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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Can Teachers Be Too Territorial with the Curriculum They Teach?

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:

  • Analyzing Danny Elfman's contributions to music scores as we watch clips from Beetlejuice, tracking how the music propels the narrative.
  • Discussing creative license 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 looking at the first few minutes of the recent movie which begins during the Blitz in London.
  • Discussing the differences between directors and cinematographers, reading the opening selection of Shoeless Joe, drawing their idea of Iowa, and watching scenes from Field of Dreams later on.
  • Reading The Outsiders (I have a class set) and doing a comparison with the movie.
  • Watching scenes from Emma and Clueless, Pride and Prejudice and from the Bollywood-esque Bride and Prejudice.
  • Discovering the power of sound effects and sound effects editing by looking at those quick power-chess scenes in Searching for Bobby Fisher.
  • Interviewing my father, who wrote the movie version of The Count of Monte Cristo. He'll talk about what it takes to write a screenplay from a classic book.

Shakespeare in Middle School

And, since he's the most often used screenwriter of all time, we're going to be reading scenes from Shakespeare (the study of the Renaissance being a seventh grade history standard, by the way), and looking at different versions of scenes from some of the greatest performances. We'll watch the very end of Shakespeare in Love to see what the Old Globe Theater looked like. We'll be looking at the crane shot from the end of Branagh's Henry V to see the power of the single shot. We'll be comparing various scenes from versions of Romeo and Juliet.

Which brings me to the email I received from a parent whose student is in my class. She explained that the kid loved the course, but she was concerned how the high school would react if they knew I was talking about Romeo and Juliet.

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 is an excerpt of my response:

Thank you so much for your concern...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... I deeply believe that waiting until high school to discover Shakespeare does a disservice to our students. Considering Romeo and Juliet are middle schoolers and Shakespeare is a part of the seventh grade history curriculum, it is very appropriate to be studying it.

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, three years prior to when the student will see it again, will only serve to help his enthusiasm later.

I realize that some themes will get lost on these kids, but 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...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.

Re-Reading and Re-Teaching

I know I took a stand here and might take some heat. But there is such shortsightedness regarding classic literature in education. We loop our history curriculum over and over, our math and science curriculum over and over.

So why do language arts teachers get so territorial? By tenth grade will students honestly think that Romeo and Juliet go off on some romantic honeymoon, and I'm going to bust the ending for them?

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.

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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