About a month ago, I found myself driving in an unfamiliar city at dusk. As I exited the highway into rush hour traffic, my GPS informed me that it had lost its satellite connection. After my initial panic, I took a deep breath and, because I had looked at a map before I left home and had the map feature open on my phone, was able to navigate to my hotel without a wrong turn.
Being able to read a map is an important skill. It provides us with a bird’s-eye view of where we’re going. Some people may argue that not knowing is what keeps life interesting, but I like having an idea of what lies ahead.
In teaching, our curriculum calendars and lesson plans are like maps in that they lay out a predictable path that will lead us from point A to point B. But like a driver encountering a roadblock, or me when my GPS failed, we need to possess the skills to help us adjust our teaching in a way that addresses the roadblock but still gets us, and more importantly, our students, to point B.
The school where I did my student teaching used a scripted math program that spiraled through concepts at a fairly quick pace. When we taught long division according to the program’s sequence, the kids were stumped. They just didn’t get it. They were frustrated and I was practically in tears. My cooperating teacher, however, believed in being responsive to the needs of students, not being a slave to the script. We worked together to use lessons from the old basal math program and other resources to give our students the time and support they needed to practice the steps of long division until they understood it well and were able to apply them independently. Without his guidance and support, I would have soldiered on and the kids wouldn’t have learned much about division.
I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have worked in a district where we’ve never had a scripted curriculum. The administrators have always trusted us. They’ve given us the autonomy and flexibility to make decisions about lesson plan and materials that we felt met the needs of our students. I worry that if teachers are never allowed to use anything other than a scripted curriculum, or are admonished or punished for deviating from this script, they will never know how to deal with the roadblocks our students present us with daily.
Medieval cartographers labeled areas beyond their ken “Here there be dragons.” In other words, venture here at your peril. And yet, intrepid explorers ventured across unknown oceans. They trusted their knowledge, skills and instincts to carry them safely to shore. Teachers do this every day. We draw upon our past experiences, skills and knowledge as we interact with students. We aren’t always sure if our students are going to learn a skill or concept exactly they way we plan for them to, but we have a pretty good idea of what to do when we encounter a roadblock.
Just as drivers shouldn’t become dependent on their GPS, which might stop working at a critical juncture, teachers shouldn’t be held to scripts or curriculums that don’t meet the needs of our students. We have to have the flexibility to veer off course if needed, but still reach our destination. Anything less is a disservice to our students.