Smoothing Out the Kinks

The Path

I’ve sustained an injury that has prevented me from running most of this summer, and in some ways, the story of that injury serves as an adept allegory for larger issues ongoing in my life.

First, for those of you (i.e. ALL of you) who haven’t been following this blog since 2005[1], I’m a runner. Not a marathon running-check-my-heart-rate[2]
kind of runner, just someone who runs. Because it brings joy and fosters well-being. I don’t run far, but I run fast, and I like running alone and somewhere peaceful, like by the water or in the woods.

I had major shin splints in high school while running track and cross-country, and discovered (thanks to a well-informed employee at my local shoe store) that I was over-pronating, so I got a shoe that fixed me right up and has served me well in the 15 or so years since, such that I haven’t ever sustained ANY injuries until now. Pretty amazing for a runner, apparently. That shoe is the Brooks Adrenaline GTS, and I highly recommend it if you are a runner and require more support in a shoe.

Two years ago, I got swept up in the barefoot running craze, as I have documented on this here blog, and shucked my ample GTS cushioning for the unsupportive, callous inducing barefoot lifestyle of running. Not completely barefoot, mind you — I’ve been running in Vibram FiveFingers. It was rough at first–it took me a whole summer to adapt– but once I broke in my feet and adjusted my form, I fell in love. Not only does barefoot running appeal to my philosophical biases for self-sufficiency and natural principles, but it also just feels really good, as it seems to better stretch and work out your feet and legs during a run.

The injury that has reared its evil head is a muscle strain in my right leg, which tells me that something has been wrong for some time in the way my right foot has been striking the ground. The symptoms are inflammation right under my kneecap and–especially–on point of my hip. When this started up, I first tried to run through it, but it only got worse. So then I gave in to the inevitable and stopped running to see if some R&R would make it go away.

It didn’t. I tried running after a break of 2 weeks and it flared right back up, as if it had never subsided. The frustrating part about this is that the summer is the one time during the year that I can finally run consistently almost every day and get myself back into shape. What happens when I don’t run? Beers go straight to my belly. It’s disconcerting how quickly my gut begins to protrude. Now, yes, I COULD go to a gym, but that goes against my aforementioned philosophical bias for self-sufficiency. Plus, I just think they are nasty and don’t want to be around a bunch of stinky strangers when I work out.

So my belly has been slowly distending as I’ve been waiting, fruitlessly, for my injury to subside. I finally realized that I had to do something about it. But I’m wary of doctors, and I’m skeptical of the ability of a doctor to tell me much that I don’t already know. I decided that I would find a good deep tissue massage therapist, instead. I like getting deep tissue massages, and I get them for myself as a treat once a year or once every 2 years, depending on my budget. I see it as a necessary “defragmenting” of my body, a way to purge built up tensions and knots that accumulate over time. But I’ve never gone specifically to a masseuse for the purpose of physical therapy for an injury, so I wanted to make sure I got one who was decent.

I found one via a quick Google Maps search for “deep tissue massage,” and after checking out her website and seeing that Trey Anastasio had given her a positive review, I figured she must be aight. She was. She pinpointed some major knots in my back I wasn’t even cognizant were there, as well as introduced me to the incredible pain that is the IT band massage.

She informed me that as an active person, I should really be getting a massage more frequently. When I delicately let her know that I can’t afford such luxuries, she charitably gave me an insider tip about using a “foam roller” to give self-massages[3].

I don’t know about you, but I’d never heard of these things (probably cuz I’ve never gone to the gym). Given my proclivity for self-sufficiency, it certainly seemed right up my alley, so I went ahead and ordered me one. They’re cheap.

I’ve started using it, and let me tell you, rolling around on your IT band is no joke. It’s incredibly painful[4]. It brings tears to my eyes. But it’s made it fairly apparent to me that my right IT band must be getting strained and perhaps at the heart of my injury, because there is major pain all along it. I’m thinking that if I continue to iron it out, it should do much to alleviate the strain keeping me from running.

So I ordered me a new pair of Brooks Adrenaline GTS 12. I’m not giving up on barefoot running completely, nor do I blame it for the injury, though I think it played its part (I’ll get more into that in a moment). I plan on easing back into running with daily foam rolling as physical therapy, and the increased cushioning of my running shoes to help to ease the strain. Once I’ve gotten back into rhythm, I want to go back to my Vibrams, though I might never go back to full-time barefooting. I’ll see how it plays out. All I care about, at the end of the day, is that I’m running.

What are the causes of the injury? Is barefoot running to blame?

