In the last five years, I have been teaching Language Arts in Cooperative Arts and Humanities, New Haven, Connecticut. My school is a public magnet school for visual arts. This is a relevant factor because all the students who attend it come from the Greater New Haven area and choose this school because they want to develop their specific artistic interests. I feel honored to teach in such a challenging environment where each student has a unique and talented approach to my subject matter. It is also fascinating since I have the opportunity to engage my students’ arts interests and accomplish tasks that are normally considered “boring.” Being the only teacher of English for all the juniors gives me the opportunity to instill a real sense of community and acceptance for the individual in spite of our remarkable diversities. Co-op is also a “magnet” school and this is another important component as we experiment the real concept of diversity and all its connected complications.
Demographically, my students come from all possible backgrounds - 49% African-Americans, 35 % White and 16% Hispanics. I have a group of ten students who are not native and do not have an ESL teacher in the school. Another group of about twenty-four students has various special needs. They are included in all my classes with the exception of the Honors but the Special Education teacher co-teaches with me and works with all students irrespective of their abilities or special needs. This is particularly valuable because it helps overcome the barriers of diversity. About ten percent of all the juniors excel in both writing and reading. All my classes are good examples of the “melting pot” pattern with very effective and positive results as far as learning is concerned. In fact, I constantly see substantial improvements of both the struggling and proficient students.
Our curriculum goals are to develop an understanding and an appreciation of the variety of texts we analyze. The curriculum also requires students to respond to these texts critically and individually in order to achieve a true independence of thought and to build the character of a “real” citizen. The same curriculum for the New Haven Public Schools points out the fact the students need to acquire simple and straightforward strategies both in reading and writing to enhance their abilities to analyze and criticize any texts. Another important factor that is basic in all the units I plan is to offer my student the real possibility to choose the strategy they think to be more appropriate for the interpretation and analysis of the various literary texts. This is curriculum mandated; indeed, it is a powerful means to lead my students to a real independence of thought and judgment. Consequently, at the beginning of the school year, my students and I determine an overarching essential question, which will lead us through the various units. This essential question is important because it helps them understand the material we cover and responds to the curriculum requirements. It is also a steady reference for the promotion of concrete-operational thinking to accept the self and the others, to explore and understand the individual contribution, and to improve the social life of any human being. For my juniors these overarching essential questions are: What is the author’s theory? What is mine?
Another factor needs to be considered: my students belong to a modern and technological society in which everything is fast. They tend to reject the so-called “appropriate” curriculum because it is meaningless and too different from today’s standards. Each unit needs to be planned around their interest and appropriate zone of proximal development in order to have an effective learning segment with a high percentage of proficiency. This allows me to overcome the problem of lack of motivation and to make learning real and not “boring.” I know my students are attentive observers of today’s reality. They easily sympathize with people who live in disadvantageous conditions or who suffer for any form of discrimination or prejudice, and injustices. They share and make these issues their own. Consequently, my unit will be based on the study of today’s democracy from the viewpoint of the “real” people. It will be amazing to see how my students - the next generation - will effectively understand their rights and their position as citizens and free individuals. I have also chosen the texts I mentioned in the introduction because they all convey the main theme of how democracy can sometimes be altered by unscrupulous people. However, these texts will show my students how the concept of democracy is such a potent component to empower people in the detection of any possible fraud or manipulation. People can really defeat the “imperfections” if they are always alert, and reflect about the real reasons behind certain actions. I have also chosen to follow a chronological order because I want my students to understand that manipulation by unscrupulous individuals can occur at any time. Another reason for the chronological order is to teach how the social response to national crisis - Depression - develops. It will be interesting to analyze the strength, the freedom and the power of this social response. The final document will be the movie by Frank Capra because it is the summation of the main theme - manipulation of the individual - and the proof that the voice and power of a single, simple individual can break any fraudulent system. This will also be the response to our essential question. Timing is also another important factor for its failure or success. If I planned it too early in the school year, I would not be able to use the deep knowledge I have acquired of each of my students, and their complete trust to overcome their spontaneous opposition and rejection of the proposed topic. Due to these considerations, I plan this unit at the beginning of the third marking period because I know that my students will do anything I will ask them by then. They will have internalized the overarching essential question and will have already internalized the Socratic seminar method that I deem pivotal for the development of their skills and thoughts.
In planning my unit, the need for differentiated instruction plays an essential role. I think it is the key for closing the gap because each student is so different and unique that a standard, linear approach would be a complete failure. The theory of multiple intelligences suggests that the individual has strengths and weaknesses in one or several areas. Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory suggests the cultivation of desired capabilities. This means each student has a very specific skill. This skill needs to be valued because it helps the student reinforce his/her self-esteem with a direct improvement of the student’s learning. Consequently, I will focus on the desired capabilities of each student together with a varied and personalized approach. Following the district’s requirements, which I share, my goal is to engage the students in all the stages of the critical thinking process developed by Bloom’s Taxonomy throughout the entire process.