Monday, December 26, 2011

Curriculum as Local Landscape

I like to think of curriculum as local landscape: one that moves, refuses to be fixed by the easy map, one you know because you walk it.  Curriculum cannot actually be mapped as it is a path unwinding before your feet--one that is altered by experience and changed by light and dark, fog and mist, intention and action, student and teacher, now and then, memory and shadow, you and me.

Looking East (Yuma, California, M.A. Reilly, 2010)

Curriculum maps that are made for others by others are problematic. They are distant. Erroneous before they are even read. Always epic. Consider Barry Lopez (1976) who has this to tell us about maps:
I would like to tell you how to get there so that you may see all this for yourself. But first a warning: you may already have come across a set of detailed instructions, a map with every bush and stone clearly marked, the meandering courses of dry rivers and other geographical features noted, with dotted lines put down to represent the very faintest of trails. Perhaps there were also warnings printed in tiny red letters along the margin, about the lack of water, the strength of the wind and the swiftness of the rattlesnakes. Your confidence in these finely etched maps is understandable, for at first glance they seem excellent, the best a man is capable of; but your confidence is misplaced. Throw them out. They are the wrong sort of map. They are too thin. They are not the sort of map that can be followed by a man who knows what he is doing. The coyote, even the crow, would regard them with suspicion. (from Desert Notes)
Curriculum, that complicated conversation we have even when we do not speak, is a subtle place with a long history: part truth, part lie, part mystery.  Forget the made map, as one can never be sure of the intentions that have fueled its making. For if the curriculum map is made apart from the learners, what damage might 'enactment' render?  What happens to one's spirit in such a lifeless place?  Consider Wendell Berry (1977) who writing about soil explains:
It is the nature of the soil to be highly complex and variable, to conform very inexactly to human conclusions and rules.  It is itself easily damaged by the imposition of alien patterns.  Out of the random grammar and lexicon of possibilities--geological, topographical, climatological, biological--the soil of any one place makes its own peculiar and inevitable sense.
It is impossible to contemplate the life of the soil for very long without seeing it as analogous to the life of the spirit. (from The Unsettling of America)
Prairie (South Dakota, M.A. Reilly, 2010)

II. The Common Map Unmade

When I read documents like the Common Core State Standards with its long lists of expectations for all students, neatly ordered in sets of ten statements and dispersed like obedient soldiers across 13 years,  I know we have lost our way and have settled for the made map-- a map that strips the world of all that is local and in doing so nullifies magic and mystery, agency and voice--as if these no longer were real.  The arrogance is so loud.  Perhaps it is difficult to hear beneath such bravado the absurd belief that 'essentials' can be named by a handful of people. Imagine the misconceptions that fuel the belief that a small coterie can determine what each and every child across these United States should learn and when such learning should occur.

The Common Core is no framework.  This is curricular imprisonment--unrestrained power. When enacted and then tested every few weeks via a PARCC or SMARTER test, there will be no room for the idiosyncratic, the imagination, the questions, the dreams, the dreamtime, the unknown, the known that is no longer privileged, the recalled, the local, the random, the spiritual, the partial memory, the error, the student, the teacher, the you, the me. We are so foolish to believe that the only things worth knowing are explicit information one might easily test the same way for all the children across the country.  There are more ways to know then a test might gauge.  Listen to William Least Heath-Moon (1991) who is writing about how he has come to Kansas, to Roniger Hill--a sacred place--to test a belief he has about the connections one might find by laying a paper map atop a physical place and seeing if the grid, "arbitrary quadrangles that have nothing inherently to do with the land, little to do with history, and not much to do with [his] details" leads to some connections.  He tells us he has arrived here "by some old compass in the blood" (p. 14).  Listen to how he comes to know:
Now: I am standing on Roniger Hill to test the grid. I'm not waiting for revelation, only watching to see whether my notions will crumble like these old, eroding slopes. Standing here, thinking of grids and what's under them, their depths and their light and darkness. I'm watching, and in an hour or so I'll lie down and sleep on this hill and let it and its old shadows work on me, let the dark have at my own shadows and assail my sleep. If my configuration is still alive by morning, then I'll go down off this ridge, and, one more time, begin walking over Chase County, Kansas, grid by topographic grid, digging, sifting, sorting, assembling shards, and my arbitrary course will be that of a Japanese reading a book: up to down, right to left (pp. 15-16. from PrairyErth).
Startled (Iowa, M.A. Reilly, 2010)

There are  more ways to come to know then we can imagine. These ways may well be unnameable and many are culturally/locally bound.  They do not translate well across time, space, and intention. And there value is easy to miss. William Least Heath-Moon knows that when he lies down on top of that hill the old shadows will work their way into his dreams, his very self (in)forming what he knows.

Folks, there are no 'old shadows' listed in the Common Core or I imagine in any State Standards. Such experiences would not be listed as they are likely not known or perhaps valued by those who write such things for others to enact.  (Okay, I recognized, dear reader, that I may be losing you on these last few lines.  But, stay awhile.  Linger. Perhaps dreams and shadows aren't very real to you, but surely something important you value is and I tell you now get ready to lose it--for you will need to lose what you love in order to adhere to 'the Standards.'  They have never actually been yours, now have they?)

