Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Curriculum Segregation and Teacher Turfiness

By on June 19, 2010

High school teachers can be so turfy. Which was one of the reasons why I received an email earlier today concerned about my curriculum for the class I’m teaching at summer school camp.

In a nutshell, I’ve been given leave to teach whatever I want as an enrichment, tuition-based class this summer for middle schoolers. So I’ve chosen Film Appreciation. We’ve been studying cinematic terms, reading selections from books that have become movies, and studying the similarities between the narratives we write in school and the narratives that are produced for the screen. We’ll then use these films as a basis for reviewing literary analysis as a writing form.

Here are some examples from the class curriculum:

* So we’ve studied Danny Elfman’s contributions to music scores and watched clips from Beetlejuice, tracking how the music propels the narrative.

* We’ve talked about creative license between books and movies by reading the first paragraph of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe which only mentions in one sentence that the children were sent to the country during the war, and then looked at the first few minutes of the recent movie to see the incredible amount of story and character which were described in only the opening credits set during the Blitz in London.

* We’ve discussed the differences between directors and cinematographers, reading the opening selection of Shoeless Joe and having them draw their idea of Iowa at “dusk on a spring evening, when the sky was a robin’s-egg blue and the wind as soft as a day-old chick,” setting them up for Field of Dreams later on.

* We’ll be looking at Art Direction: the differences between Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (click to see images) and the Prisoner of Azkaban (click for images), the worlds depicted in Dune, and moments from Big Fish.

* We’re reading The Outsiders (I have a class set) and doing a comparison with the movie.

*We’re going to be reading scenes from Shakespeare, the most often used screenwriter of all time, and looking at different versions of scenes from some of the greatest performances. We’ll be looking at the crane shot from the end of Branagh’s Henry V and looking at Romeo and Juliet.

So I received an email this morning from a parent whose student is in my class. She claimed that the kid loved the course, and how he now wants me as his Language Arts teacher next year. But she was concerned how the high school would react if they knew I was talking about Romeo and Juliet, and whether middle schoolers really understand the adult themes that Shakespeare wrote about.

And I recalled a time a couple of years ago when my then department chair said that I couldn’t do scenes from certain Shakespeare plays with my ELA class because the high school tends to get testy about it.

So that got me thinking about our purpose as teachers. And as I thought, I found myself getting more and more indignant about curriculum turfiness. Does it really benefit the learner?

Here was my response to the parent:

Thank you so much for your concern, and I’ll be happy to explain my confidence in middle schoolers and their ability to understand the concepts in Shakespeare’s works.

Yes, I am reading excerpts and comparing them to a movie. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, we will also be acting out a number of the scenes from the play as well (Mercutio’s death scene – great swordfight! and one other most likely.) We will then be watching the final scene of Shakespeare in Love . This is not a movie for middle schoolers so I’m just showing the end where they perform R & J in a reconstructed Old Globe set. I think it’s important for kids to learn about the first and still-most-often used screenwriter, Shakespeare, and compare the loud, interactive quality of what live theater was like then to the static quality of the theater-going experience now. And we will then most likely watch a version of the play.

Let me backup about Shakespeare. The Bard is my passion. I am a Renaissance Lit major who also directed Shakespeare with folks, ages 5-60 at the Youth Academy of Dramatic Arts for many years. I don’t know how [our high school] would feel, but I know that I deeply believe that waiting until high school to discover this writer does a disservice to our students. Considering Romeo and Juliet are middle schoolers and Shakespeare is a part of the 7th grade history curriculum, it seems very appropriate to me to be studying it. I only wish we could be doing it during the school year. As it is, we probably will only spend 2 days on it. Nevertheless, we will not be studying the whole book. I will leave that to the high school.

There’s another way to think about this. Books that kids discover early on in a positive way are books they will be eager to explore again and again in a deeper way each time. Even while reading our favorite books, we do not comprehend every theme and chewy piece of dialogue on the first reading. It takes loving it the first time and diving in again and again to pull back the layers of true passion for a book or an author. If anything, I believe that tackling it now, 3 years prior to when the student will see it again, will only serve to help his enthusiasm later.

This is a powerful play and film about tweens. It is about relationships. And while I know some themes will get lost on these kids, they also could end up seeing it through other eyes than they will as their high school selves. This book sits in my classroom library and every year multiple kids discover it. We can’t segregate the classics based on a district’s curriculum choices; it would never allow us to differentiate for each child’s interests and levels.

I really appreciate your thoughtful questions and concerns. I hope I’ve helped in some way here. Think of my class as an introduction to these classics, and then he gets to excitedly await to dive into them deeper years from now.

I know I took a stand here. I know I might take some heat. But there is such a shortsightedness that we can’t be talking about certain pieces of literature multiple times. We loop our history curriculum over and over, our math and science curriculum over and over. So why do ELA teachers get so territorial?

