Why do the very best teachers ignore/subvert curriculum?

Yesterday I posted a tweet. Today I’m going to comment on it. Sometimes it takes me a while to process my thoughts.

The very best teachers spend every day of their lives ignoring or subverting the curriculum

Now, why is this? Why would people, including myself, think that the best teachers are the ones who ignore what many consider to be the main ‘stuff’ of teaching? My memories of my BEd program are filled with courses on curriculum. Maybe one on Quebec education law. One on learning disabilities. But the rest were courses on curriculum. How to create lesson plans based on curriculum, how to manage your time to make sure the curriculum gets covered – that sort of thing.

Curriculum can not be the main stuff of teaching. It can’t. Do you hear me? It. Can’t.

The main stuff of my job. Wait. I’m getting sick of using the word stuff. Let me be more specific. The main point, the essence, the reason for my teaching is the students I teach. I wouldn’t say I ignore curriculum. I know it’s there. And I use it as a starting point, at the beginning of the year when I don’t really know my students yet. And throughout the year as a background for our work together. But really, I do my best to fit what my students get excited about, what they ask to learn, into the curricular competencies. When it doesn’t work, well, students trump curriculum each time. Luckily I work in Quebec, which has a very student-centered education program with a multitude of competencies in many different areas. It makes it easier to subvert. Really. It also makes it easier to ignore at times. There is just too much to cover that we can focus on what is essential to student learning. As decided by us (our last PED day was around determining the essential features of the courses we teach).

You know what? I think that by staying 100% true to curriculum we are actually ignoring our students.So subvert, ignore that which is on paper. But never those who are in front of you.

the very best teachers…

Just saw this tweet. Felt the need to record it.

The very best teachers spend every day of their lives ignoring or subverting the curriculum

via @paulawhite, via @Neilstephenson, via @kmadolf, via @alfiekohn or something like that…

The Curious Case of Ped Days in Quebec

Minister for Education Michelle Courchesne flips through the new English history book while visiting École Père Marquette. Photograph by : DAVE SIDAWAY, THE GAZETTE  (click image for source)

Minister for Education Michelle Courchesne flips through the new English history book while visiting École Père Marquette. Photograph by : DAVE SIDAWAY, THE GAZETTE (click image for source)

Apparently Quebec teachers have it made. We have 20 pedagogical (PED) days throughout the school year. Quebec public school teachers work 200 days, 180 of which are teaching days spent with kids.

School’s out, and parents wonder: Why so often?
Quebec teachers have more than those in any other province; say they’re essential
BRENDA BRANSWELL, The Gazette Published: Wednesday, September 24

Reader response to the article (and these are some of the…nicer…ones):

…I understand that teachers need a few days to learn new material and teaching techniques but do they really need so many of them when they have 2 weeks off in December and 1 week at March break? I know of one school that has 4 ped days in November…. 4 days!! Whats that all about? Cut out the field trips, movie watching and general time wasting in school and teach the kids instead. As ZORA wrote, if we had an excellent public education system then okay, but out kids aren’t doing as well as kids in other provinces.

…I’m a teacher and all I’d like to say is that we may have 20 ped days, more than any other province, however, every other province has a set of province-wide standards and curriculum. Québec has no such curriculum. Our curriculm is teacher-created. On ped days, teachers meet with other teachers and not only decide but also create what they will teach next. Parents should inform themselves before criticising their child’s teacher. Parents should also be reminded that school is NOT a daycare. I am so insulted by all these comments for all the care I put into teaching my students. Thank goodness we are rewarded everyday from our students, because adults often seem to forget just how much we do for their children.

Yup, we sure have it made.

Oh, by the way…were you aware of the reform? Or, as it is has started to be called by the Education Minister Michelle Courchesne, Pedagogical Renewal?

This year is the first year that English schools in Quebec have received teaching materials in English for the new courses that are mandated under Pedagogical Renewal in Quebec. Last year our grade 8 (Cycle 1, year 2) teachers received the History and Citizenship student course books in May. For real.

Quebec delivers Grade 10 textbooks
History, Math. Courchesne promises she’ll do even better for English students in September ’09
BRENDA BRANSWELL , The Gazette Published: Friday, August 29, 2008

If you read the article above you will notice that not all of the materials have been made available and that no teacher guides have been made available. The Honourable Minister Courchesne is happy that 2 math texts and one science text have been made. The texts are meant to cover the curriculum up until January – assuming that everyone teaches the same parts of the curriculum at the same time of the year. The other high school in our district teaches their courses intensively over one semester – not very helpful for them. She neglected to mention that there are 3 math courses offered in Sec. IV (aka grade 10, now known as Cycle 2, year 2) In fact, some Sec. III courses (aka grade 9, Cycle 2, year 1), which were taught for the first time last year still do not have teaching materials available in English to support these courses.

Imagine teaching without curriculum.

