What’s Out There? Curricula that Support Essential School Ideas

Essential school teachers don’t have to write all their curricula from scratch. Materials that support their beliefs are coming onto the scene, and spreading across networks with information-age speed as teachers try them, critique them, and make them their own.

All during the 20 years he taught at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, New York, Arthur Eisenkraft chafed at the fact that most high school students-80 percent, according to national figures-just don’t take physics.

If he could just snag kids into experiencing how directly physics related to what they did care about -sports, or the Internet, or cars, or the lottery-he knew he could get them interested.

But textbook courses offered nothing in the way of help; they plodded predictably from forces in the fall to solenoids in the spring, with nary a nod to the young audiences asleep at their desks.

So for the past seven years, this Essential school veteran has spent his nights and weekends devising new ways to engage high school students in doing and thinking deeply about physics. With like-minded colleagues from all over, he won National Science Foundation (NSF) support for a course that would reflect the principles of student as worker, swapping the old sequential skill-and-drill approach for a series of lively investigations into the science of what matters to kids.

Trying out Eisenkraft’s ideas at Fox Lane, students presented scientific evidence to the principal that no one’s hearing would be damaged by the band at the school dance. They designed a safety device for a bicycle and a sport to play on the moon. “It’s not traditional, but it is demanding,” their teacher says. “Now kids are learning the concepts because they really feel the need to know.”

This year, Eisenkraft’s six-book series hit the streets as Active Physics, a six-part series published by a small company called It’s About Time and already adopted by Philadelphia, Detroit, and Miami. At Fox Lane, the number of students taking physics, from ninth grade up through senior year, has tripled with the new approach.

As much as anything, this story reveals the impact that over a decade of Essential schooling has begun to have on the materials available to teachers. Spurred by the work of national disciplinary organizations and funded by the National Science Foundation and other forward-looking groups, more curriculum and assessment is steadily emerging that supports the student-centered, inquiry-based Common Principles that Theodore R. Sizer first laid out in 1984.

And though the wheels of the giant textbook and testing industries grind slowly and creep only with utmost caution away from their safe standby pablum, they are no longer the only game in town. The Internet has provided a nimble new way for teachers to share their own lively ideas, borrow from others, and compare their students’ work to that from other places.

At Piner High School in Santa Rosa, California, where teachers in “small learning communities” have been creating curricula for years, Kathy Juarez hops on line with an “interdisciplinary themed instruction” discussion group based at the Appalachia Regional Educational Laboratory in West Virginia (iti@ael.org) and offers her list of Shakespearean insults to a teacher in Vermont who needs a fresh way to teach “Romeo and Juliet.” Some- one else recommends a teacher-created curriculum called “Shakespeare Set Free,” available through the Folger Shakespeare Library (www.shakespeare-etc.org or call 202-675-0364). By the time the week is through, the Vermont teacher has a unit he can adapt to his class, and the suggestions have made their way across cyberspace to uncounted more Essential school classrooms.

In New York City, students at Satellite Academy talk with Holocaust survivors, who are visiting the school with director Steven Spiel-berg to launch his new CD-ROM series, an oral history of that time. Also on the scene is staff from Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit developer of curricular materials on racism, genocide, and democratic participation, which began in the 1970s with support from the Brookline, Massachusetts high school once headed by former CES Schools Director Bob McCarthy. Now widely used in Essential school humanities classes around the country, the group’s materials will also support the Spielberg CDs.

What’s Out There?

Despite the slew of “standards” documents generated in the past decade by states, districts, and disciplinary organizations, most teachers are on their own when it comes to lining up a curriculum that meets those sweeping goals. If they are also going against the prevailing winds of “coverage”-looking toward more active student inquiry, or a case study approach that can buttress a “less is more” philosophy, or heterogeneously grouped classes-they have an even harder task. If the school administration allows them a choice of materials at all, they are lucky. They must struggle to win time and money to learn to use new approaches and materials effectively. Finally, unless the new curricula have authentic assessments entwined in their day-to-day work, teachers face sabotage in the form of outside tests that do not reflect their priorities.

