The course

Curriculum.

A Latin word that sort of rolls around the throat and off the tongue.

As well it should roll, since it literally means course, derived from curricle, a horse-drawn chariot for racing, and currere, to run.

So, perhaps that’s why there are pacing guides . . .

Moving on . . .

Suffice it to say that I’ve spent a good deal deal of time lately thinking about and discussing curriculum with teachers. At this point, I could launch into an exhaustive albeit incomplete analysis of types of curriculum (new facets develop almost daily), but it’s that’s not my purpose here. Having spent all of last Friday co-facilitating professional development for my colleagues on core instruction, I will reference my state’s definition of curriculum:

“The materials, instructional programs, texts, lessons and mapping (for academics and behavior/social-emotional functioning) delivered to all students. These should be evidence-based, aligned with student needs, provide clear mapping towards meeting standards, take into account student skill deficits, and align with school resources. The chosen curriculum should be evaluated often for effectiveness but with a keen eye first on implementation fidelity. In other words, before abandoning a program, the team should ensure it was implemented as it was designed because this is a common cause of poor outcomes” (NC MTSS Implementation Guide, “Defining Core”).

—There you have it, friends. That’s the course.

The running of this course is what concerns me.

Consider those phrases: aligned with student needs and taking into account student skill deficits. A course of study, a prescribed curriculum, doesn’t always, and isn’t able, of itself, to take into account student needs and deficits. The curriculum is a thing. A long and winding road that’s sometimes treacherous to navigate, for the thoughts, ideas, ideologies, theories, experience, assumptions, and intents of curriculum designers (and adopters) are not always clear or evident to the minds of those who are trying to discern them while simultaneously attempting to plot the course for a class of diverse learners. We see the what for the arduous path it is. We can sometimes see, even appreciate, the why. We struggle most with the how. The how too easily becomes an effort to run this course at all costs, to finish well, to plow on full-strength to the best of one’s ability in order to cover the necessary ground, i.e., all the standards and objectives as laid out. And the greatest how of all: How to run this race well when so many students are nowhere near the starting gate in regard to meeting standards, or proficiency?

Years ago a mentor told me we must stop thinking via the deficit model. We must see the whole child, meaning that we must acknowledge students’ strengths and focus on what they can do vs. what they can’t. I believe in the truth of this; I just know that it’s hard to hang onto in the throes of the daily race while rattling bumpity-bump down a formidable and rigorous course. Last Friday my teaching colleagues spent a lot of time thinking about children who aren’t “making it” in core instruction. Teachers considered why, then why again, then why again . . . coming to the conclusion that while there are curriculum tights to adhere to, for all kids to have the chance to be successful, there must also be curriculum tweaks. Collective decisions made with professional judgment. A concentrated meeting of the minds, a gleaning and sharing of experience and expertise, not for any other children but the very ones in front of us . . . .

That brings us to instruction, the real how. That’s why we HAVE professional development, to continue reaching for strategies, better ways of supporting students in getting from where they are to where they need to be. It doesn’t come prepackaged. It comes by knowing the children. In growing pedagogical know-how. In creativity. In thinking a great deal more out of the box when the box clearly doesn’t fit. In collaboration, through collective decisions made with professional judgment, with respect to the professionals that teachers are. The true art of teaching means tapping into the very core of humanity, in fostering atmospheres and experiences in which all learners will grow. . . and that undoes our analogy, doesn’t it? For if curriculum is the running of the race, who, then, is the charioteer? Who are the horses, running for all they’re worth? What, pray tell, is the chariot? Is education itself merely a marathon, a twisting and turning through obstacle courses laden with increasingly higher hurdles to clear, a jumping through hoops that progressively constrict?

When I was completing my teaching degree I lamented the high volume of work for little meaningful benefit or lasting takeaways. My advisor sighed: “I might as well tell you that education courses are basically tests of endurance.”

That is not what education should be. For students, for teachers, for anyone.

I’d rather think of the course as Life. The student as the charioteer. The student’s teachers over the years as the chariot engineers and artisans, continually building, tightening, tweaking, balancing, and adding their own unique embellishments to the vehicle that will carry that student forward through the future. The horses are named Knowledge, Wisdom, and Preparation; they are always hungry, always wanting to be fed so that they can keep driving on. The horse leading them all is called Inspiration . . .

But of course education, nor curriculum, is really about racing. Right?

“Thank you for pointing out the importance of professional wisdom,” said one of the teachers leaving the core instruction session last week, “and for honoring all the things we’re already doing. It was so uplifting.”

We’ve been off and running so hard for so long but now, oh yes, maybe now, we are getting somewhere.

Photo: Chariot (The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany). Shawn Allen. CC BY

6 thoughts on “The course

  1. “The true art of teaching means tapping into the very core of humanity, in fostering atmospheres and experiences in which all learners will grow. . . and that undoes our analogy, doesn’t it?” Thank you for this thoughtful reflection on curriculum, Fran. I’m working with a group of students right now whose strengths, needs and skill deficits make the origins of the word (which I did not know) that much more clear. They are so tired of being made to run this race. I will keep this idea you offer, this pondering of the metaphor, close as I remind myself and them that school is about learning, not racing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They are so tired of being made to run this race, yes, yes, yes. Part of our pd was considering effect sizes of practices and one of the highest was students’ beliefs in outcomes. Do they believe they can accomplish the goal at hand-? If they do, part of the battle is already won … I am cheering you and your students on from afar. I believe in you and your valuable intuition 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Today while coaching, the teachers got a little heated about the suggestion that we should try to keep the units within 5-6 weeks and not stretch them out to 8. You recommend immersion, that takes time, they say. We are pre-assessing and post assessing, celebrating, and there are days that the school interrupts The students need pre-lessons to prepare them for the curriculum. All of this is true. and yet…

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s all a challenge. Our teachers are implementing new curriculum chosen by the district. They often feel they have no voice, choice, time or freedom to use their own judgment. They weren’t expecting to hear that. I will be thinking of you & your teachers as you come to a collective understanding based on what’s truly best for kids. It’s hard, hard work, indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Bravo, Fran. This slice is a beautiful follow-up to an engaging #NYEDChat convo last night. I plan on sending Rita Wirtz to read your elegant and beautifully written text. This line I am savoring: “The true art of teaching means tapping into the very core of humanity, in fostering atmospheres and experiences in which all learners will grow. . . ” Your sound reasoning is what I like to hear from educators in the field. Being an educator for “decades” as I call it, I realize more now that we all need to slow down the race and take a reflective look at how we can help all students succeed. It is not one size fits all stance that will impact teaching. It is the careful analysis of what works with which children. It is about the art of teaching, the belief in the unique identities of all children, the scaffolding of information to fill the gaps, and the delivery of effective instruction that stretches the mind while being relevant. Thank you again for your fine text.

    Liked by 1 person

    • First let me thank you for your words here; I am delighted that they resonate with you so, and that you plan to share the post with Rita. Thank you for the invitation to #NYEDChat – it was part of the inspiration for this post, coming on the heels of last week’s PD on core instuction. All of it reiterates to me that we must continually stretch our own minds and creative powers to reach and support children, along with that careful analysis of what works. It requires room for creative freedom as well as thorough understanding of standards and what the children need. When they are lacking background knowledge and experiences – we must find ways to provide these. I keep coming back to the word “collective” – this is an effort that requires teamwork! I am thankful for you, Carol, for all you do and stand for, for your creative thinking and your artistry, on behalf of educators and students. Honored and happy to stand with you.

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