I teach _________________________________.
(before going on, please fill in the blank)
Did you fill the blank with subject matter or human reference? Do you teach children or math? What are the implications of your choice?
Classical Education Revisited
The categories of knowledge Plato endorsed in his academy have grown far beyond their original scope, while our high school subjects and teacher certifications have remained virtually unchanged. Yet there are many areas worthy of pursuit that have arisen in the intervening millennia but have not made it to official department status. If they are to be included at all, they must be offered under existing course structures.
What topics would you include which are not currently considered a part of your discipline (or anyone else’s)?
So immeasurably diverse are the topics to consider that the decision as to what to teach and around what to structure a learning unit will most often have to be made by each individual facilitator. (Small groups of teachers able to hold timely regular meetings can create interesting options for curricular construction and exchanges of ideas for courses facilitated by many (i.e., Composition, Algebra, or Ecology 101?)
Posing the question ‘how to structure’ curriculum is a step in building pedagogical quality. It is especially valuable to organize around a dynamic concept and avoid the survey approach or course identified only by grade level. It is advantageous for each unit or section of a larger course to revolve around a central concept or method of inquiry. (The results will often cross department boundaries.)
Organize one unit you would like to teach around a central idea, allowing the curriculum, including the relevant activities to move in wide, interdisciplinary spirals. How does this concept affect the outcome?
[For purpose of illustration, consider an investigation of ‘The Roots of Western Civilization’ designed to encompass early writing and language development including the dawn of recorded history, myths told and sculpted, transportation improvements and their effect on trade and ultimately on economic and political power, available building materials and the architectural possibilities they afford.
Or ‘Mathematical Moments’ designed to pose fundamental problems for learner groups (sometimes with specified tools available when they were first addressed) and then compare class solutions to those of historically renowned innovators – an unusual case of when the presentation comes after the activity.]
Units do not have to be held on consecutive days. Some can be offered on Fridays, others during a 3-week stretch and others interspersed over a semester. Thus Fridays can be reserved for field math or ancient artifacts examined by hand or slide show. Comment below:
The Driver’s License
‘Curriculum’ is etymologically a cart path cut through a field to ease the wagon transport. But there is no one path to follow to economic, social or academic success. Modern individuals will need their own machetes.
One challenge is to build learner options into curriculum design. [For example, all assigned writing need not be on the same topic. If you offer one suggestion a day, let individuals choose which they will address that week. Students who express interest in pursuing a topic further can report what they discover when they are ready to do so. If a problem is posed, encourage diverse approaches. If description is the goal, the landscape can be as varied as memory, interpretation and narrative voice.] Due dates are less important than the quality of the response.
Internal motivation when tapped will enhance insight, dedication and growth, while what feels disconnected from individual lives gets tedious quickly.
Try not to let the form of your assignments limit students’ ability to say what they have to say. Student requests for variations should almost always be accepted with modifications when necessary. Try not to be obsessed with the fairness of “objective” grading. Even on tests, offer alternatives.
Take an existing unit and consider how to make it more personal and more exciting for the learners in your classroom. What techniques did you come up with that you hadn’t tried before?
The Real World
Aristotle in his ‘Peripatetic School’ (note our word perimeter) walked around Athens, observing the physical environment to spur discussion on a range of issues.
Our efforts to contain and control have increasingly limited our ability to point to real objects or participate in events current enough to demonstrate how the concepts we are studying apply to modern circumstances. Even our own planet is alien to our classroom. It is as though we thought that the best way to learn about the world was to shut it out.
Whether by mapping the grounds, planting a garden, taking the height of a tree, spotting signs of animal activity, collecting pond scum, visiting museums offering insightful experience, we can allow the outside world to reenter our curricular considerations.
We can use the web to make real time contact with students from other countries, contact a specialist in an area under study, or access weather information to ascertain how it may affect tomorrow’s plans.
Think of a unit you are working on and how the real world might be integrated into curricular design. Record possibilities here relevant to what you intend to teach:
Getting to know the Neighborhood
A Process: Take a walk around the local environment to get a sense of the area. Look for specific points of interest for curricular inclusion.
Repeat the process while bicycling or driving around.
Are there special and curious landmarks in your town or city worthy of learning about?
Record observations here:
Are there noteworthy geographical aspects to your immediate environs? Have you explored them? Are there difficulties that have arisen worthy of student awareness – like flooding, sinkholes, water or soil contamination? Are there cultural institutions, artistic options? Are there parks, rivers, mountains or notable public gardens.
Can you design orientation activities, which might better acquaint your students with the area in which they live? On the College level, a well-constructed orientation to the new campus and town is more relevant than fraternity hazing, cheer leading or football games.
Acquainting students of legal age with nearby employment options have their place as well. List opportunities in your immediate area. Who is hiring? Keep in mind that economic niches are in flux. Down the road it may not be the same road. What are the most compelling opportunities in the immediate job market? Facilitate contact between persons in the field and interested older students to see if they would like to engage. Are there work opportunities or apprenticeships that could qualify for school credit and from which fields of employment could be tried out?
[An example of such an orienting activity: What can be learned from a local newspaper? Get one, find a suggestion that interests you, and pursue it.]
A 7-8 hour workday is quite long enough. Avoid demanding repetition of classroom work. (For some students even finding a quiet place to read or write is more accessible during the school day.) The best assignments for after school activities are those that are more easily accessible from home. These include projects that involve parents (like family trees, stories of the “old days,’ a trip through the family album, discussions of values or activities best done with parental supervision and/or engagement.
If students have access to computers, word processed papers, web-based research, geometric drawing, etc., can also be effectively assigned. So can activities that entail going places not readily available during school hours.
At-home work is a good time to offer options. Individuals can work on quite diverse tasks as can partners or small groups. They can also design their own around parameters you suggest. They can confer with you if they are unsure or stalled or stumped in some way.
Find ways to honor the importance of the work through some form of classroom reportage. Not every suggested follow-up need be an assignment. Consider making three suggestions for every one you collect.
Design one week’s at home work filled with activities not substantially identical to classwork in form or in substance.