How Do I Decide What to Teach?

Planning and Organizing Literature Instruction:

1. Reflecting on your responses to a text.  In preparation for preparing lessons for teaching a text, you need to be able to reflect on your own responses to a text to consider the kinds of responses, interpretative strategies, themes, topics, issues, or critical lenses to focus on in your instruction.  And, you need to recognize the differences between your own level of interpretation and those of your students, differences reflecting your knowledge, training, life experiences, and purposes for reading as a teacher.

Read a poem or short story that you have not read before. During the reading, or immediately after, write a journal entry in which you respond as fully as you can to the text you have read. Then reflect on your responses and interpretations, noting certain patterns in your responses or interpretations.  Then consider some possible reasons for those patterns in terms of the text, your critical preferences/approaches, or your purpose for reading.   Then, based on your reflections, predict how students at a certain grade level, possibly ones you’ll be teaching, will respond to this text and how their responses might differ from your responses.

2.  Developing response tasks and purposes for tasks.  Select a text and think about what you would like students to learn from interpreting this text.  Based on what you want students to learn, select some talk, writing, or drama tools that will best achieve what you want them to learn.  By defining what you want students to learn, you can link your tasks to your purposes—what students will learn.

3.  Sequencing tasks.  In formulating your tasks, you also need to think about how to best sequence tasks so that each tasks prepares students for subsequent tasks “first things first.”  In thinking about sequencing tasks, you are continually asking, will students be able to do this task, and, if not, what can I do to prepare them for this task so that each task serves to prepare students for the next task.

4. Formulating alternative versions of tasks.  Because you’ll be using the same or similar activities with different grade or ability levels, you will need to be able to create alternative versions of your tasks to match differences in students’ grade or ability levels.  For younger grades or lower ability levels, you may need to provide more specific directions or scaffolding or you may need to substitute less difficult tasks.  Even within the same class, you may need to provide some students with more structured directions than other students.

5.  Considering alternative “intelligences” in devising tasks. Devise some tasks that draw on intelligences other than just the logical/linguistic intelligences.  Consider how you would integrate some of these other intelligences with uses of logical/linguistic intelligences, how, for example, mime or pantomime drama tools can be used to foster writing tasks.

6. Adding criteria for self-evaluating tasks.  In completing tasks, students need to know what it means to do a task well

7.  Modeling tasks for students.  In giving directions for tasks, students often need to be shown what or how to complete a task.  You there need to model a task for students — demonstrating how you would complete a task in a manner that you’re not telling them what to do.  In demonstrating tasks, you may also refer to some criteria by which you reflect on successful completion of a task.

8.  Selecting an organizational framework for a unit.  In designing units, you are going beyond planning for individual activities to organize your activities according to some coherent, overall topic, theme, issue, genre, archetypes, historical/literary period, or production.

In devising a literature unit, you will be developing a series of tasks for a week or several weeks organized around a topic, theme, issue, ideas, text, genre, literary period, world, etc.  In devising a unit, you need to select some texts (books, videos, Websites, etc.) and the some tasks that are related to your overall focus, tasks that involve students in inductive development of the unit’s focus.

Here are things we need to focus on:

– Topics

– Themes

– Issues

– Genres

– Archetypes

– Literary periods

– Historical/regional/cultural worlds

– Topics: Organizing your unit around a topic such as power, evil, suburbia, the family, etc. Students may then compare or contrast the different portrayals of the same topic across different texts.

It is important to select topics about which students have some familiarity or interest, or that may engage them.  You may also want to have students study how certain topics are represented in literature and/or the media.

One advantage of a topics approach is that topics do not imply the kind of value or cultural orientation associated with a thematic or issue unit.  Students may construct their own value stance related to a topic, for example, defining different attitudes towards the topic of mother/daughter relationships.  However, without that additional value orientation, students may lack motivation to be engaged in a topic.

– Themes.   You may also organize your unit around certain themes portrayed in texts.   A frequently used theme is that of individualism or conformity to society—the extent to which characters must conform to or resist societal norms.   As we just noted, one advantage of thematic units is that students may become engaged with related attitudes or values associated with a theme.   One disadvantage of thematic units is that they can readily become too didactic, in which you attempt to have students “learn” certain thematic lessons—the importance of not conforming to society or the need to be courageous.

This problem of didacticism relates to how you organize your unit. You can organize your unit in both a “top-down” deductive manner, providing students with theoretical perspectives or frames for them to apply in a deductive manner.   You can also organize your unit in a “bottom-up” inductive manner, encouraging students to make their own connections and applications.  To avoid the didactic tendency of thematic unit, you can move more to an inductive approach, allowing students to make their own interpretations and connections that may different from any presupposed central thematic focus.

– Issues.  You can also organize your units around issues, for example, the issue of gender and power—the degree to which women may have to assume subordinate roles in a culture.   One advantage of an issue is that students may adopt different, competing perspectives about an issue, tensions that may create interest in that issue.  Students can also adopt an inquiry-based approach in which they frame questions related to an issue and then those questions drive the unit.   One disadvantage of studying issues is that students may bring often rigidly defined stances on issues such as gun control or school vouchers, which may not allow for further development or consideration of alternative perspectives.

– Genres.  You may also organize your unit around studying a particular genre—short story, novel, ballad, rap, drama, memoir, biography, poetry, film noir, or hybrid combinations or mixtures of genres evident in a multi-genre approach to writing instruction.

One advantage of a genre approach is that students learn a larger literacy practice of making generalizations about similarities between different texts based on certain genre features.  One disadvantage of a genre approach is that is leads readily into pigeonholing or categorizing texts as representing certain genre features without critically analyzing those texts.