Reading and writing can’t be taught in isolation. We must all be building on the skills, looping as well, introducing AND re-reading. Every teacher brings something new to the conversation, just as every student brings a new dimension of understanding with every year of experience lived. So the eye rolls from a high school teacher are off base.

We are supporting one another in our teachings, for just one teacher does not a successful student make. Each student has a team of teachers behind him.

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  1. Knighton
    June 19, 2010

    I like what you’re doing with the films and readings in your summer class. Since I am a high school English teacher, I feel the need to defend high school teachers everywhere, however. I will tell you why I HATE it when what is a part of the high school curriculum is taught at the middle school. In the bright utopia you describe (“We must all be building on the skills, looping as well, introducing AND re-reading. Every teacher brings something new to the conversation, just as every student brings a new dimension of understanding with every year of experience lived.”), our students would love to re-read literature just to discuss it anew and see it through new eyes. But this is not the reality. Either the students A) tell other students who haven’t read it the ending, B) don’t re-read it, so they aren’t doing what you’re proposing, or C)roll their eyes at us and become disinterested. Not all students are like that, but enough are that it can be irksome. Yes, I know that there are ways around this, and I have dealt with such instances in my career. Sometimes my lesson has been successful, and sometimes, it has not. Shakespeare wrote many, many plays, so why not choose something that is not a part of the high school curriculum (i.e. not in every 9th grade textbook)? I know that your aim is to compare movie scenes, but there are other plays that have been made into movies, or even re-created into new movies–like Ten Things I Hate About You. In fact, I think that, at least in my county, students study more tragedies than comedies (R & J, Julius Caesar, and either Hamlet or Macbeth). So I think it would be wonderful if they could study a comedy before getting to 9th grade.

  2. Heather Wolpert-Gawron
    June 19, 2010

    Hey Knighton,
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I think you make a good point about doing comedies over dramas. In fact, I had planned to do a little Ten Things I Hate About You action as well. I understand your frustration about middle schoolers using high school lit. In fact, I remember my own 7th grade level’s frustration when some of the 6th grade teachers decided to teach “Thank You, M’am” which is one of our core texts. But I must admit that each year brings new layers to the comprehension and we soon chilled out a little about it (but only a little, admittedly.) We also found that kids don’t remember much in their first year of reading, instead it becomes prior knowledge (more like wispy memories) that they tap into when we go into it deeper.

    Anyway, I still contend that studying the movie and a few scenes does not a book study make, and it’s still valuable to return to the classics time and time again.

    I will also leave you with a thought as a parent as well. I fully intend, as my own parents did, to show my children the classics way before our public school system calls them appropriate. I read Classics Illustrated, given to me by my dad, and heard the stories and their endings through stories told to me by my mom. In turn, my child will see To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet before high school, and with a little luck combined with some good humored threats, he better not tell any other kid the ending or he’s grounded for life!

    Thanks again for your time and comments. Hope to hear from you again.

    -Heather WG
    aka Tweenteacher

    • Patriot
      June 23, 2010

      Perhaps you have a calling to reteach texts that students have been taught previously. You have so much enthusiasm for text that you could possibly be a trailblazer into the art of looping Language Arts. I would like to read more from you if you choose this route.

  3. Knighton
    June 20, 2010

    I admit as well that, as a parent, I have shared far more with my own teenage daughter (she’s 15) than I think most parents do. We frequently discuss literature, movies, tv shows, and young adult novels. Like your father, I’ve had “the conversation” with her. I thoroughly enjoy discussing all of these things with her, and I think she does too. Her 9th grade teacher this past year even praised her for being able to discuss things in class the way that she has.

    I agree too that every time I re-read something in my class that I discover something new, whether it’s some new literary aspect I hadn’t considered or whether it’s some new viewpoint that I am just now able to have. I think that’s the best thing about literature! You and I are lovers of language, however, and even though I would want EVERY student to be lovers of language, too, they just aren’t. Therefore, sometimes it can be hard to re-engage them.

    Other things that I have had to contend with having been previously taught are various short stories (which are also in a lot of 9th grade textbooks). Short stories aren’t as bad because the students sometimes do not remember them as well as other works. However, Shakespeare tends to stick with them. You know–there’s just something to the old Bard!

  4. Swisher
    June 21, 2010

    Heather, as another high school teacher who’s heard ‘Oh, we already read this in ___ grade,’ my heart sinks. Not everyone has read it, so I still must go ahead with all the knowledge-building activities. I will have some who HAVE and most who have not read. The kids who have seldom are eager to reread, even with all my encouragement. They express their frustration and share it.

    Perhaps if I knew that another teacher was teaching the same piece (vertical teams can be so useful!), I could say ‘I know you’ve read this before; this time we’ll build on that reading and….’ But usually I learn about it as I’m introducing the text to the class.

    It probably comes down to communicating with our colleagues, talking about our programs and sharing our ideas. I see how this can work; I really do. I just have gotten ambushed enough in front of the whole class to feel my teeth clench…

    In my Reading for Pleasure class, I tell students that I reread favorite books, and encourage them to reread books they read in upper elementary and middle school…in fact, in English 4, my students DID reread a book and analyze it with their ‘new eyes.’ They all came away from that project with a real appreciation for some of their favorite.


  5. heather
    June 21, 2010

    I hear you, really I do. I too get ticked when something that is a 7th grade standard is being taught in an earlier grade. But I think that this post is about challenging myself as much as others to look beyond that reaction and see the possibilities.

    Vertically teaming, as you say, may be the answer. That way, you know who may be overlapping and what’s being covered. Also, I know that we should not be talking multiple works, here. But to limit certain classics to one grade level or the other (especially if it is in a teacher’s particular speciality) limits the passion that students could feel potentially for that work.

    Just today, I had my students raise their right hand and vow that if they had read The Outsiders before now, they would not give away the ending for those enjoying it for the first time. Every kid was excited that it was being read this summer. I know not all kids react that way to every book, but when it works, they get something new out of it everytime. And especially for those initially reluctant readers, sometimes returning to literature is exactly what they need to remain enthusiastic about reading.

    Thanks for your comment and for visiting tweenteacher.

    -Heather WG

  6. Matt
    June 22, 2010

    Heather, great article. As a high school social studies teacher (and former middle school teacher), I can tell you that kids pick up different things at different developmental stages.

    An example in our discipline would be “Lord of the Flies”. One time I used it in my 12th grade senior government classes. A few kids said that they had already “read” that before. After a couple of quick questions to them you could tell they didn’t remember it or couldn’t apply the themes — all they could remember was it was about a plane crash with kids stranded on an island, and a guy named Chunk (sorry, kids, that character is from the movie The Goonies) who had his glasses broken.

    Another time, as a 6th grade middle school teacher, I decided to talk a bit about Romeo and Juliet in our World Cultures/Renaissance unit. The high school english teachers had a fit that I was “teaching” R + J to 6th graders. Not even close.

    So, there is a benefit to revisiting the same pieces of literature, just as it is a benefit to not duplicate the same pieces. It all depends on articulation of curriculum, the needs of the students, and the collaboration among the educators.

  7. Knighton
    June 22, 2010

    Romeo and Juliet is not just certain teachers’ choice in literature. We just did textbook adoption for our department. Guess which play was in EVERY 9th grade literature book? Yep, R&J. (See one for yourself: http://www.glencoe.com/catalog/index.php/65?p=5067) If a teacher has a specialty in Shakespeare, then I would expect him or her to be versed in any of his plays. Why does the play of choice have to be Romeo and Juliet? Of course, you can and will do what you want, but I’m playing the devil’s advocate and I’m asking you why you couldn’t do the opposite.

  8. heather
    June 22, 2010

    I hear you, and based on your earlier comments, I’m thinking about my choices this summer. But this post was about the philosophy of segregating certain classics rather than the power of looping them. The bigger picture is one that we cannot allow textbook companies to dictate.

    Once again, thanks for your thoughts and your resources.

    -Heather WG

    • Terisa King
      June 22, 2010

      I happen to agree with your assessment. Students cannont be over exposed to the great Masters of history,especially William Shakespeare. A beloved story reconnects the reader to essentials. My English 4 Brit Lit class recently engaged in a rather lively discussion comparing R&J with Meyer’s Twilight saga. And imagine my delight when a 9th grader connected the movie TROY with The Iliad. Teach tweens that an author’s universal appeal is discovered over and over again. I hope one of your students finds their way into my high school classes.

  9. Susan Nichols
    June 27, 2010

    You are awesome! I love that you took the time to write such a detailed, heartfelt response to a parent. I don’t think that happens nearly often enough.

  10. JLW
    June 29, 2010

    As a math teacher, I’m not that big a fan of looping in mathematics. Many U.S. math curriculums are criticized for being “a mile wide and an inch deep”. Looping sometimes leaves teachers with a sense of “well, if they don’t get it this time, they’ll get it next time.” Sometimes students do “get it” later, but often they do not. Each teacher has so many concepts to teach, that the time needed to delve deeply into each one is not there. I think that time spent teaching the concept well the first time (with fewer concepts per year) would go a long way toward students mastering the subject, rather than briefly touching many concepts each year over and over.

    On another note, due to changing school districts in high school, I took American Literature twice (hence missing out on a senior semester of Shakespeare at my first high school). Many works covered in the two courses were different, but my attitude toward the subject suffered. I did not want to retake a course that I had already successfully completed. By the way, do happy people write? Most of the authors seemed to have died of tuberculosis at 27 or were poor, alcoholic, and miserable by the end of their lives. What do people who have a rich family life and are satisfied toward the end of their lives have to say?

    Finally, your course sounds great, and I’m sure your students are having a wonderful time.

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