Curriculum


Having kids has given me an acquaintance with health care that I virtually would have never thought possible. My boys are not the unhealthiest of children, but their conditions (severe autism and apraxia for my elder son, slightly less severe autism and mild hypotonia for my younger) have required some further investigation.

We had one of these investigative moments this past year with my younger son, specifically regarding the possibility of a metabolic disorder causing his hypotonia (and perhaps contributing to his autism and global delays as well). To get more clues, blood work was needed to test for the level of certain amino acids and other chemical markers. One of these markers was lactic acid: elevated levels might indicate a metabolic disorder and provide something for a geneticist to work with.

There was a problem with this, however: lactic acid levels tend to rise with muscle exertion, so the blood needed to be drawn from my 18-month-old son without causing him to exert himself while we were trying to get blood.

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This is probably going to seem pretty last minute – it is – but I have a request for any of my readers with even a passing knowledge of nonfiction materials.

I’m planning a nonfiction unit for my seniors next semester on civil disobedience and nonviolent protest. I hope to build in some texts that they should have had last year as juniors but didn’t, such as Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” (more commonly known as “Civil Disobedience”) and King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail (which I generally teach with Thoreau, anyway), but I need some suggestions for other texts. Critical texts are fine – it will be good practice for students to look through more scholarly works – as are other primary texts. I’m already thinking about Gandhi’s Non-Violent Resistance (although I have to find it and make copies of some sections) and a critical text called Civil Disobedience in Focus by Hugo A. Bedau (of which I will likely only use the introduction as a primer of sorts). This is not enough, however; the unit will last approximately 3-4 weeks, if I can sustain it, so that I can use these texts to teach research skills such as notetaking, paraphrasing, summarizing, citing sources, etc.

So, faithful readers, I need your help. I need any works that are either reasonably short or that can be excerpted (so as not to overwhelm my students at the beginning of their last semester of high school) that have to do at all with civil disobedience,  nonviolent resistance, or nonviolent protest. Of particular interest would be information about the Civil Rights Movement (including the Montgomery bus boycott), the satyagraha movements in India and South Africa, American protests over the Vietnam War, Chinese protests in Tiananmen Square, and even contemporary American protests over issues like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Republican National Convention protest in 2004. I’m also not limited by medium; I’ll take hypertexts as well as any links to print sources. If you’ve got a PDF version (especially for any journal articles – I’m very limited in that regard) that you can share (this is all fair use, remember), feel free to E-mail me – docereestdiscere AT SIGN gmail PERIOD com. I will be incredibly grateful for any help any of you can offer.

Thanks again, readers – looking forward to more great conversations in the Ten! (2010, that is.)

I finished the book I’ve been reading this week earlier today, Why Do We Gotta Do This, Mr. Nehring?: Notes from a Teacher’s Day in School by James Nehring, and I have to give it my highest recommendations for any junior high or high school teacher (although it will be more topical for the latter). It is a very compelling book, equal parts narrative and commentary but all contained within a narrative framework that is very approachable. Nehring does a great job of telling the story of education – not a history, but the way things are. I say “are” because I don’t think things have changed a whole lot in the 20 years since this book was written and published; in fact, if you replaced all instances of “Walkmen” with “iPods,” there would be virtually no dissonance with the reality of education in 2009.

There is much that can be said about Nehring’s commentary – perhaps the most important part of the book, although the narrative is entertaining and engaging – but I want to return to that dreaded question that I wrote about a few days ago*.

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I know that I will have to watch out for my two biggest classes (which are still smaller than almost every other class I’ve taught before now) because they will have a tendency to run away with me if I’m not on my game.

I know that I will have to watch one of these classes in particular because of a high male-to-female ratio. (I had a similar composition with my problem group of seniors from student teaching, so I’ve experienced how bad this can get.)

I know that I will have to watch the other class because, well, they’re seniors.

I know that I have leverage over both my seniors and my juniors: the seniors need to be ready to step out of high school in May and into college or “the real world” (and by that, I mean “the workforce,” most likely), and the juniors need to be ready for the PSAE/ACT in April. Both groups know that they are way behind the curve, generally speaking.

I know that I will need to be strict in general.

I know that I will have to make at least one significant change to my novels elective: I got complaints less than a minute after handing out syllabi about reading The Scarlet Letter because the previous teacher taught it to juniors. There goes another book, and worse yet, it was the first one I intended to teach. Looks like Of Mice and Men will be first up instead.

I also suspect (what, did you think everything was going to be certain here?) that I will end up teaching one of the chick lit novels (Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights) because my novels course is virtually all girls – only two boys at the moment, I think. Still working on getting Frankenstein, but something makes me think that won’t cut it.

I know that the Easy Button™ I bought last semester was probably one of the best investments I’ve ever made. (Remarkably, one student was very confused about the purpose – or lack thereof – of the Easy Button™ and presumed that you had to make a wish before you hit it.)

I know that I will have to watch how I respond to the smart-alecks in my classes that make me respond with sarcasm, something that my principal explicitly warned against. (But come on, it’s hard to respond with anything other than sarcasm when a student notes that he goes by Joe, “with a J.” I guess I need to be more self-disciplined and to keep my razor wit sheathed for more appropriate moments.)

Best of all, I know that I can do this: that there are students who are looking forward to learning from me, that I have incredibly supportive colleagues and administration who are looking out for me, and that I can manage to keep things together. How well I keep together – well, that will be the test of my time this first year.

Look out tomorrow, I’m coming back for more.

