Keep Your Hands Off My Curriculum

There is a certain irony, I realize, in a music teacher writing a piece called ‘Keep Your Hands Off My Curriculum.’ Music education is generally one of those areas that Moms for Faux Liberty types ignore (unless—and this comes from personal experience—it’s critiquing the tunes chosen by the marching band whose entire existence, to some people, hinges on supporting football players).

Who cares what they’re learning? It’s just music! There’s a lot wrong with that assumption, beginning with the universality of music—as human beings, we’re swimming in it—but first, I want to talk about all everyday curriculum, across the K-12 spectrum–and who controls it.

My pitch here is about the individual teacher voice in selecting materials and designing lessons for students, and it’s based on two fundamental teacher competencies: *
1. Knowing your students well, and being committed to their learning.

2. Having deep and always-growing knowledge and pedagogical expertise in the subjects and developmental levels you teach.

The second of these is something that can and should be continuously improved, across a teaching career. It’s the point (if not the actual outcome) of what we call professional development.

The first, however, depends on the individual teacher’s character and temperament, their belief that all students have a right to learn.

Now—I’m not opposed to standards or other common agreements, whatever each state or district calls them, the big buckets of what students should learn and when. Broad standards can organize and sequence curriculum; outlining disciplinary essentials and giving all educators a framework for what students should know and be able to do, at the end of their schooling, is undeniably important.

What I’m saying is that site-specific agreements– what all 9th graders in the district should read, for example, or how to teach the life cycle of a butterfly–ought to be made by those on the front lines. The ones who know the kids, and are committed to their learning.

This idea ought to be glaringly self-evident—to educators, to parents, even to Joe Lunchbucket who watches Fox News. Kids who live in Flint, Michigan may need to know and be able to do different things than kids who live in Dallas—or Anchorage. Who is best positioned to choose engaging materials, develop concepts, deliver instruction, lead discussions and check for learning?

Certainly not Chris Rufo, who seems to be everywhere these days, merrily inserting his personal beliefs into college syllabi and waging gleeful war on beleaguered K-12 public schoolteachers trying dutifully to teach things, it must be noted, prescribed by others.

It was the linked article on Rufo—and this piece–that inspired this blog. The story is about an Ohio administrator who interrupts a teacher reading Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches during a recording session intended for an NPR podcast.  A third grader makes a very astute comment; the teacher (Mandy Robek) continues reading, but the admin (Amanda Beeman) shuts that whole thing down:    

“It’s almost like what happened back then, how people were treated … Like, disrespected … Like, white people disrespected Black people…,” a third grade student is heard saying on the podcast.

Robek keeps on reading, but it’s shortly after this student’s comment is made on the podcast that Beeman interrupts the reading.  

“I just don’t think that this is going to be the discussion that we wanted around economics,” Beeman said on the podcast. “So I’m sorry. We’re going to cut this one off.”

(NPR reporter) Beras tried to tell Beeman that “The Sneetches” is about preferences, open markets and economic loss, but Beeman replied, “I just don’t think it might be appropriate for the third-grade class and for them to have a discussion around it.”

I actually have some empathy for the administrator. She’s totally wrong—kudos to the teacher and the reporter for choosing the book and understanding the relevance of the child’s comment—but I’m sure Beeman envisioned her job security disappearing in a wave of rabid, sign-waving Moms for Control Over Everything at the next school board meeting, and panicked.

But that’s the point here: Educators need to be prepared to defend their curricular choices, with passion, conviction, and carefully considered rationales. Rolling over for the likes of Chris Rufo, the Hillsdale crowd, and dark-money funded and fully politicized organizations who wish to take down public education is not professional behavior.

Once they control what gets said and read in the classroom, the next target will be public libraries. All publicly funded services, the things that build healthy civilization and make diverse communities strong, will be on the chopping block. Ironically, this is about what the Sneetches were trying to teach the kids in Ohio: preferences, open markets and economic loss. What students learn, even in 3rd grade, matters, it seems.

This is a huge issue, wrestling over curriculum and parents’ desires, and it’s been part of public education since the very beginning. No matter how many standards are imposed, or school board meetings disrupted, however, the most critical aspect of instruction remains the individual teacher’s understanding of what is useful and important for the students in their care, and their personal knowledge and skill in delivering those things. 

Here’s a story:

In 2008, I was e-mentoring some first-year teachers in an alternative-entry program (in other words, not traditionally trained). They were white teachers, assigned to an all-Black district in eastern North Carolina, country that was once endless tobacco fields. Most of them came from elite universities, and all were laboring under the misconception that they were ‘giving back’ to society. A lot of their conversations were about raising the bar, making a difference, blah blah blah.