Still, those with time and energy to look into “what’s out there” will discover promising new curriculum and assessment materials that fall into several rough categories:

  • Whole-school programs, such as the Paideia Plan, International Baccalaureate’s Middle Years Program, or ACT’s Passport portfolio system. These do not consist of curricular materials per se, but rather offer a framework within which teachers construct class work; they may come with a system in which outside assessors review and validate a percentage of the assessments made by classroom teachers.
  • Cross-curricular “approaches” to instruction like Paideia, Expeditionary Learning, or Foxfire, which enrich or dovetail with existing curricula.
  • Courses of study in one or more particular fields, sometimes accompanied by textbooks (as with “integrated math and science”), and sometimes encouraging a choice of materials but supplying outside assessments (as with the College Board’s Pacesetter curricula in English, Spanish, and math).
  • Resource kits, modules, or curriculum “bundles,” often in multi-media form, that can assist in shaping a unit, term, or year’s study, such as those from the Developmental Studies Center, History Alive, the Getty Institute for Education and the Arts, Terc, or educational software companies like Sunburst or Tom Snyder Productions.
  • Lesson plans, reading lists, or materials posted on the Internet by teachers, scholars, professional organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), government agencies like NASA or the Library of Congress, universities, or ad hoc groups.
  • Large-scale assessment systems based on portfolio entries or narrative observations (like ACT’s Passport portfolio system, the California Learning Record, and the Primary Language Record [see HORACE, Volume 13, No. 2]) or open-ended performance assessments, like Milwaukee’s district assessment in math or Vermont’s portfolio program.

Many of the above options offer substantial support for teachers during the summer or school year, which research shows is critical to their success in practice. In another option for teachers who prefer to develop their curriculum from the ground up, other summer institutes (like the Woodrow Wilson Leadership Program or the Mt. Holyoke Summer Math Program) bring teachers together for coaching and practice. And some schools, like those in the Atlas Communities (see page 10), have instituted summer sessions in which teachers prepare and critique new curricula.

Finally, the professional networks that develop among Essential school teachers both formally and informally-face to face through Centers workshops and “critical friends” or study groups, or on line via list-serve discussion groups sponsored by CES and others-offer a smorgasbord of curriculum possibilities that many teachers then make their own. At Turner Technical High School in Miami, Pedro Bermudez borrowed a newspaper unit created by middle school teacher Rick Casey in New York’s Croton-Harmon district, then turned it into an entire course that integrated U.S. history with technology and language arts. At Mission Hill School in Roxbury, Massachusetts, CES Vice-Chair Deborah Meier introduced a middle-school curriculum called “The Peopling of the U.S.A.,” which she brought with her from Central Park East Secondary School. And a set of pioneering projects called “City Works” (forthcoming from New Press), which had ninth-grade students in Cambridge, Massachusetts exploring their neighborhood while learning academic subjects, is spreading to some of the Big Picture’s New Urban High Schools, a consortium of six model school-to-work schools, five of which are Coalition members.

Partners in Development

In addition, the fertile ground of Essential schools has attracted new partnerships between innovative teachers and those developing classroom materials to support them. Like Arthur Eisenkraft, other Essential school teachers have found themselves in demand because they are already creating curricula that deserve a wider audience. Terc, a curriculum developer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, won Scott Eddleman away from his job teaching community- based science at Maine’s Noble High School to work on a series of integrated math and science materials situated in workplace contexts, for example.

Sometimes the impetus comes from the other direction, as when a group of young Stanford-trained history teachers, irritated by the conventional texts on their desks, created their own company to publish History Alive, a collection of theme-based binders stuffed with art, maps, simulation activities, and other resources. (“I don’t take it hook, line, and sinker,” says Carrie Brennan, who has used the materials at Catalina Foothills High School in Tucson, Arizona, “but it’s definitely helpful, if only as a springboard for new ideas.”)

Or sometimes Essential schools help field-test new curriculum projects in their early stages. The Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP), developed at the University of California in Berkeley with support from the National Science Foundation, found an eager audience in Essential schools like Fenway Middle College High School in Boston and California’s Piner High School, which have now used it long enough to see the first graduates go on to college. In Michigan, Essential schools helped pilot Core-Plus, a high school math curriculum that came out of an NSF partnership with Western Michigan University, and Connected Math, a similar project for the middle school years.

