Monday, July 09, 2007

Where does curriculum come from?

I'd like to begin by saying that in this post, I'm mostly reflecting on the nature of the English curriculum; however, I suppose the thought is applicable to all subjects.

I was just working on my plans for next year, going over my lesson plans for Oedipus. I'm not a huge fan of the play. In fact, I think it's over the head of most seniors, let alone freshmen. I taught it to both my levels of freshmen. They both read it. They both understood the storyline, but did they really understand the nuances? Not a chance. Try explaining the "paradox of blindness" to a bunch of 14 year-olds. They simply wanted to get to the part where Oedipus gouges his eyes out...and even that was overshadowed by the fact that he had slept with his mother. From what I saw, they didn't get a lot out of the play.
Possibly it could've been my teaching...I had no clue what to do with it, as I'm not big on it and that could've (most likely did) show through in my teaching and planning. Ultimately, we focused on the ideas of tragic hero, tragic flaw and catharsis. Then we tied those into Romeo and Juliet; however, I could've done that much more simply (and more quickly) with an overview.
I asked other teachers in my department why we teach Oedipus in its entirety, and ultimately it came back to the fact that it was in a former textbook. Now, that being said, it's no longer in the new textbook we have...and the department has had a heck of a time trying to find it (at least the translation they want). But it's still being taught.

The question that keeps bugging me is how much should a textbook dictate a curriculum?

The Oedipus thing is obviously somewhat extreme, as we don't even have the textbook anymore; however, I'm just trying to illustrate my point. I can just as easily give my students an example of tragic hero and tragic flaw using a more modern-day they will be more likely to get something out of.
I don't want to dump all the classics by any means. I see the value of Shakespeare; besides the fact that he is the most referred-to author in literature, it has also been proven time and again that Shakespeare makes students' brains work and also improves their writing and vocabulary. (If you still are Shakespeare-shy, head over to Englicious to read more detailed reasons for reading Shakey.)
I simply want reasons for what I teach, and "that's how it's always been done because of a former book we used" is not a good reason. Give me objectives. The thing many people don't realize is that objectives can be met in a variety of ways using a variety of texts. If I suggested using something by Tennessee Williams to hammer home tragedy, while only touching on Oedipus, I think I'd be immediately kicked out of the department. But I also think the students would get more out of a Williams play.
Then again, there are some teachers in my department who would use the freedom to water down the curriculum...Make it easy on themselves, while also making it easy on their students. I suppose it somewhat boils down to professionalism...both on the part of the that's-the-way-it's-always-been-done'ers and also the I-don't-understand-it-so-I'll-dumb-it-down'ers.

I really haven't reached any conclusions. I don't know that there are any to reach.

Anyone have thoughts? Please share. I'm sort of at a loss on this one, I think.


Laura said...

What I like to do is use a reader's theater version of Oedipus that my Classics major dad found for me online to introduce the tragic hero archetype, as Aristotle held it up as the archetypal archetype (Dad also comes in to give a talk on such things because he ended up in accounting and so doesn't get to show off his degree much).

I also tie in R&J before that with a little chart I've constructed which, hate to say, is based on the definition of tragedy from...a textbook. I then tie in a true story from an online edublogger friend (thought it goes over better with non-honors crowds) and then either zero in on Medea, which the kids usually pick (for the same kind of sensationalist reasons they like OtK), or Nigerian play Death an the King's Horseman, which I like.

So yeah, as to where curriculum comes from, I've been granted a lot of freedom historically to play mix and match. Sometimes, however, we have to "play the game" like the kids to please the higher-ups. But I would see if the reader's theater version doesn't prevent your crucifixion first--all the gore, and I think they get the SEED of the blindness paradox.

Ms. Longhorn LOVES Math! said...

Ugh I hate that! Last year I had so many parents drilling me on why we didn't have a math textbook? Well, it's 8 years old, doesn't align with our standards and doesn't meet the requirements for our tests.. why do I not look competent enough to teach your children? Handing me a textbook doesn't change how they are going to learn the concepts! This is all from a math perspective though.. ELA may be different!

the anonymous teacher said...

