Finding our way through the curriculum maze

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455784008_209bd11db9_zThe other day I plumped up my pillow, grabbed my favorite fleece, and settled in to read yet another article/commentary/opinion piece about the Common Core. I was asleep by the third paragraph. But, 45 minutes later, my newly recharged brain was swirling with visions of curriculum that are creative, exciting, engaging, and meaningful! (Modest, aren’t I?)

These unit ideas are all based on current issues or problems that local or global communities are facing or will face in the not too distant future. Issues and problems that engage our middle level students because they are about real life issues, offering our students opportunities to both find and solve problems. Real life, real learning. (And yes, I am serious about these ideas. But they are only examples. You can come up with your own ideas from your own community.)

Unit #1—On Thin Ice. I’ve always lived in northern states with lots of snow and ice. For the last 30 years I’ve watched and marveled at Mainer’s who insist on taking their cars and trucks on (supposedly) frozen lakes and rivers.  Honestly, I don’t understand why anyone would drive a $25,000 truck on lake ice if there was the remotest possibility of it plunging through!  And that isn’t even considering the safety issue of humans getting dunked or worse. This happens in hundreds of small towns in the U.S., maybe beyond. And there are dozens of questions to answer. Are there different kinds of ice? Do different bodies of water freeze differently? What are the conditions that inhibit ice formation? What about the insulating factor of snow on ice? How thick does ice have to be to support a truck, snowmobile, ice shack, or a person? Lots of other issues as well—What are the social aspects of ice fishing? What are the economic implications of ice fishing in northern climates (say Maine, Minnesota, and Michigan)? How has climate change influenced the number of days of safe ice for on-ice activities? What are the predictions for such in 2028? (For warmer states, this unit could also be a cultural study of this unique behavior.) Doesn’t this sound like the beginning of an interesting unit of study?

Unit #2—And You Think You Have Trash! The March 2011 Japanese Tsunami, as devastating as it was to Japan, has had global implications. For example, a 185 ton pier (65 feet long by 20 feet wide by 7.5 feet high) that washed up in Olympic National Park in Washington state in December 2012 is particularly troublesome, not only for the pollution that the pier is causing as it breaks up and releases its styrofoam core. More importantly, are the potentially invasive species that are attached to the pier and threaten the fragile ecosystem where it landed. The intertidal area of the Olympic Coast is home to the most diverse ecosystem of marine invertebrates and seaweeds on the west coast of North America; this is being threatened by the many species attached to the pier. Here are some potential questions—What currents and weather allowed this gigantic pier to move from Japan to the Washington coast? What species are unique to the Olympic Coast and what species are attached to the pier? How will each set of species interact? What responsibility does the Japanese government have for any potential Tsunami-caused damage in the U.S. or other countries? What types of debris from Japan has found its way to other locations in the world and what have been the implications? On a larger scale, what do scientists know and what are they doing about the massive amounts of trash floating in the world’s oceans…and how could that affect humans?

And several other ideas for developing DIY units—Google Art Project (visit the most famous art galleries in the world); Snapshot Serengeti (visit this site for dozens of web-based Citizen Science projects); Discovering Lance Armstrong (Why did Lance Armstrong dope, why did he lie about it, and what are the implications for what he has done? Lots of opportunities here from studying the history of Armstrong’s racing career, the geography of the racing venues, the science of racing and inevitably the science of doping, and the ethical issues of the doping and Armstrong’s actions then and now).

Please note that my questions have only scratched the surface. Lots of other questions to ask and answer. Collectively, each “unit” will include critical thinking, problem finding and solving, creative and critical thinking. Oh yeah, and massive amounts of content and skills from math, art, science, foreign language, social studies, language arts, and so much more. The magic window into these types of units of study for those of us lucky to live in Maine with one-to-one programs in every middle level school is of course, Internet access. And that adds another level of complexity…and opportunity.

No doubt that I need to learn more about the Common Core and how it can help improve curriculum for all students. Will the Common Core solidify even more “test prep” or will it move us in the direction of more student-generated, project-based, and real world learning that it promises?

But for now, I’m headed back to the couch for er…some more thinking time about this vexing issue!

My challenge for you…what type of unit could you and your students develop around a locally engaging or globally relevant topic? Please respond in the comments section below.

Photo cc licensed (BY) flickr photo shared by Fatboo

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