Thursday, August 26, 2010

Par for the Course: Designing and Implementing a New Curriculum

"Just choose what you think is important and go from there..."

The magic words. The words every teacher longs to hear. The words that give the teacher, the instructor, the trained professional the autonomy and control to teach what he or she wants the way he or she wants to teach it. However, this amazing gift in this day and age has become like winning the lottery. Everybody wants it, yet a select few ever have their wish come true. And yet, here I was one week ago, being given that elusive gift via my school administration. I'm normally not an emotional person. The last time I got visibly choked up was when the Patriots lost the 2007 Super Bowl. And yet there I was, slightly teary-eyed after having been giving the green light to teach with ultimate freedom and autonomy. In other words, I am one of the few teachers in America who can teach the way teaching was meant to be.

Herein lies the advantage of teaching a non-tested subject. The state of California has no say in how I teach Spanish as long as I teach it. I currently have the ability to teach Spanish any way I damn well please, pardon my French. And it is invigorating! I can look at tons of websites and identify what first year language learners need to know and be able to do. I can look back on my own experiences and those of my classmates and co-workers and ask them what worked and what didn't work when they were learning a foreign language. I can ask other Spanish teachers for their resources and can pick and choose what topics to present and when. If my students just can't get a topic for whatever reason, then I can try to reintroduce it later in the course or even in a follow-up course if need be. The sky is the limit. For the first time in my professional career, I am my own boss. I am the only language teacher currently at my school so the buck stops at me: literally. If the curriculum isn't working, I have nobody to blame but myself. I will drop back and punt and make it work. Because the success of the entire school's language learners depends on one person: me.

So as much as I would like to continue to brag about my new-found curricular freedom, this ultimately begs the question: Should all teachers, regardless of subject, have this much autonomy? Are our state standards enough? Or should we have national standards that all teachers must adhere to? Ah, herein lies the debate. Spanish is one thing, as it is not a tested area. It doesn't matter what exactly I teach my students because they will never have to deal with a national norm-referenced test. But what about our tested areas like math and reading? What about science and social studies where there are common bodies of knowledge? Should there ultimately be lists of what every student should know or be able to do by the time they graduate from college? There are many questions raised and many viewpoints supporting all sides of these arguments.

Let's first look at the idea of a common body of knowledge. E.D. Hirsch in the late 1980s brought forth the idea of each student knowing or being aware of a list of common facts and people. However, he was immediately attacked for being too conservative and not including valuable people and events that are traditionally neglected by our history books. He was accused of promoting the idea of "drill and kill" and not having our students think critically enough. As much as I agree that this list would ultimately neglect valuable parts of our history and culture, it made me wonder. Do we need some sort of national standards for our core curricula? If Johnny transfers from Oklahoma to Nebraska during his sophomore year, shouldn't he theoretically be able to pick up where he left off in his world history class? What happens if all of a sudden he leaves Mr. Brown's class discussing the Roman Empire and enters Miss Jones' class where they are in the middle of discussing the Qing Dynasty. This means that Johnny is now behind and doesn't have the core knowledge that his classmates have. And guess what? Johnny will be expected to take the same end of course test that all his classmates are despite missing out on the first portion of the year.

Think this is an exaggeration? Curricula can vary not only across states but even across schools. Yours truly opted to take a freshman year seminar in high school that combined language arts and social studies. My peers opted to take the traditional world history and freshman English classes. Yup, you guessed right. Yours truly, paid professional teacher of social studies, never formally learned about the Greek or Roman empires because they weren't taught in my seminar class. Well, technically we briefly discussed the Greek empire. But all I remember from that portion of the class is Doric, Corinthian, and Ionic columns because we had to do a video project on them. When people mention Caesar to me I first and foremost think of the delicious salad. So, what do you think? Is it really fair that people go their entire schooling in American public education and don't know basic facts about the Roman Empire?

And yet, I have to go back to the fact that if we taught the same things to everyone, we would not only lose out on student critical thought, but we would lose out on teacher creativity as well. There would be no way to pursue outside interests or areas of expertise. Maybe a certain teacher discusses Bartolome de Las Casas in his world history class. A student learns about Las Casas, someone his teacher studied and shared with the class. The student asks the teacher about him and the teacher tells him how he was one of the very first people to protest the European treatment of the natives in the Americas. The student wants to further study Las Casas and the teacher gives him some resources to look into. The student takes the initiative and learns all he can about not only Las Casas but other early protesters on the European invasion. Eventually, this student goes on to study other oppressed peoples and eventually decides he wants to be a public defender to fight for those current-day people who have been oppressed and haven't been given equal opportunities in their lives. All of this, thanks to a teacher who taught slightly outside of his given curriculum.

There is no easy answer to the curriculum dilemma. If I had to approximate one, I would say that teachers should use their state curricula as guides but have freedom to teach about what they are passionate about. If a U.S. history teacher wants to spend two weeks on the Era of Good Feelings, then let him or her spend time on that era. If another history teacher in Texas acknowledges that Charles Darwin wrote an important book about something called "evolution", then he or she should be allowed to do so without facing consequences. If an English teacher in Virginia wants to study Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, then with parental approval and administrative support, she should be able to. Not all teachers can have full autonomy but they should have the ability to teach beyond the simple drill and kill that have bogged down the tested areas. We all got into teaching because we are passionate about what we teach. It's time for school districts and national education policies to realize this and let us share our passion with our students.

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