There’s a number of factors that could have played into it. They are as follows:

  • During the school year, I run more and more inconsistently as the year progresses, due both the shortened days and coldness of winter, and because of an increasing exhaustion. Teaching special education in the South Bronx, in case you didn’t know, is demanding work
  • When I did go out for a run, I was most likely going out harder than I should have, given the time that might have elapsed since the last run
  • I wore old dress shoes with heels to work intermittently, and I had a bit of a walk from the train station. I generally tried to wear a barefoot style shoe that I have, but they look kinda funny, so when I wanted to look good for whatever reason, or if there was ice on the ground, I wore my dress shoes
  • I am getting older. I know 33 isn’t that old, but I ain’t no spring chicken anymore, neither. I may not be able to get away with the same level of body stress I once could
  • A few months ago, I sliced open my big toe on my right foot, had to get 7 stitches, and apparently severed some kind of nerve, because I can no longer bend the toe completely, which may have subtly altered my running form
  • I think either my legs are different lengths, or my hips are askew[5]

Any or all of these factors, combined with the reduced support of barefooting, could have easily resulted in the strain that I have incurred.

Well, OK, so now that I’ve thoroughly bored you with the details of my diagnosis, how does any of this serve as an allegory for other life issues, as I suggested at the outset of this post?

Basically, it has to do with the principles of myofascial release that I’ve learned from my massage therapist and from foam rolling. When you hit a point of stress, you press on it until it relaxes, then you iron it out through the length of the muscle, kind of like rolling out dough. It’s akin to exorcism. By calling out the point of stress that had been hitherto unnamed and stepped daintily around, you then force it to abandon its temporary abode. The longer that you’ve ignored this encroaching negative spirit, the more painful it is to dispel.

How apropo this concept is to our emotional lives, is it not? In terms of my own life, I’ve been under a lot of stress. This year in my job was easier in some ways, but harder in others. This is something I’m still trying to work through and write about. And I’ve been letting many of my feelings remain unvoiced. And over time, those feelings began to get knotted, and embedded, and tangled, and then began to seep into and infect other areas of my life, such that eventually all I knew was that I felt tired, unsuccessful, unsensual, unmotivated, and uncentered.

This dim feeling and lethargy has pervaded even my summer, and in this way, my injury serves as its allegory. As if the strain in my leg embodied the strain in my heart. I had gotten to a point where I felt as if I could no longer write, no longer run; in short, I had lost my mojo. This wasn’t any form of overt depression, by the way. It was more like something that lurked behind every day, but was easily subsumed behind the hustle and bustle of my busy mind and life. In this way, it gathered. It gathered, and I ignored it. This is how storms gather in our bodies and in our hearts.

And so the allegory of this injury is the allegory of an emotional life. We must go to our points of pain, and we must lay them bare, push them down until they run. And that alone is not enough. We must then pursue them, all the way down along the path from which they’ve mounted, until we have pushed them out, evicted them, banished them. But we must be ever vigilant, for each new day brings new barbs of tension, and the longer we ignore them and wish them away and pretend, the deeper they embed themselves. Until we find ourselves, one day, in that place of hopeless despair, and must reach for help from another, and others reach down their hands to us and help us back to our feet, and then inform us, gently, that the path to healing is our own, and we must go back to that place of darkness alone, but here is a gift of knowledge to support you on your journey.

Here, this is my gift. Thank you for following me thus far.

1 Before blogging, I sent out emails of my writing. I have most of those logged here as well, dating back to 1998

2 I did purchase a heart rate monitor recently, but I’ll post more on that later

3 Just as a side note, now that I’ve found her, I will certainly go back to her when I am able to afford it. I highly recommend her if you’re in NYC.

4 Painful doesn’t quite do this feeling justice. It’s not quite pain, so much as being extremely uncomfortable and wanting it to stop. It reminds me of the feeling of sitting in an ice bath up to your hips. Our gym at my high school had a giant ice bath, and after a few minutes, right before you go numb, the same feeling of burning discomfit hits you. You have to force yourself to stay in until it goes away.

5 Interestingly, I haven’t really thought about it until now, but when I was younger, I ran to jump over a tennis court net, and my foot got caught in it, so I landed right on my hip. I was too embarrassed to tell my parents about it, and though it hurt for a while afterwards, eventually it went away. That’s the exact hip that is hurting now. Possible I may have fucked it up that long ago and it just showed up now after moving to unsupportive shoes.

Content is at the Heart of Teaching

Finding the main idea is a frequently taught strategy in classrooms across this nation, as are other skills such as inferencing, summarizing, and so on. It’s sad that so often these strategies are taught in general isolation from any kind of deep and enriching content. What’s the point in finding the main idea unless the main idea is worth contemplating?

Now, I work with students who are learning English as their second language and with students with exceptional learning needs. It’s fairly well established that students facing these challenges with language and learning benefit from explicit strategies. I am therefore not opposed to teaching strategy use by any means.

But as a newer teacher, I’ve struggled with getting my students to progress. I’ve taught these strategies and re-taught them, in a classroom devoid of rich and engaging books at their reading levels. So I’ve printed out and made copies of anything I can find at their level. Guess what type of content this stuff is? Short passages on isolated concepts, such as is found on state assessments. The students I had in my last two years of teaching, furthermore, were reading at a pre-kindergarten to 2nd grade level. They were doubly frustrated not only by their difficulty with fluency, but also by lame material.

