Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Curriculum Night


... at Eve's middle school. Those words are enough to strike fear (or frustration or boredom or eye-rolling) into most adults I know. One friend, confiding to me that she wasn't going to her daughter's Curriculum Night, explained that it is essentially an open house where the parents travel from room to room, following the path that their child takes during the day. Not much time for in-depth conversations with teachers or parents of other students. Not all that illuminating.

So why did I bend over backwards to go? Because Eve's school is different than any other school I've ever encountered. For examples of how, you can read this which has two other examples embedded within it. Suffice it to say that I LOVE THIS SCHOOL. So I was interested in what this year would look like for Eve and I moved Heaven and Earth to make sure I could get there.

And while I fully expected a happy ending, I still managed to be surprised at the depth of the presentation. Eve's 6th grade team has got it together! They have designed a curriculum that is integrated across all subjects (yes, music, art, physical education, math, humanities and science included) and speaks to the developmental phase that these girls are in right now. They have taken into account the brain research that shows how 11 and 12 year old girls' brains work, what they are interested in (themselves, mostly), and how best to engage them in the learning process. Each of these instructors stood up and talked about how excited they are about what they are charged with teaching to the girls this year and how important it is that each and every one of the students feels connected and supported and empowered within this community.

Now I understand that cynics' eyes are rolling at this point. Rhetoric. I'll believe it when I see it. But let me tell you that I do believe it. Because I've seen it. Last Thursday, the entire class embarked on a camping trip that was designed for team building. The girls did a ROPES course, rock climbed, and challenged each other and themselves physically, emotionally and mentally, sharing information about their hopes and fears for this school year. Last year, the 5th graders in Eve's class did similar exercises and came together so solidly as a group that when spring basketball signups rolled around, despite the fact that only two of the girls in the class had ever played basketball before, nearly the entire class went out for the team. Despite the fact that they looked more like the Harlem Globetrotters after a couple of bottles of tequila out there on the court, nobody worried about looking silly. They were simply a group of girls having fun playing together. As. A. Team. Let me repeat that: 5th-grade girls not worried about other girls making fun of them for looking silly. Because they trusted each other.

This school year is designed to be all about the girls. Because they are all about themselves right now. The first third of the year is spent exploring how they got to this point. In Art, they are looking at aboriginal art, basic techniques and building blocks. The Humanities teacher has them reading the book "Nation" by Terry Pratchett in an effort to get them to understand society-building. The Music teacher is exploring rhythm and the Science teacher has them building simple machines out of Lego blocks. The Math teacher is making sure everyone has basic skills in mathematical operations and the PE teacher is helping them tell their own stories, physically and verbally. How did I get here? To this point?

The second third of the year asks "Who am I?" Again, each teacher has his or her own way of exploring that question with the girls. For example, the girls will be sketching self-portraits in Art and breaking down the human body into operational systems (digestion, circulation, etc.) in Science.

The last portion of their studies focuses on development. Where are we going from here? They will all work together toward the end of the year for their final culmination ceremony which is a three day bike ride and camping trip on a nearby island. They will push themselves farther emotionally and physically than they ever thought they could, all while using simple machines (bicycles), examining this tribe they have created over the past nine months, and feeling supported.

I caught up with one new parent on our way out last night and she turned to me and exclaimed, "The teachers are all so dynamic! So different from my middle school experience. I wish I could go back to school like this!" I couldn't agree more. I wish every child had the opportunity to be a part of an educational experience like this. I love that Eve's school supports a diverse array of families through scholarships and opens up to kids who wouldn't otherwise get this opportunity, but it still isn't enough. Until we as a society begin demanding this kind of thoughtful, deliberate approach to education, involving the teachers in curriculum creation that excites them and empowers them and giving them the flexibility to utilize things like brain research and outside-the-box thinking, most kids won't ever experience this kind of education. I feel pretty damn lucky that Eve and Lola will and I can only hope that they will find a way to work toward making sure more kids get it, too.

9 comments:

Dee Ready said...

