Published in Inland: a journal for teachers of English language arts,  1994

Michael Steiner

For decades critics of American public schools have leveled two charges at us teachers and our profession, sometimes in successive breaths: we are resistant to change and we are infatuated with change, forever indulging ourselves in the pedagogical flavor of the month. There is some truth in these charges. We do tend to be quick to embrace those changes, borrowed or of our own invention, that we perceive will help us do better that which we do. We keep that which seems to work and drop that which does not. It is sort of like natural selection. Thus we improve over time as teachers, and thus public education evolves. We accommodate the new to the old.  There is a basic continuity here.

And many of us tend to be less than enthusiastic about those changes which we perceive will be of little value or will actually interfere with our enterprise.  If they are of our own invention, no matter; we will abandon them again. It is more problematic, however, if the changes are neither of our own invention or borrowing, but are imposed institutionally by administrators and/or curriculum specialists. We are stuck with such a change.

But the real conundrum occurs when mandated change follows mandated change, ignoring if not actively dismantling anything already in place. The rhetoric of the age encourages, demands this. Among politicians, pundits, theoreticians and administrators, the basic coinage consists of words like reform, re-structure, and re-invent rather than evolve or improve.

How can we continually re-invent and re-structure without discarding that which we have done before? How can change be constructive rather than destructive? How can such a Sisyphean task be made meaningful?

Before I present my case study, I must lead up to it with a little history.

For decades, departments in the Nampa School District wrote their own curricula under the auspices of an organization called the Secondary Curriculum Committee. As early as 1980 the Language Arts Department began to move away from scope and sequence to what was essentially a standards-based curriculum. This concept served us well for a number of years.

By the mid-1990’s, The Secondary Curriculum Committee was disbanded and the curriculum function was taken over directly by the district administration. The Language Arts Curriculum Guide of 1997 was the last of the teacher-written curricula, but it was a carry-over of work that had been done previously.

In 1998, our principal announced that our Language Arts curriculum had to be standards-based, and to that end we were to construct grade-level curriculum maps.  I spent perhaps 40 hours tying every assignment and activity in my 12th grade English classes to their component skills and to assessments. I do not believe that once these were handed in they were ever looked at or mentioned again. I actually used mine over the next few years. I took what could have been mere busy work and made of it a reflection of my practices. By January 2002, we had our own Nampa School District Language Arts Standards.

But in the meantime, the district administration had hitched its curriculum wagon to a new star: Lynn Erickson’s Concept-based Curriculum and Instruction.

When I was first asked by my CEO in October 2001 to write a concept-based syllabus for my senior 12th grade English course, I was dismayed. The instructions I received assumed that my course is entirely fact-based and called for me to derive concepts from the welter of discrete unrelated facts. I was perplexed, for I could not see my senior English as being in this way fact-based, and so I could not see how I could get to where I was to go from where I was unless I first created a fact-based course. And this seemed to me a great step backward as well as a waste of time and effort. I was also unsure how concept-based curriculum might serve State and District standards. Indeed, the two separate and disparate systems seemed to sit there, at odds with each other.

Subsequently, I have read Lynn Erickson’s Stirring the Head, Heart, and Soul, second edition: Redefining Curriculum and Instruction. I have attended Dr. Erickson’s two-day workshop. I have also re-examined our District Language Arts standards, the Idaho Language Arts standards, a curriculum map that our previous administrator required us to write in 1999, and several iterations of our own Language Arts Curriculum Guide from the early 1980’s to 1997.

I have concluded that our curriculum is standards-based, and has been for many years. And concepts are embedded in virtually all of the standards. Indeed, virtually all of the standards are concept-based. The terminology may be different, and the assessments are in some cases implied rather than stated, but we have been doing both all along, as I will explain. Let us not re-invent the wheel when all we need is a new set of tires.

I have been told that Dr. Erickson said (at an earlier workshop, not the one I attended) that English is different. I didn’t get an explanation of how it is “different.” But after examining State, District, and Department documents, I think I can explain what the difference is, and how to write really relevant concept-based curriculum.

