Here’s How I Make a Student-Led Curriculum Really Work

The extra planning is sometimes arduous, I won’t lie.

I wrote last week about the “course catalog” I give my seventh graders that allows them to choose the topics we study during the school year. Some people were intrigued, many were skeptical and a few were appalled. Here’s how I do that without a.) losing my job, b.) destroying my marriage and c.) continually wanting to drive off a bridge.

I teach at a charter school. I have the same kids as anybody else (99% free lunch, 30% ESOL, 10% special needs), the same standards and the same standardized tests. The difference is that I have almost unlimited freedom in how I prepare those same students for those same tests. No scripted instruction, no textbook I’m required to use, no school-wide reading or writing program.

Basically, if I can write a Donors Choose grant for it, I can do it.  It’s amazing, and I’m grateful for it every single day. The way I teach isn’t possible for everyone, because a lot of teachers have a ridiculous number of guidelines and restrictions. Me? I asked my boss a few weeks ago if I could teach a bunch of 12-year-olds how to change a tire and use a miter saw. He said, “Will you teach them how to unclog a drain too? The back hall bathroom’s been having trouble.”

So I don’t have to worry about losing my job for the stuff I teach (unless David actually cuts off his finger). The amount of planning, though, was really daunting to me at first. I started this system when I’d been teaching nine years, and that helped. I had activities and materials for probably 10 or 15 different novels at that point, as well as a whole library of nonfiction articles I’d used before.

Also, my classes all do the same thing for about half the class period. They come into the room and read or write in journals (although journal topics sometimes differ by class to relate to what they’re studying). We do Daily Grammar Practice or a mini-lesson, which is how I cover all the grammar standards with every class. Then we move into whatever each class is studying. While I do have to create separate lesson plans for each of my four classes, half of it is copy and paste.


The kids also all do the same thing the first nine weeks of school. That gives me time to let them vote, assess their ability level, and plan accordingly. While every kid reads The Outsiders (because you shouldn’t be allowed out of seventh grade without reading it), I’m spending my evenings working on my extremely organized filing system, which consists of a bunch of notes on a yellow legal pad.

This is the hardest part; figuring out which materials to use and which standards to focus on for each unit. There’s a lot of overlap, though; maybe my first period reads Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as part of a study on comedy, but fourth period reads the same novel to discuss human psychology. The articles they read along with it will be different, but a lot of the lesson planning will be the same.

I can’t speak for any other subjects, but it’s pretty easy to hit all the standards for language arts this way. Each unit on my course catalog has the same basic components: an initial research assignment, a set of nonfiction articles addressing the topic (Huffington Post is a great source for these, because the reading level is easy and you can search specific topics), a novel or nonfiction book, a narrative writing assignment, and a persuasive writing assignment. Most have either a movie or a field trip as well. A unit is nine weeks, so I generally end up cutting one of the major writing assignments to fit everything else in. That means that, even if I make some cuts, the kids have read three and a half novels and probably 20 to 30 nonfiction articles, written two or three long (500 to 1,000 words) papers each for narrative, persuasive, and expository writing, and done four research projects by the time they take the test in April.

The extra planning is sometimes arduous, I won’t lie. Sometimes at seven in the morning I have a panic attack because I realize I need to find four nonfiction articles about Nature Deficit Disorder, peaceful protest, that program where federal prisoners train service dogs, and the Trump campaign. Now that I’m in my third year using this setup, it’s a lot easier. I add one or two new units a year, and the rest are already mostly prepared.

The extra planning is also balanced out by the grading. I used to get completely overwhelmed because I’d teach a unit on persuasive writing to all four classes at the same time, resulting in 86 essays about why school uniforms are bad, all turned in during the same week. Now that doesn’t happen anymore. It’s rare that two classes have a major assignment due the same week, and if they do, one of them is usually a group project. Often one group turns in essays while another group is watching a movie or working on a Webquest, so I’m able to get a lot more grading done at school, which frees up some of that planning time.

It’s not for everybody. It’s not even possible for everybody. But it’s also not as difficult as it sounds. Based on the experience I’ve had with my kids, it’s been a worthwhile experiment and one that I’ll continue.

language arts