Today’s post comes from a recent email (used with permission) from a fellow English teacher. For privacy, I changed her name.
First, thank you, as always, for your thoughtful, realistic approach to education. I am deeply grateful! Next, a few questions for you. It sounds like you are free to create and use your own curriculum. Is that the case? Are you and the other English teachers expected to cover the same content? To have the same number/type of assessments?
Also, my department chair insists on following up every single chunk of reading with what he calls “focus” questions, the bulk of which involve reading comprehension questions, all of which are approached in the exact same way – context, lead-in, quote, sometimes analysis. Thus, let’s say for The Catcher in the Rye, he expects kids to answer 10-15 focus questions after every chapter. Am I right in despising this approach to curriculum and thinking he is out of touch with how to approach curriculum in a meaningful way? I know I’m asking you to weigh in on something here that has no remedy; I’m just wondering if I’m the one who’s out of touch!
Thanks for thinking of me. Yes, I am free to build and use whatever tools I need to achieve the Common Core State Standards. At the schools where I’ve taught in California and Idaho, curricular resources have been…um, how should I say this…thin. I’ve been given tattered anthologies, class sets of a few classics, and pacing guides that don’t align with actual resources on campus. In a way, it’s been great because I’ve stepped in to fill that gap with the materials I make and now share/sell online. In a much bigger way, it’s a disaster because it’s every teacher for herself and there’s a lack of consistency in what our students learn in their English classes. Depending on which teacher they’re assigned, kids will either grow a ton and be prepared for college-level writing or they’ll watch a lot of movies and make shoebox dioramas. Seriously. Over the years, I’ve heard chatter about district officials wanting to align our classes and give each level an end-of-course final exam, which we call “EOCs” around here. This has happened in science and math, but not English – at least not yet. Sounds like your department is facing the same challenge.
In theory, I actually like the idea of more alignment. If we ever made this happen, I would beg to be on the curriculum committee. We need not only consistency in materials and expectations, but also flexibility to allow teachers to tailor materials to best fit the needs of their particular students and our particular teacher personalities. One of the most challenging (and exciting, yes?) things about good teaching is that it’s more of an art than a science. A strategy that works for me might not work for the teacher next door. And that’s okay. We need to give teachers a bunch of high-quality ideas and resources to help them achieve the same end goal for our kids, but that’s where a lot of schools fall short. Instead of acknowledging the complexity of this issue, an administrator from the district office will invest in one program and decide it is The Path for all of us or, as in your case, a department chair will decide that focus questions are The Key to getting all of his colleagues/ducks in a row. Without the flexibility to allow us to choose which tools to use from a well-stocked toolbox, such a system is doomed because there is no one-size-fits-all curriculum – not even the stuff I build. (Oof! Forgive my mangled metaphors. Paths? Keys? Ducks? Toolboxes? I’m still on my first cup of coffee over here.)
One of those tools might be the structured end-of-reading questions that your dept. chair favors – only with a bit more emphasis on the analysis level. But the next day we might use a think-pair-share and another day we might use a fishbowl discussion and yet another day might be a stations activity. Again, there is no single perfect technique to use day after day…after day. Variety is key.
Instead of fighting with the dept. chair or suffering in silence, I’d approach him with a list of useful strategies, including the one he favors. My rule is that I can’t complain about something unless I’m also able to propose a solution. Perhaps you and your colleagues could brainstorm a list of best practices? What works with your kids? Start that conversation. There is a remedy, but it’s going to take the brain power of your entire department. And when you crack the code, let me know. I need it, too.
Okay, teacher friends, what’s the solution? While I do see a need for more calibration in the English department, none of us wants to read instructional scripts or follow a mandated daily calendar. Is this a problem in your school, too? Has your team already found the solution? Share your experience and leave a reply below!