Curriculum Planning

Tips for Designing a Course From Scratch

A look at one teacher’s process for designing a new elective, including writing learning objectives, setting up the scope and sequence, and selecting materials.

July 10, 2023
Hero Images Inc. / Alamy

Last year, I found myself in a teaching rut. It was my seventh year teaching freshman English, and I was ready for a change. My high school encourages teachers to design and teach electives focused on our and our students’ interests, so I decided to take advantage of this opportunity to freshen my practice. I created a class that I couldn’t wait to teach: Misfits and Monsters in Literature.

I loved the idea of helping students see monsters for what they are: metaphors for cultural fears and obsessions. Although designing an elective class from scratch is intensive, the process afforded me insight into effective curricular practices. I share some of my takeaways here in hopes that they’ll support your own planning.

Determining Learning Objectives 

Designing an elective isn’t fundamentally different from teaching a core class. You’ll start by identifying learning objectives, which will then allow you to establish the scope and sequence for your course. From there, you’ll select texts for your class. 

When writing the learning objectives, consider the following: What standards do you have to address? How will students demonstrate mastery in your courses? How does the theme for your elective lend itself to particular learning targets? How will you build on the skills from previous classes? 

The subject and topic of your elective will determine your answers to many of these questions. My culminating project, for example, involved students’ creating a monster and explaining how it embodied the theory and history we discussed in class. 

One of my learning objectives was that students would leave my course being able to synthesize sources in a research presentation. Because I wanted students to learn about different monsters, I divided them into small groups and had them create and deliver presentations teaching classmates about monsters from different cultures, thereby meeting the objective and igniting interactivity.

Establishing a Scope and Sequence

After you’ve established learning objectives, it’s time to think about how to organize the course into units that logically lead to your chosen culminating project/assessment. This approach aligns with an Understanding by Design framework that encourages teachers to plan backward from their intended learning outcomes, then align each component of the curriculum accordingly. 

I wanted my elective to emphasize critical thinking by engaging students in the comparing and contrasting of monsters across cultures. I organized the class around types of monsters (dragons, werewolves, vampires, witches, etc.) so that students could see how different cultures have used monsters to embody specific fears. Your class might be better structured around themes, skills, or genres. Breaking larger concepts into subconcepts will help you segment instruction and plan your scope and sequence in logical progression.

Selecting Materials

Next, you’ll need to select texts and topics. While I was excited to build my syllabus, the theme I selected presented me with problems of practice: Literature abounds with monsters, so I needed to narrow my search by keeping certain things in mind.

For example, content: I wanted to expose students to different literary theories, such as new historicism and feminism. I needed texts that presented students not only with monsters but also with stories that complicated their understandings of social dynamics.

I also wanted to center students’ interests. This would be an elective class, so I wanted my students to enjoy what they were reading. While there were several texts I wanted to teach, they weren’t texts that students wanted to read; I was convinced that I could find texts that would get students thinking about my essential questions without boring them, but it would take a bit of searching.

A third challenge was time: I wanted to read all the classics of monster literature (I Am Legend, Dracula, Carmilla, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), but there wouldn’t be enough time to include a lot of longer texts in my course. As a compromise, I settled on two book-length texts, and this gave me space to expose students to different types of texts (films, poems, short stories, etc.).

While searching for right-fit material, I relied on multiple sources: short story and poetry anthologies, CommonLit, social media (especially various Facebook groups for English teachers), and publicly accessible high school and college syllabi posted online. Diversifying my sources helped me uncover texts that would satisfy all of the instructional needs outlined above.

Teaching and Learning

The real fun begins when it’s time to start teaching your self-designed class. Your plans will change as you go, but here are a few suggestions to make the actual teaching of the class smooth:

Begin the class with a survey asking students to explain why they chose to take it and what they hope to learn. I asked students to explain what kinds of texts they wanted to read; they expressed interest in monsters from Celtic/Gaelic folklore, so I incorporated them throughout our time together, including in a mini-unit on the Banshee.

As the course progresses, keep track of what you do during each period. This documentation doesn’t need to be extensive. I kept an informal Google Doc with a brief bulleted list of what we did each day. Each week, I reflected on the lessons, noting (using the comment feature) what worked and didn’t.

Student feedback is instrumental. Gather it frequently, even through informal conversations with focus groups. I asked students to fill out a Google Form giving their honest feedback. By making the submissions anonymous, I received invaluable input on what went well and what I could continue to develop.

Student Engagement

Creating an elective is a serious commitment. But the joys far outweigh the challenges. Spending three months talking about monsters was a blast; my students and I addressed state standards while considering how monsters are vehicles for exploring essential societal questions. 

Though it’s important to provide instruction on the foundations of our subject matter, students should be given the chance to build upon foundational skills by engaging with content that is interesting to them. Incorporating teacher-designed electives into the curriculum allows teachers and students to engage in rigorous thinking while having fun. 

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