Category Archives: Integrated Curriculum

Walls and Boxes

A colleague of mine once said that it was critical for students to write to the same prompt, do the same project (a diorama for you! and you! and you!), take notes the same way to capture the same information, and turn in the same work with only one right response.

Doing so, they said, would teach them what it looks like when work is done, what it means to have work that is done well, and how to evaluate their own work against a set standard – the criteria set forth by a teacher. I saw an article about this somewhere the other day and it noted too that this type of expectation is setting kids up for the real world of adulthood–to be good little worker bees who are able to do what they are asked to do when they are old enough to have a job.

I went along with my colleague’s thinking for a while. I was a newish teacher and wasn’t sure how to prove my hypothesis about why my gut was aching more and more as we moved from unit to unit.

I wanted to see what would happen if we gave kids the opportunity to show what they had learned using a variety of options, each with its own set of criteria but also incorporating a requirement for the same knowledge. One of the things this colleague had noted was that they felt that it was impossible for a teacher to evaluate student learning if everyone was turning in something different–all students had to show the same learning so all students should be doing exactly the same work and then should be evaluated against each other to get a good picture of how the class as a whole was learning. A teacher can’t do that if everyone turns in something different–it all has to be exactly the same.

Almost everything I’ve learned about teaching, I’ve learned from kids. Kids have told me what they need in the past 17 years. And they’ve told other educators for far longer than that. They need, especially in the elementary years, to have opportunities to show what they know in a way that they are confident and able to do it. Some need to tell me what they know in a conversation or a presentation. Others want to sing about it because they can remember things best that way. Some want to draw it out and explain it. Others want to put all of it and then some into a poster and add bling and lights to illustrate the most important parts (the things THEY feel are the most important) and others want to write about it–they want to write about the experiences of people, their thoughts about a particular event, or simply lay out a series of facts. And still others want to recreate something they read about or saw–with a dance or a series of hand movements or by actually making the thing so they can understand how it works.

Kids need choice. They need to choose what they do, how they do it, and all the bits and pieces that go into it. And they need to learn what to do when what they chose doesn’t work out.

A question that came up was how I’ll know if they learned everything if they’re only focusing on something THEY want to share.

I don’t want them to learn everything. There’s a place for regurgitation of facts but I want them to learn enough to be able to connect what they’re learning with other things. They’re capable of finding out when William the Conqueror invaded England. They can google the names of every US president in order or learn the song if it brings them joy, but I’d rather they understand and be able to explain how the awful thing one person did impacted events and other people later on…and be able to connect it all to current and future situations.

A million years ago, when I was little, we learned about Native American tribes in Mrs. Gerlach’s class. I remember using paper bags to make “leather” to create a tipi and writing stories using pictures on the sides using markers, and sugar cubes to create igloos, and learning a little bit about the ways Native Americans used everything in nature to live. It was fun, and I remember that I enjoyed it all very much.

Photo by Jola Kedra on

Here’s what I didn’t learn:

I didn’t learn why they settled where they did or why they didn’t choose to move when the weather was cold and awful or what we’d consider too hot.

I didn’t learn why the Trail of Tears happened or why Native Americans were moved from where they settled first by people who moved here to escape persecution in their home country. And I didn’t learn why people thought that was perfectly reasonable to do.

I didn’t learn how the Native American cultures were the same, or how they were different beyond where they might have lived or what they ate, and I didn’t learn anything about their individual cultures or how their cultural stories connect to stories in other cultures in and beyond the U.S.

And given that I went to a Catholic school, I didn’t learn how their beliefs about God were the same or different than the faith in which I was being brought up. I think that would have been pretty damn important given we were learning how to be good Catholics.

I did learn that my tipi needed to look the same as others right down to how my story looked in pictures and that my igloo had to be shaped just like the other ones. I learned to answer multiple choice questions and match vocabulary words to their definitions.

And now as a grown-up, I don’t remember anything about that content beyond how to make a damn fine piece of paper bag leather and the way that it felt in my hands when it was soft and pliable…and that sharpies work better to draw on it than Crayola markers.

