Curriculum & Planning, Education, Language Arts, Middle School

Help, I Think I’m Sinking!: The Overwhelming Nature of Language Arts

A Relatively Short Introduction

For those of you who haven’t read my highly engaging Who Am I and Why Should You Care? page, I am a 24 year old Language Arts teacher at a private school in Pennsylvania.  I received my bachelor’s degree in History (with a minor in Environmental Science) and went on to earn my teacher certification (Social Studies concentration) and M.Ed. in Middle and Secondary Instruction.  As a result of  the competitive job market in Pennsylvania and my own broad range of academic interests, I added certifications in 7-9 Science, K-12 Environmental Ed, and 7-12 English.  The way it worked out, I landed my first real teaching job in a middle school Language Arts classroom.

While English was not my first choice of certifications, it has proven to be my favorite.  I LOVE teaching Language Arts.  The thought of teaching Social Studies (which I may have to do next year in addition to Language Arts as a result of budget cuts) or Science (though I enjoyed it during my field experience) are rather distressing to me now.  I would be happy teaching nothing but Language Arts forever.  Well, maybe not forever.  I have strong intentions to apply for doctoral programs in Literacy/English Education in the near future — but that kind of  makes my point anyway.  I love Language Arts/English Education – reading about instructional practices, student learning, reading, writing, literature, multiple literacies, “new literacies,” “critical literacies” — basically, find anything you can attach the word literacy to, and I’m interested.  I actually READ all those articles NCTE sends out in their emails, or in Voices from the Middle (great journal, by the way).  Considering I barely perused the NCSS bulletins and journals, I feel it is a good indication I am meant to be a Langauge Arts teacher.  I think I may have actually found my calling (or at least, the field of my calling — I have ambitions, you know).

Anyway, I think you get the idea by now – I ❤ Language Arts.

And Now To The Main Idea: The Overwhelming Nature of Language Arts

The more I read and learn about all the awesome things teachers are doing in Language Arts classrooms across the country, the more overwhelmed I feel.  I have the next two and a half months to plan for a year’s worth of curriculum for my 7th and 8th grade classes – I have literature units to develop, grammar to incorporate, writing to teach… not to mention things like literary elements and figurative language and poetry and public speaking and vocabulary and diagramming…  The list goes on.  This is to some extent the drawback to working at MMS (My Middle School).

SOME BACKGROUND: About the time I joined the team, there were some major changes in administration.  Unfortunately, there hadn’t been a lot of structure before I arrived, and the emergency team they pulled together (though performing admirably in light of the circumstances) didn’t have time to worry too much about curriculum.  While the new principal has made it clear he plans to address this issue this summer, I am still left with lots to plan with little guidance.

Sure, I have the PA State Standards and (what I prefer) the Common Core State Standards.  Trust me, I have become incredibly familiar with both of those documents.  That said, Language Arts is still incredibly broad–something I have come to love about the subject, and something that has begun to fill me with a terrible anxiety.

When I completed my field experience, the school district in which I was placed had a very clearly defined curriculum for the seventh grade Life Science course.  It provided teachers with not only Essential Questions and Understandings, but even activities, projects and assessment tools.  We had a textbook to follow and specific content to cover.  It was very neat and tidy.  While it allowed for some creativity in the means of instruction, the bones of the course were packaged to-go.

Similarly, when I student-taught in middle and high school Social Studies classrooms, though not provided with such a detailed curriculum, I could work from the textbook, selecting chapters to meet various standards (like in Government and Economics) or working chronologically through U.S. history as in the Advanced Placement course.  There was an inherent structure to the system that made it much easier to keep afloat.

Language Arts at MMS? No such luck.  Now, I don’t know if this is a shortcoming of MMS or a challenge presented by the subject itself.  As I don’t have experience with Language Arts outside of MMS, I don’t know if the situation I have found myself in is normal.   (You tell me — is it?)  Without a school board-stamped document telling me what I’m supposed to teach, I can, in theory, teach anything I want any way I want.  While right now I bear that freedom as a heavy curse, I’m trying to think of it more as a blessing.  I am not curtailed by board designed and enforced curriculums, by standardized and high-stakes testing.  I have the freedom to explore new ways of understanding literature and texts, of responding to readings and other forms of media in new and creative ways, of incorporating multiple disciplines and practical literacies.  I very literally have a blank slate before me, 180 empty days, and it is completely up to me to fill them with meaningful and engaging activities.  (As I started that sentence, it sounded really great; as I finished it, the anxiety again set in).

William Kist pointed out in “Middle Schools and New Literacies: Looking Back and Moving Forward” (Voices from the Middle 19, no. 4) innovative teaching and “new literacies” classrooms “seem to flourish at the middle school level,” and he provides a variety of reasons for this phenomenon: teachers of this age group are more willing to explore, the structure of these schools is more conducive to interdisciplinary work, and middle school kids just require that extra motivation that innovation brings.  Middle school is the place to be trying new approaches and rethinking traditional English education.  Middle school is, simply, the place to be.  And for me, working in a private middle school without the need to worry about PSSAs and Keystone Exams, there is literally nothing stopping me from experimenting with the new techniques I’ve been getting so excited about.

So if I overlook the pennies in my piggy bank (or lack thereof) and the daunting task of planning ahead, perhaps teaching Language Arts next year at MMS is better luck than I’d first imagined.


Ms. Only Slightly Less Intimidated

Some E-Cards
And THAT piggy bank is getting full.