Monday, July 09, 2018

Making Sense of Curriculum, or, How to Design a Year of Learning

Let's be clear about something: Curriculum is not your program of studies, or your national or state standards. It's everything that you teach, both planned and unplanned, and how you teach it, both planned and unplanned. When put that way, it's a pretty complex task, but also one full of possibility. The word from curriculum takes its roots from the Latin word currere, which means "to run." Curriculum is the path we walk together as we learn.
Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash
Of course, as teachers, we are obligated to make those outcomes in our Programs of Study or Standards part of this pathway. My Program of Study for Grade 7 Social Studies is all about pre- and post-Confederation Canadian history. This has often been a tough pill for twelve-year-olds to swallow, especially living in Western Canada, where the events in Eastern Canada in the 1600s -1800s seems so far removed from their daily reality. Grade 7 Social Studies has always been a tough bear for me - one I've wrestled with through my career, and have had varying levels of success with. Last summer, as I prepared to teach it once again, I vowed to find a path for us to make our way through it that made sense and was relevant to my learners, so they could understand why this is a topic worthy of our exploration. I have always found Canadian history to be interesting, and gained an appreciation of it through my father's endless fascination with it and appreciation of the true gift Canada is for all of us, and through dog-earred copies of Canadian History magazines left on coffee tables around my house. To my students, though, it has sometimes seemed very, very boring.

Photo by Julian Howard on Unsplash

So, my first task was to read the curriculum in a more generous way than it maybe was intended. I read it really closely. My metaphor of it being a bear is truly earned - it has hundreds of specific outcomes, very content-focused and fact-based. But as I read it, I was able to finally really understand what it was asking of us. It was asking us to understand how the events of our past influenced the citizenship and identity of our modern Canada. Now that makes sense. It makes sense far more than it makes sense to know who the key figures of British exploration were (Outcome 7.1.3) or what Clifford Sifton's immigration policies in the early 1900s were (Outcome 7.2.5).

My close read of my Program led me to the three questions that would frame our year:

Who are we?
How did we get here?

Who do we want to become?

 The evolution of these questions from a mess of notes in my notebook and different coloured Post-its plastered all over the wall led me to a really important revelation. We needed to really understand our modern Canadian identity before we could understand where it came from. We needed to start with now and then move backwards into history. Our current story is based in truths. Our identity did not come from nowhere. It came from our history.

So we started at the end. With my teaching partner, I designed a project where we would interview people - friends and strangers - about how they understand the question "What does it mean to be Canadian?" This documentary project began with an inquiry into the interview documentary filmmaking genre. We watched and rewatched 50 People, 1 Question (hat tip to Dan Ryder & Amy Burvall who introduced me to this YouTube channel in their marvellous book Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom). We watched an episode of Humans of New York: The Series entitled Purpose. We deconstructed these videos to understand what it is that documentary filmmakers do and how they work. We worked to understand their language, their discipline.

I was engaged in some professional development with Learning Through the Arts, and they captured this beginning inquiry into filmmaking through video. Have a look.

The D|MA Process and Task Design with Digital Media Arts from LTTA on Vimeo.

Then, equipped with our new language, we set to work in film crews to try to answer that question, "What does it mean to be Canadian?" This filmmaking project took awhile. And I fully admit that we were hitting very few of the specific content outcomes from our Social Studies program of studies through it, though we were absolutely and with clear intention hitting many of the general outcomes and the front matter of the assembly of disciplines called Social Studies. Thankfully, with our Humanities approach, we were also addressing many Language Arts outcomes in our filmmaking. The fact that we were not hitting many specific content outcomes and that this project took us almost two months to do made me feel uncomfortable and anxious at times. It made me feel that ever present pressure of time and feel like we should be moving faster. We should be getting into it. Familiar with that feeling, I acknowledged it, and let it go. I knew we had to do this, and that by spending the time in this place, we would set ourselves up for those content outcomes later. This was time well spent. The resulting films were insightful and impressive. Watch them all here.

