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Can You Fit the “Good Stuff” into a Curriculum Focused on Standards?

Posted by on in What If?
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engaged students

I don’t have to point out that today’s teachers are frustrated – that they’re too often forced to teach content, and in ways, that’s not at all helpful to kids and their future. As they prep students to meet standards and pass an endless number of tests, teachers frequently lament the fact that there’s no time to get the “good stuff” into the curriculum.

Well, teacher Justin Minkel asserts that it’s not an either/or scenario between passing on the basic skills meant to be tested and the important things – like higher-order thinking, creativity, design skills, and inquiry. The latter, he says, don’t have to be an “extracurricular bonus.”

To explore this further, I invited Justin, along with educator Jason Flom, who told me he loves this topic, to join me for an episode of Studentcentricity.

During our discussion Justin talked about some of the projects that allow him to weave basic skills and the important stuff together. But he added that projects aren’t always the vehicle. Afterward, he sent me the following:

Teaching "the good stuff" doesn't always have to involve a long project with lots of moving parts. Take reading: most of the reading instruction in my class involves kids actually reading real books--like Pam Munoz Ryan's historical novel "Riding Freedom," Mo Willems' hilarious "Piggie and Elephant" series, and anything by Kate di Camillo. Sub-skills from the Standards like summaries, compare/contrast, or using strategies for unknown words are always taught through those great books, not through worksheets.

I think sometimes we break complex abilities down into their separate parts but fail to give kids enough opportunities to put those pieces back together again. Reading is often broken into 20-minute periods of the day when students highlight phonics worksheets, drill sight words, or practice comprehension skills in isolation. All of that is fine, but they need the opportunity to put everything together into the complicated, satisfying act of actually reading a book.

Justin also spends a great deal of time examining how students spend their time in his classroom. (You can read his article, “Hard Truths: Examining How Students Spend Their Time in Our Classrooms,” here.) Below are his thoughts, encapsulated:

Movies like Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds have prepared us to think that good teaching is all about what the teacher does and says--her or his eloquence, passion, and inspiring story. But we learn over time that good teaching is actually all about what the students say, do, and think--their eloquence, their passion, and their stories. I try to think through each lesson, day, and week from the point of view of a child in my class. How much do the students get to talk, as opposed to listening to me talk? How much do they get to move around? How many choices do they make, and how many opportunities do they have to build things, write stories, read great books, and solve complicated problems? Above all else, what is happening in their minds throughout a day in my class?

You can hear my conversation with Justin and Jason by clicking here.

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Rae Pica has been an education consultant specializing in the development and education of the whole child, children's physical activity, and active learning since 1980. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music and, most recently, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Rae has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, Gymboree, Nike, and state health departments throughout the country. She is a member of the executive committee of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences and is co-founder of BAM Radio Network, where she hosts Studentcentricity, interviewing experts in education, child development, play research, the neurosciences, and more on teaching with students at the center.

  • Jon Harper /  @Jonharper70bd
    Jon Harper / @Jonharper70bd Saturday, 18 June 2016

    I love this Rae. I too worry that school is not fun for students anymore because there is no time for the "fun stuff." Your piece and Justin highlight ways that teachers can rekindle this joy.

  • Rae Pica | @raepica1
    Rae Pica | @raepica1 Monday, 20 June 2016

    Yes! Creativity, et al, are not just critical for a successful life; they also contribute to having a joyful one! And why shouldn't schools also prepare kids for a joyful -- rather than a tedious, boring, begrudging -- life?

    Thanks for weighing in, Jon!

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