First Person

Curriculum: An Introduction

It’s no news to teachers that the national discourse on public education is all too often far removed from the reality of the classroom. Discussions of curriculum are a case in point. These discussions tend to be polemical and based on politically skewed notions of what is fundamental to learning, which does little for the needs of children, nor teachers. As John Merrow —in his review of the current educational debates, “The Influence of Teachers” — dryly observes, the battle between reformers and their opponents is “fundamentally irrelevant to the world children live in.” The “experts” that often hold sway in the court of public opinion on critical matters such as curriculum don’t often have much of a clue of what it takes to stand and deliver.

Were these experts to come into my classroom to deliver their expert understanding unto my students, I have the feeling that most of them wouldn’t last much past the moment that they first get cussed out or a chair is thrown, let alone the moment wherein they realize that they don’t truly understand how to break down a concept critical to understanding content, stripped right down to its procedural foundations. At this foundational and essential level of teaching, pedantic debates like phonics vs. whole language become petty. It’s all about what students actually need.

What is fundamental to the world children live in, at least within the confines of the classroom, is the content that is delivered to them. And what is even more fundamental is how this content — the curriculum — is delivered to them. Standing at the focal point of this delivery, so central and influential in a student’s immediate realm of existence, is the teacher.

Though the teacher has ultimate control over pedagogy (methods and strategies they use to deliver the content), it is all too often that they don’t have a full say in the development of the curriculum which they are expected to deliver. This curriculum more often comes prepackaged at great expense to the district from an external contractor. For example, in my elementary school (and as far as I understand, most of the city et al) we are expected to utilize McGraw-Hill’s Everyday Math curriculum, Houghton Mifflin’s social studies texts, Harcourt’s science texts, in addition to the reading and writing workshop pedagogy and curriculum laid out by Teachers Colllege.

Try following this curriculum when you teach children far below grade level. Both the pacing and delivery of that content must be differentiated — in the most authentic sense of that word — in order to reach children who struggle in basic numeracy and literacy. As a new special education teacher, especially in my first year, any professional collaboration or input I have been able to get from colleagues has been critical to my curriculum development and pedagogical strategies. But this collaboration or feedback has been few and far between. Realizing this critical need for collaboration, and after gaining exposure to systematic structures of professional collaboration, such as the Professional Learning Community model, or through the DOE’s inquiry team approach, I began seeking to develop more systematic approaches to curriculum development in my school.

There are schools in which teachers sit around a table during scheduled common planning time and map out their curriculum together. I have the sense — admittedly limited — that not many schools are authentically performing this activity. However, even if they were (again, my sense here may be limited, correct me if I’m wrong), they don’t often share the curriculum that they have created with other schools or districts.

What we currently have is a situation in which teachers across the nation are mostly delivering content singularly created and delivered within the isolation of their own classrooms or packaged and delivered by private contractors not fully accountable to the public nor with input from the stakeholders (students and teachers) most directly involved. It’s like our districts, schools, and teachers are fumbling around in the dark with their hands outstretched.

Meanwhile, our children with the greatest of needs are sitting in our classrooms, not learning what they need to truly succeed (do I really need to replay the disheartening statistics?) because while they may learn something amazing with this or that teacher, that learning is not systematic nor structured consistently throughout the span of their education. Furthermore, our teachers are all too often struggling to plan and differentiate their curriculum with a minimal of paid, scheduled planning time and often minimal collaborative input and feedback from other master teachers.

If we are truly committed to the concept of equity in public education, or the concept of education as a civil rights issue, then we had better take the curriculum taught in our schools seriously. What we choose to leave out of our curriculum — what we leave unsaid, or what we leave up to chance — are often the most critical pieces of knowledge that our students require in order to become competent citizens in an increasingly polarized nation.

I invite you to join me as I explore the critical topic of curriculum over my next few posts. The first side of curriculum I will explore is the concept of a “hidden curriculum.” The next side I will consider — one which is currently looming large in the national discussion — is the concept of a unified core curriculum. Finally, I will wrap up my ideas on curriculum with advocacy for a new method of curriculum development based on the open source model utilized in software development. I welcome any and all feedback on these ideas and look forward to further refining them with your assistance.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.