Education Ask the Mentor

E Pluribus Curriculum

February 26, 2007 8 min read
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Jennifer Morrison, an 8th grade language arts teacher at Piedmont Open IB Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina, was the 2003 recipient of the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development’s Outstanding Young Educator Award. The nonprofit ASCD represents 175,000 educators worldwide who advocate the sharing of best policies and practices. Each year, the group recognizes a teacher younger than 40 whose work is exemplary. Morrison also travels around the state as a trainer for the North Carolina Teacher Academy, helping K-12 colleagues with curricular needs. For more information on the ASCD and Morrison, visit: and

There is a national push for early childhood programs to implement curricula. Please give me your standards for a “quality” curriculum for preschoolers.

There is a belief that the answer is in the curriculum—if we just make it rigorous enough, put enough benchmarks in, and evaluate according to standards, everything will be OK. I would suggest that a “quality” curriculum for preschoolers focus on enriching their background knowledge, so that they bring their experiences to future learning. We should also help preschoolers develop the social and academic behaviors that will help them in school—playing together, following instructions, paying attention, working independently, and being proud of their work. The reading and math will come—young children simply need to be ready for it.

Who determines the content and the timeline of various curricula?

The question of what goes in the curriculum is a political and social hot button, and rightly so because the curriculum defines our values as a society. Everyone has an opinion about and investment in what should be taught. In any discussion about curriculum, however, I believe experienced and proven classroom teachers should stand at the center. We know students, instruction, and how much can actually fit in a real-life learning situation. Including teachers ensures that a curriculum is taught and not just covered. We also have to keep in mind that whatever curriculum we design is in constant competition with another, very powerful curriculum—that of television, advertising, and the Internet.

How can I teach the atomic element chart to low-level learners? It’s a requirement in 8th grade here in southern California, and my students are “at risk” and easily bored. What’s available to help teach them better?

I think it’s fabulous that your low-level learners are expected to learn something that can be high-level and provide very useful background knowledge. The great thing is that you are available to teach them better. Just think about your students and your style, and design accordingly. What do they find interesting? What methods have you used that get them excited about learning? What do they really need to know about the elements? What is most interesting to you about the atomic element chart? How will your students be assessed or evaluated? The answers to these questions are what will help you teach your students.

Which Greek mythology book do you recommend using in the classroom?

With my high-level readers, I use Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and teach them to annotate text. I use The Greek Gods by Evslin, Evslin, and Hoopes with my more standard readers. There are plenty of good vocabulary words to study, and the text is difficult enough to provide a good field for practicing new reading strategies.

In our charter school, we have multiage classrooms where there’s quite a diversity of learning styles, energy levels, and behaviors. How can several grade levels be taught simultaneously?

Heavy differentiation is required. Sometimes you’ll need to group by academic level in the subject matter, sometimes by students’ interests, and other times by learning styles. Grade level does not equal cognitive level, and children’s abilities fluctuate, so your groupings should be flexible depending on your goals for the activity or unit. The most important thing is to be clear about what you want your students to know and be able to do. Then set up groups accordingly. I’ve found Carol Ann Tomlinson’s work on differentiation very helpful, particularly How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms.

I teach a class titled “Study Skills” (formerly study hall) for learning- disabled high-schoolers. The curriculum is uninteresting, and the students’ refusal to participate, even when I spice it up, leaves us argumentative. What’s the better choice—teaching study skills, character education, or something that compensates for their shortcomings?

We just had a discussion about this in our team meeting as we looked over discipline data for the first semester. What will make school work for students who aren’t engaged, many of whom are learning disabled? Do we continue to compensate for their academic deficiencies with extra remediation and study-skills classes like yours, knowing that kids who don’t have the skills to compete give up and don’t invest, or do we help them find a passion or personal connection to school that will make the struggle worth it? The answer is, probably, both. Your students have to believe in the relevance of your class on their terms. They have to believe that it’s important, and it has to be fun. What will that take? Find something your students will enjoy—a novel, an academic or service-learning project, an activity—and use it to teach study skills, character education, and the knowledge they need to be successful in other classes. You have to step outside the box. Your students will not respond to more of the same.