Without rich, deep content, strategies are irrelevant. Pedagogy, even, is largely irrelevant. This is why I’m excited by the Common Core Standards which have been adopted by almost every state. Finally, the focus in literacy is back on content, in the form of non-fiction and complex texts.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve begun reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with my students. This stuff is deep. His language is powerful, the history comes alive, and best of all, the kids are into it. They are engaged by it, and not turned off by the profusion of antiquated and confusing words. This has made me thirsty to engage them in more of this sort of deep content, the primary documents that ground our history and our knowledge.

The Common Core is on the right path. We need to steep our children in rich, foundational texts and let them struggle and become immersed in the language even as we guide them through it to the deep meaning embedded therein. We’ve been relying too much on watered down drivel processed by publishing companies. What’s the point in knowing that Frederick Douglass was a great writer and orator without reading his own words? What’s the point in discussing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy if we don’t read or listen to his own words? Too much of our historical understanding is based on second-hand descriptions and accounts.

This might seem like a “no duh” sort of thing when I put it to you like this, but let me set the scene of what it’s like in schools for you. We are taught that we must focus on kids’ deficiencies, by analyzing their results on exams. Oh, we say, these children can’t make inferences. Let’s teach them how to infer. Let’s put up charts on inferences. And so on. And we are furthermore taught that children must only read at their assessed reading levels, and that we must “differentiate” all our material so they can access it. So Barney gets a 2nd grade level text, while Lakshmi gets the higher level passage. And this is what we get beat over the head with, in all our professional development sessions and in all the consultants that come into our school to tell us how to teach.

What gets lost in all of that superficial and money intensive blather, of course, is that none of that means anything without rich content. So we’re teaching inferencing with test prep books, and we’re differentiating texts with worksheets. And that’s all fine with the textbook publishing industry, and that’s all fine with the educational consultants. But it’s not fine for the kids.

So I’m refocusing myself back on the idea of core knowledge, which E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has been calling for for decades and most people have been ignoring. The Common Core is here, and with folks like David Coleman speaking bluntly and passionately about the necessity for engaging children directly in rich and deep texts, teachers are finally getting the chance to throw off the shackles of bullshit and focus on what matters. I’m going to write another post soon about Coleman’s message, and also about some other great tidbits of wisdom I was excited to glean from a recent conference on What Works in Urban Education. To be continued . . .

Growing Awareness of History

Public school door knob

I recently did a research writing unit with my students, in which they explored the history of their school building and neighborhood through an interview with our school janitor, on-line web searching, and a trip to the public library across the street. Our janitor, who has been in the building for over 20 years, told us that our school was 126 years old (I don’t know how accurate that figure is, but I have no reason to doubt him). We learned that our building used to be connected with the firehouse next door. The firehouse part of the building was a church, while the school part used to be a psychiatric hospital for children. Also, we learned that our cafeteria used to house a pool!

We weren’t able to find much on-line. I hadn’t realized how complex and difficult finding out the history of any given building in NYC was. So I then expanded the scope of our research to our neighborhood.

The library across the street has also been around for a hundred years, one of the original Carnegie libraries. The librarian showed us historical pictures of East Tremont, and we discussed pictures of the old police precinct headquarters, which looked like a mansion, and pictures of Italian immigrants dressed in hats and formal attire, all lined up to get into the library. Pictures of farmland and fences. A Texaco gas station with gas for 11 cents a gallon. At first, the students said they didn’t see much of anything in the pictures. Then as we began discussing it, the history opened up before them in all of the little details, the old cars along the side of the road, the cobblestones in the streets, the pigtails the girls wore, the way their dresses were cut.

Richman (Echo) Park

It opened up history for me as well.

I’ve begun paying more attention to the sights around me as I walk from the subway station at Grand Concourse down the hill. The glaciated rocks at Richman Park. The Tremont Baptist Church perched on the winding hill above the chaotic traffic circle of Webster Ave and East Tremont. The stone masonry at the base of some buildings that seems to denote historical longevity. It has made me begin to appreciate the Bronx in a new context. I don’t just see urban decay anymore (though my growing awareness of the impact of the Cross Bronx Expressway has set a context for that as well). I see a community of newer immigrants, striving to make their way, just as generations of immigrants before them have done. I’ve begun to become aware of a rich, underlying framework of history all around me, requiring only attention to become aware of. This growing awareness of the cultural beauty of this community somewhat assuages some of the gap left in my heart after living for years in the natural beauty of Lake Tahoe,

Tremont Baptist Church

California. When I used to bike the 9 miles in and out of work in my last year there, I remember always reminding myself to try to absorb the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains, ringed in pine. I knew that someday I might not live in such pristine beauty and wanted to try to savor it while it was there, and hold it in my mind, however fleetingly. That has turned out to be prescient, and those images come back to me still.

Similarly, I know I may not always live or work in a place with such a rich and dynamic history, and it is my task now to savor it, to take it in and build my awareness of it.

