Can I Handle the Freedom?

Gotta get back on the blogging bandwagon, and I’ve been mulling on this one for a while.

It just so happened that I heard two very different visions of a teacher’s role in planning lessons and curricula in the same day. I was reading Mary Beth Hertz’s blog entry about planning the technology curriculum at her school. She specifically mentioned how she was able to refine and improve that curriculum as she got to know her students better and she increased her own understanding of who they were and what they needed. She moved from that experience to a general need for administrators and policy makers to provide a greater role for teachers in the planning process.

Know that we are professionals whose expertise is children. Let us use what we know about our students and about teaching and learning to craft a curriculum together that best meets the needs of our community. Let us have input into the document. Foster conversations across grade levels about skills and concepts students need to have or understand to be successful. Stop calling purchased reading series and social studies textbooks ‘curricula.’

It’s a good post, and I recommend you read the whole thing. It certainly fits with my own sympathies and my own vision of a teacher as a guide, someone who can draw on his or her own experiences in order to help students create learning experiences for themselves. I’m in my third year teaching World History at Parkway, and I think I’m just starting to get to know my students, my colleagues, my textbook and myself well enough to put together resources and a plan through the day that will be helpful to the students and build skills they need. (Notice I didn’t say anything about being a guide and creating learning experiences there. That’s a post for another evening.)

But the same day I read that post, I was talking to a colleague in the staff room. This colleague has a variety of experiences in and out of the classroom, and his argument was that one reason why teachers feel so burdened and exhausted is that they have multiple responsibilities, all of which could serve as a full time job. There’s knowing your content. There’s planning the lesson. There’s delivering the lesson. There’s all the stuff that we call classroom management, and there’s all the stuff that goes with assessing students’ performance after the lesson. How in the world can someone design 180 high-quality lessons a year on a part-time schedule, and then have the energy to go out and deliver it? A corporate presenter might spend weeks or even months honing a single presentation, but what teacher has that kind of time? We’re workshopping the whole thing as we go, doing a couple of live dress rehearsals and hoping that we come up with something good enough to get a return engagement the next year.

My first instinct on hearing this was to rebel. How many teachers have I heard complain about the scripted lessons they have? How many already don’t feel like they have the respect, trust and freedom to ad lib where their judgment tells them it’s appropriate to do so? This was taking authorship and creativity out of the teacher’s hands, and I couldn’t see how it could be a good thing.

Then I thought about actors. Their whole job is to take someone else’s words and ideas, infuse life into them, and make them their own. I thought about the fact that my musical tastes tend toward singer-songwriters, and I often give the act of interpreting and performing a song short shrift in favor of emphasizing the writing part. There’s got to be a place for this in education somewhere, some way that we teachers can tap into the brilliance of really good lesson planners the way an actor can tap into the brilliance of Shakespeare.

I think there can be, if the planning talent is there. I would never script a teacher’s lessons word for word. I would give more teachers the freedom to deviate from a plan or a timeline if they thought it was appropriate. But there is a real skill in assembling a plan and the resources to pull it off. I’m especially thinking of things like simulations or related activities. I’ve been working for years to design a good simulation of a run on the banks, and just like game design and other forms of design, it is tough to get all the pieces in the right order. I never feel like I have enough time to get every single piece lined up. I’m going to keep trying and I like the challenge, but the time it takes me to get this bank simulation right is time I can’t spend doing something to make the French Revolution come alive better. There’s a tradeoff that comes with designing from scratch.

I really feel that tradeoff when it comes to my Ethical Issues class. I’ve been designing and redesigning it from the beginning since the day I started at Parkway. And designing a high school course is nothing like designing a college class. When I design a college class, I pick a text or two, assign the readings, put some lecture notes together and then walk into class and improv the discussion based on what the students are interested in. There’s no improv in high school, at least not my high school. Every lesson needs to be structured from beginning to end down to the last question and the final activity. I am just now figuring out how to take the ethics content I’m familiar with and present it in a way that can connect to a high school audience that has no prior philosophical experience. And I am exhausted. Sure, it’s a feeling of success to be getting somewhere with the course, but it’s a limited audience. If I were at a different school with a different culture or a different group of students, what I’m doing now wouldn’t work. If I handed my notes and lesson plans to another teacher from my school, he or she would probably feel lost. There’s no way to scale up my specific adaptations, which means someday I’ll be reinventing the wheel again.

As I think about the pros and cons, I’m generally OK with that. But I’m pretty sure I’ll be throwing some cover tunes into my set list in the process.