I Can’t, in My Heart, Go Back to Our Old Curriculum

That was my response this week at our middle school science staff meeting.  We’ve spent the last two school years exploring the new Michigan standards (which are identical to NGSS) and trying out units from different curriculum programs.  While the pace has seemed excruciatingly slow at times, it’s been necessary to allow everyone to learn, grow, and come to consensus.  Which is where we were at this week – we’ve all agreed to pilot the two finalists in the first semester next school year, and then go back to our old curriculum while we prepare for full launch of the selected NGSS curriculum in the fall of 2019.

But I can’t do it.  I can’t ever go back.

For the past two years, I’ve been pilot-teaching the Mi-STAR (mi-star.mtu.edu) NGSS-aligned curriculum – in a 5E structure, with phenomena, modeling, arguing from evidence, and coming to consensus to evaluate and solve local problems, with engineering integrated in every unit – and it has become my joy.  While the teaching world reels with pay cuts and privatization and standardized testing and teacher shortages, making me frustrated and worried for our profession – I can still close my door, and have my joy.

I am joyful about the potential for NGSS curricula to change the world for our kids.  The ever elusive goals of leveling the playing field, closing the achievement gap, reaching all learners, is happening, right now, in my classroom.

My school is economically and racially diverse.  Located in an affluent community that borders one of the highest poverty neighborhoods in the country, we are a rich mixture.  Our lower income, minority kids, like their peers in every state, have often been “left behind.”  Until now.  And I’m positively joyful about it.

An NGSS-aligned curriculum like Mi-STAR starts each unit with a real-life, locally relevant problem, and none of my kids know the answer.  It doesn’t matter if they’ve traveled the world and can master college texts, or if they rarely leave their block and struggle to read at grade level.  Even learning disabilities aren’t barriers any more, because all of my kids can problem-solve in this unit structure.  All of my kids can ask good questions for our bubble maps.  All of them can uncover concepts in labs and activities, share their findings, connect them to the problem, and then apply their new skills and knowledge in another context.   All of them can use criteria and constraints, and optimize, and reason like engineers.  Even my cognitively impaired kids are learning with a little scaffolding from our incredible special ed teachers.   The typical compliance behaviors, like turning in homework on time, outlining chapters, and memorizing flashcards for tests, are no longer the focus of our classroom.  And my kids are thriving.

I’ve done a little action research, and here’s what I see:  while my at-risk kids’ pre-test scores are very low, their post-test scores are well within the range of the class average.   The minority kids in my heterogeneous classes have post-test scores nearly equal to my homogeneous honors class.  We’re literally leveling the playing field and closing the gap.  This works!  NGSS really works!

Which is why I can’t ever go back.  In an academic world full of stress, teaching NGSS has become my joy.

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2 Responses to I Can’t, in My Heart, Go Back to Our Old Curriculum

  1. Brianna Rob says:

    I teach fourth grade at an elementary school that has a somewhat similar demographic to yours. We are not ethnically diverse, but we have the lowest level of poverty in our district. The percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch at our school is more than twice the amount of the other elementary schools in our district. We also have the highest population of students receiving special education services and on the autism spectrum. It can be a challenging mix, but an oh so rewarding one!
    Our current science “curriculum” was designed ages ago. It blows my mind that we still use it. Our science kits and the corresponding resources were created in the 70s and they haven’t been changed since! The curriculum and the kits were not designed for such a broad array of students. Every year I have to make major accommodations/modifications to the readings, assessments, etc. The content we are learning is also no longer relevant to fourth grade. We spend a large amount of time learning about the water cycle, which is not even an emphasized fourth grade standard in my state. In order to engage my students, keep their interest throughout a unit, AND address the eligible content of our high-stakes tests, I am supplementing more and more activities and resources each year. It is EXHAUSTING and after all the work I put in, I still feel as though my students are not learning as much as I want them to or not as deeply as I want them to.
    Our science curriculum is up for review next year, though, and I know the big question the curriculum committee will be wrestling with is whether or not to change the curriculum to reflect NGSS and purchase an aligned resource. I’ve been begging my principal to put me on the committee next year so I can be a part of the decision making process. As a part of my graduate studies I had to review and assess several science resources that were aligned to NGSS. I especially loved a resource called Inspire Science. It is an expensive resource to purchase, though. Our district likes to make things “their own.” I find it very interesting that your state developed their own curriculum resource that is NGSS aligned. While I don’t think I would be able to convince my entire state to do so, I wonder if it is something my district would be willing to undertake! We could create our own curriculum that is NGSS aligned and decide upon the appropriate supplemented resources!
    NGSS will absolutely better prepare our students for the future. And I truly believe not just a future in a science career – just a better future in general. The NGSS teaches students the importance of curiosity and investigating the world around them! It teaches them to think and discover things on their own! Our district is very math and reading focused and unfortunately science is often put on the back burner. It saddens me. Like you, teaching science is my joy. I truly loved reading through and assessing the NGSS resources in my graduate class. I even pulled a few of the lessons and tried them in my classroom this past year. My students were engaged from start to finish. They often asked me if we could do more lessons like them! NGSS provides so many amazing opportunities for cross-curricular connections, especially in the areas of math and science. I’m hoping to use the plethora of cross-curricular connections to convince my district to make the change. If we can strengthen their math skills while doing science, its a double win!
    I love that you are seeing the achievement gap close in your classroom. Every year I feel like I make an extra effort to engage all my students in science. I don’t want to create a misconception that only a certain type of student can be interested in and enjoy science. It would be so nice to have the curriculum resource address and correct that misconception! I would be very interested in learning more about the action research you are conducting! Fingers crossed my district makes the “right choice” and chooses to incorporate NGSS.
    Maybe you can revamp your old curriculum to follow the 5E format. That might be better than completely reverting back to the “old ways.” Best of luck to you!

  2. Danielle Shalon says:

    I teach seventh grade mathematics in a low poverty, title 1 school. We have students from all over the world in our school district and 70+ languages spoken. It seems pretty similar to your demographics.

    It is nice to know other people have curriculums that they don’t like and won’t go back because of the students they teach. We just finished a math curriculum that was awful for our students. Our students absolutely hated it and we used it for the last 4 years. Next year we are starting a new one which I think the students will be more interested in. One module has videos of students purchasing video games with which coupon works best and percents off. It relates more to the students lives.

    Just like you, I can never look back at our old curriculum. Having my students upset about that book was heartbreaking. I am hoping this new curriculum helps us close some of our math gaps. We have been begging for a new curriculum for the last 2 years and were able to sit in and look at some of the materials before the school district decided on it! This was nice because no one knows our students like we do.

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