Kids deserve to learn more than how to make paper bag leather tipis. They deserve to be able to explain why they thought it was important to focus on the fact that one Native American culture chose to stay on the Western Slope while others chose to park themselves on the plains. They deserve the opportunity to imagine a life a long time ago and connect to it, comparing the 25-room homes of one culture to the two-bedroom, one-bath house they live in. They deserve to see history, science, literature, and math not as a series of facts to be memorized and spit out when the test day comes but as experiences of real live people who made choices and decisions and had revelations that impact the lives of other real people.

They deserve to get to do the work that generates more “why” questions, more “how” questions, and more “what if” questions.

As educators, we need to look beyond the posters we bought on Amazon or from the teacher store hanging on the walls of our classroom and think beyond the boxes of curriculum that arrive on our tables in August. None of that is learning. Those are resources to help support it. And this is why Joe Schmoe off the street cannot be a teacher–a teacher…a good one…learns over time how to use those resources as something to supplement learning…not to drive it. There’s good stuff in it, to be sure–sometimes there are great questions or ideas that you can steal to make a springboard for kids into a great discussion or great exploration of thought that leads to more questions.

That is learning.


A friend gave me a shirt that says Teaching is Progress not Perfection.

One of the kids noticed it today, pointed it out, and intentionally grinned and said, “I like that.”

I have felt like I am floundering for several weeks. I know I can wing it in the classroom, but I don’t like having to do so for more than a little while. I am able to build fairly good relationships with kids easily–street cred goes a long way and kids are inherently good-hearted and grant grace in buckets.

This morning, I got up before God after sleeping like the dead from pure exhaustion and the panic set in quickly after I took the dog out.

Getting up at 430 in the morning should be plenty of time.

It’s not.

The realization that I had eleventy-billion things to do, no copy paper, little sense of direction, a long list of to-dos sorted and arranged in my head, no time to do any of them, emails to catch up on, and also had to people far before I felt ready to caused a Jessie Spano moment. (No, I didn’t sing or scrunch my socks above my high-tops…but I did make damn sure I took my supplements and anxiety meds.)

I don’t like feeling that way. I prefer, as a friend puts it, to “not embrace frantic.” Teammates have been fabulous, preparing slide decks as a jumping off point with critical things included, granting grace for missed meetings, and allowing me to disappear to get other things done in the few moments available.

So tonight I sat and reworked slides for tomorrow in a way that brings me a little normalcy, rethinking how the last two days have gone, what I’ve missed teaching, what I’ve done well, and what I’ve forgotten entirely.

I’m thankful for the gift of past experience–my kids taught me well. And this new batch is helping me remember and get into a groove that suits them too.

We’re creating a system for our work together, I said this morning. We’re creating systems that work for us in this space together so that we can function and learn and grow. No, our brains aren’t doing a lot of heavy lifting just yet but they will…once the foundation of our systems are in place.

A tree needs roots to grow…but it’s progress…not perfection that helps it grow strong.


Have you ever read an article or watched the news and wondered what precipitated an event or issue?

Why did Columbine happen?  How did the standoff with David Koresh begin?  The Oklahoma City bombing?  Why is violence so prevalent in our society? What’s with all the protocols for the British Royal family? The lack of funding in education, how did that happen?  The pro-life or pro-choice movements–what values brought about that split in thinking? Why did the city choose to put in a road a particular way that drives you nuts?  A book you really got into–what made the author choose to write it?

You’re looking for connections.  And for gifted learners, connections are everything.

Over dinner last night, my boyfriend and I got into a conversation about “sage on the stage” educators and how effective that style of teaching is.  Our teachers at the high school level and in some college classes used a lecture format infused with some discussion to disseminate information to us, expecting that we would memorize information and be able to regurgitate it on tests.

I remember vividly taking notes, frantically writing down names and dates and events during lecture in my high school American History class.  I remember making piles and piles of notecards to help me memorize who did what when and where because that was what had been communicated as important: the names, the dates, and the events.  We didn’t discuss much that I recall (though others might remember it differently), but I know that this style of teaching, without an opportunity to process those names and dates and events in a way that created some sort of hook or story I could follow, some connection for me, created a loathing and disinterest of American History (and later American Literature because it was taught much the same way by a college professor) that still impacts me.

