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Quick note on curriculum


Dear Diane,

A quick note—undoubtedly it won't end up being so quick—re. your words last month about my anarchistic, "do your own thing" thing views re. curriculum. It's a puzzle, I know, but no—that's not quite what I'm saying.

Like colleges, most private schools design their own course of study—with schools providing more or less space for teachers to decide how and where they fit in. At Fieldston, teachers had favorite topics and approaches and thus "curriculum" differed over the years. CPESS—my old high school—had a 6-year (grades 7-12) curriculum that we "invented" together, although since the pace was much slower (e.g. we taught about half the physics textbook over two years), there was a great deal of opportunity to explore some topics in greater depth, to follow individual student and teacher interests and unexpected dilemmas and to do more listening rather than telling.

Incidentally, based on my experience, AP courses are mostly popular in affluent districts because they are useful for getting into college. The best of the AP courses—in literature—offers the greatest leeway re. coverage.

In fact, Diane, one can argue with people with whom you do not share the same knowledge or values, and since words never mean exactly the same thing it's always wise not to presume how much two arguers have in common. You are right that our shared history allows us to take some shortcuts. But sometimes it's not wise. For example, you are sure that if any sensible teacher (like me?) read Chall's book that would end the reading "wars". Surely you realize I read it and disagreed with Chall, even as I also found it useful.

It's intriguing to me that I find it so easy to believe differently than you do, that even shared knowledge and shared values do not lead inevitably to agreement, and that people who do not know much about King, segregation and the Brown decision are not inevitably harder to discuss civil rights with than people who think they do. Or that "agreement" often hides as much as it reveals; that our ability to nod amicably when hearing terms like Brown, King, etc often implies only surface recognition not knowledge.

In short, faking it is often social good manners, but should not be encouraged in school. Open ignorance is often such a relief. Given our commonalities I'm as puzzled at your contrary conviction as you are about mine. It's, in part, the basis of my fascination with your ideas.

The tyranny I'm worrying about is either of us "winning" and having the power to enforce our ideas/approach on the other. I worry when my "eye" and "ear" are focused on the authorities above me rather than the students before me. I worry when faculty meetings are not places where the kind of rigor we hope for from our students is practiced.

The happy fact is than none of us ever, ever, ever have to agree with each other's ideas. The unhappy fact is that some of us have very little voice over what ideas we are allowed to implement—at least openly. The schools that teach the least advantaged are, I claim, the least likely to have teachers whose education is well utilized in the classroom setting, and who are least likely to pass on to the young the kind of liveliness of mind that could engage their students.

Have you ever read "Lives Across the Boundary" by Mike Rose? It's a wonderful account of Mike's own education and his work with "under-prepared" college students that would, I suspect, also appeal to you and make for an interesting discussion.



I like your term "liveliness of mind." It conjures images of robust thinking. The question then becomes, "Of what are teachers and students thinking lively?" For some of us, we expect them quickly to address the minimum state standards as described in NCLB, so students can control that vocabulary in order to address more sophisticated thinking and doing. Understanding your blog requires more than meeting minimum state standards even for a high school grad. What's to disagree about such liveliness of mind?

I most definitely side with Diane but realize that in both sides there are truths. That's what makes this both interesting and something that will never be settled. I find the same thing: even though I argue with teachers about basic k-5 reading and math (for my son), I find that we are never too far apart from each other as far as values and hopes are concerned. It makes the arguing harder and I know I will never win but I know that neither will they. We are, let's say, at a comfortable standstill.

That is why I wish I had a choice as a parent (and, hopefully, as a future elementary teacher). Why can't we have 2 different schools in communities? Why can't we have schools based on reformed principals, and one based on traditional principals. I always get the "there is no one way to teach kids." Really? But that is what is happening. It is called eclectic in my state (Oregon). How do you fight (respectfully discuss :) a moving target?

Sorry for the rant.

Dickey47 may be on to something. Why can't we have a choice of schools, one where youngsters are subject to quantitative testing and must demonstate proficieny to progress to the next level and the other where kids progress at the discretion of the teacher's judgement. Wonder where most parents would end up sending their kids? Wonder which one would have the most validity as judged by the real world (colleges, employers, etc.). Not a betting man but my money would have to be on the former. Teachers are notorious for wanting all students and parents to "feel good" rather than actually be able to demonstrate learning has occured. Many are too concerned with the education of the "whole child"; that's code in the teachers unions for more teachers, more subjects, less accountability from teachers and students, more money from dues for the teachers unions (even teachers who are opposed to the politics of the union must pay an agency fee in lieu of dues), and ultimately more political clout in politics for the Democrats/teachers unions.

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