Making Curriculum Pop

Once upon a time, Napoleon, a twenty-three year old first year Biology teacher came into my office and sprawled on the forest green couch like a starfish. I quipped, “10th Graders treating you well today?”

Napoleon laughed as his smile melted into the hands now cupping his face. He looked-up, wide eyed and a bit delirious, “Today was terrible, probably THE worst day I’ve had teaching. The bottom, the low point, the bottomless pit.”

He was trying to teach kids DNA replication and the lesson went nowhere. “I had four pages of notes and a worksheet to go with it that fell totally flat. I’m exhausted.”

As a non-science dude (see the Comic Science) mentoring Napoleon, I asked what he thought might engage the kids. Exasperated, Napoleon responded, “I don’t know.” While it would have been better practice to let him construct an answer, I decided to fill the space with my “exciting” philosophy of teaching.

I’ve been mentoring new teachers the last four years in the South Bronx, training teachers for about ten years and had many great mentors during my career - my mother as standout among them. My mom and I collaborate a lot now but she has always been a superstar in terms of helping me figure out how mold ideas and materials into educational experiences. Through her, lots of reading, practice and classes I’ve come across many useful articulations of best practices that have become the beats I’ve joyfully remixed into a framework for quality teaching.

Three systems of best practice stand out as astute synthesis of research and practice. I’ve always been a big fan of Daniels and Bizar’s book, Teaching the Best Practice Way, because of its constructivist underpinnings and wide-angle view of teaching. Martzino, Pickering and Pollock’s book Classroom Instruction That Works is a nice counterpoint to The Best Practice Way as it takes a more microscopic view of teaching. Additionally, I was fortunate to receive a year of training in the in the UC Santa Cruz New Teacher Induction Model, another useful big-picture model, when I joined the NYC public school system as a mentor.

Other touchstones for my practice include Csikszentmihalyi’s books on creativity, Tomlinson’s work on differentiation, Gardner’s work on Multiple Intelligences (sans the biological determinism), Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind, the popular culture that taught me more than textbooks in high school, Dr. Seuss and a bi-polar rejection and embrace of E.D. Hirsch’s book Cultural Literacy. These things have all mashed up into my modest mantras for best practice The 4 Ss - pronounced 4SSSSSSSSSSsssssssss.

Napoleon didn’t ask to hear my philosophy, but his exhaustion seemed like a perfect opening for my monologue. I took a sip of water, rolled up my sleeves and spoke to him as if I was The Oracle of great teaching. To make each S sound smarter please remember that I wear glasses and feel free to visualize yourself sitting on a cloud, lots of white robes, clear spring water, soothing pan flute melodies etc. etc.

SOCIAL SKILLS – aka positive affect.
It is absolutely essential for us to work with students in a kind, respectful, empathetic, thoughtful, collaborative and fun manner. Both Nicole and I have met a lot of teachers who enter the profession filled with insecurities that fuel their obsession with power and control. If you’re interested in power and control, please go run a power plant, not a classroom.

While this element of great teaching seems like common sense, it is often assumed to be an innate skill and thus is rarely taught. For novice teachers, a mindful and respectful presence in the classroom goes a long way toward building engaging practice. As we evolve our skill in this area, one hopes our definition of “positive social skills” includes a respect for students that manifests in daily intellectual challenges for every learner.

In many situations where I’ve seen an affable, caring teacher go Chernobyl on students a deficiency of one of the remaining Ss is usually a root cause.

Often, when talking with new teachers at conferences or in classrooms I feel like we do an excellent job of throwing many of our new teachers into the profession like this:

Obviously, this man needs the tools of his trade - a mouth guard, padding, a facemask, uniform and a helmet (preferably winged). Teachers are no different; we need the tools and materials that allow us to start playing the teaching game without serious injury. Some people think this means curriculum should be airlifted into struggling schools. But think about the our hockey metaphor for a second - when we put that goalie on the ice we don’t tell them what to do - they learn the rules of the game, study old games and practice effective strategies. As situations on the ice develop they make choices from their knowledge supply that will be useful to block the puck.

As teachers we should do the same thing by using supplies as a means to craft creative, unique curricula When new teachers aren’t given ample supplies they feel like they’ve been asked to create sculptures out of air instead of clay; this is a wonderful path to conceptual art but not meaningful instruction. Without instructional models and materials to modify, experiment with, and build on they don’t have a fair chance in the game.

When a teacher arrives at a school, or is asked to teach a new elective they should be given carte blanche to every drop of curriculum that has been done in the school (even the bad stuff), as much pre-made curricula as the school can afford and any PD available within a 30 mile radius of the school. Of course, new teachers should also aggressively seek supplies on their own, but school systems and administrators should do everything in their power to support them in their quest.

Over time we must work hard toward to having the coolest, most engaging and most relevant supplies for our classes, but novice teachers need raw materials beyond state standards so they don’t get a concussion from the puck aimed straight at their forehead.

