A shift from “Curriculum Menu” to the “Classroom Office”
As a high school teacher, things were a little different than I was used to in middle school. A couple of students who were close to me through our extra curricular activities started to let slip that “everyone” was talking about how no one wanted to have me as their teacher in high school. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. When I inquired what they meant, they simply stated it was the way I taught. They assured me that kids liked me, but they hated all the work I assigned. They were looking for an “easy teacher” who would give them an “easy A.” They had college admissions, not learning on their mind.
It was hard to not take this personally. I reflected back to being a student myself—I was almost never excited to have the rigorous demanding teacher when I was a teenager, which just meant more homework and less time with my friends. And certainly that was what my class had become—and although students had enjoyed it in seventh grade, it was clear they didn’t want to have to “live through it again when it really counted in high school.” I knew I had to make a change, but I was torn. This was a class and style of instruction that I was proud of. It was work “worth doing.” For the first time as a teacher, I was at a loss for ideas.
Four years into my career, at a predominately white, suburban middle school I was used to being a “favorite” teacher among the students and parents of our area. I was (am) young and energetic, and willing to do a range of activities—directing our middle school’s nationally award-winning musicals, co-directing our equally rated show choir, coaching travel tournament paintball (it’s a thing)—almost anything to connect with kids and create an environment of high expectations and unrivaled engagement.
At the beginning of every school year, parents would flood our guidance office with requests that their student be placed into my language arts classroom. At orientation, students would rush into my room proclaiming, “Mr. A. I got you! I’m going to be in your class this year!”
Then, in my fifth year, I had the opportunity to teach freshmen at the brand new high school in the same neighborhood—the new school my former middle schoolers would attend. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. We had had such a positive experience in our time during seventh grade, especially engaging in my original instructional style: The Curriculum Menu. In this model, students would pick two of the eight Virginia Standards of Learning to master per quarter and complete self-created and self-paced formative and summative assessments to demonstrate mastery of the content. Students seemed connected to their learning, were achieving high scores on the state standardized tests, and were happier than ever to be in my class.
I had changed the classroom environment: swapping desks for couches, long tables for coffee tables, institutional tile for decorative shag rugs, and fluorescents for dim mood lighting. I spoke about these paradigm shifts at NCTE in Boston, Washington D.C., and Minneapolis. I felt as though I had created the perfect English classroom. And then those decorative rugs were ripped right out from under me.
I talked to a slew of the parent friends I had made in the community, especially after I had heard from some of my “sources” that parents were even willing to go as far as to request from the guidance office that their child NOT be put in my class. I was more than wobbled—I was crushed.
But, I still believed in the work I was doing because I knew it yielded results, despite the intense work, students WERE learning and WERE enjoying it—whether they admitted/remembered it or not. I spent the summer doing some major reflecting.
In that reflection I came up with some core instructional beliefs and began re-constructing my delivery. I believed that students should have autonomy in their pacing, that they should learn skills rather than content, that their work should be applicable to their real life and be shared with authentic audiences, and that they should be utilizing the same technology adults use in the work force.
It was this last thought that proved to be my entry point into the curriculum. I wondered what would happen if I could make my classroom feel more like the real world work force? And then the idea came to me, I would run my English class like a business. We would be a classroom office, and we’d conduct our “business” online.
This year when students entered my room for orientation, they slumped into their seats, gave me a few tragic nods of recognition, and allowed me to begin my welcome. I introduced myself and discussed a few of the necessary supplies—all to pained looks. I could see their minds churning: how were they going to get out of all this work? And then I put them out of their misery, “Oh and we’re not doing the Curriculum Menu this year.”
I wish I was poetic enough to describe to you the palpable energy that overcame the room, but words cannot adequately do the moment justice. And it just got better when I started to explain what we WOULD be doing in its place.
I was transparent with them. I told them I wanted to keep everything that had made the Curriculum Menu successful, while ridding the class of all the homework and stress the system had created. I told them they would be working in different “departments” each quarter —some in charge of weekly discussion boards about the texts we were studying, others leading professional development for the class—yes, actually designing instruction and teaching what THEY loved about English. There would be a department that analyzed everything from our quick writes to the work students in other English classes were completing, and finally a group that created weekly newsletters for our stockholders, the parents, detailing what we had learned that week and what Virginia standards we had covered in doing so.
Additionally, I added four Keurig machines to the back of the classroom and told the kids “All these needs are your K-cups and travel mugs” We had our very own break room—a space for kids to relax and mingle amidst the serious “office work” they were completing.
Those students left that orientation all smiles—smiles mirrored by their parents that evening at their orientation. Kids were once again excited to learn, and I was proud of the work we were doing together. Ever since that orientation, these kids haven’t slowed down. In just a month of instruction, they have fully analyzed five serious poems (I’m talking: Longfellow, Millay, etc.), five songs of multiple genres, a full novel and are starting their second, have engaged in numerous quick writes, have held four live discussions and professional development sessions, have sent newsletters home to parents in a myriad forms and have conversed with students in other classes about their learning. Most importantly, they are actively engaged, they are collaborating, creating authentic products and using real world skills. They have the autonomy offered to adults and can see how what they are learning is applicable to their individual lives.
And it is for these reasons that I am so thankful for this wobble moment.
Jason P. Augustowski, M.Ed.