From these films, we pulled out four themes that kept repeating through all of them: peace, diversity, freedom, and kindness. These would become our signposts as we navigated our next question, "How did we get here?" Each student was assigned one of our four themes, and their next task was to try to uncover how this distinctive Canadian identity emerged from its history. To do this, we watched the first eleven episodes of Canada: A People's History, a series created by the CBC in 2000 that details the history of Canada from time immemorial to present. As they watched, the students made notes through the lens of their theme - which events and people seemed to be examples of their theme, and, especially in earlier historical events, which events seemed like non-examples. We used an interactive notebook approach, and after each episode, students selected the event or person that they felt most strongly demonstrated their theme and created an "output" that let them explore the connections between the event and their theme, to reveal something significant about the theme. This is a rather sophisticated creative and critical thinking exercise, though it seems quite simple. Students had to understand the historical events well enough to be able to select one that's historically significant and significant to their theme. Then they had to develop an approach that let them interpret the event through their theme. I see this as a version of literary analysis, where the students are practicing the ability to understand a text through a theme and explain their own interpretation of this connection.

They required lots and lots of feedback to master this complex skill. I developed a feedback form where I gave them a piece of feedback after each output, done right in their visual journals as they began our class with silent reading. Then, they needed to make a plan for how to action the feedback as they got ready to do their next output. Here are a couple of examples of some outputs.

You know those pesky specific outcomes I was avoiding earlier in the year? They're here. In spades. But because we spent the time understanding our modern Canadian identity first, the specific outcomes were now being learned in context. Suddenly, Clifford Sifton's opening of the immigration policies to include Eastern Europeans seemed very important. Now, we understood why this event helped to contribute to Canada's diversity. We were now able to see the shift from a very British/American immigration policy was crucial. It was all about creating that context.

Finally, we tackled the question "Who do we want to become?" in our final project. Our final project took the whole month of June and positioned our students as change makers. Having just surpassed the 150th birthday of the nation of Canada, we wanted to know what the next 150 years might be like. We wondered what our identity would be like 150 years from now, and set out to design the kind of Canada we hoped for our future.

Our resulting project, called Imagine a Canada, had our students selecting one of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, and using the design thinking process to understand the problem, empathize with people who have this problem, ideate solutions, and create a prototype to test. I think I need to create a separate blog post detailing some of what I learned as my students did this project. Here, though, I'll say that I was blown away by my students' optimism and risk-taking as they talked with experts, tried to deeply understand an intractable social problem, and came up with wildly idealistic yet highly practical ways to address this problem in Canada.

My students shared their prototypes at a celebration of learning, to which their parents and members of the community they interviewed for this project were invited.

This group designed a greenhouse that would be connected with a school in Northern regions of Canada to increase fresh food, teach young people how to grow their own food and cook, and reduce food insecurity in communities.

This group designed a game aimed to help people understand how they are connected to life underwater.

This group wanted to increase the graduation rate for Indigenous students in Canada and wrote a picture book that shared the story of someone who had overcome this challenge.

This group created a community garden for seniors, complete with adaptations for older bodies to require less bending. The food harvested would go to supplement seniors' diets.

This group wanted to increase equality among genders in Canada and designed a game where two people of each gender had to work together to accomplish a goal.

This group wanted to increase empathy for members of the LGBTQ+ community and wanted to test the idea that hearing their stories would increase compassion.

My students' optimism made me, in turn, feel very optimistic. Optimistic that these incredible human beings will be crafting the next iteration of our Canadian identity. Optimistic that they understood and were able to, in fact live what it meant to be a Canadian citizen, understanding where this idea came from. This is why I am a designer of learning. This is why I don't let resources (like textbooks) drive how I teach. This is why I let my students and how they intersect with the topics we are entrusted with lead the way. This is why you should, too.
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