Simultaneous to this growing awareness of history all around me, I have begun reading The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass to my students. I had downloaded the book from Project Gutenberg, waiting the 2 months it took to receive print-outs from my school, and downloaded free questions and vocabulary for each chapter from The Core Knowledge Foundation. The language of the book may be well above the reading level of my fifth graders, but they comprehend the content deeply, in a way atypical to much of the content that I teach them. The oratory grasp of the power of words emanates from Douglass. There are two paragraphs in Chapter 2 in which his articulate voice rings through the ages, impassioned, as he reflects on the songs that slaves traveling through the woods would sing. These songs of the slave, Douglass wrote, “represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” And suddenly, his outrage at the inhumanity of slavery lashes out from the page, lashes out from history. It’s a powerful moment.

There is never enough time to teach much of anything deeply in school. It’s hard to be consistent when schools are disorganized, schedules change on a moment’s notice, and there are constant interruptions from phones, loudspeakers, and children’s emotional outbursts. But reading this book is one thing I want to follow through on, because at some point, our children require us adults to make a decision on what is most important, and home in on that thing and stay true to it.

I have begun to feel the weight of history, and appreciate the power of a narrative in conveying the sense and awareness of that history. Our children, just like most of us adults, suffer from a disconnectedness from the wider context they live within. Though I may not be an inhabitant of their community, I can certainly make it my goal to become more aware of that community’s history and to help grow that awareness in my students.

Like much of the things I teach, I find that I learn the best material alongside of my students, discovering new ways of looking at the world and growing my own awareness.

Curriculum

An Introduction and Discursive Rambling On Why I’m Writing This

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long while, ever since the EWA conference where I met some great fellow educators and education reporters. At dinner after the conference, I was speaking with David Ginsburg, Samuel Reed, and Michael Hicks about the concept of equity and a level playing field in schools and how this critical need so often gets shoveled under the rug in current public discussions of education, and I brought up one of the concepts I’d come up with after my first year of teaching, which is the idea of what I called an “invisible curriculum.” Michael Hicks informed me that this concept has been around for a while and was entitled the “hidden curriculum.”

This was a critical concept to me, so at the behest of Mr. Hicks, I did some “research” (Google questing) and found that the Wikipedia article (BTW, why do people always debunk Wikipedia as a viable source of information? There’s some really well written articles on that sucker!) provides some fairly good background on the subject, tracing the concept of “presumptive teaching” back to Dewey, up through Philip Jackson, Benson Snyder, Paulo Friere, and more recently to John Taylor Gatto. Now that I had a trail, I was determined to do some deeper investigation.

Not to make excuses, but I don’t have allocated time for research, and I’ve thus far been stymied by the craziness of a public school right before state testing, writing graduate school papers, creating IEPs, wedding planning, and other assorted tasks that keep pushing this research aside. I’m currently reading Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (good stuff—he doesn’t even hesitate to discuss love in pedagogy!), but that’s about as far as any of my own research has progressed.

Rather than wait an indeterminate amount of time to gain deeper theoretical background knowledge on the subject, I am electing to post what my thoughts are so far on the subject, and I will elaborate on it further as I learn more.

Curriculum and Equity

There’s a few strands which I will be pulling together around the concept of a curriculum. The first strand I will examine is the concept of a hidden curriculum. The second strand is the concept of a unified core curriculum. The third strand, which I have explored somewhat already, is the concept of open source curriculum development.

These strands are unified under the idea that if we are truly committed to the concept of equity in public education— or the concept of education as a civil rights issue—then we had better take curriculum seriously. What we choose to leave out of our curriculum are often the most critical pieces of knowledge that our students require to succeed in an extremely polarized and socially and economically sick nation.

Hidden Curriculum

There are a couple of ways of interpreting the notion of a hidden curriculum. One is from the perspective of class or cultural oppression, as in the biases of a dominant culture are propagated through unwritten but clearly expressed social rules, thus perpetuating inequity. Another is from the perspective of socialization, in which there is an assumption of implicit understanding, as in the “unwritten social rules and behavior that we all seem to know, but were never taught.” In the first interpretation, the deficit lies in the oppressor, who enforces their dominant perspectives either blindly or coercively. In the second, the deficit lies in the student, who fails to recognize implicit social or behavioral rules.

I think there is a middle ground to be found between these two interpretations of hidden curriculum, in that in either case, it is the responsibility and duty of the educator to render explicit what is assumed implicitly. Teaching is all about making tangible what is abstract, dredging up the invisible conceptual and procedural foundations that underly knowledge. If we are going to instill values from a selective standpoint, then we should give voice to those values and make them readily apparent, thus allowing parents and families a choice as to whether they feel that is the right kind of school for their child. If we are going to be addressing social skill or behavioral deficits with our students, then we should be clear about what social norms are and how healthy relationships are fostered and sustained.

We fail our children when we don’t acknowledge the hidden values and rules of our society’s social behaviors. We also fail our children when we pretend that there isn’t much more to succeeding in our society than academic success and intelligence, and ignore the critical need for the development of character. In a recent article in American Educator, The Economics of Inequality: The Value of Early Childhood Education, James Heckman makes the case for the dire need for recognition of character development in education.

