Thursday, June 16, 2016

Curriculum Planning: The Never-Ending Story

I can scarcely believe it has been two years since I physically walked through and rearranged my curriculum on the floor of my classroom.  That was also the point where I started blogging regularly to reflect on my planning, teaching and assessment practices.

One of the major lessons I've learned in the past two years is that my curriculum will always need work, and that's okay.

I used to think that needing to fix something in my curriculum was a sign of complete failure, and my instinct was to throw the whole thing out and start over.  However, now that I am coming to better understand the principles of revision that I constantly preach to my students, I find myself invigorated and energized by the opportunity to patch things up over the summer.

My students' final essays and presentations were very helpful in that they showed me what units were sticking with the students at the end of the year.  Those units--agency & victimhood, worldview, stewardship--likely need less attention from me.  It's the other units that will need re-examination and effort, at least right now.

One unit that has constantly posed problems for me is the first unit of the year, most notable as the unit in which we read and perform The Crucible.  This unit has suffered from tradition, in a lot of ways.  There are a variety of activities in this unit that I like to use at the start of the year, but up to this point I have struggled to find connective tissue to bind the unit together.  I lead off with a discussion of stereotypes and biases (which the students always get into), followed by an economic examination of colonization and conquest, and rounded out with a comparison of the collapse of Puritan society with McCarthyism in the 1950s.  Finding something to focus these various components has been difficult: last year, the unit essay was about justice and mercy, but even that came into play fairly late in the unit and the connections were tenuous at best.

This past week, the pieces fell into place and I found myself with a unit I am really excited to teach: I chose to drop the focus on economics, which I will shift to a later unit.  This freed me up to draw in an introduction to communication as a model, as well as rhetorical appeals and fallacies, which had fit awkwardly into units two and three, respectively, in previous years.

The premise of the entire unit is simple: the failure or refusal to understand the "other" is where oppression begins.  We will begin the unit with an examination of communication as a model, a complex transaction which depends on both speaker and listener.  We will discuss the "noise" that interferes with good communication, which will lead us naturally into a discussion of labeling, stereotypes and biases--often sub-conscious interference that prevents us from communicating successfully.  We will then examine the obligations of both speaker and listener to be clear and honest on the one hand, and to be attentive and careful consumers, on the other hand.  This will set us up for our introduction to rhetorical appeals and fallacies (which of course include scare tactics, ad hominem, and hasty or sweeping generalizations).  We will finish the unit by looking at the factors which have led to scape-goating and oppression throughout history, and the role that demagogues have played in this (this is where The Crucible will come in), an opportunity to start practicing our identification (and analysis of the effects) of rhetorical fallacies right away.  The students will finish the unit by writing an essay in which they engage with why it is important to understand the "other"--those who are different from us--and how we can strive to do so.

It's exciting when the pieces fall into place, and I am looking forward to spending some time revising the next couple of units, now that I've freed up some space by shifting the lessons on communication and rhetoric.  Instead of being a hoop to jump through, I prefer to think of this as a puzzle needing to be put together!

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