A Vision for Curriculum

On Tuesday night, while watching a Youtube Live event hosted by one of the great folks at Go2Science (https://www.go2science.com/), I was struck by a comment made regarding the Go2Science materials, which I’ll do my best to replicate here:

“Feel free to take the materials and rearrange them and make them your own. We know we’ve made a good lesson when you can can take it and make it your own.”

This insight struck me because it illuminates a vision of what a curriculum could be. It’s a thought that I needed articulated three months into the implementation of new curriculum materials that have been introduced in my district. These materials do not espouse such an open-source or teacher-empowering stance and it’s caused quite a philosophical struggle for me as an educator.

As a teacher whose favorite part of the job (other than the kids) is curriculum development and creating learning activities, I’ve been fortunate to grow into my practice as an educator in a district where the directives were to use curricular resources as just that, resources. For five years, I’ve been pulling ideas and inspiration from a host of sources and combining them together to create what I believe are rich, meaningful, and integrated learning experiences for my students. The act of creating a mosaic from all of these sources allows me to flex my creativity muscles and is, for me, almost spellbinding. Many of the other aspects of the job often feel like chores, but I’ll happily spend an entire Saturday engaged in designing curriculum.

Most significantly, I’ve relished the opportunity to create materials that respond directly to my students’ interests and current needs. All teachers know that in any given classroom there are a wide range of skills and diverse personalities; for anyone who has spent an extended time in a classroom, the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach seems both irresponsible and irrational. Yet, one-size-fits-all, with subtle changes for “differentiation” continues to be what the big education publishers proffer and is, unfortunately, the turn that we appear to be taking in my district.

Last year, during the curriculum exploration phase, I had several conversations with folks at school about how mass-produced curricula are market-driven, responding to the latest zeitgeists and repackaging the same old stuff in newer, flashier packaging. And, when looking at national publishers, we’ve seen in films like “The Revisionaries” that states and districts with the largest budgets often get their needs and requirements enshrined in the packages offered across the country. It hardly makes sense that my students in rural Maine should have their educational experiences dictated by the pursestrings thousands of people thousands of miles away.

At any rate, I now have in my classroom a 750-page, two-volume phone book of math activities and worksheets for each of my students that is supposed to guarantee “Common Core Success.” And, it’s been a struggle to grapple with balancing directions for implementation with the boxes of resources that I’ve developed and tested. It’s hard to rectify trading conceptual understanding for shallow coverage and to extinguish all the work I’ve done to teach kids that math isn’t just about the right answer with solution-focused worksheets. For now, I’ve struck the balance of using the curriculum to loosely frame what I cover, picking and choosing those activities that make sense as resources, but not being afraid to use a tried-and-true lesson that I know is better.

These small actions are allowing me to teach while retaining my conscience and allowing me to keep focused on my vision for what quality curriculum is and could be.

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Carving Out Time for What Matters

I believe that a classroom schedule reveals what is valued in the classroom. What the schedule looks like is, I believe, highly political, particularly in the era of standardization of curricula. I do recognize that many teachers are seeing increased usurpation of their autonomy in developing their own schedules, which makes carving out time for everything we want to do challenging. But, I also believe that the schedule shapes everything and is where we, as professionals, need to take a stand about what we value to create a flow to the day that aligns with our teaching philosophies and that will help to adequately prepare students for the ever-changing world.

Early this week, I participated in an STEM Education research conference — it was thrilling to be in a setting where everyone was talking about science. I have never had a mandatory professional development session in my district that was about science — it’s completely swept under the rug due to the massive weight of math and literacy. (Disclaimer: I have an M.Ed. in literacy, so I value and love literacy, but have experienced tremendous shifts in my thinking about science and social studies as the subjects for leveraging engagement and providing authentic opportunities for applying literacy skills.)

While at the conference, there was much lamentation about how little time there is for science. The results of a survey of Maine teachers about their science practices indicated that science instruction is minimal in many classrooms. I’m attaching the graphics from the grades 3-5 results here — the K-2 looked very similar, but I didn’t get that handout.

