Guiding Principles the Chicago Public Schools Curriculum Equity Initiative should adopt

Chicago Public Schools leaders are right: Teachers spend too much time and money finding resources and planning instruction. When our time gets devoured with finding texts, designing learning experiences, and creating assessments, we lose time and energy that should be devoted to interacting with students.  We burn out quickly.

Different teachers have different demands. I don’t want to imagine the challenge of elementary school teachers who have to figure out how to teach multiple subjects in engaging ways every. Single. Day. Cheers to them!

Let’s recognize that some teaching positions require much less planning, much less grading, much less pressure or need to take work home than others. The workload is not equal--but we’re all on the same pay scale! I digress.

I remain optimistic that under today’s leadership the CPS Equity Curriculum Initiative will be valuable. What I know about this initiative remains vague and comes from a few news articles and Twitter.

CPS recently released a promo video highlighting the challenges of three elementary school teachers, how much time and money they spend finding resources.

Our district needs a solid curriculum teachers can use if they need it. I'll also argue that there are some situations where some teachers need to be told: "Uh, you need to replace what you're doin'."

At every school I’ve taught at (and I’ve been around), I’ve had to start curriculum from scratch. It sucks.

So I hope these guiding principles help move this work forward for the benefit of students. (Who knows? Maybe they already have guiding principles. But here you go anyway.)

1. Include culturally relevant learning experiences that go beyond a student’s race
In a WBEZ article, the CPS Chief Education Officer says that “the initiative is one way the school district is addressing the issue of black students performing notably worse on standardized tests than Latino or white students.” I trust people creating this initiative know that simply including materials about African American--or any minority students--will not magically transform education in Chicago.

In the early 90s, we started hearing about culturally relevant teaching. Most of the work focused on including texts by and about minority voices, encouraging the cultural connection with content. Latino Lit classes in colleges appeared and grew. Many of us who graduated in those years pushed to diversify curriculum in high schools. Everyone bought The House on Mango Street.  We heard about the Maya and math.

But today’s context is different. Young people’s identities are complex and intersectional. These days, what’s been most valuable to my students is learning about the impact of smartphones on their lives, exploring ethical dilemmas such as the paradox of forgiveness, and examining the affects of toxic masculinity. They use an article about gender fluidity as a mentor text for their own research paper.  It's also been valuable to challenge their concepts of success and social mobility.

And let's take on some controversial current issues in age-appropriate ways.  Here's what I did with the Laquan McDonald situation when the district's attempt at a lesson fell short.

So I hope the curriculum takes on the issues our students face at an age-appropriate level beyond simply “being Latino” or “being African American.”

2. Help teachers guide students to produce authentic products that can live and breathe outside our classrooms

The trap we face as teachers is isolation. Our classrooms sometimes close us off from the world and we believe that if it’s good for our classroom, then it’s good enough. The professional development sessions I attended this year with the CPS Office of Literacy challenged these outdated misconceptions: They, too, work against the worship of the tired ol’ five-paragraph essay. So I’m hoping this ideology cuts through any impulse to include tired approaches and trite projects.  How many dioramas does a kid really need?

We need students to create information in responsible and engaging ways through projects that prepare them for the world they will live in. Every subject must include opportunities for students to apply the learning in authentic ways that have value outside of our classrooms: art work, writing, problem solving, questioning of the status quo.  And there's nothin' wrong with some skill and drill for stuff to stick.

Some years ago, I explained how the Latino Studies curriculum created by the district, while well intentioned, failed at the real-world application.

3. Provide complete resources for teachers
Remember the CASE curriculum from the 90s when every freshman read The Pearl and Romeo and Juliet?

Teachers still needed to figure out how to teach the text, how to assess learning, how to engage students. The high point of that initiative?  Students took boring tests--and we had to grade them! So if this is a curriculum--make it a curriculum.

Teachers need robust resources that include launching a unit, multiple formative assessments that are already adapted and adaptable for students with different needs--including the high achieving ones. Teachers need learning experiences that engage students in intellectual, emotional, physical, and technological ways.

The assumption here must be that teachers will and should be challenged to engage students in complex experiences. The risk with developing a curriculum at the district level is that we end up with something that's bare bones, so generalized that it ends up being disappointing because it cannot resolve the issues teachers face.

4. Include opportunities for feedback and change
My curriculum has definitely changed over the years. In AP English Language, I cannot use the bio videos from Obama and McCain’s 2008 political campaigns in our study of rhetoric. I no longer use personal essays about the challenge of being bilingual. Instead, I find ways to incorporate analyses of Trump’s speeches or our new mayor’s rhetoric. In journalism, the texts we read change every single year. That’s just part of the gig.  And I need to find ongoing ways to give students a choice about what to do.  It ain't easy.

This $135 million to develop this curriculum is really start up money.

Curriculum has to adapt. So I hope the district plans on continuing the investment.

I dropped out of the REACH assessment group that created those tests because the district said there was no money for copyright fees. Well, we get out what we put in.  So these REACH tests continue to be so disconnected from today’s world and what so many of us teach.  They're boring for students to take--and I'm bored as hell grading them.  But a professor got paid some good money, I’m sure, to serve as a consultant.

Students also need an opportunity to give feedback. I have students give me feedback on my teaching at the end of every quarter. And they’re honest. This helps me improve what I do.

One suggestion I'd make to the staff leading this is to organize a few small focus groups with high-achieving teachers so they can share what needs to be included for this curriculum to be useful and used.

Finally, the curriculum needs to be managed: professional development, practice (which will include some failure), maybe even a help desk of sorts.

After twenty-three years, I’m inherently skeptical. That’s not a bad thing.

I hope this project succeeds. We have too much at stake for it to fail.

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