While important, cognitive abilities alone are not as powerful as a package of cognitive skills and social skills . . . Cognition and personality drive education and life success, with character (personality) development being an important and neglected factor.

I believe that children and families in disadvantaged communities desperately want to understand these rules. They want to become empowered through knowledge. We oppress them when we pretend they already understand or that they should implicitly understand class rules and values. And all of the terrible behavior that you will witness in inner city schools–the fighting, the cursing, the bullying—are calls for understanding. Students need to be taught what these unwritten class expectations and rules are. They already understand the rules of poverty, of the street. They already know how to speak that language. Some educators throw up their hands and say, “But they don’t want to learn! They aren’t motivated! They don’t value education!” That’s not true. It’s just that we aren’t being clear enough about what that learning will do for them. We assume that they understand the implicit value in formal education. We assume that they know how to sit in a chair and behave appropriately in a formal setting and respect formal authority figures. We need to stop making these assumptions. We need to assume, rather, that when a child enters our schools they need to be taught everything about how to succeed in a democratic and capitalistic society. And I mean that just as much for the child in the wealthy suburban enclave as the child in the ghetto. The child who sits in a wealthy classroom is just as much in need of understanding implicit societal rules and values, such that they don’t take their luxury and status for granted, and live a sheltered life unexamined. Inequality is perpetuated most fundamentally by ignorance, not by willful avarice.

Business leaders are telling leaders in education that they are looking for employees with social skills and interpersonal capabilities. Research tells us that self-control is far more important in predicting future success than IQ. Educators keep telling the world that they have kids that don’t know how to sit still for more than one minute, don’t know how to organize their supplies, and don’t know how to interact with each other in a positive way. Is anybody listening? Schools need to do much more than teach academic content. They need to teach—as many educators have been saying over and over again—the whole child.

Core Curriculum

Not only does our society fail to acknowledge the hidden curriculum, but we furthermore fail to acknowledge the foundations of any curriculum. We have politicized content, such that it has become an issue of nationalizing required content, as opposed to rationalizing the foundations of learning. Anyone who has been a teacher—most especially anyone who has been a teacher of children with exceptional learning needs—knows that all academic concepts have underlying foundations that must be clearly and explicitly taught for students to master the content. Let’s take one mathematical skill as an example: rounding. Rounding is easy, right? All you have to do is round a number up, or round a number down, and bingo! Right?

Wrong. If you think that’s true, then you’ve never tried teaching it. My students struggle with mathematical concepts, especially with procedures that require multiple steps, and most especially with concepts that require any level of abstraction. Let’s break rounding down into the steps required to perform it: 1) You have to decide what place value you are rounding to; 2) starting at that place value, you then must look at the number to the right; 3) you must ask yourself “do I round that number up or down?; 4) you must remember the rounding rule, perhaps taught to you via a rhyme such as “5 or more, let it soar; 4 or less, let it rest”; and 5) finally, you must move back to the original place value you are attempting to round to, then alter it accordingly (add one, or let it remain the same, and change the remaining place values to the right of it to zero).

Those are the steps, which we could easily add more to, as it could be argued that I condensed some mental steps into one. Now think about the foundational concepts needed to perform this operation. First, you must understand your place value and be able to locate the given place value of any number. If you don’t, you can forget about rounding, because you are lacking in the necessary understanding to simply begin the operation independently. Next, you must understand the rather abstract concept that when you round that place value, all the remaining place values after that are changed to zero. Also, they must understand and be clear about the idea that when you rounding “down,” you are not subtracting one from that number, you are simply “letting it rest.”

Try explaining that to a child who struggles with basic numeracy. Suddenly, what was such an easy concept, implicitly, has become an extremely complicated concept when you attempt to render it explicit.

But the point is here that there are concrete steps that can be developed, and we can pinpoint and target exactly where a student is struggling based on the evidence or discussion of their work. Different teachers will have different ways of addressing that struggling student’s needs, but the foundations are there.

Why would we pretend that the foundations underlying concepts don’t exist? Why would we leave it up to the independent exploratory process of a student, a teacher, a school district, or a state to determine these foundations? Why wouldn’t we pool together all of our evidence, from teachers, researchers, and content experts, to create a sequenced map of the foundations to learning?

I recently (randomly) learned about the concept of “learning progressions,” which I found in an article from a publication from the Teacher’s College educational policy program. This concept has been around for several years, and apparently had some influence on the development of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. I’m surprised, frankly, that the concept isn’t wider known and more fully explored.

Another concept aligned with these ideas which has been around literally for decades is E.D. Hirsch‘s notion of cultural literacy. I remember buying Hirsch’s The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy when I was a kid! I was fascinated by the idea of having a tome that would teach me the secrets to my society. It turned out to be kind of boring, but I thought some of the quotes in it were interesting. I still have the book, and now as a newer teacher, I have discovered that Hirsch’s concepts were developed into a Core Knowledge Sequence, which is available for download.