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I left the conference feeling determined to go “all in” on STEM education this year. And the first place to legitimize that focus is in my anticipated classroom schedule. I carved out a big block of time this week to start thinking about what I value and what needs to find its way into our precious classroom time. As you’ll see, I have the blessing (though sometimes a curse) of a 7-hour day with my 2nd graders, so my pool of time to work with is a bit larger than in some other settings.

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The biggest change from this year in my hypothetical schedule is devoting the entire afternoon after our Unified Arts classes to STEM. We’ll spend the early months of the school year doing nature study, which will integrate science and writing. This time will evolve into a more general science period during the colder weather, though I’ve been inspired by Laurie Rubin’s bookTo Look Closely to keep taking my students out periodically in the winter.

The second component of our afternoon will be spent on technology and computer science. If I want to help my young students become digitally literate, I’ve got to walk the walk and give them ample time to learn about technology and to develop their computational thinking skills. I’ll be sharing more about my computer science work (a major summer project for me) in a later post.

Another significant change are the lengthy morning work time blocks, in lieu of traditional reading and math instruction. I had the pleasure of visiting a Montessori school this year and these blocks are my attempt to bring a little bit of Montessori to my public school classroom. I’ll be meeting with small groups and individuals to provide instruction during these times, but, when they aren’t meeting with me, my students will be free to choose their own order for going through the required assignments of the week in math, reading, geography, language, writing, and Spanish. I feel optimistic, but a bit anxious, about these blocks and figuring out to set them effectively is a work in progress that I’ll continue to tinker with until we start school.

The only other large change is a slight shift in our morning and afternoon routines. I have always given my students an “Independent Learning Time” at the end of the day, where they are free to tinker and explore and make autonomous choices about what they’d like to do. After reading The Curious Classroom by Harvey Daniels, the idea of “soft starts” nagged at me for weeks. Soft starts can take many forms, but they are intended to be a way for the students to begin the day with autonomy and have a chance to settle in for the day. I plan to have a host of options for students during this time, ranging from visiting our wonder stations, to board games, to art projects. I know that I do a form of “soft starts” for myself each day — I feel like students would benefit from that same opportunity to settle in.

Because I’m shifting the ILT time equivalent to the morning, I’ve decided to eliminate Closing Circles, which are always hurried at the end of the day, to mindfulness time. I envision this time being an opportunity for students to again make choices, but to choose from a variety of activities with a more reflective, peaceful nature. I’ll play a yoga video each afternoon, but also invite students to draw, write, read, look out the window, or anything else that helps them to feel a moment of peace at the end of a busy day.

While I’m sure elements of my schedule may have to move slightly as I find out concrete times for things like guidance and library, I am committed to retaining the integrity of this schedule. For this first time, my schedule on paper honestly reflects my priorities and goals as an educator and I believe that, with careful work, it will be a positive step towards generating a classroom of truly Curious Questioners.

What does your classroom schedule look like? How do you balance fitting in what you have to with fitting in what you want to include?

Education as a Lever for Addressing Inequality

Last week, I had the privilege of seeing Jonathan Kozol speak about “Race, Poverty, and the Corporate Invasion of Our Public Schools.” Kozol has long been one of my personal heroes working in the field of education, so I relished the opportunity to be in the same room with him.

So much of what he said made such obvious sense to me, including his belief that we are shortchanging students before school even begins by failing to offer quality preschool to all children, particularly those children who could most benefit from it and all of the services that ought to accompany a reputable program. And where would the money come from to fund such an initiative? His answer: from the budget we currently pay to standardized testing companies.

He also spoke at length about the continuing — and perhaps worsening — inequities in public education as segregation in schools continues unabated. This issue is of particular interest to me, as I am looking at positions in urban schools and have been floored by the intra-district inequalities in terms of free and/reduced lunch rates. (Of course, free/reduced lunch is a contested indicator of poverty, but I think it works to support the point made here.) I was shocked that it would be permitted to allow one school to have 12% of students receiving free/reduced lunch while another school across the city has upwards of 85%. Perhaps it was naive of me to assume that these types of obvious inconsistencies would be viewed as intolerable and immediately eradicated.

