Give teachers autonomy to design curricula

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Paige Nilson

Paige Nilson

Great learning and great teaching happen in my classroom and school every day.  Life is good for 2nd graders at Hamilton Elementary School: They get to publish animal research books, find ways to balance pencils on Popsicle sticks, and design their own math problems.   Life is good for teachers at Hamilton, too: We have the autonomy to design instruction that fits the individual needs of our students.

Recently, Chicago Public Schools announced a formal Instructional Materials Adoption Plan, starting with Literacy and Language materials for the 2013-2014 school year.   As a third-year teacher in the district, I value the autonomy I have in making curricular decisions.  Teachers should have the ability to design and create classroom curricula fitted to the unique needs and interests of their students.

Recently, our class has been engaged in a massive project to create a 40-inch by 60-inch, 3D map of the damage caused by the Great Chicago Fire.  The areas burned in the fire have orange buildings, and buildings that went untouched are green.  Roads are made from Popsicle sticks, as streets at the time were made of wood. Important historical sites are labeled.  Most importantly, the project was completely designed and created by the students and me, with students doing the majority of the work—I acted largely as the facilitator. 

Is the project messy?  Yes.  Have I wanted to pull my hair out because tape and construction paper are everywhere?  Of course.  But, have my students learned to work together? Are they learning material that is applicable to their lives? And have they begged me to work on the project every day since we began? Absolutely.    

The project does not just fulfill social studies goals. It also integrates a range of topics, as students read about the fire, write expository essays about the fire, write as though they are citizens during that time, record video explaining the project, and use a grid system to locate points on the map.  It is an all-encompassing learning experience. It is possible because of the freedom we currently have to plan curricula that is relevant to our interests.  It is also just the kind of curricula that could be used to meet the Common Core State Standards in my classroom.

Narrow choices 

I worry about what mandates will be placed on teachers with the new Instructional Materials Adoption Plan.  From what I have read, curriculum adoption will be universal across the district with only narrow choice options.  While new materials are being purchased to accommodate the Common Core, I wonder how teachers will have time to adequately learn a new curriculum for the 2013-2014 school year if many do not even know that new materials are being purchased and no dates have been given for their arrival or for trainings.

Recently CPS sent out an email inviting teachers to be a part of a committee to help identify Literacy and Language Instructional Materials.  I couldn’t wait to sign up.  I quickly emailed my principal to ask for permission to participate (yes, principal approval is mandatory), only to realize that the meetings were scheduled over spring break.  Like most teachers, I have already made plans for the week.  Spring break was just two weeks away when we received the initial email.

Teachers are professional educators who know how to design, plan, modify, and implement curriculum that works best for our students.  In fact, according to Domain 1 in the new Framework for Teaching, the framework used to evaluate teacher performance, teachers should be able to plan and prepare effective instructional outcomes, assessments, and instruction that demonstrate knowledge of content, pedagogy, and students.   I am uncertain about the flexibility teachers will have to demonstrate this skill or the ability administrators will have to evaluate it if curriculum is mandated. 

Teachers should play an integral role in the adoption and implementation of all new materials.  We are professionals who know our students and know our craft.  The new Framework for Teaching presents an opportunity for CPS to identify teachers who are particularly effective at designing innovative curricula, and target those teachers to advise the district or even coach colleagues.  Let us ensure life continues to be good for students and teachers alike, that they have a choice and play an active role in the learning and instruction in their classrooms.

Paige Nilson is a teacher at Hamilton Elementary and a member of Teach Plus, an organization that supports teachers in urban schools.