Which curriculum would you choose? watered down, or content-rich rigorous

by Grace

Would you rather have a dumbed down curriculum for your children or a content-rich, rigorous one?

Which of these two examples would you rather have for your children’s middle or high school English course?  They are pulled from two different teacher guides.

Example A – five lessons that cover a section of The Outsiders.

The Outsiders, a young adult novel with a 5th grade reading level, has become a standard assignment in many public schools.   These lessons feature cooperative learning, hands on projects, and self-reflective writing.

1.  Hands-On Project – “Tuff” collage

“Tough and tuff are two different words. Tough is the same as rough; tuff means cool, sharp–like a tuff-looking Mustang or a tuff record.”  –  Ponyboy

… For this project, make a collage or montage of what is tuff.

Suggested materials include:  a large piece of posterboard for the display; magazines, newspapers, and other print media; fabric samples; jewelry; nail polish and lipstick; pictures of tuff people.  (Not very gender neutral?)  The finished display is shared with the class.

2.  Cooperative Learning Activity – Making Rules

Students are assigned to work in small groups to plan how they would manage if their parents left them alone for a month.  They assign jobs to each member, plan meals, make house rules, schedule activities, determine emergency procedures, and resolve conflicts. This activity relates to the main characters in The Outsiders who managed to live without their parents.

3.  Reading Response Assignment – Personal Journal

Students are asked to create a reading response journal to record their thoughts, observations, ideas, and questions as they read The Outsiders.  They can use a “diary-type” format, with personal reflections to be read by the teacher in a non-judgemental way with no corrections or letter grades.  A list of suggested teacher responses is provided, including “Wow!  That’s interesting stuff!”

The two other lessons included a social science group project and a quiz.

Example B – three lessons that cover the Gettysburg Address.

The Gettysburg Address (11/12th grade reading level) is typically studied in history class, but these lessons are intended for an English course.

1.  Understanding The Gettysburg Address

Students are divided into groups and each group is assigned to “translate” one sentence from the Gettysburg Address. Students will use a dictionary and/or thesaurus to rewrite the sentence in their own words.  These student sentences are compiled, and the meaning of Lincoln’s speech is discussed in class.  Afterwards students complete a worksheet and a quiz that tests their understanding.

2.  The Language Of The Gettysburg Address

Students receive instruction on rhetorical devices used by Lincoln – grammatical parallelism, antithesis,
alliteration, and repetition.  Using a worksheet, students are asked to identify examples of these devices and then create a persuasive speech modeled on Lincoln’s presentation.  It is suggested that students present their speeches to the class.

3.  A Civil Conversation

This exercise takes the form of a respectful debate, where students are asked to discuss ideas from the Gettysburg Address.  They select areas of agreement and disagreement, using the text to support their ideas.  They are instructed to focus on ideas not on personalities, and to find areas of common ground among other class members.

Among the objectives of the Gettysburg Address lessons:

  • Learn the main concepts of the Gettysburg Address and understand its place in history
  • Apply word analysis and vocabulary skills in comprehending the speech.
  • Write a concise persuasive speech.
  • Identify and apply various literary devices
  • Practice respectful and fact-based debate


A few observations:

  • I would rather have the Gettysburg Address lessons for my own children.
  • From what I have seen, The Outsiders lessons are more typical of  public school English curriculum.  Students spend hours and hours on poster projects and group projects, which apparently tend to lower IQ.
  • When I say that I believe more rigorous curriculum could improve SAT scores, these examples are what I have in mind.  Class days spent on poster projects, group discussions about menu planning, and uncorrected personal journals are not likely to teach the skills measured by SAT exams.

HT Kitchen Table Math

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10 Responses to “Which curriculum would you choose? watered down, or content-rich rigorous”

  1. Interesting that you mention The Outsiders. The theater group my son is part of will be doing a production based on it in the spring as a “Theatre for Social Justice” piece, which probably means they’ll be adding some sociology instruction in the rehearsals (as they did quite effectively with the Hunger Games production this summer, bringing in experts to talk about post-traumatic stress disorder, media influence, and child soldiers). http://westperformingarts.com/academy-classes/wep/

    I believe that this use of The Outsiders for a theater class is an appropriate one, as the reading level is irrelevant to the acting challenges.

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  2. gasstation – I agree that The Outsiders would be appropriate for a “Theatre for Social Justice” production. I believe the lessons for The Outsiders are heavily influenced by the teaching for social justice philosophy, which permeates public schools. Bill Ayers, a huge proponent of social justice teaching, is VP Curriculum for American Educational Research Association.

    In NY and probably in many other states, inserting social justice themes counts towards a school’s fulfillment of mandated character education training. The problem, IMO, is that the social justice aspect often crowds out basic academic instruction.

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  3. The Outsiders is assigned in middle school, but also high school and even college! So these lessons could be for students from 5-9th. By that time, in most places some American history has been taught so they would likely already have some historical context. Also, I think if only for the lessons on rhetorical devices close reading of a text only about 150 years old is valuable. Close reading of all sorts of old writings seems useful, but maybe that’s very “old school”.

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  4. I never read The Outsiders, though I was in high school when it first came out. I’ve read a plot summary and a review of the book—it seems like a fine story for teen theater, and it is likely that some exploration of gang culture will accompany the rehearsals. Note that the theater group is not associated with any school, and the kids are there because they want to act, not because they want to do literary analysis or social justice. The “social justice” stuff is mainly there for the parents and teachers, to make the acting classes seem deeper and more educational. It may help the students do the characterizations better, since none of them are involved in the local gangs and they won’t be able to draw on personal experience much.

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  5. “In a million years, I would never have linked The Outsiders with any notions of social justice. ”

    That’s why we have teachers – to point out the social (in)justice in these types of stories. 🙂

    The benefits of close reading arise from text complexity – in structure, style, vocabulary, and purpose. I think a mix of old and current writings would offer the benefits. I would not like to see it limited to contemporary writing.

    “Close readings of old texts sounds nice, but to me, a frill.”

    I don’t consider Shakespeare a frill.

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  6. Oh, I’ll have to ask my kids, but I think the main social justice issue in their study of The Outsiders was about excluding certain groups and social class/status. And then they had a sock hop where they were supposed to dress up like kids from the 60s.

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  7. “Oh, I’ll have to ask my kids, but I think the main social justice issue in their study of The Outsiders was about excluding certain groups and social class/status. And then they had a sock hop where they were supposed to dress up like kids from the 60s.”

    …and exclude certain groups and people of certain social class/status.

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  8. Class project … real world learning … learn by doing … peer tutoring

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  9. The argument seems that because of lousy history instruction (no context) the Gettysburg Address should not be used for English class.

    I agree that background knowledge is critical for this GA lesson to work well. My assumption is that the students who are taught this lesson, which I consider much more rigorous and generally of higher quality than typical English curriculum (The Oustiders example), would have been taught Civil War history in a similar rigorous manner. IOW, I’m using these English lessons as examples of good and bad curriculum, but I could have used history class examples to illustrate what I see as a problem of dumbed down education across all subjects in public schools.

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