Sunday, January 17, 2010

Curriculm Planning 101: Working Hard for the Money

As I sit on my bed this fine Sunday evening and look over material for second semester, it dawned on me how much of a hassle it is to actually prepare to teach a course for the first time. Of course, initially it should be daunting for any young teacher. You have to learn the material yourself by reading the textbooks and outside sources as well as being aware of the state standards for the given course. Once you have aligned those sources, you then can begin to organize the material into thematic units, selecting what you as a trained professional feel are the key points for all student learning throughout the semester. Once that is done, you have to break down your units into manageable chunks and select the big idea for each unit that you want your students to have learned before you move on. Once that is completed you begin to write individual lessons and look for ways to incorporate outside material into your lessons.

As daunting as this is, it becomes even more so due to the fact that rarely do our textbooks match up with our state curricula. Or, if they do, they are organized differently and go all over the map. For example, California content standard 12.2 for civics and economics describes the rights and obligations of democratic citizens. This includes everything from the Bill of Rights to current immigration laws, making this one standard cover a whopping 230+ year span. When comparing this standard to the course textbook, the textbook has the Bill of Rights as one of its early constitutional chapters and immigration laws and its last chapter on current event issues. Therefore, if I were to teach the way the state wanted me to, I too would be all over the map, making learning very difficult for my students.

My solution to this quandary is to copy the content standards and then organize them chronologically rather than thematically. I am a firm believer that students need to know what is going on around the world to fully understand a specific event in history. This is one of the reasons I did not use the classroom textbook my first year in the classroom. The book I had would cover things thematically, which gave students no reference as to why things were happening the way they were. For example, a chapter on Egypt would have one section on geography, one section on history, and one section on Egypt today. This doesn't help anybody learn anything. In order for students to learn critical thinking skills in history, they need to know what is going on in the bigger picture. The current state of Egypt does not make sense unless you know what is going on in the region as a whole. Had I been a student learning the textbook in order I would have learned that Egypt had mummies and pyramids and now uses the Suez Canal for shipping stuff. It is this kind of thematic learning that hurts our students and discourages critical thinking as a whole.

Another issue that I come across is the fact that the content standards often leave out meaningful information. The state of California does not find it necessary to teach about the Articles of Confederation in its Government and Economics course. Call me crazy, but I would have thought that students should know about our very first government, in a GOVERNMENT CLASS. Yes, the Articles of Confederation were largely ineffective, but they paved the way for a much more stable Constitution to be enacted 10 years later. Here, we see historical bias in an effort to fill our history with rainbows and lollipops. Our first government failed. Students need to know this. They need to learn why it failed and how it would be changed the second time around. By not mentioning it at all, we play into the myth that our founding fathers were flawless individuals. They were not. In truth, they were a very flawed group but they were also brilliant. Students need to learn this. One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Edison where he states that, "I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Students should be able to apply this quote to our earliest government.

I also have issues with textbooks themselves. Besides the bias I mentioned and the glossing over of "unpatriotic" history, textbooks also lend themselves to passive learning. If you ask a student to read a section in a textbook, often times they will drift off and not know or remember what they read. This happens to all of us at some point. Textbooks, and specifically history textbooks, are written in a very fact-oriented way which leads to little excitement for the students. This is why the "man, history is boring!" phrase pops up so many times in the classroom. If you teach history straight from the textbook then it IS boring. Therefore, what I have done is rewritten my material for my first two years. I take some of it from the textbook and some of it from outside sources and create my own lessons. I want my students to be actively engaged with the material as they are reading it. My students are always doing something while reading, whether its underlining, circling, using sticky notes, etc. I want them focused on the reading and they cannot do that with textbooks that have to be used year after year and can't be written in. In order for my students to become active readers then need to physically manipulate the reading material, and the only way I can do that is if I write the lessons myself.

Finally, I would like to share a story from my first year teaching. In Winston-Salem, NC I went to the textbook adoption meeting for middle school social studies teachers. Each representative was given copies of the five possible textbooks and we were to vote on which one we wanted to use for our schools. Coming from a school of struggling readers, I wanted a book that was adapted for their level as I knew I could always supplement material if the reading was too simple for some of my advanced students. I had an order in mind before the meeting and was hoping that the other representatives would feel as I did. They did not. Of the five choices, the one that was adopted was the one I felt would be LEAST beneficial for my students. Social studies teachers from the more affluent schools felt the book they selected would be best for THEIR students as so the tribe had spoken. I was left with a classroom set of thirty books that remained on my classroom shelves for the entire year. Why did the district order textbooks instead of individual schools? Easy. To save money. That's right, my students had to have a useless textbook that they could not read so the school district could save a few extra bucks. Makes sense, donut?

So these are some of the issues one has to struggle with in planning a course. I realize I could save myself a lot of time and hassle by teaching straight from the book and having kids read and take notes. But for me, that's not what teaching is about. Teaching is being an active reader and making connections between various events going on in the world. My students sure as hell won't be learning immigration law after the Bill of Rights. They'll be learning immigration law via the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That act will be prefaced with a lesson about minimum wage earnings in the 19th century and will be followed by a lesson on what makes a law unconstitutional. That way they will see what is going on in the world at that time. For them, historical changes will start to make sense and they will have an idea of not only where we've come from but where we are going. Because after all, don't we want our students to know where we are heading? If not, they will just go round in circles with no sense of purpose.

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