Category Archives: Curricula

Deep or Wide?


It pains me whenever I read or hear someone say, “I was never taught __(insert information here)__ in school”. Or “Twenty Things You Were Never Taught about __ (insert issue here)__”.  And I have to be honest here, I feel pained because I am fiercely proud of my former profession, my colleagues who are still fighting the good fight, my former students, and the schools in which I have taught. But, beyond my own ego, there is a very good reason why educators need to reflect on these statements. It might go a long way towards helping with what my spouse calls “client education” so that people have a more realistic understanding of what goes into creating curricula for the classroom and across grades.

In educational circles curriculum developers try to straddle the gulf between “survey courses” and “in-depth courses”.  A survey course is one where you cover a lot of information in a short amount of time.  They are often introductory courses which are meant to give the students the big picture of a field of study, and the expectation is, generally, that the student will go on to study the topic in more detail later.

Students of survey courses are expected to handle a lot of information quickly and are expected to regurgitate said information on demand or on tests designed to measure how much of the information stuck. Their grades, often, are tied to tests and possibly a term paper which employs a limited number of learning modalities that can be difficult for students who find traditional learning difficult. (I’d use the word Medieval, but this type of learning was proliferated by Queen Elizabeth I, which means it really falls in the English Renaissance.)

This mode of delivering curriculum generally requires from students a proficiency at note taking, textbook reading, memorization, and fluency with the writing process.  Teachers and professors who lead survey courses rarely have time in class to allow for in-depth questions, work on papers, and textbook reading, putting the entire responsibility of the learning onto the student.  It is what is called “teacher centered” as opposed to “student centered”.  As in, the onus is on the student to react positively to the professor, as opposed to the teacher learning the ways of and responding to the needs of the students.  So, interestingly enough, a survey course which is meant to be an introduction, requires more from students in terms of learning proficiency because the teacher has so much material to get through that the best they can do is get through the material. This methodology leaves the bodies of students on the side of the educational highway, which is why they are also often considered “gate-keeping” classes, weeding out those students who struggle.

An in-depth course is one where the teacher or professor picks a few seminal items to create the curriculum and requires students to use Bloom’s Taxonomy (or something in that line) to get a deeper understanding of the topic.  Students also generally have many different ways to prove that they have grasped the material. Often the teacher will use one learned item to build upon the next item.  This takes a lot more time than a survey course, which is why you cannot dispense as much information in them.

In my experience, students prefer an in-depth approach to curriculum than a survey approach, which is why many of us use this model if we can, even though it is more work (far, far more work).  (It’s also why I often feel the need to kick survey course professors in the teeth when they complain about their students.  These people are not teachers; they do little but profess.)

So, let’s do the math.  Let’s say you’re a teacher. You see 35 students in one 50 minute class per day.  You know it takes 4-5 minutes to settle the class down at the beginning, and at least 4-5 minutes to get students packed up and out the door.  You are now at 40 minutes.  In that time, you need to pick up and/or hand back work, you need to hand out new assignments, answer questions, and get students started on new tasks, which may or may not include the amount of time it takes for a class of 35 students to get into small groups or pairs.  You may need to go over the homework due that day.  You will give a lecture or mini-lecture to help students grasp the material.  You will tell students what they are going to do.  You will show students what they are going to do.  You are going to help students do what they are going to do.  You are going to let the students do what they are going to do.  You will make corrections and suggestions and let them do what they are going to do.  You will ask them to demonstrate proficiency.

In my experience, students enjoy this learning modality more than one where they come in, sit down, listen to a professor profess for 40 minutes, maybe take notes, and leave.

Research also indicates that in-depth learning has more staying power for long-term learning, because it has more opportunities to make connections with past learning, or at least it stays with the learner for longer than the memorize-and-regurgitate model.

So why the hell are you blaming me for the fact that I didn’t teach you frickin’ everything there ever is to know in the whole frickin’ universe? (Pardon my Klatchian.)

Well, if you are going to blame me (and by me, I mean us teachers, professors, administrators, state legislators, curriculum developers, textbook writers, bus drivers, lunch staff, crossing-guards, secretaries, custodians, and all the others who go neatly into the category known as “school”), then blame me for not teaching you how to educate yourself.

There is no way, none, to teach a person absolutely everything that he or she will need, will want to know, or will find interesting enough to put in a Buzzfeed list, in his or her life.  In fact, the very teaching modality that reaches the most learners will by its very nature require that not everything can be taught.

The only way to solve this problem is to create learning environments where students are taught how to teach themselves. That, we can do.

We can teach how to research, how to sift and mine for useful information, how to ask the kind of questions which lead to answers (or better yet, more and better questions).  We can praise and provide a place for independent learning.  In this way, we may see more articles called What I Taught Myself about the Senegalese Boat People Because My Teachers Were So Busy Teaching Me How to Teach Myself That They Didn’t Have Time to Teach Me Themselves about the Senegalese Boat People, And What a Cool List It Is, Too.

A girl can dream.