This could be a very good thing. If one wanted to design curriculum for their students, if the courses being taught were not subjected to standardized testing in the form of 2-3 week long Evaluation Situations (ES) at the end of the school year.

It could also be a good thing if each teacher were teaching one course at one grade level. Personally I teach English, Math, History (to be replaced by Economics in January), Ethics and Religious Culture (formerly SIS, Student in Society) at two grade levels.

Last month the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT) wrote an open letter to Michelle Courchesne regarding text books for English schools in Quebec.

On October 1, 2008, the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT) sent an open letter to the Minister of Education, Recreation and Sport, Michelle Courchesne, regarding QPAT's ongoing concerns about the lack of English textbooks.

On October 1, 2008, the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT) sent an open letter to the Minister of Education, Recreation and Sport, Michelle Courchesne, regarding QPAT's ongoing concerns about the lack of English textbooks.

I am not alone in feeling that we are unprepared to teach our students. I am a constructivist teacher. I create learning materials based on the individual learning contexts in which I work each year. The learning contexts are a combination of student interests, abilities, and styles and course curriculum. All elements of the learning context, or environment, are essential to ensure that learning takes place.

Without curricular support, my task becomes quite enormous.

So, about those PED days… Even with 20 PED days scattered throughout the year (4 of which occur after the end of the student’s school year in June, 3 others are often used up for snow days – we do live in Quebec!) I scramble to design learning evaluation situations (LESs aka formative assessment), problems, worksheets, projects, learning how to report out to parents (we assess with a 5 point rubric, but must convert to % to report out to parents…no comment…), creating rubrics, writing IEPs, combing through 3 different grade levels worth of text books to find material that is suitable for the new Math course I teach… oh, and then the regular day-to-day lesson planning, correcting, communication with students and parents, collaboration with other teachers…

Yeah, we’ve got it made.

Black-focused public school in Toronto by 2009…What do you think?

Toronto trustees vote in favour of black-focused schools

cbc.ca -Tuesday, January 29, 2008

“A proposal to create Canada’s first black-focused public school was approved by Toronto District School Board trustees Tuesday night.

They have recommended the creation of an alternative school that features a curriculum and teaching environment oriented around black history and culture.

Some parents have said they want to try something new because the current system isn’t working. As many as 40 per cent of black students don’t graduate from Toronto high schools.

Angela Wilson is a mother of two who has been at the forefront of a push for Afrocentric or black-focused schools for years.

“Make our education system better for everybody,” she said.

“It’s not a one size fits all education system. It’s actually working its way to be one size fits few — and the few that are successful do not look like me.”

Trustees were supposed to have discussed a report delivered last week that makes four major recommendations:

  • Open an Africentric alternative school in 2009.
  • Start a three-year pilot program in three other high schools.
  • Work with York University to improve school achievement.
  • Develop a plan to help failing students.

Supporters said those options will keep black students engaged and in school, but opponents said it will lead to greater isolation.

“I just feel being with a mixed group of people is better, you know, you get to learn different cultures, different aspects of different people, the way they live,” said Grade 10 student Terrin Smith-Williams.”

hmmmm….not sure what I think about this yet.

My gut feeling is that it is a cop out. It is a way of saying we are addressing issues of student learning without looking at the whole system.

Or…perhaps it is a step toward a new system. Creating student-centred schools that focus on the different communities they are in.

Like I said…still thinking…

What about you? What do you think about this proposal…ready to go next year!

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Gaining focus in reform

I really think that we are focusing on the wrong things in education reform.

Recent education reform in Quebec – and I am sure it is similar in other areas – has focused on creating new curriculum for students.

Technology reforms focus on how we can best use technology in the classroom to improve student learning and to make it more authentic.

Today I responded to John Brandt’s discussion thread in the TeachingFutures wiki about his passion for making all teachers good teachers. What he wrote got me to thinking about how to do that. Is it really through curricular or technological reform? In both cases I hear proponents of the reforms saying that teachers need to change what they are doing, that they need to become more in tune with ‘the reform’.

What if we were to become more in tune with teachers? Instead of focusing on curriculum and tools with which to teach it, what if we were to focus on the teachers who will be working with the children?

In a recent post of mine I quote Senator Barack Obama when he spoke in his 2005 speech, Teaching Our Kids in a 21st Century Economy, about the influence a teacher has on a child’s success. He said:

From the moment our children step into a classroom, new evidence shows that the single most important factor in determining their achievement today is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it’s not who their parents are or how much money they have.

It’s who their teacher is. It’s the person who will brave some of the most difficult schools, the most challenging children, and accept the most meager compensation simply to give someone else the chance to succeed.

Each time I read or hear that I repeat to myself

It is who the teacher is

There is a lot of ‘after the fact’ professional development for teachers. I call it ‘after the fact’ because it seems to come after curricular reform in answer to panicked teacher response to having to deal with change in how they teach.

It seems to me we are going about it backwards. I think that the reform that will finally take place that will actually stick will be when we reform the way we support and nurture teachers.

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