Writer, blogger, and middle school teacher K. Imani Tennyson kicks off the school year with how a creative curriculum can be incorporated into the Common Core teaching standards for English Language Arts. This blog post is part of a monthly series by PEN American Center’s Children’s and Young Adults’ Books Committee. 

With many schools already returning for the fall, including my own, I thought I’d write a post reflecting on my own teaching practices. There has been a lot of talk about Common Core the past few years and how it is going to “ruin” our students. Now, while that is a matter of debate, the theory behind Common Core is actually a good one: to have all the states’ curriculums united so that when, say, a student from North Carolina attends college in California, he or she has the same exact skill set as a student from California. We can’t disagree with that. However, the way Common Core has been rolled out—starting with testing and then the creation of a curriculum—has had many folks up in arms, particularly for the English/Language Arts test.

 A few years ago I attended a conference designed for teachers to learn about the Common Core standards and how it would change our teaching. A teacher asked about curriculum plans, and when the responder stated that the plans would not be available until 2018, yet testing would begin in 2014, the room was filled with a thousand gasps. My co-worker and I glanced at each other and chuckled. See, I haven’t used a purchased curriculum plan in…oh never. I’ve been given textbooks, but I’ve always used them as a supplement to the curriculum I create. In fact, I stopped using my literature textbooks a few years ago and now they’re just decorating my shelf. I’ve completely switched to novels and supplemental non-fiction articles that I find in the news and on sites like The New York Times teaching blog. By creating my own curriculum I can tailor my units and lessons to content that will be of high interest to my students. I try my best to ensure that all of the writing that they do is relevant to their lives, allowing them to take ownership of their work. Of course, not all assignments are popular and sometimes they just don’t work, but I do have students asking me, “When are we going to do _______ project?” They are excited about learning, sometimes excited about the novels (can’t win them all) but most of all, they learn about their world and even discover what types of literature they like and don’t like. Most importantly, I choose novels that have diverse protagonists, and all of my students are able to see themselves as the hero.

For this blog I thought I’d give a little bit of insight into my thought process and how I chose the books for this first semester. I will also include the Common Core standards to underscore how the novels and the assessments meet the standards.

My first unit is titled “The Elements of Fiction” and has students looking deeper into what constitutes a fictional story and evaluating a novel for its elements. The students get to choose a book from a list I give them; and based on my experience from last year, none of the books should be current movies. I made the change for two reasons: students chose books due to the popularity of the movies and that the current crop of YA adaptations are lacking in diversity.  For their summative assessment, students will either write a 500-word book review or create a new book jacket that evaluates the character arc, plot construction, the writer’s style and theme, and finishes with their own brief review of the book. The Common Core standards this assessment meets are:

Reading Standards for Literature 2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.

Writing Standards 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.

Of course, throughout the unit I will address other standards that will help the students meet the two main standards I have chosen to assess.

The second unit is titled “The Hero’s Journey” and builds off the previous unit. This time, students will use the knowledge they have gained about the elements of fiction and use those skills to write their own fiction. In the past, I’ve told students to “just write a story” and many flounder, so a few years ago I changed tactics and now I give them more specific parameters. The parameters change depending on the unit. Last year, the focus was on the theme “Coming of Age”; this year’s theme is “The Hero’s Journey.” The novel they will read is Ellen Oh’s Prophecy. I chose this novel because I want the students to see a girl as the hero, as the special one, and to experience a culture outside of their own. Prophecy fit the bill perfectly. In addition to reading the novel and studying Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” students will actually write their own “hero’s journey” story. Students will choose out of a hat the age and gender of the character, an external conflict (all are required to have an internal conflict), and to throw in some research, their story must be from a geographical region they studied in 7th grade. This bit of research also meets one of the Common Core writing standards. Students will, again, choose whether to present their story as a graphic novel or as prose. The Common Core standards this unit meets are:

RSL 3: Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of character, or provoke a decision.

WS 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.

