Emergent Curriculum: The Power of Constraints

This bit of my summer reading is returning to me on the daily.

 

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to work through the design process and contemplate the relationship between making and writing with a brilliant group of teachers in Atlanta, Georgia. As we were discussing empathy, one of them made a stunning point: He said, “Empathy inspires us to really figure out what really matters to US as teachers and why we’re teaching to begin with.”

My friend Ellen often reminds me that empathy isn’t all about our students. It’s about knowing and nurturing ourselves, too.

Have you ever encountered a teacher who hasn’t practiced self-empathy?

I have.

In fact, I was one of those teachers, for a very long time.

First, I sacrificed every ounce of my own vision to mandates and state standards and test scores. Then, I started complaining about it.

There was no way to inspire creativity in the face of standardized testing, I lamented. 

If I gave kids choice, I’ll lose control of quality, I worried.

And then: These kids aren’t creative! They don’t know how to generate their own ideas! Their writing is so formulaic! 

How fortunate for everyone that I soon met a bunch of wicked smart and very patient people who challenged all of those assumptions.

How might you inspire creativity in the face of standardized testing? They asked.

How might you control quality while championing choice?

How might you coach creativity? Idea generation? Inventive writing?

They never let me off the hook. Instead, they kindly challenged me to put up or shut up:

How might you begin to treat each constraint you face as an opportunity?

I’m reminded of this again as I begin this series of posts. I know that if I’m really going to advocate for emergent curriculum in the age of the Common Core, I have to be willing to work creatively within a set of constraints. I have to know how to inspire teachers do this as well.

I know that some might suggest that standards undermine efforts to create a truly emergent curriculum. Others might suggest that embracing emergent curriculum means evading standards which promote and guide progress but also ensure better equity.

Where do you live with all of this? What do you think?

I wonder:

  • What are standards, anyway?
  • Who defines them?
  • Which ones matter most?
  • How might we pursue emergent curriculum design while attending to standards?

Most importantly:

  • How might we invite students, teachers, and schools to pursue a genuinely shared vision?
  • How might we help them define standards that align to this vision and to the other standards valued within the system?
  • How might we help them assess progress, strength spot (thank you again, Ellen), and problem solve?
  • What will happen if they don’t?

Again, I’m not posting polished products here. I’m posting the stuff I’m playing with, in order to gain perspective. So, it’s your turn. Talk to me for a while. Here or there or there.

Many thanks to Amy Burvall and Dan Ryder, for writing a book that pushed my thinking about emergent curriculum design, even though this wasn’t their (wait for it) intention. Ahem. This book gave me permission to dwell in possibility and remember the power of constraints. Critical creativity moves beyond the classroom, too.

2 Comments

  1. Angela,

    I agree with the view of standards as constraints. While I do see them as targets of a sort, or, better, the definitional boundaries of an argument for what constitutes good writing( according to the creators, and, in general, most writers I’d imagine), I also find them to be rather narrow and not at all indicative of the kind of processes or strategies (craft moves?) that I’ve operated under, and which I’ve learned under the written tutelage of Peter Elbow, Ken Macrorie, Nancy Atwell, Donald Graves, and the team at Bard College’s Institute for writing and thinking. Thus, while I agree with the concept of working within these constraints, I also think they need to be challenged, questioned, and teased out.

    So, sure, we can operate within the constraints, and they do provide a guide where total blue-sky thinking can be utterly intimidating. However, they are myopic at the level of academia. Writing, like learning, isn’t done for evaluation. We do it to make sense of the world, to compose thought, to learn. Peter Elbow calls this the difference between writing to learn, and writing to demonstrate learning. Too many teachers believe the purpose of writing is to demonstrate what was learned/taught. But as you well know, writing is messy, chaotic: a dynamic, not linear, system. The same is true of design-based learning, project-based learning, challenge-based learning, etc. Messy was the key word I heard the last time I attended Educon at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. While standards are mostly used to help us assess (please, not merely to evaluate), let us always remember that, as you have written, writing is something we “make”–it is a craft requiring first the raw material of words and ideas they express, and then the shaping and tooling of the craftsperson. That’s what I like about a lot of your work. The craftsmanship.

    Thanks again for all your work.

    • Angela says:

      I agree with all of this. While my posts might pose questions and make the things I’m thinking about a bit more transparent, my work with teachers tends to be a bit more decisive—because it has to be. During curriculum design, I push people to consider how we’ve diminished the word “standard” over the years. A standard is an expectation we set for quality. It’s how we describe what’s good, right? But the Common Core, in my opinion, is not the definitive set of standards, and the fact that we treat them that way is pretty dangerous. We need standards that align to our vision, and kids need standards that align to their own. They need to be clearly articulated. We need standards for craft and process, too. And the targets we tinker with day by day and bit by bit must help us pursue all of the standards that matter in ways that are inventive and manageable. Agility is a huge piece of this, don’t you think? I don’t think we can simply design units in a vacuum over the summer or at our kitchen tables and drop them on kids. We can’t just drop them into our plan books either. I think it’s important to have frameworks for units and lessons that articulate and support our intentions with standards and targets. But we need agile curriculum frameworks for both, too.

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