The Word to Ban in Education


Of all the words that are used in education circles there is one which tops out all the others because of its sheer destructive force.  It is a word that makes all other words cringe in fear.  It is a word that is divisive, that is cruel, that invites laziness and derision.  It is worse than “tracking”, worse than “punishment”, worse even than these three words put together: “emergency staff meeting” on a sunny Saturday morning.

Are you ready?  Let me put my haz-mat gloves on. …  Here we go:  should.  Seriously.  Should.  It’s a horrible, horrible word and needs to be banned.

Don’t believe me?  Want to know why?  Should is used by teachers or professors when they are frustrated by their students, parents, or administration.  It sounds like this: “They should know that when they come into a classroom they should put their cell phones away.”  Sound familiar?  I know I’ve said it.

But what does it really mean?  It means that, in this case, the students are not meeting the expectations of the teacher.  Furthermore, it means that these expectations are ones that the teacher does not think (or, more appropriately, does not feel) they need to explain.  These are expectations that the teacher thinks are common enough norms that they don’t have to explain and are royally cheesed-off that they might have to.

Should is used in the staff room or at liquid staff meetings (Friday evenings in the pub) to garner support from other teachers.  It’s basically asking that all the other teachers nod their heads, jump on the band wagon, and slag off their students to the appreciation of all the other teachers there.  Sometimes it even becomes a pissing match between teachers about the depths to which they have to sink in order to educate these boils on the bottom of humanity.  And as a way of burning off the trials and tribulations of the week, it’s not even that effective.  I know because I’ve tried.  I always come away wishing I hadn’t been there at all.

But this is fairly innocuous.  Teachers can be forgiven for Friday afternoon bitch sessions.  What I can’t forgive teachers and professors for is when they allow the word should to interfere with good teaching.  I’ll give you an example: “My students should know how to use a comma”.   Really?

What is being said here is that the teacher or professor expects that no matter what the students’ former education, no matter where they come from, what their home languages are, no matter their health histories, personal histories, no matter where they live, or what stresses they have been under, it is those students’ job to make sure that when they walk into my classroom, they can use the comma perfectly.  It is their fault that they don’t know this.  It is their fault that I have to work harder.

Then the teacher or professor has a choice to make.  The choice between teaching how to use a comma or simply ignoring the problem, or worse yet, grading the students as if they did know how to use a comma and are simply choosing to do it wrongly.  Or the Pythagorean theorem.  Or how to take notes.  Or how to create a Word document.  Or how to ask for help.  Or how to format an essay.  Or how to find for x.  Or how to not plagiarize.  Or how to ….  Or how to ….  Or how to ….

Let the whining begin.  “But it’s not in my syllabus!”  So what?  “But it takes time away from my curriculum!”  So what?  “But it’s not my job to teach them that!”  So what?  “It’s their former teacher’s fault for not teaching them this!” So you want to perpetuate that crime, ultimately dooming them to repeating the mistake over and over because you won’t even tell them that they need to go look up how to use commas?  No, because they should know it.  And you’ve just lost all of my respect.

Teaching is binary.  (Unless you are a professor, and you rely heavily on the Latin definition as a person who professes, and your only job is to stand up and spew forth what you have learned.   As opposed to a teacher, the definition of which is to cause or help (a person or animal) to learn how to do something by giving lessons, showing how it is done, etc.)  In this case, your students either know it or they don’t.  Binary.  On or off.  Do they or don’t they?  There is no place for an emotional reaction, and it only tires you out.  If they know it, move on.  If they don’t know it, teach it and move on.  There is no room for should in the classroom.

When I first taught English as a Second Language, it was in Japan.  I was hired by a University, Women’s College, and a High School.  Almost all of my students had from six to eight years of English before they darkened my door.  And they could barely hold a conversation.  They did not know how to pronounce the alphabet, to the extent that playing Hangman was out of the question.  (At some point I will tell you that story.)  Not only that, but we were not allowed to fail them.  I used up my lifetime supply of shoulds before I even started a credential program.  And once I gave up trying to reassure myself that it wasn’t my fault that their spoken English was so bad, and I gave up my preconceived ideas about what a speaker of English with eight years of tuition should be like, I started to actually teach.

Give it up.  Burn it.  Drown it.  Let the word should fall from your vocabulary into the deepest, darkest cavern on the ocean floor for now and forever more.  Focus on what is or what isn’t.  Find ways to turn what hasn’t been learned into what has.  Students do not come prepped and ready just for you.  You form yourself to them.

This is a tall order because should is so insidious.  Still, try to stop using it.  If you struggle, start by raising a little flag in your head every time you hear yourself use the word.  Try to restate your idea without it. My friend told me about the strategy of snapping a rubber band on your wrist whenever you think of doing something bad for you, but that might be overkill.  What you will find is that the blame and guilt associated with it drop away, too.   And we can all use less of those.

I know you can do it.


Fun Sucks


Hi! Do I have your attention?  Good.

So, for those of you who have been wondering what happened to this blog, I decided to take some time off to sponge off my husband.  Many people have informed me over the years that being a teacher is already sponging off my husband, and considering how many times he’s needed to purchase things for my classrooms over said years, I’d have to agree with them.

