Somewhere between Kliebard’s (2005) love of Dewey and Counts’ emboldened speech at the annual meeting of the Progressive Education Association, I began seeing Curriculum Theory as a layered story. Reading about curriculum theories prompted me to imagine characters: historical, fictional, personal, political and institutional representing different facets of curriculum. Some of the curriculum characters and themes I have imagined and recognized explicate my personal curriculum journey below.
50 Shades of Meredith Grey
A hallmark of learning a new theory is seeing examples of it in whatever I consume. I have made countless friends and acquaintances take the Myers’ Brigg personality inventory, and as I am learning more about someone, I sort him/her into the four categories (I can often type someone after ten questions). When I learned about dramaturgy (Goffman, 1959), I stopped conversations to point out when I thought people were saving face or switching roles, last week I made as many people as were willing get their fortune told by the fortune telling fish I swiped from the Media Center (fortune fish thought Dr. Farmer and Leslie Roberts were jealous). When I was writing the first short paper, I started categorizing teachers from popular culture into respective curriculum ideologies, and I began noticing that two of Shonda Rhimes’ most popular shows. In the future, I may do content analyses of the curriculum theories at play in Grey’s Anatomy and Rhimes’ other show featuring education, How to Get Away with Murder.
Grey’s Anatomy, the fictional, soapy drama of a group of doctors in Seattle, has featured an education aspect since the first episode (Rhimes, 2005). Meredith Grey begins the series as an intern, and learns from many attending doctors until she becomes a resident and then an attending herself, guiding two sets of interns so far. In the first episode, Miranda Baily (social reconstructionist), Meredith’s resident, tells Meredith and the other interns they are “grunts, nobodies, the bottom of the surgical food chain,” and as the series progresses, so does Meredith who worked her way from the bottom to the chief of general surgery and (through a series of completely impossible events) a member of the hospital board. The most recent episode features Meredith’s most trusted advisor, Dr. Richard Webber (humanist), her intern, Stephanie Edwards, and the head trauma surgeon, Dr. Owen Hunt (social efficiency theorist).
Throughout the episode, the doctors are working to save a car accident survivor, but at the beginning, Webber commands the doctors to imagine the patient as a person they want to save. When he demands it, he imagines the patient (John Doe, a white male) morphs into a middle-aged Black woman, and he tells a story about her: “Gail.” The surgery is complicated, and the doctors (besides Webber) are exhausted from previous long shifts and the stress of their personal lives. The remainder of the episode showcases the moment when each doctor is able to consider the patient a person rather than a set of working systems. Each time a doctor is able to understand the patient in a personal way, the patient survives a new obstacle during the surgery. At the end of the episode, Webber explained to Grey a paradigm shift from doctors desensitizing themselves from patients to doctors personalizing the patients, which ultimately led to better outcomes. This episode, perhaps more than any other, captures my thoughts about how the primary curriculum theories fit together and my own journey of finding a balance between them by showing both teacher and learner perspectives. In my own interactions with students, the moments I deem most successful are those when a student or group of students are people to me rather than just objectives. Part of why I know my current job as curriculum consultant is not my forever job is the fact that I feel so detached from the important work of the school. Noddings (2010) and her caring about students is a child centered tendency that some may think does not belong in a high school or college classroom. Yet, my least successful days as teachers were those when I prioritized the rules of school over a student’s needs. During my first year teaching tenth grade, Ruben nearly punched me in the face because I offhandedly said I didn’t care that his grandfather was sick, he had missed a deadline. As soon as the words escaped my mouth, I wanted them back. I did not mean I did not care that his grandfather was ill, but it was too late. A few minutes later he was standing inches from me, fists clenched, veins throbbing, voice shaking. My class was scared, and I am thankful Ruben made the choice to leave the room the second time I asked him. There have been other times since that I regretted saying thoughtless things to students, but try to be cognizant that students are learning how to react and in all of the practice situations of school, and I am a model they are consistently looking to whether we talk about it or not.
