Nov 20

Curriculum Design – Putting the Horse Before the Cart

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we at SLA and SLA@Beeber can keep improving on the way we teach. I am lucky enough to work with people who are incredibly reflective and thoughtful practitioners who are truly working toward being masters of their craft. Part of my job, then, is to help them get there together, which involves trying to set up structures that make it easier to engage in reflective practice together. It perhaps feels even more urgent right now as we have one campus that has been growing together for nine years and a second campus that is still in its infancy, and I’d like to think that the nine years of work we have done at Center City campus could and would accelerate the learning curve at Beeber campus.

So, as I reflect on our work, I am so incredibly awed by the amazingly thoughtful project-based work that I see in our classes, and to a person, every teacher really does powerful work around designing meaningful projects for our kids to engage in. But I still see moments where the day-to-day work could embody the core values and the ideas of student voice and student choice more deeply. But how do we get there?
We’re going to spend some time looking at daily lesson plans.

As a staff – and as the leader of SLA – we and I have focused more on unit design than lesson design. For me, the ideas of backward design, infused with our core values and a common rubric for all projects, has been the focus. And in my own life as a teacher, I’ve been deeply skeptical of those folks who focus on “tricks” for the daily lesson plan because I didn’t see it as being in service of a larger vision. But SLA has that larger vision, and we have full buy-in and amazing work done on that larger vision, so we’re in a really interesting moment to be able to now refocus on lesson planning with a specific end in mind – a deepening of our inquiry-driven, project-based culture of learning.

So in December, we’re going to launch a week of lesson planning work (Thursday to Wednesday, to coincide with our faculty workshops) where we all craft lesson plans for every day, answering prompts designed to get us to unpack the decisions we make every day. A few of us are working on the prompts, but they’ll include things like:

  • How is the work of the day relevant and powerful to the lives our kids lead now?
  • How are our five core values in play today?
  • Are there moments where the grade-wide essential questions can be accessed by the students?
  • How are you enabling the most number of students to take an active role in the class today?
  • Where is there space for all student’s voices today? What mechanisms are in place to enable all students to engage meaningfully with the work?
  • How are you creating meaningful opportunities for student choice today?

The goal will then be to unpack our answers to these questions together on a Wednesday afternoon so that we can look at the techniques we use to further our craft. It’s my hope that we can learn from each other different techniques and strategies that allow us to further deepen the best ideals we hold as a school.

I admit – as an educator, I have favored working on the big concepts and vision and, as such, unit planning and curriculum design always felt like where our energies were best spent. Moreover, too much of what I see out there about teaching strategies felt like tricks to get the kids to learn and often didn’t feel like they were in service of a specific and meaningful pedagogical vision. It felt, in short, like putting the cart before the horse.

But I’m interested to see where we go with this experiment. I think we’ve got our horse squarely in front. We at SLA know what we believe, and we know what we are working toward every day. I’m curious to see what we learn if we, as a faculty, atomize down to the daily lesson plan and, together, unpack our practice and learn together.

I’ll keep you posted.

Jan 03

Find Meaning Every Day

When I was first out of college, I lived in Washington, DC, and part of my daily walk to work took me past the Capitol building every day. When I first started doing that, I was awed by what it meant to walk past that building, but it quickly just became my routine, and most days I barely even noticed it.

It’s inevitable that even the most amazing of environments becomes routine, and when it does, it becomes easy to lose sight of what makes it so special in the first place.

This can be true of the most incredible schools as well. In the end, no matter how empowering, no matter how amazing, no matter how meaningful, there are going to be days when the work feels like, well, work. And the most powerful learning experience can be unappreciated.

That’s o.k. We shouldn’t fear that. If anything we should embrace that.

We live in a world where we expect the spectacular, and more often than not, people are disappointed when the everyday lives we lead fall short of that. Schools can help us celebrate what we have that is special — and help us re-value the every day.

When I lived in DC, it often took someone from outside the daily routine of my life — a friend who was visiting from out-of-town — to make me realize and remember how special my surroundings were. And at SLA — as EduCon quickly approaches — our entire community will be reminded anew of how lucky we are to be together when 500 or so teachers from all over the country descend upon us.

But it shouldn’t take that. We can make the everyday meaningful in some very basic ways in every school. Here are two simple ideas to make sure that the work we do has meaning and the relationships we have stay vital.

First – students and teachers should take time every day to ask of their work, “What does this hold for me? Why am I learning and teaching what I am teaching today and what relevance does this have?” When this becomes habit, we really can train ourselves as teachers and students to make the work meaningful.

Second – and this again is true for teachers and students alike – we can ask ourselves every day, “What did I do of value today?” And while this may seem like a related question — and it is — it is also important to note how it is different, because it forces us to reflect on our own actions and challenge ourselves to be of value.

There are days when those questions are harder than others. But if we can make those questions routine in our schools, we can work together to look inward and outward as a community every day.