To celebrate Columbus Day, the English teachers from grades 6-12 spent the day in a single room to begin our conversation about the upcoming curriculum rewrite. As with anytime you put twenty-three teachers in a room and ask them their opinions, not much got done. It's not to say that the conversation wasn't interesting or that ideas weren't valid, but there was little tangible work by the time the day was over. Perhaps that's needed though; before we can begin to form a master plan for the ELA curriculum across grades and subject matter, there first needs to be a common philosophy.
A large portion of the morning began with a debate on content vs. skills. In fact, debate likely isn't a good term since, whether they realized it or not, everyone was in agreement. In their own way, every teacher felt that while teaching the plot and content of the novels/plays/poems/stories was perhaps important, what was far more valuable was the "skills" the students would take away. Teachers then proceeded to list literary terms, talk about the need for text-dependent analyses, and how it was vital kids learn grammar skills so they could function in the "real world". I struggled with this morning's conversation for a while...not because I disagreed with either side...but because both seem to be missing a point.
Think about it: is the purpose of an English class to learn stories? No. That's a great side bonus and helps add to cultural knowledge, but that's something that SparkNotes can handle. Is, however, the purpose of English class to learn skills? I would argue again...that the answer is also no. Literary terms, plot pyramids, five paragraph essays, vocabulary words, even grammar...these are all great for taking tests and scoring well on school assignments, but they're ultimately just labels and constructs designed to systematize and break down literature into manageable, quantifiable, mathematical chunks. They're simultaneously useful...and destructive as they distill literature, speaking, listening, writing, and other "skills" into arbitrary "school functions". If the English curriculum has be a choice between that, and understanding plot...I don't really know what side I'd choose.
I once read a (paraphrased) quote by Seymour Papert who said that if you're going to write curriculum, you're limiting the body of knowledge in a subject down to a small percentage. In fact, you're really only selecting a percent of a percent when writing down specific lessons, novels, and "skills" to be covered. The original ideal of "literature" or perhaps more accurately "communication" exists separate from the school subject of "English" that we have created. While it's impossible to directly "teach" this ideal, it definitely has to be the starting point behind why we make the choices we make in curriculum talks. If we're starting with novels, skills, or even standards, then we've already elevated the constructs above the original intent, and we're merely selecting 1% of 1%.
With that, day one of curriculum talks are over. Will this session lead to a slight tweak, or a grand change? It could go either way...let's hope we all select the proper goals before moving forward.