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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Yet Another C We Need to Consider: Curriculum

In my CC talks I often say the third C in Common Core is “collaboration” — within the school the librarian and the teachers need to work together; publishers whose books juxtapose well need to realize they are not in a zero-sum fight for shelf space. I still believe that, but recently my attention has shifted to a fourth C, curriculum. Right now — as any of you who teach in, have kids in, or work with classes from middle school up know — coverage is king. As Myra has said, her teachers are required — according to a Scope and Sequence no one believes in — to teach “from Plato to Nato.” Why? One reason is tests — you can’t skip something a kid might need to be able to identify and define. Another, at least in my field of history and social studies, is that we’ve lost any idea of our narrative. The Culture Wars of the 20th century ended in compromise: we were not going to teach our kids Western Civ, or American Values, to the exclusion of World Cultures, or American Crimes. No, we just added on more — so students and teachers are responsible for more, with less sense of why.

Along comes CC, which, especially now when the standards for reading, writing, and thinking are in place and standards for content are still being developed, asks teachers and students to keep deep instead of wide. In other words that whole “coverage” model is in direct conflict with, for example, the repeated focus on student research, student writing, student thinking. A class galloping ahead from Holocaust to H Bomb via Internment Camps (3 days, 3 topics) is precisely the opposite of a class in which students encouter, wrestle with, debate, absorb, investigate, and articulate well-founded views on the past. To get from one kind of class to the other requires changing curriculum.

Looking over the middle school SS scope and sequence at several schools recently I noticed an obvious absence. Any author knows that it matters how you begin — a book, a chapter, a paragraph. You need a hook. So what is the hook for each unit? All of the material I saw begins with whatever ideas and events the teacher is to cover. Why not, as in a book, begin each unit with a scene setter — the teacher fully evokes some key moment, You Are There, uses that experience to prompt responses from students (which will surely be all over the map). The responses are posted on the blackboard. The class covers the unit over the following weeks, then returns to their initial responses at the end — returning to see what has changed in their understanding. Engage, question, debate, investigate, learn, debate again, move on.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    What you are talking about is sense making. Kids need to have a chance to do it! It’s oddly disturbing that we have to keep finding this out again and again. When I began to seriously consider sense making as an option for kids, I read Kieran Egan’s TEACHING AS STORYTELLING, which I found very useful. Basically, he advocated using storytelling techniques to engage kids in the drama of history. He did not advocate fictionalizing history, but instead navigating the extremes of history–the roles of courage and fear, hope and desperation, kindness and cruelty, and so on. Not surprisingly, I found that it worked. So, even if we have to keep discovering this idea, it’s worth the trip.