English is “different” because there are two parallel kinds of concepts operative at the same time and in concert.

First let’s look at what we might provisionally term literary concepts. We may find these aplenty in existing documents. We have been teaching to them all along.

In Nampa School District Language Arts Standards we find

Classic literature

Archetype, myth, tradition


Literature as view or comment on life

Philosophical, political, religious, ethical, social influences

Historical period





Dramatic monologue

These are not skills, although the ability to recognize them is a sort of readerly skill. The skill has meaning only insofar as it is grounded in the concept. Nor are they facts. (A particular text constitutes a body of “fact” to be operated upon.)

Language Arts/Communications Standards — Grades 9 Through 12 752.02

Literary form and genre





Satire, etc.

Literary devices





Figurative Language

Format, etc.

Literary/personal experience



Language Arts Curriculum Guide, Nampa School District 1997

I am going back to some “ancient history” to make the point that the learning goals and the ways they are expressed in curricula past are not so different from current State and District Standards. For example, “Understand the choices that authors make to convey meaning.” “Understand how authors use the elements of literature.”


Figurative Language

Literary devices


Literal, inferential, and critical thinking levels

Point of view

Main and subordinate ideas

Logical connection




Reading process and technique

Layers of meaning

Elements of literature

Form and structure


And, there are Enduring Understandings built into these goals. For example, “Use literature to understand history…to understand human nature… to understand oneself,” implies some Enduring Understandings: Literature can help us to understand history… to understand human nature… to understand ourselves.

I could go through Language Arts Curriculum Guide, Nampa School District 1993, Language Arts Curriculum Guide, Nampa School District 1988, and Curriculum Map 1998 in similar manner, but I hope that I have made my point.

Then there are thematic concepts.  If we teach a work of literature in order to teach the literary concepts that undergird it, we must have some means of making that work accessible. We must have “handles” we can put on the work. A writer does not write a novel for example to show off style, but he writes it to communicate something. He pays attention to style, of course, and we readers can more fully experience the total work if we do too, but if we read it only to analyze it for style or for any other literary consideration only, we diminish it and ultimately render it remote, pointless, and boring.

There are three ways (at least) to read — and to teach — a literary work. To a greater or lesser degree, we do all three at once, or we should.

First, we can approach it purely on the factual level: What happens? List the characters. (This is what Louise Rosenblatt refers to as efferent reading: reading for information, for content only, and for factual material we need never employ any other mode.) Often, we don’t consciously think too much beyond this level when we are reading purely for entertainment, although a great deal more is certainly going on in our heads. We are absorbed for the time. We keep turning the pages to see what happens next. The work thus read probably is not very memorable, does not stick with us for long.  (Oh, where are the whodunits of yesteryear?) Unfortunately, we can fail to move beyond this level when we “teach literature.” Hence, there may still be some classrooms in which the multiple-choice test and the plot summary reign supreme. If the student can answer factual questions, we assume that he has read and understood the book (or Cliff’s Notes). But we will never know whether the literature has “turned any wheels.” We may even have discouraged it. We certainly never have to think about any concepts.

Second, we can read, and teach, purely on the literary level. To do this, we must work with literary concepts. If we fixate at this level though, literature can become a sterile exercise in analysis, a kind of mental exercise. We have forced the student to think about what he reads, we have given him some good tools for reading, but we have never given him any reason, beyond the assignment, why he should engage in such cogitation during and after reading.

Third, we can teach purely on the thematic concept level  (although reading probably can’t occur on that level alone). If the factual level is the “what,” and the literary level is the “how,” the thematic level is the so what? It is at the thematic level that we deal with an author’s intent, his concerns, his issues, his ideas, his concepts, all of these as we encounter them in the work or as we may logically hold them up to the work.