Are our classes so engaging that students want to go home and tell their parents what they learned? If they are, we’re creating a compelling story. No matter what subject we’re teaching an intellectually and emotionally engaging narrative can anchor content to students’ everyday experiences and prior knowledge. This should not be interpreted as teaching resume writing, personal checking and questions to ask your doctor; there are myriad ways to make learning relevant.

An easy way make classes engaging is to “make curriculum pop.” On a basic level we can show kids an allusion to Shakespeare in The Simpsons or have them blog on health issues for a global audience. On an advanced level we can create story lines for all our courses, units, lessons and instruction built around common and popular cultures. Parabolas become protagonists and scientific conundrums become characters in learning experiences that mirror the highs and lows of the human condition.

Even the most arcane things (see Mythbusters) take on meaning with a compelling story. Think about reality television – I can’t stand most of the people cast for The Bachelor, American Idol or The Real World, but because they are crafted into a narrative I avoid those shows for fear of never leaving the couch. Stories and character aren’t just engaging, they’re addictive. Finding a spouse, being the best singer and living with strangers aren’t very interesting until conflict, character and complexity are added to these basic plots. Keeping that in mind, we can breathe life into complex theories like evolution by placing eccentric characters like Darwin and Scopes center stage. On the flip-side, we should also design learning experiences with spaces for students to tell and create their stories.

Remember, the greatest stories ever told are loaded with ambiguity and cognitive dissonance. Was Charles Foster Kane a good man? Did Mookie Do The Right Thing? These questions rarely have simple answers, but they always have complicated and emotionally engaging stories. Like a great screenplays, our classrooms should be filled with questions that force students to see gray rather than black and white.

Models, scaffolding, chunking, graphic organizers, unit plans, graphs, interactive notebooks, binders, storylines, pre-reading, writing, and new technologies are just some of the structures that can be used to transform activities into experiences with large learning footprints. If we want to take students skills, knowledge and ideas to a higher ground, we must create steps for elevation in the U2 sense of the term.

When we’re pressed for time our instruction becomes an abandoned house with rickety horror movie stairs that the cute cheerleaders must climb on a double dare from her stupid boyfriend. We hear the same creaks and crackles from our students as they ascend weakly structured curriculum. Sometimes this is the most powerful way to teach, but more often then not we must learn structures to leave them. In large classrooms we often see structures that allow frustrated teachers and students to fall through the missing step, chainsawed into bits and pieces by the creepy dude under the stairs. This mistake can be avoided.

Wiggins and McTighe have made one of the strongest unit level articulations of instructional structures in Understanding By Design. However, I believe he proceeds in a very linear fashion and does not leave the wiggle room necessary for creative instruction. We must remind ourselves that steps don’t always need to be designed by Pennsylvania Shakers. Fun units can have Escher steps, Dr. Seuss steps or stone steps on hills above giant fjords like you find in Norway.

Ryan & Nicole above Bergen, Norway Summer 2007

Whatever steps we design, well-lit steps are preferable over the rickety unstable, dark ones found in horror films. Good instruction illuminates the process for the teacher and learner affording us an aerial view of our final destination upon arrival.

No matter how our instructional journeys are planned it is essential that we utilize structures to connect the dots between the outside world, kids interests, and all the students’ learning experiences in our classes. These structures should be interdisciplinary, differentiated, recursive, reinforced and unique for each student.

Each of these Ss is like a nesting doll filled with details and specifics, but as general concepts they are my modest articulation of best practices. Stay tuned this week, as I’ll take you on a bit of the fascinating ride I’ve been on with Napoleon testing The 4Ss in his Biology (called Living Environment in NYC) class.

Did we make Napoleon's science curriculum pop? Is science class really like teaching English? Will this story have a happy ending?

“Gonna keep on trying, until I reach my highest ground”

Pretend Sensi Goble

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It will have a happy ending if Napoleon doesn't give up.
I'd add two more resources for teachers: Disrupting Class (Christensen, Horn and Johnson) and The Global Achievement Gap (Tony Wagner). These probably fit under Structures, but address the way kids actually learn and the skills they need to learn to survive in today's world.
The descriptions of AP classes and honors classes provided by Tony Wagner in Global Achievement Gap are horrifying- no wonder kids aren't engaged. He also suggests that it isn't the content that is important- it's the skills kids need that should be at the heart of the curriculum. And surprise! those skills frame engagement for the kids.
Thank you Kelly!
As a former science teacher (Junior High -7th & 8th grade- and Regents Earth Science here in good ol' upstate NY) and now a PD provider/NT Coordinator/Jack of All trades....for my district as a Teacher Center director, I LOVE your SSSSSSSSSssssssss and their applicibility to ALL subjects - especially science! I would add to your list Heidi Hayes Jacobs and crew w/the Curriculum to Match the demands for the future - Curriculum 21.
I also want to share how a colleague of mine lives your SSSSSSsssss - he and his High school Physics students created a podcast (subscribe through iTunes or RSS) called Physics in Action - it is an outstanding example of how to support students understanding of concept through the use of student created media (and more!)



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