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

Enriched

Coyote pups

Four Coyote Pups by Den. Colorado. nature 80020CC BY

As sixth grade ended, my teacher recommended me for a summer enrichment camp.

“You’ll love it,” she said. “Every day for two weeks, you’ll get to study drama, writing, and photography.”

I desperately wanted to go.

When I brought the paperwork home to my dad, he frowned.

“I don’t think so,” he told me.

“But, Daddy, it’s a special thing. You have to be invited by your teacher and I get to study drama and writing. It’s going to be so much fun. I can even ride the summer school bus to get there every day—please, Daddy?”

“It costs, you know.” He sounded tired.

The attendance fee, I think, was twenty-five dollars. Maybe thirty. It didn’t seem like a lot to me, but I knew Daddy worried about bills. My mother had ongoing medical expenses; my sister and I took weekly allergy shots. I knew not to bother Daddy when he sat at the table with the checkbook—I wouldn’t go near the kitchen at all, for then he wore a worse frown than the one he was wearing now.

No point in pressing him. I went to my bedroom, shut the door, and cried.

Later that day, or maybe the next, Grandma called. After chatting awhile with my father about news, how our all of our relatives were in their little North Carolina hometown and how everybody was there in Virginia, she asked to talk to me.

Daddy handed me the phone. It had a long cord—really long. From its wall mount, the phone cord reached the floor. It would stretch from the kitchen down the hall to my room, where I could sit on my bed and talk in private.

“Hi, Grandma.”

“Hello, Dear,” she said, the warmth of it like June sunlight bursting through a break in the clouds.  “I just wanted to hear your voice.”

My tears welled again. “I miss you.”

“Is something the matter?”

I told her all about the camp, about Daddy saying no because of the cost.

“How much is it?”

I told her.

“I’ll pay for it,” she said, uncharacteristically crisp. I could almost see the lift of her chin, the flash in her blue eyes. “I believe children should have the chance to do some things they really want to do.”

“Thank you,” I sniffled into the phone.

“Let me talk to your Daddy.”

And so it was that I went to the summer camp on the benevolence of my greatest advocate, Grandma.

Riding the bus with high school kids having to attend summer school in order to pass their grades was an adventure unto itself, but beyond that, camp was a laboratory of creativity.

I encountered pantomime for the first time, communicating story with the body, without words. I wasn’t especially good at it but some of my fellow campers—aged eleven, twelve, thirteen—were astonishing. One boy mimed being closed in by a shrinking box so well that the box was virtually visible. I watched, holding my breath, enthralled.

The drama teachers grouped us into fours, gave the groups four words, and challenged us with writing cohesive skits with these four words embedded in dialogue. My group’s words were—to the best of my memory—lion, clock, heart, flies. We were timed on the writing of the skit and the rehearsal of it, including the creation of minimalist props out of construction paper. My group, with me as scribe, wrote a farcical story of a doctor having to treat a patient who was attacked by a lion and who got away by throwing a clock at it, to which the Groucho Marx-esque doctor remarks: “My, how time flies!”

We entitled it “Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat” after a TV series that none of us really knew much about except that it seemed weird and therefore perfect: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. 

We performed last for our fellow campers, to a standing ovation and teachers wiping their tears at our over-the-top slapstick antics. Yours Truly played the hapless doctor.

We studied fairy tales; we wrote and illustrated our own, to be “published” in laminated books we could keep. I wrote “The Littlest Mermaid,” having long been captivated by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Ages before Disney brought us red-headed Ariel, my pink-haired mermaid battled jealous bullies. When I wrote The other mermaids hated her, the writing teacher said, “Hate is a strong, terrible word. Do you think it belongs in a story for children?”

I revised: The other mermaids didn’t like her. 

Ever since, I’ve thought about the power of one word, and when is right or not right to use it. And audience. And whether children should be shielded from the word hate, and when are fairy tales just for children?

In photography class, we campers built cameras from shoe boxes, learning about light leaks and timed exposures. I was able to produce a picture of a basset hound (they don’t move a lot) and my classmate sitting in a tree. The teacher explained that we were “photojournalists”—we’d write about the process of building and using our cameras, what worked, what didn’t, and why. He then encouraged us to write stories about the images we took and developed.

For a final writing adventure, the writing teachers invited us to look through a stack of glossy, full-page photographs. I chose two: One of a single coyote standing in a canyon, the other of four little coyote pups. I was taken by the animals’ beauty and the warm, reddish colors of the rocks.

Trouble was, I knew nothing of coyotes beyond the Road Runner cartoons. The animals in these photos were unexpectedly magnificent.

Thus began my first real foray into research. It began with place: Where do coyotes live? I needed to know. At home that night, I cracked open a dusty encyclopedia from the bottom shelf of the living room bookcase. After poring over the coyote entry, I chose Pueblo, Colorado, for my coyotes’ home. And having learned, somberly, that man is the coyotes’ worst enemy, I had an idea for a plot: Survival. After the mother or the father coyote is shot, the mate takes the pups on a journey to a new home. I also encountered the word ravenous for the first time . . . and when my teachers asked me to read my story for the gathering of families at the program on the last day of camp, I mispronounced it, saying that the coyotes ate ra-VEEN-yus-ly. “I wish I’d heard you read it aloud first,” a teacher apologized. “It’s RA-ven-ous-ly.”

Alas. Reader’s vocabulary.

It was decades and decades ago, but the richness of the camp is with me still: Every day an adventure, with something to discover, to explore, to synthesize into something new; an extension of myself, what I love, who I am. A wealth of learning compounded with interest, over time.

That Grandma made possible, because she believed it was important, even necessary. I later learned how much she wanted to take piano lessons as a child and her family couldn’t afford it. A charitable young preacher’s wife eventually taught her how to play.

And, ever the angel wielding the sword on my behalf, Grandma was willing to take a piercing in return; she sent me to the camp even though she knew it would shorten the time I’d spent at her house that summer.

Because, for some investments, the payoff is incalculable. Grandma understood this.

And even then I understood that I was, in so many ways, enriched beyond measure.