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Prior to attending Kozol’s talk, I read one of his works that I hadn’t read previously — Amazing Grace. I found the book difficult to read, even though his other works have given me some familiarity with the contexts described. It is always painful to read about difficult situations; however, what made this one particularly challenging was the gnawing sense that even though the book was written two decades ago, things don’t seem to have improved a whole lot in that time. It is unfortunate that the political priorities in this country continue to lie elsewhere and that public interest is not constantly directed toward the staggering inequalities that persist in our own country and are, as the title of another Kozol book suggests, “the shame of the nation.”

Independent Learning Time

I can’t believe that April is half over! It seems like I forgot how quickly the time goes once spring arrives. We are down to under 40 days left in this school year — where did the time go?

Anyway, today I’m going to discuss another initiative that I’ve been piloting this spring with my students: independent learning time.

Immediately following our classroom walks, which have continued to be a pleasant aspect of our afternoons, my students have been engaging each day in “independent learning time.” During this time students can, so long as they’ve met expectations for work throughout the morning, work on any activity of their choice, as long as it is somehow related to learning.

Philosophically, independent learning time makes so much sense to me. How can we expect to develop students who are creative, critical thinkers when we are always telling them what to do during every minute of their school experience? By removing the directives about what students will be doing, I have found that my students are creating surprisingly rich learning experiences that are catered to their interests — all by themselves!

After an initially rough couple of days during the beginning of the implementation of independent learning time — my students were flabbergasted when they were given the authority to direct learning according to their interests — things have settled nicely over the past few weeks. ILT has become such an exciting time in our classroom! I’ve learned so much about what makes my students tick since implementing ILT, which has also helped with keeping our classroom flowing smoothly all day long. The kids look forward to ILT and don’t want to miss a second of it, so they have been increasingly motivated and focused during the other parts of the day.

So, you might be wondering what my students have been up during ILT. Here’s a short selection of some of their self-chosen and self-directed activities.

  • Learning how to write in cursive
  • Learning multiplication
  • Exploring how different types of paper and folding lead to different results in paper airplanes
  • Creating a book about recycling
  • Using pattern blocks to create mandalas and to try to build multi-story structures
  • Using Toontastic (an app) to create their own animated stories
  • Exploring natural objects collected during our afternoon walks
  • Working on reading books of their choice
  • Asking to spend more time working on projects from other parts of our day(!)

As you can see, my kids aren’t just “playing” and pretending that it’s learning; they are stretching their minds in significant ways, all on their own.

My hope is that the sense of wonder surrounding ILT will translate to their time at home. If students learn the skills of managing their own learning at school, they will be much better equipped to create their own learning experiences at home. My vision as a teacher has always been to cultivate students who are curious, self-directed learners; ILT time is one of the most significant (and initially scary!) steps that I’ve taken toward making that vision a reality.

Wrapping Up 2014

I can hardly believe that 2014 is coming to an end. It’s been a good year for me, particularly professionally, as I completed my first year of teaching and dove into a second with much greater confidence. I’m hard at work now thinking about what my aspirations for 2015 might be. It is definitely going to be a year with a lot of changes for me, personally and professionally, and it is difficult to envision what the year might hold in store due to the uncertainty surrounding those changes.

But, for now, I’m content to merely reflect on the last year. When 2014 began, I compiled a reading list that I hoped to tackle during the year and, for several months at least, wrote about the books that I had read here on this blog. My intent in reading these books was to try to maintain a connection to the broader world of education beyond my school and classroom and to become more informed, inspired, and more critical in my practice. While I fell off the bandwagon in terms of providing updates about these books, I did read all of the books on my list, except for one. In so doing, I definitely achieved my goal of becoming more informed about the world of education and keeping my finger on the pulse of what is happening in the field. Additionally, a number of these books inspired me with a profound vision of the classroom that I want to continue to work towards this year — a classroom with meaningful, relevant curriculum that helps my students become savvy and considerate citizens.

I’m copying my reading list here and am annotating it for anyone who might be interested in reading one of these books!

