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Danielle Codey is a high school English teacher in New Jersey.  We will be focusing on her, and her experiences, for the next few weeks on the site.

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Danielle Codey

High School English Teacher | New Jersey
Posts by Danielle

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Curriculum

Guest Post by Danielle Codey

Blog, Guest Blog, Teacher Stories

We are living in a time when virtually any piece of information can be researched. We no longer need to memorize facts and figures the way we once did. Still, our curriculum seem to harp on texts, characters, and plot. Nowadays, because information is literally at our fingertips, what becomes important is processing that information, manipulating that information for an intended purpose, and using it to make informed decisions for a better world.

We preach most of this, and practice some of it

We encourage students to find patterns and parallels between texts and our modern world. We tell them to use persuasive language when crafting their essays. We try our best, but when we are tethered to a curriculum that is based solely on books and not themes, skills, or any other relevant platform, it often fails to engage students in useful learning.

I am an English teacher. No one understands the desire to teach the classics more than I do. I want students to feel the teardrops on their cheeks when Sydney Carton makes his sacrifice, or to laugh when Holden can’t quite do it with a prostitute. These are important texts; these books are timeless. As a sixteen year old, however, so many things need to be in place in order to really understand and appreciate these stories. In high school, it wasn’t until my senior year that I really started reading and understanding the themes and motifs with which I was interacting. It wasn’t until college and grad school that I truly engaged with a text and pressed back against both my own beliefs and what the text implied. And ultimately, it wasn’t until I was a teacher that I read between the lines, gained new insights, made the truly rich connections that literature makes possible. That is not to say that all students cannot take these significant steps much earlier, many can, and do. It does mean, however, that we should be utilizing  relevant subject matter. We should incorporate modern day politics, pop culture, historical parallels, argumentative writing, and critical thinking.

We should not be basing lesson plans and units of study on books. It sounds slightly insane to even speak about it in that way. Imagine being asked, “What did you do in English today?” “We covered chapters 9-11 in The Grapes of Wrath.” The book should be the vehicle through with thousands of other items become relevant. It should not be the prime attraction. Still, it’s hard to even imagine how to structure a language arts classroom that doesn’t work this way. It’s been the code of conduct for so long. I am guilty of it.

I plan my year based on books.

When I first tried to break free of this practice, I wrote a new curriculum. It was a class called, “Hip Hop and Literature.” That title was not approved as such, and had to be changed to “Literature and Modern Culture.” The original rationale was as follows:

The goal of this class is to engage students in close reading and in depth writing via an important aspect of modern culture; hip hop music.  Students will use this opportunity to explore literature as it relates to American ideas and values as seen in hip hop culture.  Students will build unexpected connections between classic literature, current blogs, and popular lyrics.  Junior year traditionally studies American novels, films, and issues; this class will serve a similar objective but will expand by showing students how “American” issues are intrinsically tied to global issues.  Students will be encouraged to look at issues regarding the environment, immigration, poverty, and warfare.” I also wrote that I wanted to, “use hip-hop as a point of reference to understand the development of America throughout the 20th century.  Students will understand how previous genres (big band, jazz, soul, disco, rhythm and blues) lead to the development of rap, but also, how these genres of music relate directly to the literature, social and political climate of the day. Hip-hop also allows for an intensive study of geography and the implications of certain locations.  West coast and East coast tension can be explored, leaving room for discussion of differences and similarities between California culture and New York City.  In New York City alone, there are opportunities to discuss how poetry, literature, and news develops out of various neighborhoods.

With new and heightened focus on the Common Core, a study of rap and hip hop would be ideal for a myriad of reasons.  Close reading of nonfiction and fiction blends seamlessly as students analyze the stories told through rap, while reading about its influence through non-fiction mediums.  Students will use media to generate thoughtful questions that they can answer through research.  Also, media literacy is crucial part of the Common Core, and music videos, documentaries, and other avenues provide a direct link for analysis of film, as well as comparison of the written word to visual media.  Students will gain a firm handle on the English language, style, conventions, and its shift over time.  Lastly, students will be speaking and listening every day, as it is an elemental part of the course.  

As an 11th grade English course, students will explore literature that aligns to the core program.  Students will study Into the Wild, The Great Gatsby, and Death of a Salesman as well as various other poetry and nonfiction pieces.  The ultimate goal is to have students truly read, analyze, and synthesize how these pieces of literature reflect an American consciousness and tradition, and how that tradition is represented through hip hop.

I felt this was a pretty compelling course description. I compiled so many sources; I was ready. To my disappointment, not only was this course unpopular with our curriculum council, it also lacked hype and support among administration and staff. Needless to say, the class never ran. So now I am back to square one. I am not sure how to ethically negotiate through the text-based curriculum that I am required to teach. I am not sure how to encourage other teachers to do the same. I am not sure why teachers cannot be trusted with making their own decisions about what is taught. I don’t want to argue about what holds more merit, a Jay-Z song or a page from a classic.  Both can teach grammar, figurative language, research, politics, and culture. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, it can be both, and it should be.

What do you think?

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