11 Tricks to Balance Your ELA Curriculum

What is the second-hardest part of being an English teacher, after grading?

For some of us, the answer is planning - specifically, how to design a curriculum that somehow “does it all”. We have to balance all the areas of ELA (literature, nonfiction, grammar, vocab, writing, and speaking), doing justice to each within the limited time constraints of the year (and the inevitable interruptions, snow days, or disasters that pop up…)

And sometimes, that balance (even when well-intentioned) tips too far in one direction or another, leaving one of the six areas shortchanged.

This task gets even harder if...
1. You teach a specialized English course (like British Lit, journalism, or speech), where you have a focus to honor but still have to meet a lot of unrelated standards
2. You also want to take on non-required, but important topics or skills (like note taking, technology, poetry, logic, etc.)
3. You don’t have a ton of guidance for your curriculum. (That freedom is an overwhelming blessing!)

So how do we juggle all the needed skills and knowledge? To help new and veteran teachers deal with this problem, Britt from The SuperHERO Teacher is joining me to share our tested solutions. (We have combined experience in both middle and high school ELA!)

1. Ensure rubrics assess more than one area of ELA.
Sara: Personally, our quarters were always so highly interrupted that I never had room to assume I would “get to it later”; thus, I had to make assessments that accomplished more than one standard at once. For example, instead of a typical Article of the Week system that is pretty much just reading skills, I had to embed public speaking into mine (asking students to present on self-chosen articles).

Britt: This. Is. So. Important!!! If you’re trying to ensure that ALL of the ELA standards are being met, you’ll have to hit on more than one area of ELA at once. For example, when I teach The Great Gatsby, I include assessments that focus not only on reading literature, but also historical analysis and language, as well! #BOOM. Just covered 3 full standards in one unit!

2. Make every unit multi-task.
Sara: Even if your unit is primarily “about” one area, it can still incorporate complementary OR opposite domains. For example, my TED unit seems to be all about public speaking, but it’s equal thirds of that, nonfiction reading, and writing skills.

Britt: #GrowthMindset is a HUGE buzzword in education right now, but who’s to say that we can’t teach it without incorporating reading literature, writing, informational text, and speaking and listening, too? My growth mindset portfolio appears to be focused on motivation and inspiration, but really, students will complete research, write responses, and strengthen all of their ELA skills!

3. Assign presentations that double-dip.
Sara: I try very hard to squeeze a presentation, Socratic Seminar, or another type of discussion into every unit. When that happens, I try to make rubrics that assess speaking skills AND the topic or skill under discussion. (For example, if it’s a student-led panel discussion about a class novel, you can bet that my rubric will include a reading AND a speaking row!)

Britt: Like most teachers, I’m sure you’re trying to cram a ton of super important information into one class period. Instead of assigning a presentation at the end of every single unit, why not include discussion in your daily bell ringer prompts? Ask students to think-pair-share or explain their response in 10 seconds to the class.

4. Schedule (or launch) your least-developed area early.
Sara: On the first day of a new quarter, I made a point to launch my grammar game board before any other unit started. That way, grammar was always happening in the background (and it could be squeezed in between my primary unit’s due dates). Since I do a better job of vocabulary some quarters than others, I made this differentiated vocab flipbook to try out this year so that it’s easier to fit in.

Britt: Teacher confession: I REALLY struggle with teaching Fahrenheit 451, but it was in our ELA curriculum last year and I knew I needed to get it completed early so that I wasn’t dreading it all school year. I needed a way to make it fun, so I developed a series of games (like Literary Jenga) and assigned students to stations. Guess what? The lightheartedness of the games made me enjoy teaching the novel SO much more!

5. Schedule your under-taught area between units.
Sara: Short on public speaking this quarter? Limit yourself to a week or less, and find a good in-between project or mini-unit to make sure it gets done. My favorite one involves drawing real-world scenarios from a hat and having students prepare short mini-speeches imitating that genre.

