A Transformative Curriculum

Two questions to consider:
  • "What exactly do we mean by curriculum?"
  • "How does our conception of the curriculum emerge from and reinforce the values and ideas that drive LREI's progressive mission?"
One way to answer this is to consider the various ways that "curriculum" can be defined. In his essay "Curriculum Theory and Practice, " Mark K. Smith provides a thoughtful synthesis of these views. In the broadest sense, Smith identifies three main lenses through which the idea of a curriculum can be approached.
He also offers several important ideas that unify these three points of focus:
  • Curriculum relates to learning that is planned and guided. We have to specify in advance what we are seeking to achieve and how we are to go about it.
  • Curriculum can be seen as a body of knowledge to be transmitted.
  • Curriculum can be viewed as an attempt to achieve certain ends in students - product.
  • Curriculum can be seen as process and can lead to praxis
Whether through LREI Connect or on Curriculum Night, we often provide you with documents that give you a general overview of the "curriculum." These syllabi are important documents, but by themselves they cannot be considered the full curriculum. They suggest content and skills to be explored and provide a general organizing structure to the learning expereince. They are not, however, able to adequately convey the lived experiences and relationships the are crucial to meaningful learning. A "curriculum" that does not encompass the experiential and the relational falls far short of our expectations for a progressive learning community.

I am sure that you can all remember classes where the teacher simply "followed the syllabus" and, as a result, you likely felt robbed or cheated out of what should have been a more meaningful learning opportunity.

On the other hand, there is the view of curriculum as "product," which when seen in isolation reduces education to a technical exercise. As Smith observes, "Objectives are set, a plan drawn up, then applied, and the outcomes (products) measured." And then one moves on to the next itemon the list. The products that your child will create this year are certainly important. We hope that they will have a particular intrinsic value for your child and, at the same time, they do play a role in helping us to assess whether your child has acquired important skills and knowledge. However, these products may often point to other skills and knowledge that have been gained that were not initially identified as objectives of a unit of study. This dimension is important and can too often be lost or minimized in the strict adherence to pre-determined objectives. So our relationship to the product and to the set of experiences that give rise to it are of tremendous importance. As a result, it is the context in which these products are produced that makes the crucial difference. One has only to look at the standardized tetsing movement to see how problematic a dogmatic focus on product can be.

So while the theoretical and the productive inform our view of curriculum at LREI, it is the practical, which encompasses process and praxis, that is at the heart of our progressive approach. In this way, curriculum comes to be seen as a process driven by "the interaction of teachers, students and expereince" that has as its goal praxis, which we can define as "an explicit commitment to human well-being and to the emancipation of the human spirit."

An example: the eighth grade humanities curriculum has as it's focus the theme "Choosing to Participate." This theme provides a lens through which students and teachers engage in a critical examination of our nation's history from the Civil War period through the Civil Rights era. Through this work, students come to understand some of the many factors that served to motivate those who choose to participate and take a stand against injustice. In a way, this process that students engage in helps them to better understand the praxis of others. But a commitment to this process is only partially sufficient if we are to fully realize the LREI curriculum. That is why eighth graders will also take this learning and use it as a stepping stone as they collectively take action on a pressing social justice issue. To do this, they will have to draw on the experience of others and develop the leadership skills that will allow them participate directly in the change process. In this way, the LREI curriculum becomes the driving force that allows us to realize Elisabeth Irwin's lasting challenge for students, teachers, and parents who are committed to change and transformation:

The school will not always be just what it is now, but we hope it will always be a place where ideas can grow, where heresy will be looked upon as possible truth, and where prejudice will dwindle from lack of room to grow. We hope it will be a place where freedom will lead to judgment — where ideals, year after year, are outgrown like last season's coat for larger ones to take their places.

I look forward to our on-going discussions and to the journey that we will all undertake together this year in the spirit of understanding and action.
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