I can understand the criticism of Hirsch’s concept as an attempt to simply indoctrinate all students with the dominant culture, and the concern that having a unified curriculum would be an impediment to true learning. I share the criticism of the Core Knowledge Sequence from the perspective of it being fixed, in the same way that I would criticize any set of fixed standards by grade level. I teach students with disabilities, and I am angered by how they are made to feel stupid because they are 2-4 years behind grade specific benchmarks. Benchmarks should be based on individual student capability, not by this antiquated concept of grade level (/end diatribe).

When I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence to the teachers at my school at a faculty staff meeting as a tool to guide their curriculum mapping, I expected to hear some of the critiques I just offered above. But on the contrary, teachers were overwhelmingly thrilled by the sequence and gratified to have a copy of it to refer to. Aides and preparatory teachers were snapping the copies up like candy, such that we ran out of copies for core content area teachers! Teachers, just like students, are desperate for guidance.

At some point, we have to come to an agreement about what knowledge is important to the content that we elect to teach. And at some point, we have to come to an agreement about the benchmarks that students must reach to acquire knowledge at the level that will best enable them success in an academic or career setting, whether we elect to do so by grade level or other tracking method. In terms of indoctrinating students with the dominant culture, I will refer you back to the concept of the “hidden curriculum.” It’s not about protecting students from the dominant culture. It’s about handing the keys to that kingdom over to them. And that requires not only academic content knowledge, as I argued earlier, but knowledge of social skills and the self-knowledge that comes from self-control.

And I think that simply because content is “fixed” to some degree does not necessitate that it is dead. No teacher comes into a classroom (at least, not in a self-contained classroom; I would welcome someone who thinks they can fly by the seat of their pants coming into my classroom every day and trying to perform free jazz pedagogy; in a classroom, you have to be able to perform jazz on top of a classical foundation) and begins to conjure the content they are to teach out of thin air. What a good teacher does is to conjure critical thinking and dialogue around the essential content of a subject. The content may be given, but not how we approach it and develop it as a class, with students and teacher exploring the concepts together to recreate them anew. Curriculum must be able to adapt to these explorations and to the creation of new knowledge, but that does not mean that we should not come to a consensus as to what content should be taught. In other words, a unified curriculum does not necessarily mean a dead one, and I think we have move beyond such polarizing notions; I will explore this idea more in the next section on open source curriculum development.

Currently, there is a movement, spearheaded by the Shanker Institute, to reintroduce the idea of a core curriculum of content, which has been cosigned by many different leaders in the education field. Of course, this is making people who are politically right leaning shiver in their boots, because the idea of anything being nationalized gives them nightmares of socialism. But this is a perfect example of how the political grandstanding and petty oversimplication of adults operates to the detriment to children. Knowledge cannot be nationalized—but the underlying concepts necessary to achieve mastery can be outlined and unified.

The process of establishing any sort of national consensus on matters of education, such as through the current establishment of the Common Core Standards, is ridiculously contentious (read Diane Ravitch’s The Life and Death of the Great American School System for more history on the political machinations behind the standards movement) . But that should not stop us from having those conversations. Adopting a voluntary, common set of national standards was a great first step. But in comparison to the actual content, standards are relatively clean of contentious items and specifically applicable items for classroom use. The only item where standards provide direction on the actual content to be learned is in the math standards, as they are fairly clear about what content will be focused upon within each grade. In ELA, social studies, and science, however, the standards are intentionally vague, as these are the areas that can swiftly become politically contentious.

We need to stop being cowards and hold the essential public discussion over core content. Our children are sitting in classrooms that are all too often simply boot camp preps for a lifetime of imprisonment, with none of the essential knowledge that will enable them to succeed in this society. Our teachers are spending hours alone planning their lessons, attempting to dissect concepts in order to teach them effectively to their students. Why are we throwing our children and our teachers’ knowledge and ability to the wolves?

Open Source Curriculum

Reflect for a minute on the last image I just concluded the prior section with: a teacher sitting alone at their desk, planning lessons for their students. It’s after a long day of teaching. That teacher may or may not be a content expert in the lesson that they are crafting, given that most teachers are treated like widgets (as described well in the policy paper, “The Widget Effect”) and are thrown into different grades and different subject areas every year. Why is that teacher alone? Why does that teacher not have the guidance of other experts in that content area to guide their task analysis? Why is that teacher not sitting with other teachers during a scheduled, paid time of their day?

That image is of a dedicated teacher, a teacher who knows that they must reflect and ponder the underlying foundations of content in order to teach effectively. Other teachers are downloading lesson plans of questionable value from the internet, or simply turning to the next lesson in the curriculum that is provided by their district, which was purchased from a contractor who makes a lot of money supplying flashy, colorful textbooks to schools. Meanwhile, people are arguing against providing these teachers with any sort of direction or guidance on content whatsoever. Are you kidding me? When I began teaching, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content I was supposed to be teaching my students (http://gothamschools.org/2011/04/01/persistence-through-failure/). I would have loved a sequenced guide to the underlying foundations of the concepts I was expected to teach and that my students were expected to learn.