Dear Kario, Everything you related in today's posting excited me. In the last paragraph you summed up this type of education. I'd like somehow to reach all the school districts in our country and send them the following words from your posting:

"Until we as a society begin demanding this kind of thoughtful, deliberate approach to education, involving the teachers in curriculum creation that excites them and empowers them and giving them the flexibility to utilize things like brain research and outside-the-box thinking, most kids won't ever experience this kind of education."

What do you think we need to do to make this happen? What can one person do? If you have some ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Peace.

fishducky said...

The first thing they have to do is to STOP FIRING GOOD TEACHERS!!!

Elizabeth said...

Sounds amazing. I, too, had a fantastic experience at my sons' charter school. It's developmental -- constructivist, actually -- and the teachers are amazing.

Have you read the article by Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books? There was also an interesting article a couple of weeks ago in the NY Times Magazine about character and school.

Dee Ready said...

Dear Kario, thanks so much for your comment on my recent Meniere's posting. Yes, I did follow my instincts and that led to freedom from constant terror.

One of the wonderful things about growing older--I'm 75 now--is that I have a long life to look back on and I can see that for me all things have worked out unto good. Even Meniere's.

I'd never again want to experience those sixteen months, but I don't regret them because Iearned so much.

Peace. And thank you for your ongoing honesty in your blog and for your fierce anger at the unfairness you see around you.

mamawolfe said...

I sure enjoyed your post-I've been teaching middle school for 20 years and can't imagine doing anything else. When dynamic teachers are allowed to be creative and plan together, magic can happen!
http://mamawolfe-living.blogspot.com/2011/09/i-remember-sleep.html

Sandi said...

Kario,
I loved this post so much I went back and read all the related ones! As a (cringe) public school teacher, I am jealous of the opportunities your school is able to offer families. While I love teaching, and work hard to plan lessons that are engaging and fun for kids (while learning!) it is true that we are shackled by state testing, meeting standards and continual budget cuts.

Your daughters are so fortunate to experience learning as it should be. It sounds like a fantastic school. Lucky teachers to be so supported!

Kathryn Grace said...

Wow. I too wish every child could experience school like this, and that every teacher had the opportunity to learn to be this kind of role model and mentor.

Only yesterday I listened to a TED Talk in which the lecturer demanded we send principals into the classrooms to evaluate teachers not one announced time a year but many, many unannounced times a year. That we test teachers regularly and throw out any who do not pass muster.

I wondered if this man had a clue what it is like to walk into a classroom designed for 21 students and face 32-40 sweaty, bored faces in a closed classroom with no open windows, and charged with one mandate after another to assure each pupil meets certain minimum standards.

I wondered if he had a clue what it takes for those teachers to show up each day, and whether he had ever attended any of the typical college programs designed to teach people to teach.

I wondered if he would be able to teach while refereeing the violence so many children act out in school--violence they learn in their gun-torn neighborhoods and see reinforced and glamorized every night after school on television.

Instead of terrifying and punishing teachers, we need to be training them to take "into account the brain research that shows how 11 and 12 year old girls' brains work, what they are interested in (themselves, mostly), and how best to engage them in the learning process."

We need to give them small, airy classrooms, plenty of supplies, and a freer hand to design curriculum that suits not only the group of students they are charged with this year, but each individual student.

How very lucky your daughter. How very lucky you, to be able to provide this for her. I give gratitude for those teachers, for their skill and understanding, and for the love and care and resources you and your family possess.

May we find a way to expand such teaching and offer it to all our students.

Thank you for sharing this story. It inspires hope.

Bella said...

Kario, a school with a curriculum that includes all those subjects AND takes the developing brain into consideration? Hell, sign me up! :) Your daughter's a very lucky girl!

Laura@Catharsis said...

As a teacher, I can say that this warms my heart! Curriculum Night is not something teachers get too excited about either...it means more time away from their own families, the inability to tuck their little ones in at night, a long day in the same dress and hose and heels. But the opportunity to share with the parents the good things that are being executed for students is an important one, and I am so glad you appreciate the wonderful things your child's school is doing for her.

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