– Archetypes.  You can also organize units around mythic or literacy archetypes, drawing on the critical approach of the archetypal.

One advantage of archetypal approaches is that students may enjoy studying what larger mythic aspects are underlying a range of different texts associated with their own lives. One disadvantage of archetypal units is that they may lead to the same pigeonholing as with genre units.

– Literary periods. You may also create units based on certain literary periods. In studying these periods, you can incorporate background historical events or cultural attitudes shaping texts, as well as similarities between literature, art, music, and popular media.  One advantage of such units is that you can study writers’ work as shaped by their historical and cultural contexts.   One disadvantage is that it may simply become matter of covering a lot of historical information or facts about features of the period without fostering critical response to the literature itself.

– Historical/regional/cultural worlds.  You may also organize units around certain historical, regional, or cultural worlds.

9. Formulating objectives for a unit and aligning objective to curriculum standards.  As you did in devising tasks, you then need to formulate some objectives for what you want your students to learn in this unit.

The following are some examples of objectives based on some interpretive strategies:

  • Emotions
  • Defining narrative development
  • Character actions as social practices
  • Constructing social and cultural worlds
  • Elaborating on connections to other texts
  • Positioning/stances
  • Voices/language/discourses

The following are some objectives based on applying different critical lenses:

  • Applying a reader-response lens
  • Applying a semiotic lens
  • Applying a poststructuralist lens
  • Applying a psychological lens
  • §  Applying an archetypal approach
  • Applying analysis of gender, class, race approach

In formulating your unit or course learning objectives, you also need to relate them to local school district, state, or national standards.   Many schools’ English curriculums are organized around standards derived from district, state, or national standards.  These standards attempt to articulate what students should be able to do and know at different grade levels.

In some cases, state standards specify certain content that needs to be mastered, for example, that students should know certain literary critical concepts or texts.  One problem with content-based standards is that they can homogenize or “standardize” the curriculum in ways that limit teachers’ autonomy.  Another problem with content-based standards is that they tend to perpetuate a transmission model of instruction in which teachers primary impart and test for content knowledge.    In contrast, other states define standards more in terms of general competencies, thought processes, or strategies based on a constructivist curriculum model.   Students are evaluated based on performance assessments what they can do and know.
Standards formulated in terms of performance allow for more teacher autonomy in terms of teaching their own specific content. By evaluating students according to performance, students have to apply what they learn to demonstrate their ability to, for example, critically analyze texts to be included in an anthology.

10.  Developing unit tasks.  You then need to specify your tasks, formulating them as in numbers.  You then need to consider an appropriate sequence for your tasks, so that each task leads, “first things first,” to the next task.

  • Initial interest rousers.   In designing units, you need to begin with an interest rouser task that hooks students into the topic, issue, theme, genre, etc. By initially engaging them with texts, material, or phenomena you will be studying, you are providing them with an experience that enhance their interest and lead them to perceive the value or worth of the unit.
  • Providing variety/choice.   In planning your unit, you also want to include a variety of different types of experiences in order to avoid redundancy and repetition.
  • Drawing on school resources.   In planning your instruction, before you begin your student teaching, you need to determine what resources are available in the school.  For example, if you are going to teach a single text to an entire class, you need to know if there are class sets of that text in the bookroom.
  • School technology resources.  You also need to scope out the types of technology tools available for student use.
  • Classroom contexts and climates.   Your different classes will vary according to their demographic make-up, social dynamics, history, attitudes, interests, knowledge, experience, reading ability, or engagement with your activities.

If students lack a sense of classroom community, you could do some additional group process activities that serve to bolster classroom community.   If students are intimidated about sharing their responses because they feel intimidated by other students in the class, you could meet privately with these other students and share your concerns with them.

  • Recognizing/respecting diversity.  It is important that your unit reflects the larger diversity of society in terms of differences in gender, class, race, and learning orientations/ accommodations.
  • Final projects. You should also include a culminating final project that serves to draw together the different, disparate elements of the unit.   This final project should provide students with an opportunity to extend approaches and ideas from the unit to create their own interpretations of texts.

11.  Evaluating your own and others’ units.  Review your unit based on the criteria listed below.  If you haven’t yet developed a unit, click on the “student units” link in the Website that takes you to units developed by pre-service teachers.   Select two of these units.  What do you perceive to be strengths and limitations of these units?   How would you revise these units to improve them?

– Appeal: will the unit appeal to students?
– Appropriateness for grade level: are the texts and assignments appropriate for the targeted grade level?
– Variety: is there a variety of different types of texts and activities?
– Writing: are there ample opportunities to use writing about and/or of literature?
– Student choice: do students have choices or options?
– Inductive vs. deductive: do students work both from a “top-down” deductive and a “bottom-up” inductive manner?
– Logical sequence: do the assignments build logically so that initial assignments prepare students for subsequent assignments?
– Beginnings: does the beginning create some interest in the unit?
– Endings: do the culminating activities or projects help students define their own overall connections?


3 Replies to “How Do I Decide What to Teach?”

    1. ក្មេង​តូច​មក​ច្រឡំ​កន្លែង​ហើយ អត្ថ​បទនេះ​សម្រាប់​មនុស្ស​ឧស្សាហ៍ទេ!


  1. ក៏មកមើល ក្រែងមានរឿងព្រេងបុរាណអី…ដល់ម៉ោឃើញ អង់កាលេច្រើនចឹង ខ្ជិលណាស់…កំពុងអត់ចេះស្រាប់ផង


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