Summary:An elementary school teacher and bilingual coordinator pushes back against the mandated content/performance descriptors provided by her district to assert that the "core" of her curriculum is her students' learning. "I teach with an ear close to the core of each child, to the core of the monarch unit, the silkworm unit, the family songs unit...." Her important reflection on the humanity of the students at the heart of classrooms and curricula will be of interest to teachers and study groups wrestling with the influence of mandated curricula on their teaching.
“We teach to the core.” A banner bearing these words greeted me as I walked into our school’s professional development workshop at the beginning of the 2003–2004 school year.
“We teach to the core,” I read and thought, well, I do. I teach with an ear close to the core of each child, to the core of the monarch unit, the silkworm unit, the family songs unit…When I talk about going to the core of learning, I’m talking about both being led by my students and also leading my students down paths that take us places both academically and emotionally each day.
Unfortunately, my concept of the core and the Philadelphia School District’s concept of the core don’t always mesh. This last year, I drew on the deep wells of my practice and the practice of others to craft a classroom that would be both attuned to the core curriculum and compatible with my life and my students’ lives. I am exhausted from this balancing act, and, even now, I am not at all sure where to go from here.
I teach in a small bilingual Philadelphia school. In 2003-2004, we had a new core curriculum that provided an academic plan for the entire year and across the whole city. My students are seven-, eight-, and nine-year-olds; of the 17 children in my classroom, seven have Individual Education Plans (IEP). All of my students are English language learners, and most of them are labeled “at risk” within the school community, based on their reading levels. The fact that mine is a multiage classroom means that children stay with me for more than one grade; this allows me to see them grow and change over time. This situation—and particularly the small class size—is unusual in our school. I value the learning community that this helps create in my room as well as the flexibility it gives me to meet the needs and celebrate the strengths of my students. As far as I am concerned, there are no at-risk learners in my classroom, but we do take lots of risks with learning in my classroom.
The new core curriculum was full of “content/ performance describers,” such as students will “write organized sentences” and students will “use self-monitoring strategies.” The curriculum also stressed “manipulating the structural features of spoken and written language.” Ironically—and this is a problem for me—the curriculum was built upon a teacherproof structure that actually discouraged any manipulation or risk-taking.
But I did not want to be a naysayer in the face of this new curriculum. Collegiality and community are important to me, and I knew that if I wanted to work with my colleagues in any real way, I had to go by the book. I had to respect their interpretation of the core curriculum if we were to collaborate at all. And we were all very serious about making the core work. I noticed that our lunchtime conversations became overgrown with core curriculum talk. Instead of, “Carmelina, is your son still afraid of the dark?” or “Marilynn, how did your choreography of that Black Eyed Peas song go over with your students in the dance school?”, it became, “So did you teach 7.8 in math yet? My kids are so lost.” If I wanted to be a part of this collegial talk that I so craved each day, I had to keep up with it.
But eventually I became the silent one at lunch. I averted my eyes. My kids weren’t keeping up. I knew what to teach and when to teach it, but core prescriptions often made no sense to me in the flow of my classroom. I did try.
At the beginning of October, when I was still really trying to follow the core word for word, I realized that my students didn’t know each other’s names yet. “That one needs a tissue, Ms. Puntel,” someone shouted. “He finished his book, Teacher,” said another. We didn’t know each other’s names—and I had three Hectors and two Michaels!
I stopped what I’d been doing. (“Identify plot.” “Retell a story in sequential order.”) We started having Morning Meeting again. We started introducing ourselves to each other and reading books out loud about making friends. I found a song in Spanish and English called “How Can We Be Friends Again?” and this became a familiar tune for us throughout the fall.
This whole past year, my units felt sandwiched between content/performance descriptors. Shared reading, once so integral to our units, was now mandated to come from the Trophies series, and titles like The Hat and All That Corn came right in the middle of monarchs and chrysalis and maps to Mexico. And at the end of the year, while our classroom silkworms were munching mulberry to their hearts’ content, we weren’t singing silkworm songs or reading about the silk trail; we were reading the mandated Baboon and Sleep Is for Everyone.
To teach the district’s core while holding on to my core required an exceptional effort, not only on my part but also on the part of the kids and their parents. I coteach with a much more experienced teacher. We take turns leading discussions and bringing in artifacts or stories around different themes each month. This last year, my colleague and I had to meet with our children before the bell rang in the morning to teach our December Stories unit because there was nothing in the core curriculum about oral language, which is so important to our core. We sent permission slips home to our parents asking them to bring the children in at 8:00 a.m. so we could facilitate a discussion each morning about what we do in our families in December. On the dark winter mornings, we did make spaces of warmth with stories of parrandas and white trees and posadas and candles and camels.
So while there have been some victories, I haven’t even begun to explain how heavy my heart is because I did so little this past year. I didn’t take good care of myself or my dreams because I was so worried that my children weren’t where they should be on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) tests and in that math book. I was less forgiving and more often frustrated with my children and with little things about my colleagues. I didn’t even begin listening to children’s life stories until midwinter. In previous years, we set aside the Friday Morning Meeting as the day we listened to each other’s life stories. During this time, the students could talk about anything they wanted; it did not have to be based on a book or a poem or a topic. I used these meetings as windows into the child’s life that provided useful understanding when, later in the day, conflict might arise. So much fell by the wayside—all because I was more focused on everyone being on the same page with the core material.
The language of academic rigor that has launched into our district, my school, and my classroom isolated me from my colleagues and made my humanness evident in a way that was not considered positive. Often I would drive home from school in the evening with music that was powerful enough to take me through the darkness and into some kind of generative space.
There is a line in an Ani DiFranco song that goes, “I do it for the joy it brings / Because I am a joyful girl.” There is not much room for joy in the core curriculum in Philadelphia. But there is room for joy in my practice as a teacher in Philadelphia. I know this because I have been raised as a teacher by two teacher inquiry groups—the Philadelphia Writing Project and the Philadelphia Teachers’ Learning Cooperative. My colleagues from these groups and I live lives that border each other. Our paths and practices cross each day even when our classrooms are separated. I need their classrooms. I need their practice. We know where our teaching needs to be, and we will get there together.
Adelante, compañeras y compañeros. Adelante.