Now wouldn’t it be better if that teacher was sitting at a table with colleagues, discussing the content of the lesson, performing task analysis through the process of dialogue with other knowledgeable experts of pedagogy and content? In some schools, this sort of collaborative lesson planning does occur. In all too many, however, it doesn’t. In either case, imagine extending that table to include teachers from all sorts of different settings, with all sorts of different students. They can discuss how they alter the delivery of the content to challenge their gifted students, how they alter the delivery of the content to reach their students with exceptional learning needs, how they alter the delivery of the content to reach their students learning English.

This is what we can do with technology. Why wait for one of the big curriculum companies to develop our curriculum for us? In fact, this is the very problem: how we’ve been developing anything in public education, whether policy or content: everything is developed from the top down, then handed to the teacher. But we need to stop this never-ending cycle of dissociation. A unified core curriculum incorporating social skills and character development should not be developed by some group of distant “experts” and think tanks.

I’ve been thinking about this concept ever since I learned more about open source software development. One of my friends is involved in the open source software industry (yes, people other than Microsoft are making money by developing open source software! Who woulda thunk?), and in conversations with him, I began to think about how the process could be applied to education. He recommended a book for me to read to learn more about the history of open source and how it works, and the more I learned, the more I grew excited about the potential for transferring the fundamental concept of open sourcing into curriculum development.

The revolutionary transformation of open source in software development in the computing industry was that it turned the concept of intellectual property on its head. Intellectual property, under the GNU license, shifted from the right of exclusion to the right of distribution. This allowed software code to be developed outside of a proprietary license and outside of hierarchical business models not always conducive to creativity and collaboration.

This is what the development of curriculum requires. Curriculum development is creative and challenging work, and teachers shouldn’t be doing it by themselves. We should be doing it together, via collaborative networks, not via conventional, hierarchical pathways remote from our classroom work.

I’ve started the process in my school by first creating a file structure within our school Google Docs to store and share our curriculum mapping. Then, I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence, as described earlier, as a resource to be used in the mapping process. Next, I created a unit plan template, based on a format provided by ASCD, within Google Docs to guide and standardize the development of unit plans across grade levels. Finally, I will create a spreadsheet to synthesize all the unit plans as they develop school-wide, so that different grade levels can examine each other’s work.

My next plan is to open this process to teachers on a national level. I’ve created a wiki for this purpose, but swiftly realized that I had to create an underlying structure to guide the process. So this summer I will be working on building an underlying structure based on those effective in software development.

It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be challenging. But I firmly believe that teachers can create a viable and unified curriculum that will be far superior to anything that will be published by giant textbook corporations. And the best thing about doing it via the open source method will be that it can be a living, breathing curriculum that will adapt to new input and feedback by teachers.

A Summation and Wrap Up of the 3 Strands of Curriculum

In creating a curriculum that can target inequity and enable disadvantaged students to gain access to the middle and upper class tiers of our society, we must address these factors:

  • Curriculum must explicitly address the non-academic skills proven necessary by research for life and career success, such as social skills, self-control, perseverance, and character
  • Curriculum must be unified to clearly delineate the underlying foundations of content
  • Curriculum must be an adaptable, living creation developed collaboratively by actual teachers and content experts via networks operated under a GPL style license

If you believe in any of these precepts, then I encourage you to follow some of these steps:

  1. Go to www.ashankerinst.org/curriculum.html and sign to support the concept of a core curriculum
  2. Notify your local representative about the necessity for a core curriculum that incorporates the concept of character development or write a letter to your newspaper
  3. Go to my website and keep up to date about my progress in developing an open source project for curriculum development, or start your own and let me know!

Open Source as it Applies to Education: Part II

Two distinct but equally real organizational forms exist in parallel to each other. The dynamic relationship between hierarchies and networks over time determines both the nature of the transition and the endpoint. One form may defeat the other through competition. Both may coexist by settling into nearly separate niches where they are particularly advantaged. Most interesting will be the new forms of organization that emerge to manage the interface between them, and the process by which those boundary spanners influence the internal structure and function of the networks and the hierarchies that they link together.

The Success of Open Source, by Steven Weber

One of the most intriguing chapters in Weber’s book on open source is the final chapter, in which he examines the potential of generalizing the open source model to other paradigms. I found his delineation between open sourcing as “networking” and traditional, propriety methods as “hierarchies” particularly useful, especially in my considerations of applying open source to collaborative curriculum design. This interfacing by innovative “boundary spanners” between hierarchies and networks is precisely what is at issue in the field of education and so desperately needed. Schools are operated primarily in an antiquated hierarchical model in nearly all structural forms. Nearly all decisions, from curriculum to school programs to scheduling are passed top down. Some decisions must be made in such a manner, and this is why hierarchies exist, but the decisions that are similar in all schools yet exist under different conditions necessitate distributed, localized, network based decisions. Curriculum should be developed by the teachers that implement it. The knowledge and learning that is obtained from students (because learning is not a two way street–the students are teaching adults what they need) must be incorporated into whatever decisions are made that will impact a classroom or school directly. That means connecting classrooms and teachers directly to policymakers. The leveling platform of technology can enable this to happen (I’m going to discuss this more in another post soon).

