“It is one of our greatest experiences, as advanced educators, to know the motivational content of our subjects, and to deliberately inspire our students with the love of content that they would have been unlikely ever to have known without our teaching. It is the special opportunity for grammar teachers to show students why grammar is beautiful and fun, and it is the special privilege of the calculus teacher to show students why calculus is exciting. If we do not do this, there is no one left in society to do it.”
This is an excerpt from a wonderful article by Michael Clay Thompson (“Curriculum as Engagement with the World,” Our Gifted Children magazine, #68, March 2000), who has written over 70 books on teaching literature and language and is an acclaimed expert on teaching complex texts.
One of the objectives of the new Common Core curriculum is to return to teaching more complex readings. An unfortunate consequence of the Reading Workshop approach used in so many schools now and for the last 10 years or so (especially in K-8 contexts) is that students are not reading challenging books—challenging not just in difficulty, but in ideas. With its emphasis on developing a love of reading as opposed to acquiring a body of knowledge, the Reading Workshop approach in language arts classes has focused on
*Students choosing their own books so they are more motivated to complete reading assignments
*Students reading many books instead of being concerned with the quality of the books read (though many teachers do provide book lists)
*Students spending time in class reading and working on individual book projects instead of being taught by the teacher
Common Core standards require that teachers re-focus on quality complex texts and not just on fluent reading. It will require that teachers return to using class time to teach complex texts rather than having students read on their independent reading level—requiring students not only to stretch their abilities by reading on their instructional level, but to acquire great content in their reading.
One of the purposes of Thompson’s article cited above is to outline the criteria for choosing quality content—in other words, how do we know which “complex texts” are worth teaching and knowing? How do we know what content constitutes a “profound engagement with the world?” I use mostly Thompson’s words in summarizing his criteria below:
Thompson’s Criteria for Quality Content
1. Is it knowledge? Will students know something afterward that they did not know before?
2. Is the content academically necessary?
3. Will the content be educational for these particular students? Will it be new for them or something they already know?
4. Is it global?
5. Is the knowledge at international grade level?
6. Is the content enlightening? Does it enlarge us in some way as humans or as a society?
7. Is the content counter-ignorant? Will this content arm students with correct information that will protect them from fraud, deceipt, or swindle?
8. Is the knowledge permanent?
9. Does it require a teacher? Or is it something the students will readily learn and appreciate on their own?
Thompson’s criteria for quality content is useful to educators because we can use it for all subjects and not just the complex texts we choose to teach in Language Arts or English classes. Before you plan your next unit, see if its content measures up to these guidelines. If so, you are likely making a real difference in the lives of the students you teach.