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

Inspiration comes on wings and paws

I saw her a couple of times across the convention center lobby. She wasn’t deliberately calling attention to herself. With her flowing blonde hair and elegant bearing, she couldn’t help standing out in a room full of people. 

I smiled at first glimpse of her: A service dog. 

And such a beautiful one.

I suppressed the urge to go over to her, knowing that service dogs are on duty. I briefly wondered if the man she accompanied had impaired vision or special medical needs and whether this throng of humans had the animal on heightened alert.

Instead I focused on my upcoming break-out session. For the second year, my colleague and I were sharing the effects of my school’s Harry Potter club with attendees of the North Carolina Reading Association. It’s a fun and meaningful presentation centering on the sense of identity that develops among diverse learners in third to fifth grades; many students find it such a place of belonging that they ask to be in the club semester after semester, even if we are reading the same stories and making the same crafts.

The best part is how excited teachers are to attend this session at the conference. Never underestimate the power of Potter . . . as my colleague and I set up the slideshow, the room filled quickly with participants and an air of festive expectancy.

Then—in strolled the service dog! Her person took a seat near the front (he wasn’t vision-impaired; he read the welcome slide and made eye contact in conversation with others). The dog immediately lay on the floor alongside his chair, flat on her side, utterly still. Her gleaming dark eyes gazed toward the front of the room.

What a gentle face. I looked back at those sweet eyes for a lingering second, my curiosity thoroughly piqued with regard to her service role, as my own role of presenter began.

—Here’s hoping you like Harry Potter, little canine friend. 

There she lay throughout, even at the conclusion when teachers came to the front of the room to select materials for making a craft like the club kids do: A clear ornament filled with strips cut from pages of an unsalvageable, falling-apart copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a feather pen, a pencil broom, a flying key. 

The dog’s person chose to make a flying key. When I went to check on his progress, he introduced me to his canine companion:

“This is Palmer.”

Her big eyes considered me benignly.

“Hi, Palmer. You’re a beautiful dog!” I desperately wanted to stroke her lustrous yellow-white fur.  

“Want to see what she can do?” asked Palmer’s person.

“Sure!”

She does tricks, then? Do service dogs actually DO tricks?

I had no idea what to expect.

Couldn’t have predicted . . . .

Her person stood. Palmer instantly stood before him.  Her person produced cards with words on them. As he displayed them one by one, Palmer did exactly what the words on the cards said. Sit, lie, stand . . . her trainer—as that’s clearly what he was, now—even shuffled the cards behind his back, held them up again, and Palmer still enacted the word on each card. Accurately.

At this point the entire room was agog: “The dog’s reading the cards!”

Her trainer smiled. “Palmer helps kids at my school learn to read. Especially first graders with sight words.”

I blinked back a sudden welling of tears, envisioning the children with this dog in the classroom, the joy of it. “How wonderful.”

—”Want to take a picture with her?”

I recovered myself: “Oh—absolutely! I’d be honored!”

So Palmer posed beside me at a table, her paws resting on top. Her trainer held out his newly-made winged key: “Hold it, Palmer.” 

And she took it, ever so gently, in her mouth. She held it for all the photos.

Which, to me, holds great significance.

I always think of the winged key as a symbol for unlocking problematic doors in reaching an important goal, as it did in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I think of it as a metaphor for inspiration, as in flying above and beyond learning obstacles, especially with regard to challenges that some of our Potter club kids have faced.

And here is Palmer, herself a symbol of meeting social-emotional needs, for I have since learned that she goes above and beyond motivating young children who are learning to read. She also helps children at her school attain their behavioral and academic goals. If they need extra encouragement while working on math, or the comfort of a warm, benevolent, stabilizing presence close by, Palmer is there for them. She is a key to overcoming whatever challenges they face. 

—I can think of few things more magical and inspiring. 

Palmer, Educational Assistance Dog.  April 2, 2019.