I came to this realization over twenty years ago. When I first came to Nampa High School, I found an 11th grade reading list that was neatly divided into thematic units: “Man and the Land” is one that I remember. This kind of thematic organization of a unit was very popular at the time and periodically is resurrected. There was just one not-so-small problem — in our department, we never have enough copies of any book for all classes to be reading the same thing at the same time in the same order. I had to teach books in whatever order I had access to them. Rather than teaching novels in their thematic “packages,” I had to deal with theme on a novel-by-novel basis. At the end of the semester, I was faced with the problem of constructing a final test. I did this by a two day review session which was also a test-writing session. We brainstormed themes, ideas, motifs, elements, concepts, if you will, that occurred in two or more selections we had read. By the end of the second day, I had a chalkboard full. By combining and culling, I would reduce the list to the six items that the students received as their writing prompts. They had to write on three, each one to have reference to at least two selections.   It worked so well that I used the same scheme as long as I taught Junior English.  The more I used it, the more I was able to deliberately play to it. What had begun as a way to generate an essay exam became a teaching strategy. The moral to this story is so important that it must be emphasized: I was not using the selections to teach the concepts; rather, I was using the concepts to teach the selections. They became “handles” with which to grasp the work, not topics in their own right. I do not intend to downplay the importance of thematic concepts as handles. I used to try to teach The Princess Bride to Sophomores. It is a delightfully clever book and a pretty funny movie, too. But I could never quite figure out what I wanted to do with it or how to approach it. I never found that conceptual “handle.”

Now let’s illustrate with a current case-in-point: a Draft Unit Plan for Hamlet. The Conceptual Lens is Personal Decisions. This is right and proper, for Hamlet finds himself in the middle of more than one intolerable situation, and what he decides to do about it, how he decides to act drives the play. The Personal Decision. In fact, the Personal Decision drives the concept of Tragedy — Shakespeare’s if not Aristotle’s. The tragic hero, influenced by some inner flaw of character, makes a faulty decision that puts him on a collision course with fate and will ultimately bring about his undoing.

Then, we have a list of the Concepts: revenge, justice, friendship, destiny, sanity, conscience, existentialism, alienation, cowardice, tragedy, social politics, relationship, trust, voice. Unless we are willing to reflect upon these concepts and others like them, it would seem difficult, if not impossible, to teach Hamlet at any but the most superficial level. Our Sweet Prince is, after all, a complex, conflicted, often contradictory, and ultimately elusive character. Will the student have a better understanding of these concepts after he has read/seen Hamlet? We hope so. But ultimately, we use these concepts to teach Hamlet, not use Hamlet to teach these concepts.

Much the same is true of the Enduring Understandings. For example, consider “2. The existentialist sees man as inherently alone and fully responsible for his/her actions.” Several years ago, I started using an essay called “A Primer of Existentialism” (Gordon E. Bigelow, College English, December, 1961) with my Seniors. I have found that it provides a useful conceptual framework for works as diverse as Heart of Darkness, The Stranger, The Death of Ivan Ilyitch, and Hamlet.  But I hope this rather rudimentary introduction to an extensive and complex range of philosophical thought is not the enduring understanding. Instead, I see a couple much more far-reaching understandings that I want to endure with my students, a) that “philosophical, political, religious, ethical, and social influences” can enhance our understanding of a literary text; that a work of literature can enhance our understanding of “philosophical, political, religious, ethical, and social influences;” and b) that “connections [can be made] between genres that address similar themes” to enhance the mutual understanding of both. Please notice that much of this language is taken straight from Nampa School District Language Arts Standards, October 22, 2001.

I am concerned that if thematic concepts become the standards, ends instead of means, we will end up going back to teaching received interpretations, instead of teaching our students how to construct meaning from a literary text, which is why we bother to teach literature in the first place, is it not?

I am also concerned that if these concept-based units that are being written for us are to be the way Hamlet is to be taught, and if we are to be evaluated on whether we teach Hamlet this way, as I have been told is to be the case, carved in stone, no deviation allowed, it represents a reductionist approach to the teaching of literature. Please understand that I am not quarrelling with this particular unit — it was after all written from materials I provided — but I do have misgivings about what it represents in the scheme of things and where, in the name of progress, we are taking the teaching of literature in this district. I have been teaching Hamlet this way for several years now. But if, next year, I come up with a new and different and better approach, will I have that liberty, and will the result be improved instruction?

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