Monday, June 8, 2015

Good Kid, M.a.a.D. City: Trauma and Education:

Trauma and Education: 
Addressing the Needs of Struggling Learners in Heterogeneous Environments

I. Art of Peer Pressure

My sister graduated from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia last Saturday. Our entire family was attending, so my brother drove down from his home in Boston to pick me up in Jersey.  Steve has always had a strong love of Hip Hop, especially the emcee’s that are associated with the Consciousness movement.  We listen to The Roots obsessively, and for years have talked at length about how underrated they are as a group. I remember, vividly, driving through the streets of our childhood town of West Hartford, CT, listening to De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. At that time, in our town, our high school experience was incredibly eclectic, our side of West Hartford boasted a very diverse population, both racially and economically. This diversity exists today, but it also calls into sharp focus the disparities at play between these different groups.
A homogenous experience would have created a myopic blindness around these issues.
In the car, Steve suggested we listen to an artist named Kendrick Lamar.  My only experience with him up to that point was an appearance on the Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show, and some related passing articles by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  I knew he was a West Coast rapper, from Compton specifically, and that he was generally considered an up-and-coming artist.
Steve suggested that we listen to his major-label debut, titled “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City: A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar.” He explained that it was a concept album, and we began listening.
Track after track, and skit after skit, I realized that this was an experience as well as a collection of songs.  The album chronicles a young Lamar navigating his way around Compton as a 17-year old.  Over the course of the story, he details the various pressures and concessions he is forced to endure, often in brutal fashion.
Like the narrator of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” however, Lamar is viewing all of this through a lens of both art, and reflection.  The album was released when he was 25, a good 7 years removed from his time on Rosecrans.  Breaking out of the bubble allowed Kendrick to view his experiences from outside his singular frame of reference, and turn it into art.
As we drove, admiring the linguistic and sonic intricacies of the album, I felt myself becoming overwhelmed.  The album and its atmosphere were creating stress for me.  Kendrick’s portrayal of Compton put me in the car with him, driving around in a white Toyota with the constant threat of violence and death surrounding us.
At points, Lamar confronts these feelings directly:

“I suffer a lot, and every day the glass mirror
Gets tougher to watch; I tie my stomach in knots
And I'm not sure why I'm infatuated with death
My imagination is surely an aggravation of threats
That can come about,”

I thought about how suffocating, how madness-inducing that could become, and, as my mind tends to work, began to think about both the educational consequences and implications of that type of upbringing.
A child raised in that environment is almost certainly exposed to enough stress that it could be considered some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but the problem, is that there is no “post” anything, the children are in a constant state of trauma and anguish.

II. Allostatic Load

In his book, “How Children Succeed,” author Paul Tough outlines the ways that neuroscience can help us as educators better understand the human learning experience.  One of the topics he discusses at length is the concept of Allostatic Load, and the role of sustained adverse experiences on the developing mind.
Tough uses for a definition and its effect as  “...the process of managing stress, which [McEwen] labelled allostasis, …[which is] what creates wear and tear on the body.”
There are consequences to Allostatic Overload.  The same process that is designed to help our bodies deal with stress, can eventually turn on people, literally affecting them physically:

“Although the human stress response system is highly complex in design, the practice has all the subtlety of a croquet mallet. Depending on what kind of stress you experience, the ideal response might come from any number of defense mechanisms… But the HPA axis can’t distinguish between different types of threat, so it activates every defense, all at once, in response to any threat” (Tough, 13).

From an evolutionary standpoint, our body’s ability to transfer resources, and allocate oxygen and antibodies to specific areas of our system is important if we are being chased by a Sabretooth tiger.  We escape, maybe with a few wounds, but this is followed by down time, a period of safety.  During that time, our bodies switch back to a normal state of being.  Unfortunately, the body cannot differentiate between threats, and is actually harmed by a state of constant stress.
Consequently, as teachers, we are faced with a system that contains children that are in dire need of intervention, and in a heterogenous environment, where these students may appear as simply “struggling learners”, it is incredibly important to have a way of mitigating the stress of these students.

