A Thing that Reminds Me How Much I Miss Teaching: Unit Planning (16/365)

hand holding a light bulb

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

My first meeting of the day Wednesday is with a group of teachers from one of our high schools. They’re interested in moving toward an integrated approach to teaching 9th-grade English and social studies, and I get to go and help. I’ll be coordinating the heck out of some curriculum. In preparation for our meeting, I started drafting an idea for an integrated unit. You can find it here.

It’s not completed. My goal was to give enough of a start to help the teachers in the room see some catalyzing ideas and think about where they might want to go with it.

More specifically, it’s not completed because, the closer I get to completing it, the more I want to try out the unit with my own classroom. The most difficult part of designing lessons and units as part of my job is not teaching.

I miss it tremendously. I miss being Mr. Chase. I miss listening to whole class discussions. I miss doing my part to help lessen the weirdness of growing up. I miss helping a class of strangers come to think of themselves as community and then family. I miss being a teacher.

I’m a teaching surrogate. I get to help form and build the thing, but in the end, it will be someone else’s. They will decide how to shift approaches when an assignment doesn’t quite hit. They’ll get the thrill of watching as the otherwise unengaged students starts to realize they might kind of enjoy this stuff.

A much larger part of my job is helping teachers to build their capacity and refine their practice. Much of the time I do this by positing ideas and questions that move them to see situations and challenges as the opportunities I can’t help seeing. As is often the response to the new and the uncomfortable – change, I guess you’d call it – the response from others is a litany of reasons why they can’t do the thing.

Those are the moments I miss the classroom the most. In them I have two options. I can either give in and say, “Maybe you’re right,” or hunker down and do everything I can to make sure the spark of a creative idea we’ve built together is not extinguished.

I cannot imagine giving in.

16/365 Back to Dewey 1.4 – ‘Social Control’

The principle that development of experience comes about through interaction means that education is essentially a social process.

– John Dewey

Experience & Education

This post continues a mini-series examining John Dewey’s Experience & Education chapter-by-chapter.

In Chapter 4, Dewey gets to the crux of the argument against many detractors as well as his warning to those who are doing progressive education wrong. Control, as it turns out, is not a dirty word. It is also, inescapable.

Control and rules, Dewey points out, are present in even the simplest of schoolyard games. When children bristle at rules, it is more the attempt of others to circumvent or wrongly implement rules that causes the problem, not the presence of rules themselves. In education, too, Dewey acknowledges the need for rules.

“[C]ontrol of individual actions is effected by the whole situation in which individuals are involved, in which they share and of which they are co-operative or interacting parts. For even in a competitive game there is a certain kind of participation, of sharing in a common experience.”

In a learning experience, children know the difference between a fair rule and a rule brought about by an adult in the interest of asserting individual power. The latter case is toxic to learning experiences.

What’s more, Dewey begins to look up the hierarchy of schools and points that much of what is expected of teachers is not of the teachers’ devising, but from somewhere up above. These rules and expectations come not from the community, but from the individual (in some form or another). Progressive education attempts to move counter to this design, “in what are called the new schools, the primary source of social control resides in the very nature of the work done as a social enterprise in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to which all feel a responsibility.”

The rules are written by the community at all levels. Here is the seed of what I firmly believe, we must want for teachers what we want for students. That goes for question asking as much as for community formation.

Most striking to me is Dewey’s acknowledgement that teachers must also prepare for those students who are uncertain what to make of this new freedom to co-create community and experience. They are, he writes, broken by their previous experiences with schools, and teachers must be prepared to adapt and align their practice to helping to repair those wounds.

To help those who have been broken by traditional schools and to implement progressive education well, Dewey stresses the need of planning in all things. The weakness of control Dewey acknowledges in progressive schools, comes not from an absence of control.

“It is much more likely to arise from failure to arrange in advance for the kind of work (by which I mean all kinds of activities engaged in) which will create situations that of themselves tend to exercise control over what this, that, and the other pupil does and how he does it. This failure most often goes back to lack of sufficiently thoughtful planning in advance.”

And in that planning, there must be the ability to adapt to individual needs as they arise while also helping to use the knowledge of those who have come before to move students to the desired learning experience.

Again, this is simple, but not easy.

Let’s Plan

This semester, I’m teaching a senior English elective class called Sexuality and Society in Literature.
Our first text of the year was Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex along with several supporting documents including Helen Fisher’s TED Talk “The Brain in Love.”
The idea for the outline of the class is to take a look at sexuality and society in lit throughout the different phases of life. The idea behind reading Oedipus first was to look at the idea of how some society’s have interpreted our course in “love” prior to birth.
Rather than wrapping unit plans around a particular book as has been the practice of English teachers for time in memorium (with the possible exception of short story and poetry units), I’m approaching planning by theme. Oedipus looked like this, and I wasn’t satisfied.
I find myself asking “What do I want them to learn?” vs. “What do I want them to learn from this book?”
I know it seems like a simple thing. Look around, though. It’s not how most English teachers are planning.
Speaking of, here’s the point of all this.
This is my sorta blank unit plan for the “Childhood” unit which is next. If you’re reading this, then I’m looking for your input.
What can we build?