A big issue for me is maintaining a focus while leaving room for the serendipitous. Much of the good teaching I have done has involved seizing the moment and running with it. For example, a student will have had experiences or an insight that I did not anticipate when planning the unit. Something impacting the curriculum will happen in the building or in the news. Or an unexpected opportunity for a tangential experience presents itself, such as when an arts company performed Romeo and Juliet in the middle of my Julius Caesar unit.
Another consideration has been finding the hook for engaging the kids. Often the issues I have defined for a unit have little to do with the kids’ issues. Our students at Sullivan are such a diverse lot that this is true from class to class as well as from year to year. Each class seems to have its own dynamic; what plays well with one often falls flat with another. The most carefully constructed curriculum has little value when “so what?” is the dominant class reaction. A good indication of this is when all the ideas “generated” are my own.
The converse of this arises from the kids’ expectations. Whether it is a piece of literature, an instructional process, or a project, they often want to do what others have done or are doing, or what they have done in the past. Complicating the student expectation issue is their facade of moaning and groaning about the old along with their moaning and groaning about the new. Sorting this out is tricky; it often demands honoring the old in some ways while weaning them away in reasonable steps to be open to the new.
This is especially true with long-term projects which, even when broken down into the most reasonable of steps, still overwhelm kids who have been segmenting their attention to school into daily activities. Developing their ability to attend to a prolonged activity seems to arise from abundant short-term projects. This requires teacher creativity and persistence as well as a willingness to engage in trial and error.
Choosing readings and activities intended to prod kids into making connections presents another dilemma. I am always wary of an inclination to cut to the chase so the kids will make the same connections I do. I try to keep in mind that my connections are mine, arising from a much richer set of experiences than I am probably providing my students. I am especially suspicious of readings that seem to say it all, or activities so structured that the end result is pre-ordained. And I am leery of my tendency to prematurely sum up or pull disparate ideas together. This is especially hard to resist when through the class activities I have suddenly discovered a new connection or new slant on things. After all, it is the kids’ epiphanies that count.
After doing the Myers-Briggs inventory, I further realized that many of my classes were slanted towards intuitive students. Now I search for literary pieces that stand up and wave at the reader when a leap is to be made or symbols are used. At least then the less intuitive kids have a fighting chance of beginning to leap or decipher. I also rely more on diagrams and patterns and even literary equations, to prevent those students from becoming so muddled that they retreat to the safety of plot in every literary undertaking. These curriculum variations do not come naturally; I have to force myself to think differently.
Each time I encounter a new lens to apply to curriculum development-learning styles, Howard Gardner’s thoughts on disciplinary understanding, Eleanor Duckworth’s wonderful ideas, Grant Wiggins’s work, and so forth-I sense some resonance, then a feeling of being overwhelmed. What should one attend to in curriculum? How much can one attend to in curriculum? Am I just stumbling along, hoping that what I do in the classroom is right for kids and condemned to tinkering when it isn’t? Perhaps there is some magic formula that I am too obtuse to recognize. Or just perhaps, Socrates was right in the Gorgias when he says that teaching is an art and not a craft. With that, I am a bit easier with these curriculum tensions.
by Eileen Barton, Sullivan High School, Chicago