III. Empathy and Individualization

If anything, the knowledge of neuroscience should at the very least result in a change in our attitudes toward struggling learners.  Developing an empathetic view of your students should be a non-negotiable on a personal level, but this must be reflected in our practice as well.  Gone are the days of a learning environment that is at best, static, and at worst, comparative in nature.
Looking at the mastery of standards called for in the Common Core, it is the height of oppression to gauge students successes and failures as tied to the achievement of their peers.
When we combine the idea of educational empathy with the movement towards a standards-based approach, a necessary change in both practice and classroom structure becomes paramount.
The only ethical way to mitigate the problems presented by these new understandings is to individualize curriculum at the district and classroom level.  The oft-referred to concept of differentiation breaks down under true heterogeneous groupings.
Many of the charter schools that have demonstrated “success” in helping struggling learners have made their hay from moving in the opposite direction.  The use of mnemonic devices or songs, strict emphasis on rote memorization, and even the implementation of dress codes and public shamings, seem to work initially due only to the homogenous makeup of said schools.  As the data has shown, intervention in this way has only created change at the schools where the students attend, with alarming dropout rates spiking after the student leaves.
A balanced or blended learning environment addresses the needs of individual students within any system, however, this is vital to the success of schools with heterogeneous populations. In schools where the label of “struggling learner” exists due to comparative norms, there must be a system in place that can adapt to student need at the structural level.
By using a mixture of technology, flipped instruction, direct instruction, small group and individual intervention, and a strong screening tool, schools with a wide variety of students can better assist students in taking control of their learning, regardless of their environment.

IV. Good Kids, Mad Cities

The ultimate realization that frees Kendrick from the cycle of violence and fear that surrounds him, is a focus on his art.  He uses this skill to escape his toxic environment, and much like the protagonist in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, returns enlightened to shine a light on his experiences. I worry about the students that don’t have the ability to transcend their situations through raw talent and luck.
What are we doing with our systems of education to combat this?  How can we better provide access for these students that so often slip through the cracks?
These questions are at the core of not just the problems we face in inner city education, but in the suburbs as well, where a wider variety of learners often reside.
I dove into the album after the car ride, using Rap Genius and other sites to compile as much background as I could on the songs and messages it contained. The cover art is a picture, a purple Dodge Caravan, circa the late 90's. It's the same car I drove around the streets of West Hartford. I know for a fact that the worries and anxieties I felt within that car, were radically different, trivial at best, when compared to the night, one of many, that a young Kendrick experienced in his neighborhoods.
Schools must become outposts on the front line of triage. In order to do this, we must build systems that are able to handle the many issues and traumas facing all of our children.

Works Cited

Lamar, Kendrick, et al. Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City [sound Recording]: A Short Film. [Deluxe ed., explicit version]. Santa Monica, Calif.: Aftermath/Interscope, 2013.

Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. New York: Mariner, 2012. Print.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Grit. It's a word that is thrown around quite often in the world of education. It's the word of the moment. Despite its recent pop culture explosion, grit is a concept I buy into wholeheartedly. Here's why.

Grit is the single most predictive factor of success, as told by Angela Duckworth and her research with the University of Pennsylvania. Despite this, Grit is something typically overlooked in the American public school system.  From what I've observed, the bulk of what we value as educators, is "accuracy, correctness." This mindset not only shortchanges students, but also reduces the educational process. Students who frequently get the answers right are often missing this essential life skill. There will be a time when these students don't know the answer and don't know how to find it.

I've often heard this tale in Algebra 1. Students sailed through elementary and middle school math with A's, then by midyear in Algebra 1, they are lost. They don't know how to study for math, because they never had to. Frequently, this snowballs into lower math grades, feelings of frustration,  and most significantly, a lack of willingness to put in the time and effort needed to learn the material.  

"The other behavior that seems to explain why grit is a marker of future success is deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is the sort of practice experts to do improve...In the National Spelling Bee, for example, gritty finalists log more hours of deliberate practice, and this time uniquely predicts final ranking whereas less effortful and more pleasurable forms of practice do not" (Duckworth). It is obvious, for long-term goals which demand a continued practice and attention to skill, grittier individuals will exceed their peers. The question becomes, how do we instill grit in our students? Is it inborn or is it something that can be cultivated over time? In my classroom, there are small adjustments I've made in an effort to promote grit. 

First, an assignment is never truly considered "done." I put a grade in the system, return work to my classes, but students can revise and rewrite to their hearts' content.  I see no problem with allowing a student multiple opportunities to improve his/her work. As long as this continued effort doesn't interfere with the class period at hand, there are no problems. Second, in a question and answer session, I try not to move on when I hear the answer I want;  I probe, inquire further, and encourage students to challenge each other's thoughts.  There is often a "right answer," but why not push the student to think further?  The word "elaborate" works wonders in a class discussion. Lastly, a major project that requires precision and time is a unique approach to promoting grit. Last year, my students completed a large mural based on the work of Sol Lewitt.  Although it was "easy" work, it was evident that most honors students did not have the grit to master the product. They were impatient, hasty, and made simple mistakes because of their lack of sustained effort and precision. Large-scale projects like this are messy and ambitious to implement and manage, but the student perspective that can be gained is unparalleled. In any classroom, designing assignments that require slow work and precision is a great way to harness grit.

The willingness to struggle through a seemingly impossible task is not only an academic skill, it is a life skill. Character is built in moments of frustration, anger, and failure...moments which often evade our brightest students until they reach high school, or for some, college. It's not to say that there is no merit in positive reinforcement, there absolutely is, but the stamina that comes from sustained effort and the momentum it builds has a decisively more substantial impact on a student's life. Motivation is often what eludes so many of our students and promoting gritty activities can help build true, intrinsic motivation which lasts and extends beyond the classroom walls. Whether through a job application process, a difficult time with family, or a time-consuming project, grit makes navigating demanding tasks much easier. 

The idea may seem trendy, but the heart of this dogma is at the core of American culture. As LaBoeuf said in True Grit, "You'll find I go ahead with what I start."

"The Duckworth Lab." Research Statement. University of Pennsylvania, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

"True Grit" (1969). IMDb., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Complexities of Simplicity: The Importance of Common Core Aligned Curriculum Planning and Implementation

Comic by Scott Adams

It stands to reason that the simplest explanation for some unknown phenomena is probably the best explanation.  This concept, known as Occam’s Razor, has been used to eschew excesses from theories, and was even used as an explanation for the existence of God. This reliance on simplicity however, can sometimes be lost on the true application of the idea:

Occam's razor is often wrongly applied. The key is the the phrase "praeter necessitatem" in the Latin formula. Not all complications are forbidden. On the contrary, complications necessary to cover the facts are not only allowed but required. However simple or even beautiful a theory may be, if it does not cover the facts, it is not viable. A complex theory may be a sign that the thing it is trying to explain is not yet deeply understood. But it may also be the correct explanation of a genuinely complex phenomenon” (The Principle of Simplicity).

While it is tempting to view the planning of curriculum as a simple, step-by-step process, it is important to not lose focus on the fact that proper curriculum planning is an incredibly important, and incredibly complicated task. The design and implementation of curriculum is a highly difficult and nuanced process that requires an understanding of student learning styles, proper implementation and review, and an evaluation system that tracks efficacy. While the introduction of the Common Core State Standards may seem to be a panacea in the process, thorough work must still be done at both the educational and administrative levels for it to be implemented properly.
The topic of learning styles, and the many different approaches that have been taken over the years, have given educators a wealth (perhaps and overabundance) of psychological and philosophical approaches to instruction.  This makes the planning stages of the curriculum especially difficult when we take a standards-based approach.The educators and supervisors involved in the decision making process must take into account the idea that not all students learn in the same manner, and therefore, the curriculum must reflect both this understanding, as well as guide the construction of frameworks that provide this necessary differentiation. There is a general consensus in education that “Learning theorists and researchers have not arrived at a universally accepted, precise definition of learning” (Parkay, et al., 189). This is a potentially disturbing admission for those that consider themselves educators.  What must be understood by curriculum planners, before anything else, is that the curriculum will be implemented upon students of vastly different backgrounds, shema, and learning styles. “A program should strive for the optimal match between learner capacity and level of experiences provided. Some children have greater facility with abstract thought, critical reasoning and meta–cognitive skills than others (Braggett et al., 1999). This means that to avoid underachievement a curriculum needs to be developed that will both challenge and stimulate students appropriately” (Differentiating the Curriculum). To not take this into account, is to guarantee the weakening of any curriculum that is produced.
The supervisors in charge of the curriculum design process must be sure not to simplify or overly downplay the significance of each curricular decision, as it is there job to ensure proper implementation of the curriculum after it has been accepted.  Failure to act in the developmental design stages of the curriculum will almost certainly result in a flawed and therefore ineffective document. The Common Core Standards are able to fill an important gap in the implementation and design of the curriculum.  As most school districts use a “Backwards Design” model of curricular planning, the standards become the jumping off point.  The more clear and precise these standards are, the more likely the prescribed curriculum becomes the enacted curriculum. Too often, this process is short-changed. “Jumping from the standards to create lesson plans misses a crucial middle step of developing a coherent curriculum. The absence of this more complex work of creating a local curricular framework for the district, which informs the sequence and breadth of instruction (usually referred to as “scope and sequence”), will result in weak implementation of Common Core” (Honig).  Using the CCSS correctly, and determining them as the basis for subsequent discussion of scope and sequence at each grade level subject simplifies the process of planning, and makes the implementation more clear for those tasked with using it on a daily basis.
In order to determine the success of the curriculum, supervisors need to be vigilant in collecting data that concerns the efficacy of the program.  Is it being properly implemented?  Are their benchmark assessments? Are PLC’s functioning in making the curriculum stronger? Do teachers understand that the curriculum is a document that by all means evolves over the course of its existence? The state of New Jersey released a Powerpoint to principals and supervisors during a recent professional development. In addition to the many pages of common sense approaches to CCSS and curriculum evaluation, they recommended a prioritized list of goals for every school district in terms of curricular evaluation:
“On the three highest priorities:
1. Ensure that a coherent curriculum with standards selected by a team of teachers is actually taught and tested with common assessments.”
Clearly, the State takes great interest in the supervision of instruction as it relates to curricular alignment, as well as the use of Common Assessments to achieve this end.  Teachers will do themselves a great service by routinely discussing in their Professional Learning Communities the type of instruction they are using, and the data that backs its efficacy.  So to must administrators be present in these meetings as a way to guarantee that this work is being done, and has become an accepted practice in their building.
While the Common Core provides us with a useful and unifying framework at the start of the curriculum planning process, it must not be seen as the curriculum itself.  That work must be undertaken by group of educators, administrators, and community members tasked with its success.  Only by starting off with and understanding of student learning styles, developing and implementing the curriculum through shared outcomes and common assessments, and ensuring the implementation is occurring through proper supervision, will the curriculum designed by these stakeholders do what it has been tasked with, namely, increasing the education of the students it serves.


"Differentiating the Curriculum." Differentiating the curriculum. NSW Department of Education and Communities, n.d. Web. 12 June 2014. <>

"Shifting Gears! Using the CCSS, PARCC and Educator Evaluation to Drive Student Achievement." . State of New Jersey, n.d. Web. 12 June 2014. <>.

"Understanding History | The Principle of Simplicity." Understanding History | The Principle of Simplicity. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 June 2014. <>.

Honig, Bill. "Coherent and sequenced curriculum key to implementing Common Core standards." EdSource Today. EdSource, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 June 2014. <>.

Parkay, Forrest W.. Curriculum Leadership: Readings for Developing Quality Educational Programs. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2010. Print.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Equal" Doesn't Equal Fair

A mounting frustration for any teacher is a concern for failing students.  "He didn't complete this, so he got an F." "She didn't turn in the last project, so it's a zero."  It seems very logical, a student who fails to do the work, gets a zero, fails the assignment, and with enough zeroes will fail the marking period or the year.

In my personal experience, I never understood why "not completing an assignment" was an acceptable reason to fail a child.  Of course, in theory, I understand it very well-there was something assigned, he or she didn't do it, so he/she receives a zero.  In practice, though, it is not that simple.  There are a plethora of reasons why a student may fail to complete an assignment.  Sometimes, those reasons deserve an F, such as laziness, insubordination, or pure apathy (although, even these are often not the fault of the child).  Other times, however, there is an abusive parent at home, a lack of internet access, or a myriad of other issues that lead to that zero.  As teachers, a core issue we face is dissecting those reasons.

First, due to confidentiality laws, we are not always privy to personal information about a student.  Second, even if we are, we have to decode whether a student is exaggerating, lying, or is too shy to tell us the real story.  There is a great deal of detective work that goes into figuring out why a student failed to complete an assignment.  There is no a-ha moment to this paragraph, just an honest explication of a challenge that teachers face everyday.

Next, we have the students who do the assignment, but fail it. Either they were inaccurate, got things wrong, wrote poorly, or have some other deficiency which in our minds warrants an F.  In speaking with another teacher recently, I asked why a student had a D, his response was, "he failed the last two quizzes."  In my mind, I thought, "Okay, he failed.  If that content was important enough for you to quiz him on, shouldn't you insist that retakes it, or completes another assignment showing that he has some knowledge of what you felt was quiz-worthy?"  I don't mean to say I offer extensions, retakes, and alternate assignments everyday, however on major grade-determining assignments, it seems that if the content or skill is TRULY important, you would want the student to master it, despite what may be "equal" or what options the other students received.

It seems that we get caught up in "equity."  There is no equity in education, and there never will be, what we should be aiming for is what's fair.  Fair is equitable with Just, as the above cartoon illustrates. The world is a harsh place, that does not care about someone's circumstances, however, school is not the real world.  I do believe a twelfth grader should be held to a standard of equality more rigorous than say, a ninth grader.  What may be fair for "Sue" who has a ride to and from school, a nice house, internet access, and doesn't worry about from where her next meal is coming, probably isn't fair for "Jane" who is between two residences, has social anxiety issues due to her parents' divorce, and walks herself to and from school.  It's obvious that in the real world, these circumstances become irrelevant, but for a fourteen year old, they shouldn't be.  Equal doesn't equal fair.  

This brings me to the age old debate, does an F mean "incompetent in this skill or content, unable to master the work" or does it mean "failure to be compliant?"  The negative connotations work both ways; we have students who are VERY skilled, but refuse to do the work, so they receive F's.  On the other hand, we have students who can get by, but truly have not mastered the skills, so they pass.  Therefore, in looking at a gradebook, you frequently can be mislead.  The students with the A's are not always the smartest, of course, sometimes they are, in fact I would say usually they are, but almost every class has some exception.  Similarly, all the students who fail aren't "below level."  In an English class, where 20/25 students are reading below a 9th grade level and have not mastered the skills, one would assume they should fail.  Seems fair.  On the other hand, if they try, put in effort, and improve, then maybe they should pass.

These are my nagging thoughts day in and day out.  Grades and numbers fail to capture the student's whole story.  The story of an academic year is complex: a student who begins with an F, and ends the year with an A, will end up with a C on his or her report card.  A student who went from an A to an F, will end up with that same grade.  It essentially tells us nothing about the student's story.  The grades are equal, but they are not fair.

There's no major point to be made, except that grades and "equality" are serving us poorly in today's schools.  Data can make extraordinary things possible, but still fails to make "possible" a reality for many students. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Self-Empowerment through Self-Analysis and Intentional Mindsets

As the looming onslaught of state and federal mandates descend upon the legions of educational professionals tasked with their implementation, a workforce that has spent the last decade under the mentality that their field and passion is under siege, it is increasingly common to hear a flow of helplessness and despair in faculty rooms and PLC meetings around the state.  How can anyone combat this overwhelming negativity?  The answer lies first in each individual.  In Dr. Anthony Colella’s essay, “Pathways to Self-Empowerment”, a simple set of guidelines for self-change are presented. Readers will note that in order to truly change, an individual must truly reflect inward and repetitively reinforce the life they imagine. Henry David Thoreau, in his seminal work, Walden, noted that “What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.” Colella recognizes that through recognizing the personal belief system, determining the self-talk an individual engages in, and modifying that talk while supplementing strong visualizations, an individual can take the first step towards changing the environment; changing himself.
Before we can ever hope or even expect to change, there must be a period of honest self-reflection and analysis.  Too often the ability to look clearly at our biases and excuses get in the way of changing our lives.  One of the fundamental mistakes we make as people is to fall into the cynical belief that we are simply unable to change “who we really are.”  This belief alone can have devastating consequences toward our ability to alter our outlook on life, and then improve it.  In a study on “mental strength training” performed by exercise psychologists “conclude[d] that the mental training employed by this study enhance[d] the cortical output signal, which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength” (Ranganathan, et al.). Simply pretending that they were lifting weights in their minds produced actual increases in their physical ability to lift weight.  While the rational aspects of our brain would typically reject this anecdote if it were presented by a lay person, a clinical research study is certainly more reliable, and therefore, harder to simply dismiss.  Only when we have removed this barrier, the acceptance that we are not simply capable of change, in fact we are built for it, will we be able to take the next step toward creating the changes that we desire.  These techniques alone are not a panacea however, and will require dedication and practice in order to see lasting results.
In the same way that we must focus on being self-critical enough to recognize the biases and belief systems that influence our thinking, so too must we take a hard and accurate look at the way we speak to ourselves.  Colella refers to this as “Self-talk”, and prior to change we must first determine whether ours is positive or negative: “Simply stated - if one believes that he or she is not capable or competent or lovable, then that person will develop a mental vocabulary and complete life script to substantiate and validate the accuracy of the belief system; however, if one believes that he or she is capable, competent and lovable, the tape and script which follow are consistent with that belief.” Similar to the thesis posited by Carol Dweck in her book Mindset, Colella places a great deal of weight on the perception of an individual in the desire to effectively change.  This awareness of how self-talk influences our decision making process, and self-awareness, must be realistic and critical in order for the next step to take place, changing the way we self talk and visualize ourselves.
When we typically think about athletes, we focus on their physical attributes first, how quickly they run, how much weight they can lift, and their various body measurements.  What we fail to look at in most instances, are the routines and practices that these same athletes put themselves through outside of the field of play.  Johnny Damon, an outfielder for the first Red Sox team to win a World Series in 86 years, stated in his book Idiot, that the only thing that differentiates Triple-A players from Major Leaguers is their dedication to work.  Even the highest performers in their sports realize the value of self-empowerment. “...Muhammad Ali, used different mental practices to enhance his performance in the ring such as: ‘affirmation; visualization; mental rehearsal; self-confirmation; and perhaps the most powerful epigram of personal worth ever uttered: ‘I am the greatest’”(LeVan).  The ability to train yourself towards positive self-talk and visualization, in place of any type of physical action, still has the capacity to allow for tremendous personal change.
Don Quixote sits aloft his frail horse, with Sancho Panza at his side.  Picasso’s rendering of this scene in a simple sketch is often paired with a Spanish verb in strong, red letters: Sonar (To Dream).  This poster stood in my classroom for 10 years paired with a different quote, but one that resonates in lieu of Colella’s article. "I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Thoreau once again reminds us that we alone hold the key to making the changes we wish to see in the world.  The more this mindset begins to permeate our educational institutions, the more we will see a workforce ready to respond to whatever initiative is thrown their way, with both confidence, and excitement at the challenge.


Colella, Anthony J., Ph.D. "Pathways to Self-Empowerment." (1994): n. pag. Print.

LeVan, Angie. "Seeing Is Believing: The Power of Visualization." Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 12 Dec. 2009. Web. 21 Jan. 2014.

Ranganathan, Vinoth K., Vlodek Siemionow, Jing Z. Liu, Vinod Sahgal, and Guang H. Yue. "From Mental Power to Muscle Power--gaining Strength by Using the Mind." Neuropsychologia 42.7 (2004): 944-56. Science Direct. Web.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. N.p.: n.p., 1929. Print.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Butterflies, Hurricanes, and Curricular Intent: Working Back to the Individual in Curricular Design

There is a metaphor based in Chaos Theory, known as the “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” which we commonly know today as the “Butterfly Effect”. In this metaphor, a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world, leading to a series of events that culminate in the creation of a hurricane. This concept of both the importance of a starting point, and the possible drastic effect of seemingly small actions, on the surface, may be used to relate to the design of curriculum in school districts.  This metaphor is further bolstered by the idea that a “useful starting point when studying what is curriculum is to consider three levels,namely the ‘planned curriculum’, the ‘enacted curriculum’ and the ‘experienced curriculum’ “(Marsh, pg. 3).  When combined with the flapping of the butterfly’s wings, this idea seems to paint a picture that there can be almost no way to adequately predict or enforce the way that a curriculum will affect the students it is enacted for, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The metaphor instead must be used as a catalyst, that ensures we as curriculum planners are taking into consideration both the three perceived levels of curriculum, as well as those affected by it’s implementation. Curriculum design must start in the abstract, with goals and values, respond to needs of groups and social forces, and then become refined by understandings of Human Development. In other words, the more we move toward curricular implementation, the more we must begin to think of the individual student. After this initial work is completed however, the refinement and cyclical adjustment of the curriculum must take place.
From the start, the conversations that lead to frameworks of curriculum design must begin with the Goals and Values the district and community espouse. “The goals or purposes of a curriculum are among the most significant criteria for guiding the curriculum planning process” (Parkay, pg. 5). As it relates to the three levels of curriculum, this stage is most aligned with the Planned curriculum, as decisions and ideas during this time are confined, as they should be, to abstract ideas.  This phase of planning is the furthest removed from the individual student, and takes into account first, the greater overall needs of the district itself.
As the Goals and Ideas are fleshed out, the next area of consideration becomes the social forces that are guiding the process.  Financial, political, and social realities must be taken into account at this time, as we move from abstraction to enactment. The three levels of these social forces include the national and international level, the local community level, and the cultural level, and within these are further specific and delineated influencers (Parkay, pg. 57-58).  To plan a curriculum in a vacuum is not only foolish, but detrimental to those it is intended to serve, and ignoring the social realities will result in an enacted curriculum that has almost no chance of being experienced by the students.
After these forces have been taken into account, and the represented forces or groups are represented in the curriculum, the ability to hone the process down to the individual learner can take place.  The work done in regard to the Human Development of students will create the level of curriculum most closely tied to the Experienced Curriculum. James Comer explains that “[w]e will be able to create a successful system of education nationwide only when we base everything we do on what is known about how children and youths develop and learn” (Comer via Parkay, pg. 132). In this regard, the final act of the process prior to roll out, is to do the research on the individual needs of our student populations, to ensure that we are including structures and experiences that will have the highest likelihood of success.  One of the most ethical way of ensuring that this happens is through differentiation practices, and an RTI (Response To Intervention) tiered program that is built to adapt to the specific learner and his or her needs. Only by creating structures within the curriculum that address the developmental needs of children can we be sure they are being exposed to the original intent of the curriculum document.
The major folly that can occur at this point is what destroys the original intent of the Butterfly Effect metaphor.  None of these events exist as a singularity in time.  In order for the process of curriculum design to be both effective and ethical, it must retain the three levels though a constant cyclical reassessment process.  To believe that the decisions that are made at any level of the process as set in stone, is to render the document worthless. Analyzing the Goals and Values of the curriculum, the Social Forces that influence it, and the role that Human development plays in its enactment, is the only way to maintain the curriculum as effective. What we can learn from the Butterfly Effect metaphor is that we must be vigilant and self-reflective of the unintended consequences of our decisions, and have a plan in place to change and alter those decisions in a swift and efficient manner.  By moving from whole to part, from abstract to concrete individual, and repeating the process through a design loop, we create the atmosphere for powerful curriculum design, that is human in its application.


Marsh, Colin J.. Key concepts for Understanding Curriculum. London: Falmer Press, 2007. Print.

Parkay, Forrest W.. Curriculum leadership: readings for developing quality educational programs. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2010. Print.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Creating Relevancy through Meaning and Metaphor

“In a world of fixed future, life is an infinite corridor of rooms, one room lit at each moment, the next room dark but prepared. We walk from room to room, look into the room that is lit, the present moment, then walk on. We do not know the rooms ahead, but we know we cannot change them. We are spectators of our lives.”

“In a world without future, each moment is the end of the world.”

-Alan Lightman, from Einstein’s Dreams

Exercises in metaphor pervade our history, whether it is Sir Isaac Newton’s revelations concerning the physics of our universe from his experience with a small apple, or Christ’s ability to paint parables for his disciples that illuminated the word of God. Metaphors allow us to explain the sometimes unexplainable, as the early mythologies were less religiously intended as opposed to a necessary way to explain the terrifyingly inexplicable events that surrounded early man, such as bolts of electricity falling from the sky.  In his excellent novel, Einstein’s Dreams, Astrophysicist and Creative Writing professor Alan Lightman imagines the dreams of Albert Einstein.  The dreams are not mathematical equations or a blank slate blackboard filled with calculations and diagrams.  The dreams he imagines are the dreams of worlds.  The worlds all vary in one fundamental way, the role that Time plays in them.  In one, he imagines time as a fixed point, in another, a flock of birds.  He then observes the way that people react in those worlds: What would they love? What would they fear? These nightly meditations eventually lead him to his truth, that to understand how time works in our world, he merely needs to observe how the people around him behave. Like his non-fictional counterparts, this Einstein has learned through the power of metaphor, and a strong reliance on the learning principle of Meaning.
Meaning requires an emphasis on bringing relevant and engaging experiences to students. “The more meaningful or relevant the task or application of information is to the students’ work, the easier it is to learn. The teacher may make explicit reference to students’ personal experiences as a link to connecting content with the students’ lives or they may actually simulate the experience in the learning activity” (DBTC).  In the public school classroom, now more than ever, the diverse populations of students that enter our doors bring with them a multitude of different attitudes, experiences, beliefs and feelings about school.  The typical schema that we expect students to have, schema that represents a more culturally exclusive time, no longer exists in all our students.  For many teachers, the response to this inability to guarantee what students are bringing to the classroom, causes them to simply start over, treating the students as blank slates.  The prolonged effects of this “Episodic View of Reality” (Feuerstein, Feuerstein, Falik, and Rand, 2006) can have devastating long term consequences. A better, more ethical way to combat the diverse schema that students are bringing to the classroom, is to provide meaningful, metaphorical anchor experiences at the start of units, that will pre-load metaphorical and experiential schema for later reference, building relevant and usable meaning into the lessons that follow.
One issue brought forth when meaning is not addressed in the classroom is that there is little to no transfer of skills from class-to-class, or, more insidiously, from grade-to-grade. The episodic view is the result of a lack of connection that the student feels toward the subject matter.  In short, their education is something that is being done to them, not something that they are actively participating in. In some colleges, “Anchored Instruction” is being used to ground certain instructional practices in relevant life experiences.  In this case, a Computer Learning class, where students were learning how to use technology, was paired with a teaching and learning class that used the students own struggles as a basis for studying instruction.  A study of the experiment concluded that ““Evidence from other research projects suggests that a specific emphasis on analyzing similarities and differences among problem situations and on bridging new area of application facilitates the degree to which spontaneous transfer occurs” (Cognition and Technology Group, 1990).” by providing the students with a relevant and meaningful basis for discussion, they were more likely to retain, and later use, the skills they were introduced to.