Curriculum & Learning

So with all this promising material, has the magic bullet come for schools that aim for greater student understanding? Once innovative curricula get to the desks of teachers and students, do they work?

Not without several other critical pieces in place, according to important research by Paul Berman and Milbrey McLaughlin in the 1977 study (“Factors affecting implementation and continuation”) they wrote for the Rand Corporation after a wave of federally funded “innovations” like “new math” swept the nation like so many new feed grains in the post-Sputnik 1960s.

If people in schools believe that knowledge can simply be transferred -turned from research data into simplified practices, moved from the teacher’s guide into the minds of students-they will end up putting new curriculum materials back on the shelf without much to show for them, Yale’s Seymour Sarason agrees in his classic book, The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (revised 1996, Teachers College Press).

For any new way of teaching to “work” with students, a tremendous amount of support and reflection must accompany it, a well-established body of research beginning in the 1970s has made clear. Indeed, the success of any curriculum may depend less on its design and more on teachers’ own beliefs about how learning happens, both for themselves and for the individual students they teach.

And their ability to look at ready-made curricula critically-not to “shop” for it as a neutral tool that determines when, what, and how they teach-can greatly affect how equitable are the opportunities for students to learn well.

Whose knowledge does the curriculum represent, Essential school teachers are increasingly asking, and what ideologies underlie that knowledge? Whose voices are privileged, and whose absent? What are the absent voices saying?

This kind of question often prompts teachers to seek out multicultural materials in the humanities, to reflect the diverse backgrounds of their students. But it can go further, to probe not just different motivations to learn but the different ways that students construct meaning.

One young California teacher new to a large urban high school, for instance, told of selecting from her department’s three approved geometry texts the one book relying primarily on inductive reasoning, not deductive proofs. Not a good idea, her colleagues advised, since she would be teaching the lowest level of students. Believing that it would serve those students even better, she stuck with her decision, and her students were soon outdoing all previous expectations.

Curriculum As Inquiry Cycle

Rather than allowing curriculum to predetermine where students are and how they learn, teachers can practice a cycle of inquiry that uses curricular materials only as a resource, not as a “framework.” “No matter how good the materials are, they don’t work if I’m not totally tuned in to the minds of my students,” says Heather Douglas, an Essential school teacher helping coach a math-science network of schools at Boston’s Center for Collaborative Education. “Before I even go looking around for resources, I need to recognize what kind of experience a kid needs to move him to the next step.”

First, for example, the teacher might observe what conceptual models her students already hold. (“A big boat will sink and a little boat will float.”) Then she might seek out materials that will provoke an activity. (The class makes boats of different sizes and shapes and tries floating them in water.) Using that activity to call forth new conceptual models (“Some big boats float and some little boats sink”), she then completes the cycle as students come up with new questions. (“What floats and what sinks?”)

In a scenario like this, the most useful prepared materials might well be the kind of inexpensive kits prepared by the University of California’s Lawrence Hall of Science at Berkeley, known as Great Experiments in Math and Science (Gems), or the Terc investigations, which provide no textbooks but rather teacher guides and courses. “You could hang these kits in a “standards framework,’ says one teacher who has used them, “in order to “get the kids’ to do this or that. But it’s better to just let kids explore with them, then to discover and reflect together on what they experience.”

Looked at this way, curriculum materials can only ignite new learning if teachers first enter into a relationship with both what they teach and who they teach. No matter how many great ideas are on the shelf, they don’t start making a difference until students and teachers bring them alive through their daily encounters-not just in class but in every question, every decision, every demonstration of what they understand and what they don’t. There’s a reason that the word curriculum comes from the Latin verb for “run” or “course”-it is not a package of facts and activities, but a dynamic series of events, a river of learning that carries us all, sometimes unpredictably, to a new place. And as Essential schools consider the increasing array of navigational tools available to them, they may be charting a valuable new map.

How to analyse a curriculum unit or project