Laura, Thank you so much for the help! I really am at a loss when it comes to Oeddie. I'm really not opposed to a textbook at all; I just don't find that to be a sufficient reason to teach something. "It was in a textbook" doesn't work for me. I suppose I just wish I had more freedom. I think that's ultimately what my rant was about...
Ms. Longhorn, My writing students looked at me like I was crazy when I told them they wouldn't have a textbook. As in your case, the one we had was outdated and just not necessary. I used handouts and exercises from a variety of books, and it worked out really well.

Dennis Fermoyle said...

AT, I think I know exactly where you're coming from. I teach an AP Government class, and of course, we get into some of the Federalist Papers, and other readings like that. Two years ago, I had a college professor look over my curriculum, and he told me the readings I was using were excellent. But then I asked him, "When you're reading the Federalist Papers, do you ever end up with your eyes crossed at the end of about a paragraph?" He answered that he did. I then asked, "Well, then why do we have kids read it, if almost no one can understand what they're reading?" He really couldn't give me an answer. As a result of that conversation, I threw out some of the more confusing readings I was using, because I was more interested in my kids learning something than I was in wowing college professors with my curriculum.

And that leads to this question that hopefully an English wiz like yourself can answer. Why is it that so many of the writings that are considered "great" are ones that so few people can understand? I preach heresy here, but I think Alexander Hamilton's writing is awful. It's full of run-on sentences that are almost impossible to understand. It seems to me that great writing should be writing that normal people can understand.

ALS said...

I am teaching Oedipus right now at a summer academy and I really like it. I'm fascinated by the idea of "facing the truth of yourself," and getting kids to try and write/talk about it. They too like the eye part. Gross

I'm also teaching at summer school, (definatley not enrichment), and admins from both jobs told me I could choose whatever curriculum I wanted, which is heavenly.

When given that choice, I usually choose whatever I am most excited to teach (or a better phrase: not bored with, currently interested in), and then I am far more dedicated and energentic in delivering the lessons, regardless of whether they follow a "text book" pattern of story choices. It seems that no matter what I choose, they always tie together nicely - a fact that usually dawns on me in mid-sentence while standing at a black board.

To conclude, I find text books suffocating.

M said...

I think that would be so extremely difficult to teach things that you may not have a connection with. In the classroom in primary school we don't have to teach a text per se, as we're dealing more with the general concept of 'what IS a text?' 'what IS character?' what IS etc etc. That has it's own problems for sustaining enthusiasm. Even so I can pick my own texts.

I think the key to making sure that both you and the kids are interested is to keep it relevant - whether that means by bringing elements of pop culture into it (have there been comics/film/news stories etc etc that you can associate with the text? that will keep everyone on task?).

In the Art room, I can't always pick the artists I like because obviously some have had greater cultural impact than others. But I do pick the actual pieces I like.

Mr. B-G said...

I've woven in bits of Freud and psychology (Oedipus complex) when teaching the play, and students seem to dig it.

It's worth noting that, despite being 17-18, a number of my kids last year seemed stuck in the "anal phase" of psycho-sexual development .

There's also a nice Oedipus tie-in with Star Wars (Luke initially falling for his sister).

As for where curriculum comes from, I suppose resources, mandates, history, and personal preferences all factor in.

I hope you're at a school that values your professional voice and opinion. I think a lot of the old curriculum actually drives students away from finding pleasure in reading and analysis... yet there are still some oldies-as-goodies out there.

Anonymous Teacher said...

I hardly touched the textbook when I taught freshmen, and then it was just to have access to the short stories, and maybe a few discussion questions when I had a couple of minutes to fill. With the juniors, we work entirely from novels -- they almost always buy their own copies to mark up. We were all a little flummoxed this year and last when we had funds to buy new textbooks for all grade levels: a couple of grade-level-team leaders asked if they could just ditch the textbooks and spend the money on other materials. Alas, the answer was no.

Mz.H said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mz.H said...

AT - I think sometimes we get tied up by the "classical education" arguments. But sometimes those classical texts just don't reach our students. Why can't they learn the same important themes and do some deep thinking and not go in depth on Oedipus? I think if you are required to teach Oedipus, I like your idea of going for something more relevant for your students and tying Oedipus in with your own individual style.

Our department operates in some autonomy, so we've designed our curriculum pretty much on our own. We only get checked on whether we are meeting state standards. So for instance, in our global studies classes, we've restructured the whole curriculum around Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs & Steel" theories. And of course for my Govt class, my text is the Constitution. Government textbooks are so BOOOORRRINGG! Good luck! --Mz. H

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