else.”  For example, if one of the standards for ELA for my state deals with the concept of irony, then the play Romeo and Juliet becomes the vehicle for me to teach students what dramatic irony is.  Then, in addition, to the play itself, I can bring in another text that uses dramatic irony, and have them identify the effect of dramatic irony in that text. Texts in English language arts class are vehicles, not the content.

What a shift in thinking for me!

As I begin (belatedly, I might add) to write up my unit plans for this year (all sixteen or seventeen of them or more!), I’m going to think in terms of inquiry and essential questions, in ways authors seek and express the answers to those essential questions, and the standards that will inform my instruction.  For example, if I were teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my essential questions might focus on the ways we persuade others to “change” their thinking.  I might then explore with my students some classical rhetoric and the theory of the rhetorical triangle, the relationships between the speaker/writer, the audience, and the subject.  I might use Atticus’s closing argument of the Tom Robinson trial to demonstrate the use of ethos, logos, and pathos.  I am teaching the content of the novel (of course, students will know the key plot details), but I am also teaching a standard.  I could then have them read and analyze a speech by Patrick Henry, Martin Luther King, Jr,, a passage from Romeo and Juliet when the nurse tries to convince Juliet to forget about Romeo and marry Paris (even though both women know Juliet will be committing bigamy) and apply the concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos to that speech.

In researching curriculum planning and unit planning in preparation for a day-long professional development at the end of the school year, I reread some of the research on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.  We want our students to be working at levels 3 and 4–Strategic and Extended Thinking. If we use Bloom’s Taxonomy, we want students to be operating in school at the highest levels: analysis, evaluation, and synthesis.  If our unit plans and curriculum documents focus only on the recall and comprehension skills, and never ask students to go beyond application of those skills, then we are doing our students a disservice.

So, in this first post about curriculum planning, I’m laying out my own guidelines for writing my unit plans for “next year.”

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