Oh, the Places I’ve Gone
Anytime I have taught a novel or a short story, my students and I have talked about setting. Setting can be so complexly layered and integral a piece to the story, that it is ruminated upon much like characters (e.g. Dante’s Hell or Twain’s Garden of Eden). I have learned and taught in a wide variety of contexts (i.e. grades 7-12, community and technical colleges, and public universities), and often the places dictate the scope of my actions and thoughts regarding curriculum. I left my first teaching position mid-school year, and in the Spring of 2005 I found myself the ESL Coordinator for Ash Grove, a small district in Southwest Missouri. I assumed I would be working with predominately Spanish speakers, but Ash Grove’s ESL population were nearly all Romanian. My work at Ash Grove was entirely on the fringes—I was a part-time employee, so I was not invited to faculty meetings. I worked with a small population of students: 8 Romanian students (siblings aged 16-6) and 2 French students (siblings aged 12 and 14). I worked with the elementary aged students on early reading and writing skills, and we played rhyming games and sang songs to increase vocabulary and we practiced spelling lessons. I tutored the middle and high school students in any subject they needed help with, which was mostly math, science, and history. During my time at Ash Grove, I switched from the scholar academic mindset I had had fresh out of my master’s program and became more child centered. Because a big part of my job at Ash Grove was to be an advocate for students, and I was working across disciplines and grade levels with a few students at a time, I found myself tailoring lessons to specific student interests. Anna, an eighth grader, hated math and fractions, and I found myself scouring her textbook for word problems, and rewrote them about topics she was interested in (pets because otherwise her apathy outmatched her will to learn.
Memories of Ash Grove are fuzzy. My position originated because when the Romanian students enrolled, the district increased the percentage of ESL students increased enough to warrant a part-time ESL designee. The position was not a good fit for me, so when an English position came open for the next school year, I applied. I had spent a lot of time aligning middle and high school English curriculum for Green Forest (my first teaching position). I worked closely with the district curriculum director, applied for an earned a grant from AP to do a district vertical team workshop, and wrote curriculum guides for 7-12 grades. When I recounted this experience to the principal at Ash Grove, he shook his head and explained, “anybody can do that. We are looking for strong teachers.” I did not get the English position, and the next year I returned to being my normal high school English teacher self.
Another place that has certainly shaped my thoughts about teaching and learning is my online classroom. My humor and body language help me navigate student interactions in ways I cannot rely on when I teach online, and developing my online teacher persona has been challenging for me; I love to talk and tell stories, and online discussions can become stilted. I have taught via few learning management systems, and I have done so for several groups of high school and college. Each semester I get better at teaching online because I become more comfortable in the online classroom. Students have a hard time seeing their online teachers and courses like their other teachers and courses, and for many semesters my composition students complained that they would have learned more in a classroom with a teacher they had daily access to. For a long time I addressed this issue by highlighting or bolding lines in the syllabus, “you can find my contact information in the Instructor area,” but I would stay frustrated about the lack of contact and continued complaints. Last Spring I finally changed how I did things instead of hoping students would read more closely, and this shift is one toward social efficiency and child centered ideologies. Because my composition courses are offered at a community college, they resonate most with working through a set of requirements. I have a hard time labeling a part of education more social efficient than earning both high school and college credit at the same time. Students have to write a prescribed number of specific essays, and I have to grade by a common rubric. I also have to engage high school students who have never seen me or heard my fabulous monster voice. As time goes on, I have added personal touches—I upload videos of me showing students how to find information, and I make them text me so we can have each other’s numbers. I am careful to be concise and clear in my emails to them, and I use their names and offer to call them often. These intentional changes have made my online classroom a much different place, and has given me (and I hope students) a better sense of ownership.
Illustrated Curriculum Book
Education is my life’s work. I played school with my brother, cousins, friends, and toys. Suitcases were our desks, and I vacillated between teacher and student depending on where I played. If all of my experiences in education were a pie, each of the four major ideologies would be represented in pieces similar to a Trivial Pursuit piece. Figure 1 illustrates my current curriculum ideology perspective. I drew myself in the middle to show my influence in the curriculum. Since beginning this course and noticing all of the competing curricular beliefs, I have recognized that I have a responsibility as a curriculum agent (i.e. student, teacher, evaluator, consultant) to try and persuade my curricular work as intentionally as I am able to given any number of constraints. In my online dual credit freshman composition classroom in rural Missouri, I have to present my super liberal self in a careful way. If students were pressed, they would probably guess I am liberal, but I do not think they would see me as pushing a political agenda.