My friend, Michael Doyle, a teacher of science, writes in a post today:
I dream of teaching my students how to clam. It's a local activity that will never be part of the national standards because it's a local activity. That may sound innocuous enough, but it gets to the heart of the sickness in education today, our love of the abstract.

We teach to what few love, the few with the money, the few with the power to dictate what matters. 
We have traded Main Street for strip malls, teachers for Standard bearers, students for test achievers and filled Main Street and its schools with a simulacrum we simply cannot bear.   My son a few years ago asked, 'Why are all the stores the same wherever you go?  Couldn't anyone think up something original? It's kinda sad.'
The Atlantic (M.A. Reilly, 2010)
I dream of my son learning to clam: not for credit (AP or otherwise) or in preparation for some high stakes test, but because he would be in the presence of a teacher who deeply cared--was passionate and knowledgeable about the art and craft of crabbing and all that such work contained and pointed towards.  That's the learning I crave for him.  To be in the company of others who openly share their passions and expertise so he too might come to name his world in numerous and complicated ways.

That is what teaching use to be.  Before the standards. Before the high stakes tests. Before we foolishly thought we would leave no child behind by naming everything each child needed to learn and measuring it by a single paper and pencil test.

Our idiocy is astounding.  This has never been about learning, but rather remains a matter of power seeking and the greed that travels alongside such intention. Wendell Berry (1991) offers us insight into such people when he writes:
Our present 'leaders'--the people of wealth and power--do not know what it means to take a place seriously: to think it worthy, for its own sake, of love and study and careful work. They cannot take any place seriously because they must be ready at any moment, by the terms of power and wealth in the modern world, to destroy any place. (from "Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse")
In the same text, Berry similar to Doyle offers us this bit of wisdom--words we should be heeding:
If we want to put local life in proper relation to the globe, we must do so by imagination, charity and forbearance, and by making the local life as independent and self-sufficient as we can--not by presumptuous abstractions of "global thought." (from "Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse")
Go ahead and search the Standards and see if imagination, charity or forbearance can be found.  Don't hold your breath.


  1. Curriculum maps and CCSS support several misconceptions about learning: such as that everyone (within a grade or group) starts at some arbitrary point A, that everyone needs to end up at point B in a given amount of time, and that there is one route, and one route only that should be followed in order to get there.
    It is no surprise, however, given what is embraced by our culture; efficiency, franchise, one-size-fits-all, measurable "value". Little room for complexity, the abstract, or that which cannot be measured and defined objectively. ~Sam

  2. Thanks Sam for your insights. There is that assumption that there exits a common point A that is a 'start' and other known destinations.

    Complexity occurs nonetheless. Within that system though it is often mistaken for error, an absence, and not knowing how. It is easy to misread when the world has already been mapped and there are those for whom the map is disregarded, makes no sense, cannot be read and so on.

  3. I am a math teacher, and I have no problem with the CCCS as a framework... math is an abstract study, and I feel that it leaves me plenty of freedom as a teacher to do and create as I please. I use the CCCS as a loose framework, and I jumble (add, change, delete, skim) as I see fit.

    If I were a teacher of other subjects, I don't think I would he as content.

    In the Language Arts, I would tend to agree that there are some landmark works and authors that "any" student should in some way be introduced. But the freedom of depth, breadth and variety must be left to the joint agreement of student and teacher.

    In the Sciences, it is beyond ludicrous to think that a child growing up in an Alaskan bay region would wander the same path as a student in a Florida swamp, Arizona desert, or Montana mountain range. The wonder of science and the experiential fabric of the local teachers would lead these curriculums in diverse paths that could easily converge at a later date (college or med school) and serve as a proper foundation. Science is the study of exploration of the unknown, how can that possibly be prepackaged? Of course, there is a list of experiments and concepts that should be shared by all, but to think that 180 days should be choreographed at each grade level is preposterous.

    Social Sciences & History... the argument here is too compelling to even try to address in such small space. CCCS... are they kidding??

    And for those that feel that the arts and physical ed have no place in school... please know this. There is a complelling argument that school should meet for the arts, music, and phys ed, since those classes require personal interaction. What we consider "core" classes can be taught with much fewer physical meetings, supplemented with occassional virtual meetings and virtual small group coaching.

    All that said, a curriculum "framework" does not bother me for any subject... if it were a framework in the true sense of the word. When the curriculum becomes a 180-day mandate of lesson plans, that's when teaching as we know it will disappear forever.

  4. Dear Anonymous, When you write: "Science is the study of exploration of the unknown, how can that possibly be prepackaged?"--I find your words resonate. I think that your statement is as true for literature or mathematics or art or simply any engagement among learners. Content isn't devoid of geography, humans, and intention. That is what is partially at issue with the CCS. There is little room for thinking, wondering outside a given script. The local is banished.

    I also don't believe that there are text we would agree that are core. The world of literature is much too large to be contained. The goal is not to have read X, but rather to leave school with the strong desire and habit to read.

    Thanks so much for responding.

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