It was also the Fall of 2008, when Obama was closing in on the presidency. Students in the school were wild with excitement. One of my mentees, teaching Civics and Government, kept sending me long emails pouring out his concern over the ‘unprofessional’ teachers–the ones who had been there for years. They allowed students to disregard the official curriculum! They spent classroom time talking about this miracle that was about to happen, even letting students campaign. Unethical!

He, of course, maintained that he was sticking to standards and remaining neutral about the race. After all, the students would be taking statewide exams next spring, and he wanted them to score well.  He went so far as talking to the principal about his concerns.

I tried to suggest that he was teaching during events that could make history—and incorporating real life into lessons made them more meaningful. I asked if he had conversations with his veteran colleagues, about why they thought abandoning the prescribed curriculum was sometimes okay. Our dialogue got more and more strained, until he basically stopped communicating with me.

This young man had always considered himself an outstanding scholar in the social sciences. His lesson designs (debates, short-writes, small-group discussions, film clips) weren’t bad at all, especially for a newbie. He had some ideas about how to be a good teacher, and passion for the subject matter. What he was missing was knowledge of students and commitment to their learning. When the principal had a pep assembly to celebrate Obama’s victory, he was disgusted. For a public school, this is totally wrong! he wrote.

I have thought of him often—I’m fairly sure he’s not teaching any more. Which is too bad. Because being a master at custom-tailoring worthy curriculum to the students in front of you is a skill that takes time and confidence. It really cannot be outsourced.

* If you sat for National Board Certification, these principles will look familiar. If they resonate with you, check out the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ Five Core Propositions. Good stuff.

4 Comments

    1. Yeah. Internalizing the Five Core Props was the big aha! for me, as teacher. I eventually stopped coaching NB work–although I still support the process and those who embrace it.

      More and more teachers who were hoping that I could help them figure out the process were expressing disbelief that ANY valid assessment of accomplished teaching wouldn’t have as one of its cornerstones a commitment to teaching to established standards, and the aligned assessments.

      I found myself asking teachers–Do YOU believe these are the right standards? Are they appropriate for your kids? Do they give you enough latitude to choose instructional materials and activities that will yield student learning? And teachers would say, over and over again, that it didn’t matter what THEY thought. Standards were standards. It wasn’t up to them to decide that, for example, a particular poem would be meaningless or their students hadn’t yet mastered the understandings necessary before memorizing times tables, so all that work would be meaningless, although ‘standards-based.’

      Sometimes standards and the expectations that accompany them are great. The old national music standards were great–I based my curriculum on them (not all band teachers did) for over a decade. It’s not about good/bad standards. It’s about teacher judgment, and the original NB process was created to honor and hone teacher judgment.

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  1. Taking curriculum out of teachers’ hands leads to the deprofessionalization of education and also, not surprisingly, to more money for educational publishing houses and consultants. With the consolidation of textbooks into fewer and fewer companies, the texts grow ever more homogenized – and boring and irrelevant to the kids.

    I had quite a free hand in my curriculum, largely because I taught ELL’s back when few knew the acronym. Later, I designed a high school course for native speakers of Spanish, kids who spoke and understood Spanish at home, but needed development in reading and writing. As far as I knew, it was a unique course in the district, and certainly no one looked over my shoulder.

    When the brouhaha over Mexican studies erupted in Tucson in 2011 (the events were documented in the film “Precious Knowledge”), I arrived one morning to my students eagerly clamoring that our class was “illegal”, as Tom Horne, then the state superintendent of public instruction, had charged. They had started making plans as to what they would do if administrators arrived to confiscate our books as was happening in Tucson. That was a pretty unlikely scenario!

    Still, it made the kids feel conspiratorial, that we were sharing in an educational adventure that might be taken from them. It created a great sense that what we were engaged in was indeed precious knowledge. What a wonderful moment to be a classroom teacher!

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    1. This is a great story. The most interesting classes that I know about were developed by veteran teachers who knew their students well. Claudia Swisher’s Reading for Pleasure is one example. Another is a CSI-type class developed by a Science teacher in suburban Detroit, that blended chemistry, physics and biology and took kids out of the classroom to actual and ‘practice’ crime scenes, letting them use their knowledge about all kinds of things–angles and pressure and blood analysis and anatomy. I also know a teacher who taught in suburban Tucson during the push to eliminate cultural studies. She started a charter school for kids who felt left out and marginalized–which is still going strong.

      Not suggesting that you have to get out of the public school system to be genuinely innovative (although it worked for her). Only that coming for curriculum is a bad sign about the way things are headed. Thanks for commenting.

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