Matthew Patterson teaches 12th grade English at Benjamin Banneker High School in College Park, GA. Last year, Mr. Patterson was awarded TNTP’s Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice. We recently spoke with Mr. Patterson after he finished a school day about how he creates challenging curriculum that’s highly engaging for his students.
Thriving Schools: Okay, so we’ve been told that a lot of your success in the classroom can be attributed to the curriculum you use. Where does your curriculum come from?
Mr. Patterson: Well, I haven’t used any school-provided curriculum in like 10 years. The Fulton County School District’s curriculum is a doll’s house. Ya know what I’m saying? At my school, 80-85% of my students have significant family problems at home. So the curriculum they provide just doesn’t work. And quite frankly, I’m not interested in it either. It’s not that the material is wrong, it’s just that it doesn’t work for my students. Let me give you another example. Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare! Can’t get enough of it! But a lot of the time, I don’t do Shakespeare because it ends up being me translating. And when I’m translating, it narrows the conversation I can have with my students because they end up believing what I say the translation is. It takes the entire analysis out of their hands, which is where I really want to focus my time with a book.
Thriving Schools: So if you’re not doing what the school says to do, what are you doing?
Mr. Patterson: Well, let’s just say that I’m an “occasion”-al teacher. [Pun intended]. And what that means is if there’s something going on in the world, we’re going to use the occasion to talk about it. Because it’s important and my students are going to get into it. For instance, a couple years ago, a Russian diplomat was killed in broad daylight. Putin had him killed right in front of the Kremlin. So I used these events as the perfect introduction to Russian literature. We read stories by Nikolai Gogol and Dostoevsky. So a part of it is trying to connect the “right now” to the past in a way that’s illuminating for my students.
Thriving Schools: Let me ask a follow-up on that so we can understand your process a little better. Was this a unit you were going to do regardless and you just shifted it around based on the timing of events? Or was this something totally new?
Mr. Patterson: No, I was actually going to do a unit on South African literature. But I totally scratched that. I looked at the Russian stuff and said this is too good. I mean this stuff is on YouTube! We have a diplomat being assassinated on camera in front of the Kremlin. This is insane. And I knew this would be the perfect hook and my students would eat it up!
Thriving Schools: Can you walk us through your process of creating a unit of curriculum?
Mr. Patterson: Well, I always start with my anchor text and being extra clear on what I really want my students to know. And then we create this cultural study of everything around those ideas. Let me give you another example. Right now, we’re reading Ruined, by Lynn Nottage. She’s an African-American playwright who won the Pulitzer in 2009. The book is about sex slaves in the Congo and how women are used as bartering chips between rebel and government entities. But the Congo means the same thing as the Moon to my students. Where’s the Congo? Who lives in the Congo? What’s the history of the Congo? We might as well be talking about Saturn, right? Now, this can definitely be liberating because you don’t have to un-teach a bunch of stuff. But you have to scaffold up to make the play relevant. So we’ll do a lot of film clips, excerpts from Vice News, all the social/cultural/geography coverage of the world to support the play. So I know if I want to teach knowledge, I have to do all this other stuff to get my students interested. And at the same time, we’re reading the play, teaching the standards, and all that other stuff. But it’s the background information that sucks the kids in!
Thriving Schools: Between the Congo and Russian assassinations, it seems like you’re having quite a bit of fun in your class. Can you give us a few more examples of how you “spruce up” challenging literature?
Mr. Patterson: Well, in my class, we also make use of Twitter. In this case, we reached out to the playwright, Lynn Nottage. And she responded! A Pulitzer-prize winner responded to inquiries from my students. This is how you make content come alive! We love to get in touch with authors! Here’s another example. My favorite short story is The Infamous Bengal Ming. It’s about a tiger who eats kids. The thing goes on a rampage. It’s amazing, right! So last year, we put our class conversation on YouTube. And not only did Rajesh Parameswaran (the author) respond, but his mom, his sister, his father – they all watched it and joined the conversation too. Which, of course, is really, really cool for my students! Because what we’re doing is taking literature out of the Ivory Tower and we’re giving it the same accessibility as television. And then I make it a point to always come back to the BIG ideas – love, life, loss, death, social justice, and what it means to be human.
