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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