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Seeing Curriculum Through a Child's Eyes

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Guest Post by Kim Farris-Berg

My seven-year-old daughter Ruby was getting ready for bed when I pressed play on Chapter 3 of A Year at Mission Hill. After hearing the students' voices, the sounds of hammers and drills, and the talk of regularly watching bees, she snuggled up with me to watch. I told her I was learning about an elementary school in Boston. Within 30 seconds of watching, her jaw dropped. "That's really a school?" she asked. "Those kids are so lucky!" When the video ended, her curiosity was piqued. She asked to see it again.

Earlier that day Ruby had spent 20 minutes completing her first-grade math worksheets -- worksheets almost identical to the ones she had done earlier that day in class. Every week it's the same routine -- she and her classmates produce enough reading, writing and math worksheets to warrant a disapproving visit from The Lorax. There are some interesting diversions, but mostly the teacher conveys the information and Ruby memorizes and regurgitates it. Ruby and her classmates all work with the same prescribed content at the same pace. If Ruby finishes early, she "gets" to do extra worksheets, sometimes disguised on a computer, while everyone else completes the usual work.

As a parent I'm thankful Ruby has had excellent teachers at a school with a positive culture and highly involved families. We live in Orange County, California, where there are just a few unconventional schools. In a land where the schools are almost all the same, we've drawn a very good straw.

But having observed Mission Hill and other schools where teachers call the shots, my heart broke a little when Ruby learned of them. She's now aware, as I am, that schools like this exist -- just not locally. She realized that she's not attending a school where active learning trumps passive learning, where experiences trump worksheets, and where students' self-direction trumps adults conveying content via front-of-the-room instruction.

What Ruby was observing was the result of Mission Hill's teachers collectively choosing three thematic units for each school year, with each theme giving students the opportunity to learn multiple school subjects and Habits of Mind (as advocated by the Coalition of Essential Schools). The teachers ask individual students to choose their means of learning from a set of activities selected to go with each theme. The goal is that after four years and twelve themes, students will have learned all the state and district standards they are to learn during the corresponding four grade levels.

Teachers set individual learning goals with each student and monitor progress with portfolio assessments and public demonstrations of learning. Students stay with the same teacher for two years so that teachers can monitor progress well and accommodate varying skill levels. In this environment, a student of third-grade age who needs more time to learn second-grade skills can progress without feeling behind. Advanced students don't need to spend time rehashing what they already know. Each student can take more time when necessary, and less when unnecessary.

On the day I visited, "physical science" was the theme of focus. From their home classroom, some students went down the hall to the art room where they learned the mechanics of spin art. Some made pancakes. Some built and tested boats, using books for information and ideas. Some built and tested bridges. Some studied flight -- from bees to balloons to planes -- using books, observation and models. Some worked with manipulative learning tools, seeking answers to questions the teacher left on the table, such as, "What happens when you build on a mirror?" At the end of all of this, students wrote reflections.

In Chapter 3 of A Year at Mission Hill, Ruby saw students working on a "natural sciences" thematic unit (remember, themes cover multiple subjects, not just science). They were doing things that Ruby only gets to do outside of school -- mostly in scouts or on family outings. There wasn't a worksheet in sight. Some kindergarten and first-grade students were using all of their senses to make observations about seaweed, which they held in their hands. Others were creating a monarch habitat, complete with milkweed that they found and picked themselves.

Two things about the older learners' experience stood out to Ruby. The first was when the second- and third-grade teacher told the students they would be learning about bees from a hive that was right in their classroom! The teacher said she and the students would be learning via discussion and reading, but really emphasized watching. "We're gonna watch them fly! We're gonna watch them dance! We're gonna watch them eat and clean and make babies!" The students also got to choose how to present what they learned at a "Bee Fair."

The second thing that stood out was when the seventh- and eighth-grade teacher said the students already had something figured out and didn't need him. Ruby was intrigued by the idea of adults trusting her to guide her own learning at school. As Ruby's mother, I was intrigued by the idea of her gaining a lot of practice working through problems on her own. I couldn't agree more with Mission Hill Principal Ayla Gavins, who said future inventors need opportunities to invent. Future artists need opportunities to make art. Future problem solvers need moments of independence to figure things out.

What Ruby couldn't have known is that the Mission Hill teachers are responsible for their school's design. They have authority to collectively make decisions in 10 areas influencing school success, including determining curriculum, allocating the school's discretionary budget, and conducting teacher evaluations. There are some teachers who argue that curricular autonomy would be enough for them to make changes, but Mission Hill teachers and other teachers who call the shots say their curriculum autonomy is reinforced by their other areas of autonomy. Without some budget authority, for example, teachers' curricular choices are limited by spending priorities pre-determined by the district central office.

By contrast, teachers who call the shots use their authority to create very different kinds of schools from the predominant conventional model. And they are willing to accept accountability for the results of their decisions.

I can't help but wonder: What kind of curriculum might Ruby and her peers be experiencing if our state and school district leaders said loud and clear that teachers who ask for it can have authority to make the decisions influencing school success? From what my colleagues and I have observed of the decisions made by autonomous groups of teachers, the Lorax would approve. More importantly, gauging by her enthusiastic reaction to Mission Hill, Ruby would have a good shot at remaining engaged and motivated to learn through high school graduation and beyond.

Kim Farris-Berg is an independent consultant and Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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