Thriving Schools: So how do you know your students are “getting it” and leaving with these big ideas?
Mr. Patterson: For me, it really comes back to formative assessment. What are they getting, what are they understanding, and what are they able to write about. So for instance, when a student says, “Hey, we really need to spend more time on this.” I say, “Yes! You’re exactly right!” And when I talk in class, I say, “Yo! This is your classmate’s idea that we spend more time here!” And that helps the next person step up and advocate for what the class needs. Like I said, at the end of the day, I want to make sure my students get the main idea of what we’re reading. I want them to be able to have an intelligent and deep conversation about the main ideas. So we might spend a few weeks on a play and if we need a few extra days to do it, then we’re going to do it. So I put a big emphasis on depth over breadth. And even though the pacing changes from unit to unit (because I’m always changing the material we’re working on), the backbone structure of my lessons is the same. They’re going to produce writing, we’re going to have conversation about several topics from the anchor text, and we’re going to do a bunch of reading.
Thriving Schools: Let me follow up on your point about depth. What do you say to the teacher who feels like they have to get through the same curriculum each year?
Mr. Patterson: The way the ELA standards are set up, as long as students are reading at a specific Lexile range and we’re asking them deep questions about what they’re reading, it doesn’t really matter what you read. Some might say, “In 11th grade we’ve got to read Gatsby!” Well, why? Why do we have to do Gatsby? Are we going to be doing Gatsby for the next 150 years? Is there a reason we have to do The Death of a Salesman? I don’t think teachers should be slaves to the materials that they already have. Having a great worksheet for a book doesn’t mean you have to read it over and over again. I make everything. Everything I do is specifically tailored to what my students need. I’m always trying to figure out what we missed and that’s where we go.
Thriving Schools: And what are your thoughts on the writing your students produce?
Mr. Patterson: So let’s say we’re writing a major paper. I’m going to work with my students WHILE they’re writing. While we’re doing it is the best time to get assessments. It’s not 2 days later or 2 weeks later. If we’re writing, I want them to practice and learn from their mistakes right then and there. I think too many teachers spend too much time on these copious notes that no one reads. But if you’re doing it while they’re doing it, they’re going to make the necessary changes. I also don’t do a whole lot with multiple choice. I’m yet to get a multiple choice question in my actual life. Do I A) break up, B) keep going out together, C) maybe later? Right! I don’t believe in them. But reading and writing and thinking – that’s what I’m after. And I know what I’m asking because I use the ELA standards as the foundation for everything that I create.
Thriving Schools: So let’s close up by putting this all together. What are some of the pitfalls we have to avoid if we want to get engagement right in the curriculum we teach?
Mr. Patterson: Ok, for instance, everyone’s like “Ooh English . . . Equals Rap!” We’re using Rap lyrics, right? But if you don’t love rap, why are you teaching it? Stay away – you shouldn’t do that at all! You need to find the common ground between what you love and what your students enjoy. Let me give you an example. I don’t care about Kim Kardashian at all. Literally, I don’t care about her whatsoever! But, I read TMZ so I can find the music and entertainment that my students and I share in common. And they can tell I’m authentic about it. If I wasn’t, then I shouldn’t be talking about it. So many teachers say, “I want to be good at this and I want to do culturally relevant material.” But if you’re not actually willing to have a conversation with your students about what’s going on, then the kids are going to see right through it. It’s all just show. It’s phony baloney. So again, find the common ground.
Thriving Schools: Any other thoughts on how a teacher should select the materials they use?
Mr. Patterson: Teach what you like! Teach what you’re interested in! Teach what you’re excited about! Show yourself! Do things that you’re excited about because that’s when authentic learning happens! When both parties – teacher and students – are excited, that’s when the magic happens! When you’re just pretending and reading Madame Bovary because everyone else reads it . . . Who cares! That’s SO boring. Ooh, and now we’re reading Hamlet. And this is the place where we get to talk about Polonius. Stale. It’s absolutely stale. And no real learning will take place in an environment like that.
Note: Mr. Patterson also gave us some thoughts on building student relationships and keeping a teacher's energy high. We'll be sharing those in a few weeks!