I always said to him that if I ever became complacent or stopped enjoying teaching, he should hit me upside the head with a cricket bat.  Fortunately, he didn’t need to because I had hernia surgery last summer that went bad and kicked off a whole new round of Fibromyalgia.  So, I’m currently being the world’s worst housewife.

But the other reason I haven’t been writing is because when I was a teacher, I went to many conferences where some Johnny-in-the-Pulpit preached to me all the ways and reasons why I was teaching wrongly, and how I should fix it.  Most of these people were academics who were only ever in the classroom as students until they became professors.  Few of them had real help to give because they were not currently in the classroom. It pissed me off.  So writing to you real teachers, who are currently in the trenches, when I’m not, feels like I’m being a class traitor.  So, it wasn’t until I could no longer keep a lid on it that I decided to go back to the blog.  And I start by pissing you off.  Hey, it’s a talent.

What I saw that ticked me off was an article about why classrooms should be fun.  Which led me to this conclusion: Fun sucks.  It really does.  For so many reasons.  I’ll list some for you.

1) Fun is relative.  It is hard to know what will be fun to you versus what is fun to your students.  For example, I think it’s fun to schedule a stitch and bitch knitting meet-up at one of the local strip clubs where, sitting in the dark with headlamps and needles (knitting), we knit g-strings for the dancers.  (That’s a hoot.  That is until we are bounced out for not buying drinks and upsetting the usual punters.  I won’t tell you how many times I’ve done this and in how many countries.)  But my point is that although I think this is hi-larious, many other more sane people don’t.  And on an infinitely smaller and less morally questionable scale, the same thing happens in the classroom.  Go ahead, ask your middle school student if something is fun (I almost wrote “if x is fun” but I know it would just send you right back to the strip club.  Pull your mind out of the gutter.)  What does your student say?  “It was ok,” and then they shrug or roll their eyes.  Just don’t ask.  No matter how you couch it, somebody is going to complain about it.  Trying to organize fun sucks.

2)  Fun is not guaranteed in life.  90% of the work we do, anybody does, is not fun.  It might be satisfying.  It might be interesting.  It might be a challenge.  But fun is a diaphanous quantity (or quality, take your pick).  Although it is true that the more fun you have the more likely you will be to stick with it.  But, if we start by promising fun and trying to create an environment that is mostly all fun, we do a serious disservice to the other adjectives that work is.  Fun is hard work for you, and lazy for them.

3)  Fun is not a good teacher.  Let’s think about all the things that cannot be curriculum if we only do things that are fun.  The Holocaust.  Lord of the Flies.  The Salem Witch Trials.  Slavery.  And I’m sorry, but if you are teaching the Roman Empire and it’s all fun, you are really are doing it wrong.  It sure as hell wasn’t fun for the Celtic people, the Germanic Tribes, and certainly not for the Dacians, otherwise known as the people who would become the Romanians.  And these are really worthwhile things to teach.  I won’t go into what’s possible on the elementary level because I only subbed there, but I think it is probably true that those teachers also find it difficult to keep Fun! at the top of the list.  Fun makes a bad developer of curricula.

So, that’s three good reasons why people need to stop hoisting themselves on their own petards.  They are why it is okay to not feel guilty when your curricula are not based on Fun!.

Not that fun has no place in the classroom.  Fun can be had.  But like the chocolate chips in a good cookie, it needs to be something to be looked forward to.  The cookie part has to be good, too.  Sure, many of us don’t notice the cookie part so much, but it isn’t just a complicated method of cramming chocolate chips into our gobs.

What will work?  I think it can be found by having curriculum that is satisfying.  And satisfying is much more quantifiable.  Do your students know something or have a skill that they didn’t have when they walked into the classroom?  Do they feel that something was hard but worth it?  Can they see the progress that they are making towards a goal?  Going back to the cookie metaphor, having a strong curricula based on satisfactions and recognizable goals makes the chocolate chips of fun that much better.  With maybe a sprinkling of coarse salt on top.  (I’ve got to stop with this metaphor or I’m going to have to go make cookies.  Again.)

And do you know what is really, really awesome about curricula based on recognized growth and hard, but satisfying work?  The students sometimes don’t even know they are growing.  While they are toiling away at something that maybe doesn’t look attainable (yet) and sure as hell isn’t fun, they are still growing.  I only know this anecdotally because of the number of former students who have come back and said to me, I hated you, and I hated this when you made me learn it, but now I’m really, really glad you did.  (I’m paraphrasing here.)  Fun is immediate.  Satisfying is about delaying gratification, and you all have heard the statistics about those who can delay gratification even for a little while.

So, yeah.  If we try to make fun do too much, then fun sucks.  Feeling satisfied, seeing reasonable goals being attained, feeling the worth of the knowledge is a much better recipe for creating not just a happy classroom, but also life-long learners.  You can grow with challenge, you can grow with hard work, you can grow when you see a worthwhile challenge.  Let’s let fun be what it is meant to be.  Not the basis for curricula, but those gooey, yummy, moments of delight that sets the whole class smiling.





Note:  Hubby and I are having many words about the use of curricula vs. curriculum.  I will defer to Terry Pratchett’s The Color of Magic to help me remember this rule.