Just as in the unit before, there are other standards in addition to these two main ones that I will use to assess students.

The third and last unit of the semester, currently titled “Fight for Freedom,” is a reboot of a unit I did a few years ago. In all the excitement over The Hunger Games, I decided to do an experiment and teach the series. The third book, Mockingjay, and its theme of revolution fit perfectly with the U.S. History curriculum my students were learning at the time, which was the start of the Revolutionary War. In addition, the Arab Spring was still in the news and I thought that tying the three revolutions together would be a good idea. In theory, it could have worked, but I was tired of The Hunger Games and so were the students. The unit kind of ended up a dud, but what saved it was an issue that arose with the city and my school which provided the students with the opportunity to take the lessons learned about standing up for their beliefs and put them into action. They were able be a part of a real revolution. Anyways, I’d been toying with bringing back that unit in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and how my students who feel they don’t have a voice (many of them are immigrants, or are the children of immigrants) can somehow find a way to share their voice. I hadn’t decided on a novel until I read Jason Reynolds and Brandon Kiely’s All American Boys. If there ever was a novel that was timely and full of protest, this was the novel. I know my students are asking questions about the topics they see in the media, and even hear from family members, and I want them to be able to learn to express their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs about issues that directly affect them. So while I haven’t exactly decided how I’m going to assess them, I do know what standards we will be addressing. The Common Core standards this unit will meet are:

Reading Standards for Informational Text 2: Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of a text, including its relationship to a supporting idea; provide an objective summary of the text.

Writing Standard 1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.

Last year, I had my Honor class choose a social justice issue that had meaning to them (a few even did police brutality) and had them create a Prezi presentation that persuaded us to their side. They had to provide research and facts to support their opinion. Those went over very well with my students, with many of them referencing what they learned from their classmates in later discussions. At this point in time, that is the assessment that I’m leaning towards because the project allows them to choose a topic, do research, present an argument AND use technology (which is another Common Core standard).

And that is how my first semester is structured. As you can see, teaching and creating relevant and interesting content for our students can be time-consuming and require a significant amount of thought. It requires a teacher to truly know and be aware of their student population, and also be current on what is being published in YA literature. We don’t have to stick to the classics to find quality literature to teach. In fact, during our second semester, my students will be reading two award-winning books, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. It’s all about how you present the material. I routinely change up my units (I even changed twice mid-year last year) to keep my teaching fresh and to meet the students’ needs. For example, with William Shakespeare, I always paired it with Sharon Draper’s Romiette and Julio, and as much as I love the book, I was getting a bit bored with it, so to keep it fresh, I changed up the novel. This year my students will be comparing Romeo and Juliet to Una LaMarche’s Like No Other, which meets RSL 9. I read the novel over the summer and found it to be a sweet quiet story that told Shakespeare’s R&J in a unique way. We shall see how it goes.

Fellow teachers (and librarians who help teachers), I implore you to think outside of the box and try to create your own curriculum. It takes a bit of work, but it is worth it. Teachers are some of the most creative people around, but are often forced to use purchased curriculum plans that don’t have a lick of relevance to our students. These cookie-cutter plans continually exclude children of color and they rarely get to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. It is up to us to help change that, and until your district requires you to use the plan of the month, create your own. You will be liberated with what you can create, what you can do in your classroom, and what your students can achieve. Because at the end of the day, we want our students to be better readers and writers when they leave our classroom than when they enter it. 

K. Imani Tennyson is a both a writer and a middle school teacher. A graduate of Antioch University Los Angele’s MFA program, K. Imani also holds a CA Teaching Credential and completed Antioch’s Certificate in the Teaching of Creative Writing program. Her work has been published in Blackberry: A Magazine and Scissors and Spackle Literary Journal and she writes for the YA blog Rich in Color. She is a 2014 VONA/Voices Fellow and participated in the ALA’s Day of Diversity conference that gathered authors, bloggers, teachers and librarians to promote diverse voices in Children’s and YA literature.