I don’t know if I subscribe to such a dire black and white portrayal of networks vs. hierarchies that Weber presents above, however. I think they can and will successfully coexist in the same manner that the structure of a leaf or a body is hierarchical in coexistence with networks, such as veins. I’m not sure if that’s the best analogy to make here, but I think it conveys what I mean. Perhaps more akin to the idea of holons portrayed by Ken Wilber in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality?

The notion of open-sourcing as a strategic organizational decision can be seen as an efficiency choice around distributed innovation . . . The simple logic of open-sourcing would be a choice to pursue ad hoc distributed development of solutions for a problem that (1) exists within an organization, (2) is likely to exist elsewhere as well, and (3) is not the key source of competitive advantage or differentiation for the organization.

The reason this open source model applies to education is because education and knowledge should be considered a public good, a product of the commons. This is why it doesn’t make sense to develop curriculum within closed, proprietary means. Effective methods of teaching and learning content should not be copyrighted. As Weber effectively details in his book, the power in open source is that it turns the notion of property on its head, from that of exclusion to that of distribution. Knowledge and learning should be disseminated and shared as widely as possible, because everyone benefits from it.

Note that I am not suggesting that companies or individuals should not be able to profit from offering services to schools. They will continue to do so even when effective curriculum begins to be developed via open sourcing; it will simply be that the nature of their services will change, just as the music industry is (still) learning to shift the nature of its services to accommodate the digital information age.

The open source process is more likely to work effectively in tasks that have these characteristics:

  • Disaggregated contributions can be derived from knowledge that is accessible under clear, nondiscriminatory conditions, not proprietary or locked up.
  • The product is perceived as important and valuable to a critical mass of users.
  • The product benefits from widespread peer attention and review, and can improve through creative challenge and error correction . . .
  • There are strong positive network effects to use of the product.
  • An individual or a small group can take the lead and generate a substantive core that promises to evolve into something truly useful.
  • A voluntary community of iterated interaction can develop around the process of building the product.

All of these conditions exist for curriculum design in public education, in addition to other aspects of teacher collaboration, such as research (as I suggested in my last post on this subject) and policy.

Journey

There are times when I need space to reflect, a mountain to climb. A venture into the wilderness, where I can become, momentarily, a lone animal following his instinct, reliant solely on his own wiles. Once I am there, at the peak of solitary vision, all I can think about is going home. And so when I return to my safe harbor from the world, it is new, it is warm, it is imbued with the light of re-discovered love.

Dirty Hands, Clean Mind

You’ve formulated these full, glossy lit pictures of perfection in your mind. You’ve established how you believe the world should be. You’ve determined how you want those you love to be. And now you find yourself putting up walls between yourself and reality, constantly on retreat, the ebbing colors of your idealism flowing into the eroding moat outside your acceptance. You hold on tight to your imagined versions of who you love, as they slip away invisibly from between your bestowed masks and costumes like a greased pig. You clutch at ghosts, you cherish empty husks, you bed with demons. You dig yourself in deeper, unaware of how alone you have become, how lonely, how lost, how stranded.

Those who love you become your enemies. They talk about you behind your back, unable to confront you with a reality that you can’t accept. There is no possibility of change, no potential for a different outcome, until you’ve come to the end of your own rope. Until you are ready to reach out from behind the walls of your idealism and step back into the world that exists beyond your limited desires. Until you drop your selfish ego and accept your diminutive status within the world. Until you drop the burden that you have created and free yourself to become involved.

To become involved in the nurturing and growing of living things, you must get dirty. You have to struggle, get down onto the ground on your hands and knees, work at the earth, sweat into your clothes. There is no easy way to create beauty that will survive apart from you.

There is nothing wrong with being a perfectionist, with being an idealist, with wanting the world to change, with being angry and bitter with the way things are. But if this idealism is preventing you from becoming effectively involved in your own life, then it is just as dangerous as greed, just as dark as blood shed by warfare. In order to act, a thousand other potentialities must be destroyed. The question is: is this action the right action? Is this involvement the right involvement? These are the things that frighten you. These are the things that hold you back. While your plants are withering. While reality grows ever more desperate, more detached, more inclined towards despair. The real question is not right or wrong; the real questions are: how selflessly can you act? How fully involved can you be?

If you can give yourself completely, then there are no questions.

Dirty your hands in the challenge of your world. It is best, of course, to think and choose the best course of action. But how many times have the options only become apparent after you have already committed yourself? In the streamline of successive moments, the right way will become manifest. You must believe this. You must have faith in what is beyond yourself of which you are but a part. You can’t out-think the physical manifestations of the universe. You can’t formulate a perfect philosophy to encompass each and every moment. You can only open yourself to learning, like a child. In response to reality, you will know what is the right way to act.

Open yourself to the suffering transparency of the light. Break down your walls to the invading hordes of the world.

It is only your mind that misleads you.