Schools and teachers usually organize ELA curriculum by novel, theme, or genre, or some combination of those three. I tend to keep novels separate from nonfiction, but themes and essential questions can allow teachers to use nonfiction sources with fiction to help students understand a topic like immigration, family, status, imagination, or fear.
Media and genre-based units can be another way to teach English. At the beginning of the unit, the entire class would analyze high quality model work from published professionals. Then groups or individual students would present on an assigned text or media. At the end of the unit, students would write a formal interpretation of one work and then get the time to produce work in that media or genre like a poem, short film, or podcast.
Genre and media-based units don’t require assigning a lot of homework because students can study the sources and produce the work during class time. Units can last anywhere from two to four weeks.
Here are 10 units that might appear in a genre or media-based curriculum:
In my poetry units, I cover a wide range of diverse writers. Teachers can select poems from any time period or geographical region. I play clips from the internet of motion poetry and slam poetry. I will sometimes end a poetry unit with a poetry competition where students vote on the best poem. Students can also memorize and recite their favorite poem.
I start the year with a poetry unit and then teach a play by Shakespeare because it introduces them to his highly poetic language. Then when they read prose, they can easily identify literary techniques. It’s fun to read lines of a play out loud and then watch the movie version or compare movie versions. If students create a play or script at the end of this unit, they can use it to make a film later in the year.
In this unit, students interpret the meaning of single images – paintings or photographs. They can then start to think more deeply about short films and what moving images represent. Literacy means more than reading and interpreting words.
4. Short Fictional Film
Short films can be viewed and discussed in class. It’s easy to assign group work with a short film as opposed to a full-length feature film. At the end of the unit, students can create their own short film or create a modern adaptation of a short story.
5. Short Fiction
Short stories help students understand the importance of a backstory – the prior experiences of a character that help explain their behaviors and decisions. It also gets them thinking about who tells the story and how the narrator depicts the events.
A novel or graphic novel unit can function like a book club or reading workshop where students can pick their own novel to read from a list. It can also be traditional whole-class units that take place at random points of the year so students have more time to read an entire novel independently before studying it. Obviously, it would be hard for students to write a novel at the end of this unit, but I’ve had students write chapters during projects. Students could also write from the point of view of a character or add a final chapter.
7. Personal Essay
In the second half of the year, students can study nonfiction, including the personal essay. A personal essay can include storytelling and be on a topic of choice but doesn’t have to include an examination of outside sources. There is no shortage of brilliant personal essays and excerpts of memoirs to cover in this unit.
8. Research Essay
A research essay involves finding sources on a topic of choice. This important unit should cover finding reliable sources and identifying bias.
An old and new technology, anyone can now record and publish audio. Students can discover a wide range of genres and styles in this unit and easily create a podcast as a final product without publishing it.
10. Video Essay/Documentary/Speech
My students end the year with a video essay where they record a reading of an essay and then incorporate video clips and images to enhance their words. This might take the form of a short documentary, informational video, or a speech, like a TedTalk with images and slides.
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers