English curriculum

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To Teach Poetry, Get on the Cycle!


As a teacher of literature, I was never a big fan of “units.” In teach-speak, a unit is a collection of lessons that feature skills, strategies, and formative assessments leading to a final goal (the summative assessment), which can take many forms (traditionally, however, a paper or a test).

The problem with units is, quite simply, they have a beginning date and an ending date. Or, to be more specific, a hard ending date.

The thunk of hard ending dates is particularly felt when the unit is on topics such as grammar, essays, or poetry. The message to students? We will study grammar, essays, or poetry for these four weeks and then we will move on.

It’s the moving on part that’s a knowledge killer. If a teacher’s focus on something like poetry is compartmentalized by a unit in September, never to be seen again in the course of an academic year, the students will of course commit poetic terms, skills, and practices to short-term memory, spit them out on a summative assessment, and promptly forget everything as they move on to the next “compartment” (the short story unit, say, or the novel unit).

Alas, life doesn’t work that way (though the game of school too often does). In fact, our long-term memory is built on lessons that continually circle back, reminding us of skills and practices we learned in the past. It’s the seemingly inconsequential “Oh, yeah!” a student makes when seeing a poetry term again or experiencing the practice of reading or writing poetry again that makes a difference. Of such small bricks, spread throughout the academic year, are long-term memory walls built!

Bottom line: Thematic units work much better than units by genre. Grammar, vocabulary, poetry, short stories, essays, etc., should never “go away,” disappearing like an obscure Route 66 motel in the rearview mirror. No. Each should continually reappear, the compartmentalized curriculum map be damned.

In a similar vein, the practice of drilling a skill until “mastery” (big time quotation marks!) is achieved is suspect if you never return to that skill again. Students can lose patience if the classroom topic goes on and on like a Charles Dicken paid-by-the-word novel. It’s much better to teach a skill, practice it, move on to another, and keep circling back to it, ensuring that the group of skills you are teaching are related and support each other while at the same time providing some variety.

Such a practice is a microcosm of the thematic over genre unit concept. Big ideas are learned over big stretches of time. This is similar to a carpenter, who employs many resurfacing skills in building a house. Various tools and various strategies are used over and over as challenges and tasks come and go, sometimes in different guises, sometimes requiring a degree of problem-solving.

This interesting and ultimately rewarding practice should be reflected in the learning process as well, as students learn in similar, lifelike, cyclical patterns, bit by bit, hammer to nail, foundation to roof.