The Spark Of Specifics

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The Spark of SpecificsHow a Strong Curriculum EnlivensClassroom and School CultureBy Diana SenechalIILLUSTRATIONS BY GERARD DuBOISn Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the Red Queenboasts, referring to a nearby hill, “I could show you hills, incomparison with which you’d call that a valley.” Alice objects,“A hill ca’n’t be a valley, you know. That would be nonsense—”The Red Queen replies that she has “heard nonsense, comparedDiana Senechal taught English and theater for four years in the NewYork City public schools; she has a PhD in Slavic languages and literatures from Yale. Her translations of the Lithuanian poetry of TomasVenclova have been published in two books, Winter Dialogue and TheJunction, as well as numerous literary journals. In 2009, she served onthe English Language Arts Work Team for the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Her education writing has appeared in EducationWeek, the American Educational History Journal, The Core KnowledgeBlog, Joanne Jacobs, GothamSchools, and the Washington Post’s TheAnswer Sheet. She is currently writing a book on the loss of solitude inschools and culture.24AMERICAN EDUCATOR WINTER 2010–2011with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!”1As a teacher, I have found curriculum to be both valley andhill at once, and at least as sensible as a dictionary. Curriculumis a valley in that it is often controversial; when you propose acommon (i.e., shared) curriculum, things come toppling downfrom all sides. Policymakers and the public often object to a common curriculum because it includes this and excludes that;teachers often fear that such a curriculum will constrain theirteaching. And yet, a curriculum is a hilltop; it gives us a view ofeverything around it: the subjects that should be taught, theshape and sequence of topics, the ultimate goals for students, theadequacy of textbooks and teacher training, the nature and content of assessments, the soundness of policies, and so on. Climbing from valley to hill is arduous, but once we establish what weare teaching, many things come clear, and the view is exhilaratingat times.A strong curriculum brings clarity to a school’s endeavor; it has

practical, intellectual, and philosophical benefits. It gives shapeto the subjects, helps ensure consistency within and amongschools, makes room for first-rate books and tests, and leavesteachers room for professional judgment and creativity. It can bea gift to a community as well as a school; it can become the foundation for a school’s cultural life. It is never perfect, but that is partof its vitality. It challenges us to think through it and beyond it. Itdoes not solve a school’s problems, but it offers good workingmaterial and a clear perspective.Let us define curriculum as an outline of what will be taught.A math curriculum specifies the mathematical subjects, topics,skills, and concepts that students will learn in a given year. A literature curriculum specifies literary works, periods, genres,themes, ideas, and more. A history curriculum specifies the general area of history, time range, significant events and deeds,people, conflicts, questions, and ideas, as well as certain primaryand secondary sources. In addition, the curriculum specifiessome of the work that students will complete, from proofs toresearch papers. It is up to the teacher to decide how to presentthe material and how to structure the class time. The curriculummay come with sample lessons and various levels of support, butit is not a script.The Finnish national core curriculum illustrates this definitionwell.2 The high school mathematics core curriculum consists ofan advanced sequence and a basic sequence. Here is the completecore curriculum for an advanced course called “Trigonometricfunctions and number sequences”:3OBJECTIVESThe objectives of the course are for students to learn to examine trigonometric functions by means of thesymmetries of the unit circle; learn to solve trigonometric equations of the form sin f(x) a or sin f(x) sin g(x).MATHEMATICS command the trigonometric relationships sin2x cos2x 1and tan x sin x / cos x; examine trigonometric functions by means of thederivative; understand the concept of the number sequence; learn to define number sequences by means of recursionformulae; know how to solve practical problems by means of arithmetic and geometric progressions and their sums.CORE CONTENTS directed angles and radians; trigonometric functions, including their symmetric andperiodic properties; solving trigonometric equations; derivatives of trigonometric functions; number sequences; recursive number sequences; arithmetic progressions and sums; geometric progressions and sums.These descriptions are concise and focused on the content.Because of the coherence and careful coordination of the Finnisheducational system—from teacher training to student exams—itis assumed that teachers will understand these descriptions andknow how to translate them into lessons. Teachers in Finland haveconsiderable preparation and autonomy; they may select thetextbooks and determine how to teach the topics.4 We need notreplicate the Finnish curriculum exactly, but we can derive inspiration from it. We can develop a curriculum that is much morespecific than our current standards but still leaves the methods ofinstruction to the teachers.Standards as we know them are not the same as curriculum.For example, most states’ English language arts standards avoidmentioning any specific works of literature or even areas of literature; they tend to emphasize reading strategies over literary content.5 The recently developed Common Core State StandardsA strong curriculum brings clarity toa school’s endeavor; it has practical,intellectual, and philosophicalbenefits—and leaves teachers roomfor professional judgment andcreativity.improve on this by specifying certain categories of literature andincluding an appendix with high-quality text exemplars. (Fulldisclosure: I contributed to the text exemplars as a member of theEnglish Language Arts Work Team.) Yet even with these details,the Common Core State Standards make clear that they are not acurriculum: “while the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S.documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn.The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectationslaid out in this document.”6A good curriculum requires both vision and practicality. Thecurriculum writers must know and care about the subject; theymust envision the teaching of the topics and works. They must bewilling to make and defend choices—to say “this is essential,” “thisis beautiful,” or “this goes well with that.” At the same time, a curriculum cannot be the work of one person alone. Teachers andprincipals should be invited to contribute to it, the public shouldhave a chance to discuss it, and it should be refined over time. Yetthe multitude of contributions must not result in long, dizzyinglists of topics and goals. Educator William C. Bagley wrote in 1934that “American education has long been befuddled by the multiplication of ‘aims’ and ‘objectives’ ”;7 the problem persists today,and we should not make it worse. No matter how many peoplecontribute to a curriculum, it should not lose its coherence andAMERICAN EDUCATOR WINTER 2010–201125

