Working on curriculum can feel like a slog for many teachers. Teaching is a hard profession.
With only so many hours in the school year (and even day) to create and mark assessments, meet with colleagues and prepare for lessons, (let alone teach them) it’s easy to neglect updating curriculum maps to ensure the viability of a curriculum. After a few years of teaching, most teachers invariably figure out ‘what’ must be taught and do so with the best intentions in the only way they know how. Still, teaching is a hard profession.
Someone once called education a ‘Profession that cannibalizes its young’.
Education reformists in the US like Michelle Rhee who rose to notoriety after a pledge to clean up public education and remove ‘lazy’ teachers who didn’t teach a viable curriculum by teaching to the standards were first embraced by the public, eager for any change to our lagging scores on worldwide PISA tests. Eventually, the sole measure for success became standardized test scores and the countless (and pointless) number of tests that students took over the school year which highjacked lesson time in favor of test prep. Teachers that didn’t deliver were culled out of this rigged game resulting in high teacher turnover, attrition and overseas postings. Someone once called education a ‘Profession that cannibalizes its young‘. Teaching is definitely a hard profession.
One of the more thoughtful changes I’ve seen lately in education is Finland’s move to integrated, thematic units of study rather than subject specific disciplines. Finland and the Scandinavian countries have led the world in education for years but they have had a lot going for them that has made it easier, such as high literacy rates, robust funding and exemplary teacher training along with amazing internal professional development opportunities. This change from subject specific to concepts or ‘themes’ has rightfully had its share of critics- the first person through the wall always gets bloodied. “How are teachers supposed to be experts on every subject?” is the common complaint from cynics. Good question, but don’t elementary teachers teach every subject with the exception of PE and the arts?
“A year of world wide travel has so many opportunities to teach history, explore environments, volunteer, and develop empathy through cultural awareness.”
Singapore American School’s superintendent Chip Kimball recently shared a fascinating presentation that I caught at 21st Century Learning Hong Kong to support this pedagogy. They are reorganizing their traditional classrooms into pods called ‘Flexible Learning Environments’ where teachers are on a team (Team 6a, 6b, 6c for instance) and students move to and from each teacher in the pod based on the needs of the project, not necessarily when the bell rings. This style of redesigning spaces supports grade level teams collaborating and sharing ideas in a constructive, empowering way that values teacher’s individual strengths, but in a fluid learning environment that resembles real life. By the way, Mr. Kimball, if you’re reading this, I’d work for you in a heartbeat.
When the World is your Teacher
This is the curriculum I wanted to design. Having a year of travel to teach my daughter a curriculum that focused on high cognitive abilities but also educating the ‘whole child’ might be the most liberating, autonomous year of teaching that I’ve ever had, and possibly ever will. A year of world wide travel has so many opportunities to teach history, explore environments, volunteer, and develop empathy through cultural awareness. The challenge however, has been how to distill separate subjects into a handful of thematic units that are transparent, accountable and viable. Here have been the stages that I’ve used to formulate them:
Step 1: Identifying Themes from Literature Studies: Our school’s grade 4 teaching team recently shared the half dozen books that are essential reading in their core curriculum. I’ve ordered the ones we haven’t read and chose ‘literacy’ as the backbone around which to name a theme and also integrate the three major writing pieces (narrative realistic fiction, persuasive essays, and informational writing). From this, I’ve settled on the following unit themes based on concepts in the literature:
- Unit 1: Survival
- Unit 2: The History Around Us
- Unit 3: Standing up for Others
- Unit 4: Explorers
- Unit 5: Protecting Our World
Step 2: Organizing Power Standards into a Curriculum Guide: Power standards are the most important standards in a curriculum and we wanted to teach them well and deliberately. We created a curriculum guide with these alongside summaries, skills and essential questions (we’ll use a lot more when we cognitive coach) for reference. We have some project ideas in stage 3, but will also let Ava chose the best product to demonstrate her learning. I’ll probably add to this over the months.
Unit 1 Curriculum Map: Sur… by on Scribd
Step 3: Breaking Down Standards into Assessment Blueprints: There is a saying in Spanish: “entre dicho y hecho hay gran trecho” meaning between what is said and done, often exists a big gap. In regards to education, it’s easy for educators to pay lip service to standards and not assess them or when they do, realize they didn’t give ample opportunities and chances for students to show their learning.
To prevent this oversight, I organized standards into assessment blueprints that allow me to track where and how standards have been assessed using ‘Depth of Knowledge’ indicators in verbiage with ‘Formative’ and ‘Summative’ assessments.
- Reading Literature
- Science and Research
- Reading Informational Texts
- Narrative Writing
- Mathematics Geometry and Data
Step 4: Combining Standards into Transdisciplinary Projects: After I identified the standards, I was able to find overlaps in Math, Science and Social Studies to see where different subjects might support one another. For this last step we will have to be responsive to learning opportunities that we find while traveling and bundle them together when possible.
The Bottom Line
The word ‘homeschooling’ is a loaded term. When most people think of families that homeschool their children, they either dismiss them as casually negligent, political wingdings, or religious nut jobs who think that public education is a covert, Obama-era conspiracy designed to indoctrinate their children with a socialist, homosexual agenda. There are a glut of sites and blogs espousing the homeschooling pathway as ‘the only way‘, but parents risk under preparing their children for college and beyond who carry this practice into a child’s high school years when the parents themselves don’t have the content knowledge and expertise on more advanced subjects.
My ultimate goal with this post is to provide a sensible roadmap for any others that may like to do the same. In the meantime, we’ll be adding to these Google docs and the ‘Curriculum‘ page as our trip marches forward so feel free to download, copy and steal any and everything. We’ll be out exploring!