Britt: Sometimes I find it challenging to incorporate informational text into every unit. Try dedicating a 45 minute lesson that focuses on something the students are interested in at the time (think fidget spinners or bottle flipping) and have THEM write an informational text piece.

6. Give your lessons a hidden agenda.
Britt: When students (especially middle and high school aged) *think* they are making all the decisions in regards to their work, they perform a lot better! Giving students a choice between a variety of different projects or assessments helps students perform independently.

Sara: Me, to class: “We are going to debate whether or not grammar really matters anymore.”
Also me: (*Assesses the discussion AND uses it as prewriting for the upcoming essay.*)

7. Don’t be afraid of concurrent learning.
Sara: Yes, we have to be careful not to overload students. However, during in-class time (and not necessarily as homework), there’s no reason why your current lessons about transcendentalism can’t overlap with a mini-unit on note-taking skills. If you’re assigning an essay anyway (and state tests are coming up), add just two more days to the unit and teach timed writing alongside it.

Britt: Teaching literature, but need to also teach research writing? Try tying it into the novel you and your students are reading. For example, when I teach The Crucible, I like to incorporate research on the Salem Witch Trials. I could easily have students complete their research essay on that topic while simultaneously hitting all of the reading literature standards.

8. Cut the fluff.
Britt: It’s natural-- we ALL have to schedule a substitute at some point during the school year and it seems like when we do, nothing gets done (except fluff). It seems most realistic to just prepare something quickly (like a basic worksheet) and wish the sub luck, but I would advise you not to. Instead, prepare two or three reading literature lessons before the year begins that work with any novel and prepare your sub by writing detailed directions.

Sara: No offense, but I think we are all guilty of worksheets, projects, or tasks that don’t pull enough weight for you and your gradebook. Teachers and students deserve some fun, but be REALLY certain before you take on too many time-filler activities that don’t have a standard, rubric, or forthcoming summative assessment attached.

9. Make a routine (and stick to it).
Sara: Whether you have bell-ringers, consistent vocab quizzes every other Friday, or 10 minutes of daily independent reading time, try to squeeze in time for the areas that need it. If you hate teaching poetry, use a poem of the week routine to let experts teach it “for” you. If you’re struggling to find time for direct grammar instruction, then give them a super-fast sentence of the day bell-ringer that reviews concepts in disguise.

Britt: My first three years of teaching I found it challenging to create a routine and stick with it (sticking with it was the hard part), which is why I developed my bell ringer journals. They’re organized in a way that I’ve never seen before and the students actually enjoy them. It’s a win-win situation. By having all of your bell ringers prepared before the beginning of the school year, you have less planning time and more teaching time!

10. Guard your end dates for units/projects.
Sara: It’s normal to have a project take longer than expected… but it can’t happen all the time, or it will happen at the expense of other areas of ELA. When it does, be honest with yourself about what caused it and how to prevent it next year (or next month). For example, did that essay need more pre-teaching so that it would go better on the first try (and need less revision time)?

Britt: To avoid extending a project, set specific due dates throughout the project as checkpoints for your students. For instance, instead of assigning a one week time period for a large project, check their progress each day of the week and if they don’t meet that deadline, they’ll need to finish that portion of the project outside of class!

11. Prevent the need to re-teach (and save time!)
Sara: One massive time-saver is to give students flipbooks, charts, packets of notes, and other reference materials that they can keep and use all year. I’m really direct with my 8th graders about what papers should be kept, and which can be thrown away; these tools are immensely useful the next time I circle back to a skill and need to re-activate prior knowledge. For example, I put everything I wanted them to know about quote analysis into one booklet, and I’d tell them in advance which days to make sure they had it in class.

Britt: I’m a huge fan of using digital interactive notebooks because students can easily take their work they completed in the classroom to their home (even if you aren’t done grading yet). I like to share my Reading Literature Digital Interactive Notebook via Google Classroom along with other supplemental materials so they can find them as reference material throughout the entire school year!

Do you have more suggestions?
Tell us in the comments!

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