Autonomy In the Classroom


Maybe it’s because I have written curriculum for two districts now and can see the overlap.  Maybe it’s because I have taught all three grades of middle school history.  Maybe it’s because I like to help people.  Maybe it’s because I like to fix things.

All these things are true statements and reasons I’ve always given up time in my own personal curriculum to help introduce students to the 8th grade curriculum.  For the first time this year I heard a dissenting opinion during a district meeting.  The teacher outlines a very well thought out opinion that they should not have to teach any material that pertains to the tested 8th grade curriculum.  It shocked me that someone would say such a thing, but the more I thought about it, the more the debate raged on in my head.

If it is acceptable to ask teachers in non-tested grades to teach some of the tested standards, in Texas it needs to start in the 6th grade.  There is not much overlap from grade to grade, but the conceptual vocabulary definitely can be taught.  When I taught 6th grade I focused on the US Government, the ideas of Revolution and Colonization, and really tried to get the students to understand how natural resources determine a civilization’s economy.  In 7th grade there is more overlap with 8th grade US History.  I usually tried to compare the colonization of Texas to the colonization of the United States, really focus on Westward Expansion, and taught the full 8th grade TEK driven Civil War and Reconstruction units.  The question I always asked myself was, “do I really believe that students are carrying over knowledge from 6th and 7th grade to 8th grade?”  My answer was usually no, but the more times the students are exposed to the material the more likely it is to stick in the heads.  This also wasn’t burdensome for my classroom because I was already teaching those concepts.

As I thought about what it would be like to not have taught those concepts, I think about the freedom that would give me.  I think about all the other ways I could have taken those concepts in my classroom.  It also made me wonder whether that is good for the student or good for the teacher.  We all prefer to teach the way we want and how we would like to teach it, but is that good for the student?  In some ways it would be to the student’s benefit because they could potentially have a more passionate teacher who is teaching things a way that they are super passionate about.  The case that was made to me was that the overlap is what non-tested classes should focus on.  In the case of history this means social studies skills, reading skills, and writing skills.  I’m completely on board with these things.  My counterpoint to this is that if the teacher is already going to be teaching something in their classroom, why not go ahead and help the teacher who will be tested some day?

I guess when it comes down to it, this debate is whether you think that it is valuable to be willing to give up a little of your own time for the betterment of your students or not.  I, personally, will always side on the side of the students and their needs not my own wants and desires.  I want my kids to understand as much material as they can in as easy a way as possible.  I want the teachers that come after me in line to have an easier time with their curriculum than I have with mine.  Does that always work?  No.  But I’d like to think I’m helping in some small way.


A Case For More Vertical Alignment


In my seven years of teaching, no topic has come up in my history departments as much as vertical alignment.  Middle school history is super challenging in this regard because our curriculum doesn’t overlap as much as other subjects.  That being said, I would like to make the case that vertical alignment is one of the most important things we can do as history teachers.

First, the students do not care about vertical alignment.  In fact, they do not care at all about most things we think about as teachers.  They are mostly ego-centric beings swimming in a sea of hormones.  Given this fact, why should we even care about vertical alignment.  By not being a unified front, the students have shown their weakness…or at least a potential weakness.  Imagine if our students all came together and acted as one to get what they wanted.  How scary would that be?  If we as a history team can use the same academic vocabulary, teach concepts in similar ways, and have common goals for the learning goals of our students, isn’t that more powerful than simply doing what we want?  If we expect to change the culture and how our students learn, isn’t it better to work together with other professionals toward a common goal?

Second, the kids have summer break in between grades.  Maybe that’s overly simplistic.  Kids struggle to retain things they learn from year to year.  If our history departments teach as lone wolves, it’s going to be increasingly harder to get the students back in the swing of things.  Humans are creature of habit, so if they have a comfort level doing things a certain way, why would you not continue things that effective?

The thing about vertical alignment is that we all are opinionated.  We all think our way is the best.  But what if “our” personal preferences aren’t as good for the team?  Does the kid’s learning mean more or does our personal preference mean more?  It’s uncomfortable to compromise, but before you protest with vertical alignment think of the kids.