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Chalkboard with Different Languages

Thematic Units, or, how I revamped an entire course in the middle of a pandemic

2020 was not an easy year to be a teacher. It was, up to that point, the most difficult year in my 16 years of teaching: we reinvented our careers and everything we knew; we moved all of our materials to clunky digital platforms not designed to handle them; we tried to get to know our students and create a community when half of them were at home and half of them were in the classroom.

It was also a big year for me, though; it was the year the linguistics course I had taught as an elective for six years would be taught as a core English course for the first time. This was a move made for survival. We had changed the program of study in order to save the electives, like Linguistics, that were on the chopping block due to budget cuts. Prior to 2020, juniors had three options for their core English course: AP Language and Composition, Honors English, and regular English. Seniors had a few more options: AP Literature and Composition, or honors or regular levels of Dystopian Literature, Coming-of-Age Literature, or The Power of The Story. On top of that course, they could take an elective like Linguistics, Media Studies, Creative Writing, Journalism, etc.

In 2020, we made all of those classes available to both juniors and seniors. We also added a class that combined two former electives: Linguistics and Media Literacy, renamed Linguistics and Media Studies. We were really excited to pilot it that year.

Of course, then the pandemic happened. We switched our schedule for one year from year-long classes to semester classes so students would take four classes at a time instead of seven. This meant that I had to cover the material at a quick clip, but it also meant that I got two pass-throughs of the new class.

In the first semester, I taught the class as I had taught it as an elective, with a bit more media studies built in. It was successful, but I felt like there was more I could do to ground the course in real-world inquiry. I thought of the ways my favorite books, podcasts, and documentaries framed linguistics. They weren't arranged by subtopic; nobody was doing a podcast episode called "Morphology." They were arranged around big ideas, important questions, social issues. They used topics in linguistics to tackle those big ideas.

January brought the end of the semester and also a move from hybrid to fully remote. In an empty classroom, I had a huge amount of space to brainstorm. I thought about the big ideas I wanted students to walk away with, the stories I wanted to tell, and the topics that grabbed students interest. I took my pad of anchor chart paper and I wrote them down, along with essential questions I wanted students to grapple with.

Then, I went through the curriculum and I wrote down everything on a sticky note--every term, concept, topic, reading, and YouTube clip I used, and I stuck the sticky notes to the anchor chart paper. It was an iterative process; the unit titles and essential questions changed as I added and rearranged the sticky notes. Then I arranged the anchor chart paper according to how we would need to scaffold the knowledge. We came up with eight sequential units and two ongoing units, which can be explored on the "Units of Study" page under the teacher tab.

Like any curriculum, these units are undergoing constant reevaluation and rewriting. The unit we originally called "Fake News," where we covered semantics and pragmatics, got pulled into two units: "Marketing and Branding" and "Fanaticism and Language." We intended to pilot it this year, but we ran out of time, so we haven't really developed our Marketing and Branding unit at all. We're also changing our original unit on Genie to a novel study of True Biz by Sara Novic. (More about that in the previous post.)

I love these units, and I think students really respond to them. I also think they can be useful to teachers who want to integrate linguistics into their classroom; they're multidisciplinary, and each unit could be used in isolation, as part of a social studies, science, psychology, or English class. I hope by publishing them, someone will find another way to integrate linguistics into their curriculum.

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