Gender and Sexuality:

  • The Second Sex – Simone de Beauvoir (Not explicitly about education, but I found this book to be such a powerful mediation on what it means to be female. Fortunately, some of the conditions de Beauvoir reports have been improved, but so much of what she said seemed relevant today, decades after the publication of this seminal work.)
  • Real Boys – William Pollack (The male counterpart to The Second Sex; more information here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/453/)
  • From the Dress-Up Closet to the Senior Prom – Jennifer Bryan (Without a doubt, the most comprehensive and relevant book for educators on gender and sexuality that I’ve encountered; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/07/25/reading-update-2/)

Language and Literacy:

  • Literature as Exploration – Louise Rosenblatt (An excellent read for English nerds — an apt summary of the work Rosenblatt did in advancing her transactional view of reading; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/502/)
  • The Experience of Reading – John Clifford (A collection of responses to Rosenblatt’s work; see same link as above.)
  • Mosiac of Thought – Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmerman: (A practical text advocating for the teaching of reading comprehension strategies as a means for attaining higher-level thinking; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/647/)

  • Readicide – Kelly Gallagher: (A brief but powerful text advocating for a return to reading for pleasure, for the use of powerful and relevant texts, and a turn away from the skill-and-drill reading associated with standardized tests.)

Instruction:

  • Teach Like a Champion – Doug Lemov (Going to try to read this later — when I am in a mindset to reflect on my practice as a whole. I’ve also heard mixed things about this volume recently…)
  • Make Just One Change: Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions – Dan Rothstein (A highly readable text that shows you how to encourage higher-order thinking by having students create their own questions, rather than respond to the ones that we develop for them; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/07/25/reading-update-2/)
  • Invent to Learn – Sylvia Martinez (A down and dirty guide to the “Maker” movement, which encourages students to tinker and create as a significant piece of the learning process; this book captures and projects a vision for what I think is the greatest potential for using technology in the classroom.)
  • Place-Based Education – David Sobel (A brief but lovely book that outlines an ecological, relevant, and community-centered approach to education. This book stuck with me all year and inspired a year-long, nature-based, writing project that we are working on in my classroom; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/05/11/place-based-education/)
  • Real Talk for Real Teachers – Rafe Esquith (Rafe Esquith is one of my heroes — hearing him say that he has bad days in the classroom was incredibly grounding for me. This book has tips for everyone, from novice educators to seasoned veterans.)

The Broader World of Education:

  • Reign of Error – Diane Ravitch (An intelligent and searing indictment of the problems with contemporary education policy in the United States; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/471/)
  • The Smartest Kids in the World – Amanda Ripley (A fascinating and readable examination of education in Finland, South Korea, and Poland; more here https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/647/)

  • The Death and Life of the Great American School System – Diane Ravitch (Highly recommended for those wanting to understand the roots of current education policy — this was the book that we read in the course that I TA-ed this fall; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/05/11/place-based-education/)
  • The Flat World and Education – Linda Darling-Hammond (My first encounter with Darling-Hammond; this book is an examination of the how the achievement gap and inequities play out across the many different domains of education — student outcomes, teacher preparation, school resources, etc.)

Inequality, Diversity, and Multiculturalism: 

  • Teaching Toward Freedom – Bill Ayers (This book profoundly inspired me and pushed me to return to the essential questions about why I teach. Highly recommended and a quick read!)
  • Rethinking Multicultural Education – Wayne Au (Rethinking Schools) (I love anything Rethinking Schools offers. This book did not disappoint — it was full of articles and ideas for incorporating multiculturalism into the classroom.)
  • Open Minds to Equality – Nancy Schniedewind and Ellen Davidson (Rethinking Schools) (My favorite book of the year — this volume is chock-full of ready-to-implement lesson plans that all revolve around social justice and activism; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/02/09/open-minds-to-equality/)
  • The Skin That We Speak – Lisa Delpitt (An edited volume examining language politics, practices, and identity. Essential reading for those interested in literacy and social justice; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/509/)
  • Multiplication is For White People – Lisa Delpitt (An excellent work from Delpitt, advocating for high expectations for all and proffering ideas about how to prevent an “opportunity gap from becoming an achievement gap.”)
  • The Price of Inequality – Joseph Stiglitz (An economics text that may not be the faint of heart; for those seeking sobering information about the wealth gap in the US, this book will lay it for you very clearly; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/647/)
  • There Are No Children Here – Alex Kotlowitz (Recommended reading for all human beings — Kotlowitz brings a Chicago project to life in vivid detail; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/659/)

What books did you read in 2014 that are worth sharing? I’d love to hear about them!