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 spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

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I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.