content: I'd rather discover than cover
less content means more content
focus less on differentiation in order to differentiate
At one time “curriculum” meant “journey.” We still use the term “map,” but now it's precise. It's a GPS system where every student walks the same pace and we chastise children who are “left behind” and we get angry when the fast kids run ahead too far. I suppose the ultimate idea is a global map, a standardized trail for a global village.
I thought about this term "curriculum" less than a year ago while running a marathon. Crouched between the Superstition Mountains, I felt a connection to the land and to the runners with me. It was solitary and communal. It was a race but it wasn't. After all, we would every runner would earn a medal in the end. At one point, I vomited by the side of the road. An octogenarian walked up beside me, placed his sweaty palm on my shoulder and said, “You'll make it champ.” He told me that he ran two marathons per year. He said that he didn't do it to look younger, but to think better. “I've never been able to separate the mind and body,” he explained and then took off, leaving me behind.
If my students are going to run a course, I don't want to measure their success against one another. I don't want to shout out time splits every half mile. I want them to run for the joy of running. I want them to learn about pain and solitude and grace of the journey. I want them to learn for a lifetime and when they are at mile twenty-three, in pain, facing the mental battle of dementia, I want them to keep learning. And, someday, my hope is they'll receive a medal at the end and a hug from the ones they love.
* * *I share my frustration about the break-neck pace of the curriculum map and Brad suggests an alternative.
“Figure out what's important and then find ways to include the rest as background information.”
“It's hard to do that. I mean, yes, we have essential questions, but there are still huge standards to teach.”
“Here's what I've noticed: if you cover the important parts . . . no, cover isn't the right word at all. Covering is used when you hide things. If you do the opposite and you lead students into discovering the truth, they'll end up learning all the details in the process.” I like this notion of moving from covering to discovering.
“Can you give me an example?”
“I teach a class about marriage and family. I can go systematically through all the standards or I can have each student figuring out the deeper questions and in the process, they use the rest of the information along the way.”
Often times people say, “You can either go a mile wide or a mile deep,” as though the two are mutually exclusive. However, I have noticed that Brad is right. When students discover a subject in-depth, they end up picking up the smaller information in the process.
* * *I have two class periods to cover the strengths and weaknesses of the North and the South in the Civil War. Initially I consider lecture and note-taking. Just lay it out systematically. Instead, I create a paper war. I break it up in moments with broad questions like, “Why did that side win?” or “Is it possible to win the battles but lose the war?” We stop and read some informational text, analyze the demographic data for awhile and then move back to the fight.
As students debrief the metaphor, the answers vary according to their own prior knowledge. One group talks about the economic differences of industry versus farming while another group simply delves into the differences in population. Some students argue about the moral desire to win while others discuss whether it was right in the first place to try and keep the two sides together at all. Some groups delve into the geography and whether it is worth the advantage of fighting on one's home turf if it means buildings will be destroyed. Still others talk about population and resources. As the groups share with one another, they cover huge standards as a whole, but they also discover the depth of the issue on their own.
As they write about the advantages and disadvantages of each side, each student has a depth of knowledge and yet is also able to see the breadth of information required by the state standards. Like the marathon, every student finds a pace and finishes the race.
In our education classes the teachers would wax eloquently about differentiated instruction. I needed to know learning styles and multiple intelligences and ELL strategies and . . . it all become unrealistic. I can't figure out how to teach 130 different lesson plans a day. I can, however, develop lessons that empower students to move at their own pace of discovery.
* * *
Pacing can be confusing. How long does it take a group of seventh graders to write two paragraphs? (In my experience, fifteen minutes at the beginning of the year and ten minutes later). How long does it take to fill out a web? How much time should I give for sharing in think-pair-share when it seems that they are simply chatting instead of engaging in deep discussion?
It's way to easy to pack in too much, rush through it and feel the effects of a hurried schedule. The class culture becomes frantic and busy without time for reflection. On the other hand, it's way too possible to plan a lesson, give too much time and then experience dead time where students find ways to be disruptive, because they are bored.
The first time I joined the gym I glanced at the television airing CNN. While websites seem to move to a more simplified, visually appealing, calm look, cable news packs more and more information onto a screen. I'm reading a scroll bar on top of two other scroll bars. At the top of the screen is a “late breaking story” (stories are always broken, never fixed) and to the side is an interview with three guests and the main host on the left. Occasionally, they break from the talking heads and show video footage, recent polls and teasers for other news shows.
CNN proves that one can spend an entire day telling news and never show anyone what's really going on in the world. Instead, we get commentary followed by shards of sound bytes, interesting video footage and graphics - all out of context and rushed and lacking deeper connections to life. No narrative. No human element. Just entertainment in the guise of "being informed."
If I'm not careful, I can suffer from the CNN syndrome. I fill up the class with busy activities, each leading to the next. I add too many enrichment and intervention assignments and they become the busy scroll bars. A visitor might notice "active engagement," but what they really see on a CNN day is students busy and working hard, but failing to slow down and think. I cover more and they discover less.
Catch me on a good day, though, and it's more like This American Life. The pacing is casual, but not wasted. We have quick transitions, but they are part of a bigger whole. There is no "dead air" but students are also avoiding the frantic pacing of a lesson that must be done for the sake of getting it done.
* * *Doyle tells the story of an iceberg that fell off and shocked a bunch of scientists. As he puts it, “the ice berg was behaving badly.” It's nice to see science folks who will engage in anthropomorphism. So, he mentions what he would do with this as a teacher. Students would simply “figure out what happened and why it matters.” As he puts it, the process “beats memorizing the Periodic Table.” At one point, I would have scoffed at Doyle's lesson. It's too short and too easy. Where are the objectives? Where is the differentiation?
Except, I find the same trend to be true when I teach a math intervention class. I begin with a group that struggles to understand basic algebra. Instead of teaching them to solve for X, I offer a scenario about a car trip and the class comes up with a general question about when we will need to leave. They have to determine the prior information (we use Google Maps to check the speed limits and the distance) and develop the equation.
The students grapple with the question in groups and eventually hit a point where they solve it. Finally, one group discovers the notion of “X” and provides it as a “cheat code.” It takes a full class period to get there, but the next day they solve a more complex problem using X. When I finally offer a standardized test question, students scoff at how easy it is.
After a week, a student stops me and says, “We do less work in this class than in my math class. But it feels harder.”
“Do you feel like you are learning?”
“Yeah, but I know your trick. You teach us less and then you watch us learn.”
Exactly. Less content. Less teaching. More learning. I'm unmasked.