Figure 1: a graphic representing my curriculum theory development
I specifically chose each color to represent its specific ideology; scholar academic is gold, which represents knowledge. Green indicates the growth of the individual in child centered. While I colored the social efficiency piece blue, I thought of blue collar workers, and the purple represents pride and has represented marginalized people. At the beginning of the semester, I would have been in the center, each piece would have been the same size, and the arrows would be bouncing between them to show the contextualized nature of how they work together. I have worked at institutions that were more social efficient than scholar academic, and at some that were more child centered than social efficiency, but I also see a need for differentiation between courses and among students. The juxtaposition of having both the highest and lowest ranked students is not uncommon for rural high school teachers, which was one of the biggest challenges of teaching high school. Negotiating the strongest and weakest student within a class period meant that I had to use features of child centered (engaging student interest), social efficiency (working toward a skillset that could be tapped into a later time) and scholar academic (investigating the aesthetic aspects of language) during a single class. I did not intentionally think of those ideologies while I meandered between them, which is what the arrows represent.
The Biggest Piece
At the beginning of the semester, I was hesitant to call myself a social reconstructionist. As the semester went on, the election loomed, and then we lost a utopia many of us took for granted before November 9. Part of me thinks writing about this is a bit dramatic. I hear people saying that one person cannot change the country so much in a few years. But then Count’s (1932) words, “with the world as it is we cannot afford for a single instant to remove our eyes from the social scene or shift our attention from the peculiar needs of the age” (47) resound in my head along with the work of Friere (1970). They both call teachers to action. Yet, my social reconstructionist awareness has been progressively increasing over the past decade within all of my education experiences. As a teacher, my bend toward social reconstructionist started when I met Laura Rankin.
Rankin has been teaching at Spokane High School since the early nineties. When I met her, she was starting her 13th year of teaching mostly upper classmen a variety of English Language Arts courses including college prep and creative writing. Laura and I carpooled together about 40 minutes back and forth between Springfield (the third largest city in Missouri) and Spokane (tiny town, rhymes with Billy Zane), so we got to know each other pretty well. Rankin was the first colleague I tried to emulate. Her students respected and worked hard for her, even if they did not imagine themselves to be good students. When I started teaching, No Child Left Behind proponents (not Au, 2012) were beginning to be stricter about the percentage of proficient students; at small schools like Spokane, a few dropouts were a significant percentage of students and we spoke often of the troubling contradictions of teaching to the test and developing critical thinkers. As the administration became more aggressive about test scores, Rankin repeatedly told me, “if we create critical readers and writers, we are doing our job.” Her quiet mantra became mine, and it has served me well. Laura created a culture of readers at Spokane by reading. She began a book club, and invited teachers to participate with students. Once a month laughter and serious conversations are happening about books after school in her room. She lets the students help pick them, but the texts she selects are often about students much different from the ones in her book club. As people read about other people and places, their own minds become stretched and more inclusive and empathetic to people who are different from them (WSJ article), and I heard many book club participants explain how they would not have picked up a book had it not been for book club. Rankin also helps students get recognized for their writing by entering as many student works as possible in the regional writing contest of the Language Arts Department, a Southwest Missouri K-12 writing competition. Rankin is a literacy champion for students, and helping students become critically literate is certainly the work of social reconstructionist, although it is more of Freire’s version instead of Counts’. By helping students see multiple perspectives and have successes in literacy, Rankin has created an army of thoughtful former students. She has often commented on the service intentions of classes of Spokane students—a class of 50 students will have a dozen or so who hope to go into education or medicine.
While I worked with Rankin, I took some upper level sociology courses to earn the 18 required hours to teach sociology. One of them, The Civil Rights Movement, changed how I approached books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn in my classroom—instead of focusing mainly on Lee and Twain’s writings, I asked students to grapple with the social issues. We spent time talking about prejudice and choices almost as much as language and parts of the story. When I left Spokane for a new teaching adventure at Missouri’s Virtual Instruction Program, Rankin and her influence on me gave me pause.
Since working with her, I have noticed myself taking a more intentional approach to social justice issues in my own classroom and I have tried to emulate the ways she talks about books with students. The purple piece of my curriculum ideology, social reconstructionist, is bigger now than at the beginning of the semester. I can see evidence of my social justice focus in my most recent semesters teaching high school, and certainly in my work in the English Department as a lecturer for freshman composition. The social reconstructionists are the teacher heroes we most often think of—the ones who disrupt the status quo like Dead Poet Society’s Keating and Freedom Writers’ Gruwell. Of course, there is a possibility I am just taking notice of more of these teachers because I am hoping that there are more teachers like them out there, even though I fear they are merely characters in a movie instead of characters influencing students’ curricular experiences.