Stretching: It Does a Classroom Good

mind

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., asserted that “Man’s mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions.” Since I’m assuming that applies to a woman’s mind, too, I’m fixing to celebrate: My mind has done quite a bit of stretching since September.

I should mention that my department is now using a newly purchased, common curriculum–the kind where all Grade 11 teachers are teaching the same thing on relatively the same day.

It’s a curriculum that I: a) appreciate greatly, because the investment validates the important work we are doing; and b) embrace fully, because, well, see letter a.  And like any paradigm shift, a new curriculum brings with it excitement, trepidation, and a smidgen of stress.

THE EXCITEMENT. New things are exciting. Think about your first new (or certified pre-owned) car. Who doesn’t love that new car smell or the contrast stitching on the seats or the way the cockpit lights up in the dark? The danger, of course, comes when we focus too long on the smells, the needlework, and the lighting; it means our eyes aren’t on the road. And the results can be catastrophic.

The same is true in the classroom. When we focus so heavily on any curriculum–old or new–that we forget to look up and read the room, we’re doing a major disservice to our learners. How are our students responding to the newness? What about the pacing? Or the glitches in any new system? If we, in our excitement, forget for whom the investment was truly made–our students, then we have lost our efficacy. The curriculum is still shiny, and it’s still brimming with bells and whistles. But we can’t allow our myopia, the curriculum, or even the standards to interfere with those students who are sitting before us.

THE TREPIDATION. New things are also daunting. As I write this, I’m waiting for my middle schooler to take the block at her first swim meet after missing six months with a broken foot. In Anna’s mind, she’s Missy Franklin–or Missy Franklin two Olympics ago. (Anna dropped Franklin like a hot potato the second she didn’t qualify for Finals in Rio.) When Anna first started racing, she was late to the party. While she was canonballing onto her brother in the backyard, her teammates had been competitively swimming for years. For Anna, swimming was new. And swimming was scary. But she pushed through and has been loving it ever since.

A new curriculum isn’t much different. (And I wonder if it’s a bit scarier for the veterans among us who are used to all of that delicious autonomy.)  We fear that somewhere in the transition, we’ll disappear. Don’t misunderstand: A common curriculum is liberating; ideally, teachers are freed up from the starting-from-scratch lesson-planning in order to provide more reflective feedback to our students. (That, of course, isn’t until Year Two; Year One is pretty harried. More on that below.) However, what is liberating is also positively frightening. What if teachers transition into auto-pilot and lose who they are? I like to believe that I was hired, in part, because I have a few good ideas and a master’s in curriculum design and an ability to relate to students. (Ish.)  If I’m not careful, a common curriculum–no matter what anyone says, can absolutely take away some of the “Me” in the classroom. And on many days this year, I miss Me.

THE STRESS. Even second-year teachers return to school with a cache of lessons that work. Those high-quality, standards-based lessons help bridge the gap between new units of study. If we’re being honest, a common curriculum largely means leaving many (but not all) of those lessons at the classroom door to make room for the new program–and the stress that comes along with it. A new program means that even the planners among us are living only a few steps ahead of our students, and that is one of the worst feelings a teacher can experience.  (I can’t imagine teaching elementary students, juggling several new curricula at once!)  We pride ourselves–and are evaluated–on being organized and well-provisioned. We take solace in an organized desk or an organized Google Drive. We relish in a plan that makes sense from beginning to end–and was planned end to beginning. But no matter how fabulous we are, it is impossible to focus as much on the students in front of us in Year One when we are so intently focused on what we’re presenting in front of them. Next year? We’ll be pros, naturally. But for this growing-pains year, we’re pretty stressed.

I have faith that this year’s students will eventually forgive me for the mistakes I will make this year. New curriculum or not, one thing that remains unchanged is my relationship with these learners. To quote the wisdom-filled High School Musical, “We’re all in this together.”  The excitement, the fear, the stress–all of it stretches both our students and us in ways we couldn’t imagine. And I know that this time next year–if not this time next week–all of our minds will be reaping the benefits!

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