Getting Students to Do More with Less: One Teacher Whittles Down her Humanities Curriculum

by Carol Lacerenza-Bjork, National Re:Learning Faculty memberAt West Hill High School in Stamford, Connecticut, English teacher Carol Lacerenza-Bjork and her ninth-grade students developed a curriculum that would achieve their objectives by giving more attention to fewer required texts. Here is her account of how that year-long course took shape, as they planned backwards from the outcomes they aimed for:

First, outcomes were explicit and focused:

  • Students will demonstrate that they can apply interpretations and analyses of literature, film, journalistic nonfiction, and essays to contemporary issues and thinking in order to construct meaning that will prepare them to solve problems now and in the future.
  • Students will demonstrate that they can articulate and defend a position in a variety of mediums, in the oral, written, and visual domains, developed from data individually and collectively obtained and studied, related to questions about the human condition.
  • Students will demonstrate their skills in problem-solving and focused study both in groups and individually. In connection with this, students will demonstrate their ability to sort and prioritize information in order to use it to construct knowledge.
  • Students will demonstrate that they understand the value of collaboration, cooperation, and self-governance.

Next, the kind and number of final assessments of student work were narrowed and few, while the number of assessment tasks throughout the year were varied and many, depending on the individual “need for practice.” The final assessment vehicles were assigned, as follows:

One paper, in response to an essential question of the student’s choice, that 1) examines multiple perspectives on the question, problems and additional questions it raises and 2) focuses on the student’s position about how the question and its possible answers and solutions (or lack thereof) affect individuals and society.

One formal presentation in which the student 1) describes how his or her question is formulated and focused, and why it is important to study, 2) shares the evidence he or she has collected in order to develop a position, and 3) articulates his or her position, using visuals, as appropriate.

One seminar, organized, researched and led with two other students who will be released from four class days during the year to do whatever group preparation is necessary before facilitating the seminar.


Independent and Group Work
Throughout the year students used class readings, independent reading, active listening and group and individual research to complete assessment tasks related to, and that would prepare them for, their final assessments. They could essentially choose whatever they wished to pursue that end, so that the content was varied and individualized, but the application of the knowledge was structured by the outcomes and assessments.

To provide students with the learning skills they needed in order to reach the outcomes, we as a team (teacher and students) decided to focus on a question of importance to them at the time: Can we predict by the nature, actions and influence of a leader (or leadership), what the behaviors of a society will be? Or do the behaviors of a society shape in predictable, patterned ways what kind of leader or leadership will emerge? From an extensive curriculum list of readings, we decided that we could best focus on this question if we narrowed our work to a study of several “classics” and several contemporary works. We chose Oedipus the King, Antigone, Animal Farm, 1984, Julius Caesar, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Lean on Me. reader response journals, developed an annotated bibliography that included these and other related works introduced in response to ongoing questions, and articulated a conception of:

1) the numbers and kinds of leaders and leadership styles,
2) types and forms of government,
3) the concepts of “static” behavior, movements, reforms, and revolutions, and
4) how these are viewed through various lenses (literary, historical, journalistic, artistic, etc.).

In the first semester, seminar texts were decided as a group. In those we examined poetry, short stories, essays, nonfiction, and selected excerpts from ancient and contemporary philosophers. During the second semester, small student groups selected readings.

Literary Groups:
Small groups of students selected the contemporary literature we eliminated from the classwork described above. These works included (but were not limited to) The Old Man and the Sea, Catcher in the Rye, The Chocolate War, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men, The Day No Pigs Would Die.

In the literary groups students worked together toward an understanding of an author’s position and the work’s themes as articulated through the characters, plot, setting and conflicts. They then compared and contrasted these with the works read as a whole class, and applied interpretation strategies to the class and independent work they were doing.

By using skills and a limited number of texts as the unifier to move toward the outcomes, and by reconstructing the ways in which students had opportunities to acquire knowledge through the texts, less became more. The curriculum allowed students to focus on developing problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, sophisticated modes of expression, and collaborative skills using a common base of knowledge. Students were then freed to apply those skills to individual learning strands that were exploratory, meditative, and “deep,” rather than remaining fixed in a more superficial exposure to skills and knowledge.