meaning; it should not try to be everything at once, or it may turninto nothing.Why is a curriculum essential?Let us start with the practical reasons. First of all, when teachersknow what they are supposed to teach, they can put their energyinto planning and conducting lessons and correcting studentwork. If teachers have to figure out what to teach, then there aremany moving pieces at once and too much planning on the fly.Also, there is too much temptation to adjust the actual subjectmatter to the students—if they don’t take to the lesson immediately, the teacher may get in the habit of scrambling for somethingthey do like, instead of showing them how to persevere. With acommon curriculum, the teacher has the authority to expectstudents to learn the material.For me, a great benefit of teaching in a school with astrong, coherent curriculum was that I could drawextensively on students’ background knowledge. I couldask fourth-graders what they knew about the MiddleAges, and hands would fly up. It was exciting to directthe students in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and findthat they understood some of the references to classicalmythology. When my fifth-grade students were readingAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, a passage reminded astudent of a Robert Frost poem. She ran to the bookshelf, found the poem, and read it aloud. Again andagain, students drew on what they had learned in theirclasses. The principle is obvious: it is impossible andundesirable to control everything that students bring toa class, but certain planned sequences can deepen andintensify the instruction.A curriculum helps ensure continuity not only fromgrade to grade but from town to town. If a family moves from onetown or state to another, a curriculum helps prevent needlessrepetition. I attended many schools when I was a child; it seemedthat almost every year, until high school, we began by making afamily tree for social studies and learning about sets and subsetsin math. Many children endure units on “me and my community”year after year. (Sadly, this also happens to some students who donot change schools, but who attend schools where there is nocurriculum and little or no coordination among teachers.) A curriculum would protect students against this kind ofredundancy.The list of practical benefits continues. Schools are in a positionto seek out the best books possible when they know what will betaught. Teachers, working together and individually, may refinetheir teaching of certain topics over the years, since the topics willnot be taken away. Materials that accompany the curriculum—such as tests and textbooks—can be strengthened if the curriculum is not constantly changing. Parents can tell whether or nottheir children are learning, since they know what their childrenare supposed to learn. Summer school, for students who need it,can ensure that students master the previous year’s specific content and skills, and can also preview the coming year’s challenges.Cities and towns may hold special events related to the curriculum—for instance, there might be a lecture on space exploration,a discussion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from BirminghamCity Jail,” or a performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.Students might take field trips to attend a play or view works of artthat they have studied.What about the intellectual benefits of curriculum? I havehinted at them above. A curriculum allows a school or communityto come together over a topic or work; it allows students, teachers,and parents to probe the topic more deeply. Teachers’ professional development sessions may be devoted to topics in philosophy, literature, science, and other subjects, not just to the latestmandates and pedagogical techniques. Imagine a teacher seminar on Plato’s Republic, Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office, orEugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros—how interesting that would be!When teachers have the opportunity to probe the very topics thatthey are teaching, to challenge each other, and to build on existingresources, they have that much more to bring to their students.The students, being immersed in meaningful subjects, will bringA curriculum allows schools to upholdthings of importance and beauty. Evenif we disagree over what is good, wemust dare to select the best.26AMERICAN EDUCATOR WINTER 2010–2011their learning to their families and friends.I had the honor of visiting the Dallas Institute of Humanitiesand Culture in July 2010. The institute holds year-round eventsdevoted to literature and humanities. At its Summer Institute forTeachers, school teachers immerse themselves in classic literature. This year, the Summer Institute focused on the epic tradition;teachers read and discussed the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, theDivine Comedy, Moby-Dick, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Theogony; excerpts from the Ramayana, Popol Vuh, and Paradise Lost;and various short pieces. I was there for the first three days, whichwere devoted to the Iliad. It was a stirring experience to be amongteachers and scholars who were reading and pondering this work.I had read parts of it in Greek in high school and reread it in English over the years, but I had not read it in full in a long time. HereI read it morning and night; read it urgently, dreamily, sleepily;read it with others, alone, aloud, and in quiet. When we reachedthe end, it was as though my mind had swept itself of litter. If wehad more institutes like this, and if teacher training includedcourses of this kind, we could possibly see a slow transformationof the teaching profession. A teacher’s daily work is typically filledwith minutiae: he or she must decorate the classroom accordingto mandates, complete vague student goal sheets and in-classconference notes, and attend meeting after meeting where jargonreigns. A strong curriculum, supported by institutes of this kind,can help schools stay grounded in things that matter.Just as a curriculum brings people together, it makes room for

solitary thought. Teachers need time to plan and think alone aswell as with others. They need intellectual stimulation and challenge, quiet hours with the books and problems. A curriculumallows teachers to pursue topics in depth. If it is known that students will be reading Robert Louis Stevenson, then the teachermay delve into A Child’s Garden of Verses—both for pleasure andfor preparation. There is room to focus on something worthy.When there is no curriculum, teachers are kept busy but no