Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Beginning the (Writing) Curriculum Writing Process

This summer, before enrolling at either UCSD or Stanford,* I'll be teaching creative writing at Punahou.  While they do have some resources for me to work with - a poetry and short story book that they usually employ in the course - the curriculum is more or less mine to write.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  Pedagogically, it's always easier to teach when the curriculum is laid out in front of you first.  On the other hand - and considering I do have some free time between now and when the course begins in June - the opportunity to actually craft a curriculum according to the principles I learned as an LDT student is exciting to me.

* Yes, my California voyage continues.  But it is coming to an end soon.  I'll be spending the next two days on UCSD's campus before flying home to Honolulu on Friday.

As Director of NALU Studies, I did have a lot of control - in theory, anyway - over curriculum.  In practice, however, three things got in the way of engaging in actual good curriculum design.  First, the turnaround from my arrival on the job and the running of our first session was about a month, hardly enough time to craft an intelligible curriculum that covered almost 100 contact hours.  Second, while I am comfortable with the scientific concepts we were teaching, I am not enough of an expert in marine biology to develop a strong, holistic set of lessons.  Third, and most importantly, rather than building from scratch, we were working from what I would say was a deeply flawed blueprint.  There were plenty of good activities in the curriculum, but no organizing principle (the same could, I suppose, be said about the organization as a whole).  The result was an aimless collection of "fun" things for the kids to do, but the learning that went on was, frankly, minimal.

So how to avoid those pitfalls in this situation?  Well, for one thing it helps to be starting from (ironically) a much stronger position.  Of my three main problems at NALU, the first is not an issue because I'll have much more time (and no directorial duties to get in the way), the second is not an issue because I'm much more comfortable teaching writing than science, and the third is not an issue because I'm largely building from scratch, with the aid and input of teachers who do know how to write good curriculum.  Which is all to say the situation is, if not ideal, pretty darn close.

In the ideal case, then, how does one go about writing a (writing) curriculum?

To begin with - and this is the most important bit, actually - it's essential to define a core purpose for the class.  As in many aspects of life, a clear and succinct and specific goal at the outset of the curriculum design process will make the rest of the work go better.  While this may seem obvious, it's harder to do than it sounds.  The temptation is very much to jump in and start thinking about all of the cool activities that fit into a creative writing curriculum, all of the interesting ways of using technology, and all of the good assignments the students can complete.

The problem is, if you start with any of those things, you lose sight of the bigger picture, and while the student might come away with any number of particular skills, you've done a poor job shaping the overall experience.  Better to pick a focal point for the course as a whole, and to ensure that every activity, technology, and assignment fits into that paradigm.  That way, students can still take away particular skills as they suit student interests and the vagaries of the high school attention span, but even the least engaged student should come away with that central lesson, an "enduring understanding" that lasts far beyond the final day of the course.

A good enduring understanding, then, is like a mission statement.  It is a concept or question sufficiently broad and deep to serve as an organizing principle for, in this case, five straight weeks of four-hour-a-day lessons.  Too much breadth and depth, however, will lead to the same disorganization that occurs without that focal point.  "What is good writing?" for example, is probably too broad a question to organize this class around, whereas "readable grammar" is too narrow and extremely boring.  Somewhere in between, there's a good enduring understanding waiting to be uncovered.

Actually, the biggest challenge, at this stage, is not finding an appropriate enduring understanding, but finding one and sticking with it.  It's all too easy to come up with concepts and ideas that are "enough but not too much."  The problem is that it becomes extremely tempting to try to tackle too many central themes in a single class.  The result is, predictably, a return to the "this lesson looks good" model of curriculum, wherein every day of the course is compelling (to the teacher, anyway), but for so many different reasons that the student's experience starts to lose cohesion.  Incidentally, this is what is wrong with most current standards: there are too many core ideas.

Once I do boil the course to its core, the next layer to apply is assessment.  How will I know that the students know what I want them to know?  This is a sticky question, and while in creative writing there are particular accepted norms for assessment, it's important to make sure that what I do fits well with what I'm trying to teach.  It's really easy to teach one thing and to test for another.  The current manifestation of the standards movement, again, often makes this mistake by asking students to learn certain material, and then testing them on how well they take multiple choice tests.  As a result, more and more schools are doing more "test taking training," which is a waste of instructional time that could be used to teach students to think.

Which is to say, the pitfalls here are not inconsequential.  Assessment is, in reality, perhaps the most important part of the curriculum design process.  Without assessment, it is impossible to know whether or not all of your cool lessons are really working, whether your students are really engaged, and whether the enduring understanding of your course is really being understood.  Good assessment design and alignment, then, will be a big part of my own work in shaping my creative writing course.

Once you've answered these two questions - 1) what do I want the students to learn? 2) how will I know that they've learned it? - the rest of the curriculum building process becomes, if not easy, at least a lot more enjoyable.  Instead of wracking your brain, trying to figure out how to fill the time, or trying to decide which awesome lessons to employ and which to cull, the process is much more, for lack of a better word, mechanical.  Look at your daily lesson.  Does it fit with the overall goal of the course?  Will you be able to tell if it sticks?  If the answers are "no" and "no," there's probably no reason to do it, regardless of how cool it is or how fun it sounds.  Basically, the process comes down to a truism: it's easier to meet your design needs when you know what those needs are.

Now, that's all well and good in the ideal case, but what about reality?  No plan survives contact with the enemy, and that is equally true in curriculum design.  In my own rather limited experience, even well-laid plans require good execution pedagogically, and require vast restructuring (to say the least) sometimes when the actual students in the class have interests and learning needs that diverge wildly from those you anticipated while writing the curriculum.  Which is not to say that writing the curriculum in the first place is a waste of time, but rather that, like any writing, it's a mistake to get too attached to what you write.  The other lesson, here, is that the enduring understanding - the core of the curriculum - is doubly important when reality sets in, because it gives shape to those on-the-fly adaptations that must be made.

I'm sure that, as this project evolves, I'll have more to say in this space, since this blog is a kind of long-term creative writing project of my own.  While I may not be able to share student work, I can assure you that - given my pedagogical biases - it's very likely I'll be completing the assignments I give, and that those assignments will end up here.  Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. You are awesome! So happy for your students this summer.