How do new elementary-level teachers improve reading- and math- test scores? What strategies and resources would you offer, especially to those working in high-poverty schools with big ESL populations?

I teach students who’ve been unable to pass the North Carolina state reading test. Generally, up to this point, they’ve been worksheeted and programmed to death—they learned how to read without knowing how to think. I focus on teaching my students how to think and also work to build their background knowledge, which is lacking because they don’t read on their own and aren’t exposed to much culture outside popular television. With struggling students and English Language Learners, the focus should also be on developing academic vocabulary.

I’m looking for age-appropriate reading materials for a 10-year-old girl reading at the level of a sophomore in college. Any recommendations?

Wow. People don’t realize that it’s as difficult a job designing reading instruction for highly advanced students as it is to design for struggling readers. As your question implies, the key is finding age-appropriate yet cognitively challenging material. Chances are that your child already has some genres and writers she likes to read for fun, and she needs to continue having fun, shopping around for new authors and series like the ones she already enjoys, while being pushed to widen her scope. What about some nonfiction? What about some classic writers, like John Steinbeck (The Red Pony or The Pearl) or Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird), whose vocabulary may not be complex but whose ideas, themes, and structure run deep? I suggest what will push her cognitively is not just finding more difficult reading material, but sharing meaty literature and ideas, and giving her the opportunity to discuss and debate them.

I work in my school’s curriculum department, and we’re thinking about replacing “subjects” with “learning areas,” but haven’t yet thought about how it’ll work. Where’s the best place to learn about this kind of curriculum organization?

The fact that your curriculum department is talking about this tells me that you have some goals in mind, like creating interdisciplinary links between learning areas or making your program more responsive to students’ interests and abilities. Focus on your goals and research some models in the literature based on those goals. I suggest starting with Joseph Renzulli’s work on the Schoolwide Enrichment Model or the work of the International Baccalaureate Organization, whose Middle Years Programme my school has been implementing over the past two years.

IB focuses on eight curriculum subjects—language A (native), language B (foreign), humanities, technology, mathematics, arts, sciences, and physical education—integrated into five “areas of interaction” (one example being “community and service”). You may want to send your teachers to some big conferences, like that of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) which will be held in New Orleans in March 2008, to find out what’s already being done. When you find ideas that speak to your goals, look for who is involved and which schools are implementing the program so you can talk directly with teachers or make school visits.

Do you think it’s important to teach mostly classic literature in English classes, or can students reap the same reading-skills benefits by reading popular books like those by Stephen King and J. K. Rowling?

I once moved to Maine because of reading Stephen King, so I am the first to say that popular literature has an important place in children’s reading development. Kids need the opportunity to choose their own reading and, before comprehension tests take priority, learn to enjoy the act of reading. At the same time, I also work to expose my students to the classics—novels and authors they might otherwise not pick up. The classics represent a common canon of ideas and knowledge educated people share, and I want my students to be able to participate in that world if they choose to do so.

Speaking in a literary sense, the classics are often much more fertile ground for the analysis of inspired and artistic writing. There is a reason the classics have withstood the test of time. In terms of how they write—narrative structures and use of literary devices—I think Jane Austen beats out J.K. Rowling any day of the week. Rowling, however, is a great writer of plot, and her Harry Potter books are full of allusions to Greek and Roman mythology. The dialogue in Stephen King’s books is amazing, and, though popular, he is an extremely conscientious author. His nonfiction book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft taught me a lot. I use it in my teaching of writing and reading. In the end, the usefulness of contemporary works depends on the goals you have for your students and your priorities as an educator.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2007 edition of Teacher Magazine as E Pluribus Curriculum


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