Tips and ideas for teaching high school ELA

picture of a teacher planner with blog post title 5 ways to revamp your curriculum design

We all know that keeping our curriculum design fresh and exciting is essential to meet our students’ ever-evolving needs. The traditional sage-on-a-stage, sit-and-listen-and-take-notes-for-ninety-minutes way of education that many of us grew up with doesn’t really resonate with the generation of students we’re tasked with educating.¬†

If, like me, you’ve been doing this a while (I’m on year 14 ūü§Į), then you probably have your tried and true lesson plans and have your curriculum plans on lock, and the idea of changing up everything is overwhelming. Or maybe you have a prescribed scope and sequence/curriculum that you have to follow, but you want to add to it.¬†

Either way¬† – don’t worry, I’ve got you covered! In this blog post, we’ll explore five ways to revamp your curriculum design and create a dynamic, inclusive learning environment that’ll engage both your students and give them agency over their own education.¬†


circle with graphic of colored question marks; label says essential questions

Our first way to revamp your curriculum design is to think of units in terms of essential questions rather than “novel unit” or “short story unit”. Admittedly, this has been a huge shift for me, but it’s one that I’m trying to wholeheartedly embrace. If you’re not familiar with the idea of essential questions, here’s the gist: essential questions (aka EQs) are open-ended inquiry questions that encourage critical thinking, problem-solving, and deep understanding. Want to learn more about EQs? I¬†highly recommend checking out the Brave New Teaching podcast episode found here.¬†

When I transferred schools, I was told that I had complete curriculum autonomy (also ūü§Įūü§Į) as long as I followed the standards. So, immediately I thought “What better time to revamp my curriculum design into EQ-driven units?” – something I’d wanted to do for the past several years but didn’t have the freedom to pursue.¬†

I started by creating a year-long EQ, then divided it into 2 EQs (one for each semester), and then further divided those into 3 EQs (one for each unit). Here’s what my planning Trello board looks like:¬†

(Side note: if you haven’t tried Trello yet, you should. It’s a game-changer for visual planners)¬†

For each unit, I brainstormed the text(s) that I thought would be best suited for exploring the question. If you’re at a school with mandated texts, you can still do this, just working backward. Think about what theme or big idea you want your students to get from the text and craft that into a question.¬†

circle with a graphic of high school students walking; label says incorporating movement

Once you’ve got your EQ and your texts chosen, it’s time to get to the fun part (it’s not just me, right?) – planning the actual lessons themselves.¬†

We all know that students today are… squirrely, to say the least (let’s be honest, some of us teachers are. How often do you fidget during a staff meeting?). In a fast-paced world of instant gratification and bite-sized information, our students have lost the ability to sit for 90 minutes and listen to the teacher talk and then work independently in their seats.¬†

A second way to revamp your curriculum design is to involve movement. This can take several forms: gallery walks, learning stations, question trails, 4 corners activities – pretty much anything that promotes collaboration and active participation. Incorporating movement into the curriculum not only adds an element of fun but also enhances student engagement and retention.

For my unit on The Crucible, I took the background information that I traditionally would have presented via PowerPoint and turned it into stations. Students rotated through four stations, learning about Arthur Miller, the Salem Witch Trials, McCarthyism, and the topics and themes of the play. Much more enjoyable for all of us. 

circle with media icons; title reads use various media

Gone are the days when textbooks were the sole source of information – not that they don’t have their place. But in our digital world, we have access to so much more than our teachers did. Our students are digital natives, so why not use that to our advantage?¬†

Incorporating various forms of media into our curriculum planning is a natural byproduct of organizing our units by EQ, not text. Using the example above, my EQ for¬†The Crucible¬†unit is “If there are multiple sides to a story, how do we know the truth?” (another nod to Brave New Teaching). By viewing¬†The Crucible through the lens of rhetoric, I’m able to bring in speeches, political cartoons, advertisements, and more – all forms of media I wouldn’t be able to use if I stuck to a traditional “This is our unit on¬†The Crucible”¬†mindset.¬†

By incorporating various forms of media into the curriculum, we tap into the power of technology and provide students with a multi-modal learning experience. Introduce TED Talks, infographics, songs, podcasts, documentaries, and relevant online resources to supplement traditional materials. This approach not only captures students’ attention but also allows them to explore concepts from different angles, fostering critical thinking and media literacy skills.

Bonus: once students have been exposed to various types of media, have them create their own TED Talk, podcasts, op-eds, etc. to demonstrate understanding of the material. This leads us to idea #4…

circle with a road and two yellow arrows pointing different ways; banner reads offer choice

Choice. Choice plays a pivotal role in personalizing curriculum design and fostering student autonomy, engagement, and ownership of learning Рall things that we as English teachers strive for. 

Ideas for incorporating choice: 

    • choice reading – whether as part of book clubs/lit circles or as part of independent reading. Giving students a choice in what they read results in them being more likely to¬†actually read rather than fake it.¬†
    • choice boards – I love a good choice board for final projects. I’ve defaulted to them for semester exams for several years, and I have gotten some great results. Allowing students to choose¬†how they demonstrate mastery of a concept, skill, EQ, etc. caters to their strengths and preferences and results in more buy-in.¬†

 When students have a say in their learning, they are more likely to be motivated and invested in their educational journey. By offering choice, we optimize curriculum design and promote individualized learning experiences.

circle with watercolor graphics of people of different colors; banner reads add diversity

Our final idea for revamping your curriculum design is to add diversity. Again – a lot easier to do if you’ve already structured your units by EQ (seeing a thread here?).¬†

The EQ for my first unit in American Lit is “What is America’s story and who gets to tell it?”. Within that unit, we’re looking at not only the traditional texts – such as the Declaration, Constitution, and a few speeches – but also at works by BIPOC authors. I have time scheduled to explore the voices of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and AAPI writers. Bringing in different perspectives helps students craft a well-rounded response to the EQ.¬†

An inclusive curriculum celebrates diversity and ensures that students see themselves reflected in their learning materials. By incorporating literature, historical narratives, and case studies that represent a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, we foster empathy, promote cultural competence, and create an inclusive learning environment. 

Optimizing curriculum design is a continuous process that empowers educators to meet the ever-changing needs of students. By implementing these five easy strategies‚ÄĒembracing essential questions, incorporating movement, utilizing various media, offering choice, and adding diversity‚ÄĒyou can revamp your curriculum design and create a vibrant and inclusive learning experience.

Effective curriculum planning engages and inspires students, encourages critical thinking, and prepares students for success. 

I’m by no means an expert – my own journey with revamping my curriculum is just starting. But I’m hoping that by changing up my plans, I reach more students.¬†

Which of these 5 tips are you going to start with? Hit “Reply” and let me know.¬†

And as always, happy teaching. 


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