Join me for this innovative and highly educational webinar at…okay, perhaps not. Probably, if I could fully demonstrate how to do inspiring things with an uninspiring curriculum, I wouldn’t be blogging about it here. (Then again, maybe there’s a philanthropist in me somewhere – after all, I’m not in teaching for the money…)

I think most teachers, at least in the early rosy-eyed days of their careers, want to inspire students. (Some teachers may have lower expectations about how many students will realistically be inspired: the student who is inspired by integrals or conic sections might be rarer than the student who is inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the fiction of Kate Chopin.) Yes, education is our primary goal, and of course we want students to develop greater academic prowess, yadda yadda, but I think there’s a deep part of us – the student part – that remembers (if it has happened to us, and hopefully it has) being inspired by teachers to love literature, language, history, the human body, nature, chemical reactions, etc., and that “inner student,” until it is stifled by the outer cynic, sits on our shoulder whispering, Hey, you make these kids feel the awe of what you do. You gotta make them understand why you love what you do. Be that teacher.

And we all start out wanting to be that teacher. We know what good teaching is from having had good teachers, and (as an education professor of mine uncontroversially pointed out) no one goes into teaching wanting to emulate the awful teachers they had.

Okay, that’s good – make the students understand why you love what you do. But what if you aren’t inspired by what you’re going to teach?

I found out last night that I was having trouble finding my own Muse for a course as I was planning the first week of classes. (I find that poetry writing and lesson planning actually aren’t all that different – you have to have a grand vision, direction, and some creative drive in addition to the structure and execution of the thing. At least, you do if you want to be inspiring…) With all of my classes, I started off saying, “Where is this course going in the long run, and what would be the best way to get us started thinking about it?” For my senior world lit, the answer was culture; we will be doing an autoethnography project in the first few weeks, and there is a lot of analysis of our own cultures to get us thinking about how culture and literature intertwine. For my sophomores, the idea was to invoke universal themes, facilitated by my (somewhat) inspired idea to have students discover the sort of themes that emerge through a more approachable medium for them: songs. (Think about themes that transcend musical genre: Do we only hear about unrequited love in country songs?) Even for my juniors (perhaps the most difficult of the three), the idea of challenging notions of what makes literature “American” provides a jumping ground into Native American creation stories.

And then I got to my novels course and thought, Wait, what direction do we have? We’re reading a bunch of mostly unrelated canonical novels…

And my inner student whispers, Hey, just because it’s an elective doesn’t mean these kids don’t deserve to be inspired…

And I wonder how I will find my Muse in material whose only substantial connecting thread is the length of the works.

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Like so many things in teaching, I don’t think there is an easy answer to my proposed idea. It’s hard enough to inspire even a majority of students with the most inspiring material – some students just aren’t easily impressed – but doing it with a lackluster curriculum presents an additional handicap. Maybe there’s a reason why the wizened cynic starts shouting down the inner student; maybe it’s easier that way.

All I know is that there’s an insistent voice still urging me on, and the only thing I know how to do is to listen – and think.

I’m typing this from my new classroom on my own computer (which I finally have access to, thanks to our great tech guy), and my principal tracked me down to inform me that she volunteered me to be on the curriculum planning committee.

Boy, they don’t know the meaning of “trial by fire” around here, do they?

(To be fair, I know why I was put on the committee – I’m the representative of English at the high school level, and English is one of the areas that the school needs to focus on given that our PSAE scores from last year were…well, let’s say that they were lower than hoped. So part of my responsibility is to get students back up to speed on these skills, which means that I probably should be on the curriculum committee.)

On a less sarcastic note, I got the chance to meet a few of my students today (both of whom expressed how awful the last teacher was and how poorly she was treated as a result – good thing the bar isn’t set too high), and the mother of one – somewhat to my amusement – warned me about her own child’s tendency toward dramatic mood shifts. And the phrase I’ve heard so many times in this school – “be strict” – came up again as well.

I think I might need to be strict or something.

One thing’s for sure: This is not likely to be a boring assignment.

I guess it’s taken the creation of syllabi – which is almost finished, thankfully – to make me understand something about writing that I’ve seen before but also very recently: sometimes writing is not merely about clarifying ideas but about discovering them.

I have to admit to myself that until very lately I have not entirely known what I am going to do with some of my classes. Some have been better than others, and with the sophomore and senior classe especially, I have had to discover the material in order to determine what I want to teach from the materials I have. (What my co-op once said is true: Don’t worry about having all the background knowledge before hand – you can learn whatever curriculum you teach, and I think it’s even true when you are the one putting it together.)

And so it is with my writing elective, which has been vague and somewhat ill-defined almost from the beginning. I asked for clarification once and was told that it was more of a creative writing course than a research-intensive one, so I have strayed away from a major research paper (although I will likely incorporate some aspect of research into a creative piece). Other than that, I have little to no idea: no background on what has been done in the past, no course listing or blurb to indicate the direction of the course, and (as I noted earlier) no text to organize my thoughts around.

So I sat down tonight with my syllabus template in front of me, which has worked excellently for three other courses, and I thought about the course objectives as I was writing a description. Quickly, what emerged was a vision of a course that gives attention to multiple modes of writing, using a code-switching model to focus students’ attention on the importance of understanding how language needs to be shaped by considerations of purpose and audience. I listed things I want students to have had experience with: personal and reflective writing, communicative writing (which could be informal or formal), creative and expressive writing (fiction, poetry, etc.), and even a little of professional/technical writing, like formal letters.

And now I feel like I’ve already taught the class. Lesson ideas abound to me; I feel like this course will virtually write itself.

It truly is a unique discovery to make, especially since it is one that I can hopefully pass on to my students. And more importantly, now I am one step closer to securing my broad plans for this year, which itself is a discovery worth celebrating.

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