For a gifted learner, connections are how sense is made of things in the world.  They want to know why about everything…and one question leads to others, often seemingly unrelated:

  • Why do Peeps swordfight when you stick toothpicks in them and put them in the microwave?
  • Why does the moon seem bigger or closer at certain times of the year if its orbit doesn’t change?
  • Why does daylight savings time exist at all?
  • Why are the Palestinians and Jews fighting?
  • Why were some against slavery and some wanted it to continue?  Why did Americans think it was okay to begin with?
  • Why does a particular type of person become a beloved president by some and reviled by others?
  • Why is race still such a big deal in the US?  In other countries?
  • Why does the economy going to hell in one country matter to any other?
  • Why do people keep bringing up Ayn Rand and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when talking about what’s happening in our country?

I love teaching language arts, in part because I love words, but also because it touches every subject area.  When I taught a novel, I often looked into what was going on at the time it was written or the time period in which it was set and encouraged my students to do the same to have a better understanding of the story.  One can learn an awful lot about history through literature.  We’d talk about the social structures within a book and the values of the characters and discuss why or how they said or did particular things.  We made conjectures about upbringing, societal norms, and compared and contrasted those with what we know or do today or those in other novels or short stories we read. The fantasy books kids devoured were fascinating to pull connections out of because so much of the story was rooted in real life.  When we discussed poetry, we talked about meter and rhyme and the math and science behind it, why some words change their pronunciation to meet the needs of a particular line, how the words are arranged to serve a variety of purposes, and why the poet might have written it at all.  I pulled non-fiction pieces that tied to subjects discussed in books or poems for us to review, and students researched important events, places, and people to write about while they proposed their own connections between ideas.

I did many of the same things when I presented history, sharing it with kids as a story so that they could build connections between dates, people, and events and geography, politics, religion, economics, scientific thinking, and mathematical practice.  We tied lifeskills lessons into history: how did the big idea of power impact society during the middle ages or Colorado’s early history and how does it impact our classroom community now?  Very little of my time in any class was spent lecturing and requiring kids to take notes.  I tried to provide opportunities for kids to experience the content, discuss it, tear it apart, question it, and understand it so that they could apply it to the next level of study.

Science and math were more difficult for me because neither is my area of passion or expertise, but there’s a way to create connection there too, though hands-on explorations, research of theories and ideas, and talking to people who use the skills kids are learning in their everyday jobs.  We skyped with engineers, talked with people from the city utility company, and took a mock mission to space.  We studied the evolution of scientific thinking and how particular algorithms were developed and what they’re used for.  There’s a place for paper and pencil practice of math as well as documentation of experiments and notetaking with memorization, of course, but that can’t be all a child experiences in math and science classes.  If I were in the classroom now, I’d be doing quite a bit of refining in how my science and math classes were organized to allow for more opportunities for kids to go beyond the steps of the experiment or algorithm to explore connections in these areas.

Some would say that the way I taught and the informal assessments I used weren’t best practice because they aren’t rooted in hard data: the number of questions that addressed particular pieces of information answered correctly vs. those answered incorrectly.  Hard data has a place in tracking progress, of course, but learning is a process, not a regurgitation of information.  It’s cyclical: how a child accesses the information they’ve been introduced to and uses that knowledge to communicate their understanding over time is far more valuable data than hard numbers in a color-coded spreadsheet that tracks progress on daily quizzes over yesterday’s material.  My experience is that they take that understanding with them and use it in other situations…and that’s what we want, isn’t it?

It breaks my heart when I hear middle and high school teachers talk about how great their lecture went but they can’t understand why so many bombed the quiz or gripe about how kids aren’t learning what they so carefully presented through a powerpoint and complaining about how notetaking skills suck because it doesn’t follow the format they want used (even if the notes totally make sense to the child). Their kids, particularly the gifted ones, are being denied a tremendous opportunity to understand content by experiencing it…not just having it presented.  Thankfully, many of the teachers I know who teach at these levels have further developed their practice and now incorporate more research opportunities, discussion with complex questioning, role play, debate, and Socratic seminars, and active learning experiences to facilitate the understanding of their content area, not simply learning the information.  Their assessments require the demonstration of understanding and connections between ideas, not the simple regurgitation of bits of information.

When we choose to become teachers, for most of us, it’s not about simply sharing what we, as adults, have already learned.  It’s about facilitating the understanding of the world around us so that kids can go on to improve it.