Another anchor activity our district was introduced to recently was the Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment program.  Based on the theory and research of Reuven Feuerstein, the program consists of simple instruments, such as recognizing pattern, or connecting dots, that are seemingly unrelated to content area studies. “Organization of Dots engages children in projecting virtual relationships in an amorphous cloud of dots to form specific geometrical forms. The resulting products must conform to given forms and sizes in changing spatial orientation. The exercises become progressively complex as the child gradually overcomes the challenges of conservation, representation, and precision” (Ben-Hur, 2006). As you bring the students through the instruments however, it becomes a metaphorical discussion regarding learning styles in general, that can be applied into almost any situation.  To teach us how to use the instruments, we were first tasked with completing them, and the frustration and learning that occurred even in the adults, was eye-opening, and empathy inducing.  We have used this experience with classes of all levels, and it has myriad connections that we continue to reference throughout the year.  Without providing this anchor experience, our ability to tap into relevance and meaning would be greatly diminished.
The ability to create transfer across grades is important, but it can be even more powerful when it is planned through the use of interdisciplinary anchors. The answer is that children learn by mobilizing their innate capacities to meet everyday challenges they perceive as meaningful. Skills and concepts are most often learned as tools to meet present demands rather than as facts to be memorized today in hopes of application tomorrow. Further, daily life is not separated into academic disciplines or divided into discrete time units; instead, the environment presents problems that one must address in an interdisciplinary, free-flowing way, usually in collaboration with peers and mentors” (Barab and Landa, 1997). By connecting experiences and metaphors that breach into different subject area, we increase the capacity for meaningful experiences, that also privilege the concept of transfer simultaneously. Again, the created meaning becomes a common reference point that teachers can refer back to in order to help students facilitate learning.
Lightman’s Einstein envisions a world where time is fixed, and everything that will happen is already known by the people that inhabit it. He describes this life as a series of rooms, with the absence of choice, its inhabitants serving only as “spectator’s in their lives”. Without meaning, a child’s education must feel this way. The student who is tasked with navigating these rooms, only to move onto the next, truly comes to believe as well that each day is “the end of the world.”  We must as teachers be sure to provide relevant  and meaningful experiences for our students.  We must help them to see that they have agency and choice, and we must create for them, reference points that they can use to put their education in the context of their own lives.  Short of taking them around the world, and covering all of the potential references they may need in our diverse curriculum, we can still produce metaphorical anchors that can be used to help students bring a common experience and schema to their day-to-day learning lives.


Barab, S., & Landa, A. Designing Effective Interdisciplinary Anchors. How Children Learn,54, 52-55.

Ben-Hur, M. (2006, December 1). Feuerstein's Instrumental Enrichment-BASIC. . Retrieved , from

Feuerstein, Feuerstein, Falik, and Rand (2006), Creating and Enhancing Cognitive Modifiability:  The Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Program, ICELP Publications

Principles of Learning. (n.d.). . Retrieved July 11, 2014, from

Saphier, J., & Gower, R. R. (1997). The skillful teacher: building your teaching skills (5th ed.). Acton, Mass.: Research for Better Teaching.

Vanderbilt, Cognition and Technology Group. a. Anchored Instruction and Its Relationship to Situated Cognition.Educational Researcher, 2-10.