Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Curriculum As Road Trip

I like to take the long view. If I am going to study lessons, observe lessons, or write lesson plans, I prefer to do it in the context of a unit, a yearlong curriculum, or a curriculum strand that spans multiple years. It's hard for me to glean much from a single lesson in isolation.

In a typical lesson, students will make some forward progress.

But what I want to know is how far they'll be in a month.

I often think of curriculum as a good road trip. On a good road trip, you usually have some destination and time frame in mind, but it's also about stopping to explore interesting sites along the way.

When I was teaching in Brookline, I chaperoned the eighth-grade field trip to New York City. Maury, the assistant principal, had been doing the trip for years, and he would turn the kids loose. Sometimes this was inside of an enclosed area, like a museum, park, or zoo, but sometimes it was in a wide-open neighborhood. I remember him turning the kids loose in a twelve block area near Chinatown. They had to travel in groups, stay within the prescribed area, and meet at the rendezvous point in two hours. Maury did this half a dozen times over three days, and not once did a student show up late. To put that in perspective, chaperones were late twice. I thought I trusted these kids, but this blew me away. And it made the trip so much more special for them since they could spend a few hours wandering the big city on their own, spontaneously going into shops or grabbing a snack.

On a different trip to New York City, I was being guided around the city by friends who were native New Yorkers. I had been to New York before, but I had never enjoyed it; the city felt big and impersonal to me. For some reason, I made an effort to study the subway system as we traveled between destinations, and I began to feel as though I could navigate my way back to my hotel if I ever got separated from my friends. I'm not sure if that's what did it for me, but suddenly New York began to feel big and interesting instead of big and impersonal, and I started to relax and have fun.

Trips are a lot more fun when you are free to explore sometimes instead of being led by rope from point to point in one big pack. But to explore an area freely and have fun doing it, you also need to feel comfortable finding your way around.

When I'm designing curriculum, it's as though I'm planning a road trip with my own kids for one last time. I want them to have a blast, I want them to see some sites they've wanted to see their whole lives, I want to share some sites that have been personally significant to me, and I want to prepare them so that they can and will go on road trips with their friends in college and then, eventually, with their own kids. That means making sure they can read a map, navigate on highways and subways, pack light, get through security quickly and easily at airports, change a tire, and be safe at remote motels. I want to be able to drop them off in Amsterdam and say meet me for dinner in Copenhagen in two days.

When curriculum is a road trip:

  • There should be destinations to explore.
  • The area to explore and the time you have to explore it should be greater each time. You might go from a park in 45 minutes, to a neighborhood in three hours, to a city in two days, to a metropolitan area in a week.
  • The scope and nature of the destinations should be staged to help you acquire the skills you need to explore a larger area for a longer time along the way.
  • Once you've acquired the skill and confidence, you should be able to break away to explore an area on your own or in a small group. Time and opportunities to do that should be factored into the trip.
  • Some of the destinations should be mind-blowingly awesome.
  • At some of the destinations, you should be able to look back and see how far you've come. When you reflect on it, you should see that you are doing things that you never could have done in the first week of the trip.
  • It should be fun and there should be lots of good company.
  • You should feel as though this road trip is preparing you for even more amazing road trips in the future.

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