Education Opinion

Hogwarts Sorcerers vs. Ministry of Magic Minions: Teachers as Creators of Curriculum and PD

By Justin Minkel — April 24, 2014 6 min read
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Harry Potter’s best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher was Remus Lupin. Unlike other teachers of that subject, Professor Lupin never tried to torture or kill Harry. But there was another trait that made Lupin so good: He was a practitioner. He’d actually dealt with boggarts and grindylows, so he was able to design lessons to teach Hogwarts students how to deal with them, too.

The best curricula I have experienced was developed by teachers. The best PD I have experienced was designed and delivered by teachers, too.

Consultants often had slicker PowerPoints, with snazzy transitions between slides. Textbook companies produced glossy materials with impressive graphics. But the quality of these materials and workshop was widely variable. Some of it was user-friendly and developmentally appropriate, with a coherent progression of concepts. Much of it was so dismal it seemed to have been developed by people who had never even met a child, let alone worked with children closely enough to understand their needs.

By contrast, the teacher-developed curricula and PD I’ve experienced was sometimes a little rougher around the edges. But because it was developed by practitioners, it tended--like Lupin’s sorcery lessons--to work in practice.

These teachers had thought through the details: the wide variety of student needs; elements of classroom management like transitions and guidelines for group work; the line between frustration when the work is too hard and boredom when it’s too easy. They built in relatively short “teacher talk” time, and they made sure that what the students did, said, wrote, read, and built related directly to the concept they were learning.

These teachers of teachers understood theory: emergent literacy, constructivist math, the principles of differentiated instruction. But they had also developed a deep understanding of how the theory related to practice. They made me a better teacher, and my students benefited from their expertise.

The role: Teachers are capable of designing--not just “delivering"--curricula and PD. The main legitimate barrier is time, since teaching tends to be a demanding job in itself, but there are practical ways to make it work. Summers are a good time for the bulk of the design to happen. Hybrid roles offer an elegant solution, too.

The rationale: Master teachers have a tremendous amount of wisdom, insight, and skilled practice to share. But their talents are often confined within their classroom walls. Best case, they share their abilities with a grade-level team, a department, or maybe with other grades in their school. When they retire, the expertise they have developed over decades usually goes with them. Involving master teachers in the design of curriculum and PD is a way for them to impact thousands of students without leaving the profession.

What it looks like: Sarah Brown Wessling, the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, spends her mornings teaching high school English and her afternoons developing videos for The Teaching Channel. Those videos include footage of her classroom as well as her commentary on the lessons.

Ron Thorpe of National Board has pointed out that it’s not enough for effective teachers to show what they do; they also need to show what they think. So much of teaching is mental work: the preparation for a lesson based on previous assessments, decisions made in the moment as a lesson unfolds, and the reflection afterwards on what to do next.

Teachers like Sarah Brown Wessling can share both great teaching and the thinking behind it. Digital possibilities for PD have dramatically expanded, and Common Core has given teachers in most states a shared set of standards for the first time. These shifts, combined with Sarah’s hybrid role, enable her to share relevant expertise with thousands of teachers in other districts and states.

What it will take: Profit motive is a terrible guiding principle for shaping education, yet it’s at the heart of many decisions that influence students’ experience of school. When our grade-level team received the first commercial materials hastily produced by companies trying to cash in on Common Core, we were bewildered by how bad most of them were. They often had the veneer of approaches like Understanding by Design, but when you began to dig a little deeper, the curricula lacked coherence and opportunities for critical thinking.

Textbook companies have a lot to lose if districts start turning to the collective knowledge of teachers rather than commercical programs, packages, and consultants. But there are ways to blend outside expertise with practitioners’ expert knowledge. The Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) is an example with tremendous potential.

LDC has created a sophisticated digital tool called Module Creator that enables teachers to develop complex units and individual lessons, link to a database of hundreds of thousands of digital articles sorted by lexile level, and store teacher-created materials like recording sheets, PowerPoints, and videos that support the lesson.

The tool takes a lot of the “grunt work” out of lesson planning--you begin with a complex writing task, and the tool automatically links to the Common Core standards related to that type of writing, while giving teachers the flexibility to shape the template to the content they’re teaching and the needs of their students.

Teachers can submit units, including examples of student work, which can then be accessed by teachers anywhere in the country. They can also search through units other teachers have posted. If my 2nd graders in Arkansas are doing a research project with informational texts, I can take a look at units developed by 2nd grade teachers in California, Kentucky, or Connecticut for ideas and resources.

Tools like these can make money for companies--there’s an annual cost to a district to use Module Creator--but they also create a way to archive teachers’ knowledge. The result is a massive database of high-quality curriculum developed for teachers by teachers.

Next Steps: Teachers sometimes need expertise from outside our profession to be effective, and I’ve experienced outstanding PD and curriculum developed by University researchers and outside consultants, too. University of Arkansas professor Marcia Imbeau led some excellent sessions with our school staff on Understanding by Design, which helped us tremendously in implementing Common Core. Our district has worked with California educators Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey to implement the Gradual Release of Responsibility model over the past six years, and we’ve seen huge benefits for both our English Learners and native English speakers.

But right now, the slice of PD and curricula developed by teachers is much too small, and the slice that goes to textbook companies and outside consultants is way too big. This commercially produced curricula is often both ineffective and jaw-droppingly expensive.

We need researchers and consultants who partner thoughtfully with teachers on the front end. We also need skilled teachers to step up and lend their talents to the design of new curricula, professional development, and tests.

The worst professor in Hogwarts history was the repugnant Dolores Umbridge. Consider this snippet of dialogue from The Order of the Phoenix.

Dolores Umbridge: You will be pleased to know from now on, you will be following a carefully structured, Ministry-approved course of defensive magic.

Hermione Granger: There’s nothing in here about using defensive spells.

Dolores Umbridge: Using spells? Ha ha! I can’t imagine why you would need to use spells in my classroom. It is the view of the Ministry that a theoretical knowledge will be sufficient to get you through your examinations, which, after all, is what school is all about.

For too long, the people furthest from the actual work of teaching students have had the most power to influence their lives. Our students and our profession deserve better. Given the choice between Dolores Umbridge and Remus Lupin, I’ll take the true teacher any day.

Note: This is the last in a three-part series on teacher leadership. Last week’s post focused on policy partnership; the first piece in the series proposed that teachers play a more central role in shaping teacher prep.

The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.