Life vs. The Curriculum

I went off the reservation today.

The Scope & Sequence, the map for mapping the curriculum map, says I should be teaching about Africa right about now and I was planning to introduce the unit today. Then something very unfortunate happened.

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Paradoxically, the unfortunate event pointed out to me how professionally fortunate I am.

Calling the Haitian earthquake an unfortunate event is a massive understatement: the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere had what little they had, including life and relative health, disappear in a flash and rumble.

I went to high school with some Haitian students, lived in a neighborhood with a lot of Haitians, and now live in a county with a sizable Haitian population. I’ve never been to Haiti, and never particularly wanted to go, but I could not get the devastation out of my mind.

When my smart, chatty 6th graders came into the classroom I had this picture of the devastation on the SmartBoard.

(REUTERS/Reuters TV)

I asked the students to tell me where they thought the picture was taken. The Middle East was a popular guess.

I told them the picture was of some of the destruction caused by the earthquake in Haiti and then showed them a few more photos.

That’s when things became interesting.

These students are very smart and usually very, very chatty.

They were silent.


Awed by the destruction, the pain, and the death.

Then the questions started.

“Is it better to be inside or outside when an earthquake comes?”

None of us knew.

I pointed out that after the big 2008 earthquake in China, people were afraid to stay inside because the building could collapse on them. I showed a picture of collapsed buildings in Haiti.

“What causes earthquakes?”

Detail of the Cocos and Caribbean plates from:...
Image via Wikipedia

I told the oddly quiet students about plate tectonics, using two sheets of paper and some paperclips to demonstrate what happens when the plates separate or collide. Either way the paperclips ended up on the floor.

Map of Pangaea showing where today's continent...
Image via Wikipedia

I told them that I was going to start our Africa unit today, then mentioned that at one time, millions of years ago, Africa, North America and South America were likely one big continent called Pangaea and popped a world map onto the Smart Board so they could see how today’s continents could fit together.

Then I told them that in a way we were studying Africa as most of the Haitian population is made up of descendants of Africans brought to the island as slaves.

One girl who hardly ever speaks in class raised her hand.

“Is that why Haitian people look so different from my relatives on the other side of the island, in the Dominican Republic?”

Another Dominican girl asked, “Could an earthquake separate Haiti and the Dominican Republic?”

I asked her to tell me the difference between a political map and a topographic map.

The light went on.

“Oh! Earthquakes are topological and borders are political. The earth doesn’t care where the border is.”

Suddenly one girl jumped up and said, “WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING TO HELP THESE PEOPLE!”

The students took over the class to discuss what they could do and how fast they could do it.

When the bell rang and they filed out the door, several students asked me to print some of those pictures so they could put them on the posters they were going to make to help in their fundraising effort.

When the class cleared I took a deep breath.

And that’s when it hit me.

My resume shows a lot of different jobs in different fields: print journalism, radio new and talk shows, restaurants, political action, advertising, and more.

I sometimes tell people all about it when they ask how it came to be that I started teaching when I was 50.
Then I tell them that every bit of knowledge, every experience, every sensation I’ve gained comes into the classroom with me.

And today it all came out.

The lesson my students got today could only have come from me.

I’m very fortunate not to have to prepare my students for a standardized test lurking at the end of the year.

And I’m fortunate not to work in a system or for an administrator requiring me to teach the same lesson that every other 6th grade teacher is scheduled to teach on January 13, 2010.

I know my supervisors would have been very happy had they been sitting in my room today.

Real learning took place. Authentic learning. The kind of learning you don’t need to use a test to see.

The students learned new material, made connections, and acted on their learning.

They realized that history is not a series of encapsulated isolated events, that its an intricate weave of people, places, ideas and situations, .

And I was very fortunate to have the time, the freedom, and the ability to go off the reservation.

Teaching has a much nicer view from there.

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15 Responses to Life vs. The Curriculum

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience so eloquently. The connections that the kids made often come in the most unexpected places, but this is where lasting learning takes place. My students were deeply moved by the situation in Haiti and some are now looking for constructive ways to help.

  2. Ian Byrd says:

    Inspirational post. This sounds like a day your students will remember for a lifetime.

  3. allanahphoto says:

    I know how you feel- the same thing happened to us here in New Zealand when Hurricane Katrina hit.

    I started the day with photos and ended up with a video news item.

  4. Chris says:

    Wow! Your students are fortunate to have you as their teacher. This is such a tragic event, but you have handled it wonderfully, giving your students access to factual information as well as a forum for real life response. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Barb L. says:

    Wonderful blog but would have appreciated it more without the reference to “going off the reservation”. Authentic learning, yes, but not at the expense of cultural sensitivity…

  6. Deven Black says:

    Thank you for the kind words. I’m sorry if I you were offended, Barb, but I don’t think my use of the phrase was insensitive. I used the word “reservation” in the first line as a reference to a restricted, limited place, much the same as the reservations Native Americans were herded into.

    When I used “reservation” again at the end of the piece not only did it reference restriction and limitation, it implied, or should have if one relates the word to the two paragraphs, not far above, that talked about the abusive nature of severely confining teaching schedules, that the reservation is an abusive environment.

    I apologize if I did not make these meanings more clear, but I am a writer of limited skill who relies on the higher comprehension skills of my readers.

  7. Barb L. says:

    Please know that I did understand your use of the reference and appreciate why you chose it. I know you to be a careful and articulate writer. I also live in a small town that has several thousand Native Americans on a reservation and know that this is a phrase (among many) that they abhor. Having grown up in a diverse community in the East, I have become even more aware of the impact of words and culture since moving here, having never lived among Native Americans before. I tend to push back (I hope gently) as a result.

  8. Deven Black says:

    Thank you for educating me, Barb. I was not aware that the Native Americans in your part of the country abhor the word. I have heard many issues raised by the Natives in my local area, I even chaired a school-board committee looking into changing the teams’ name from Indians to something less potentially offensive, but I haven’t heard discussion of reservations.

    Yes, it was a gentle push back. I overreacted and I ask forgiveness for that.

  9. Barb L. says:

    Thanks for your response, Deven. I didn’t really feel any overreaction on your part, truly. I have learned that these discussions are a vital part of our own growth process and that they benefit all of us. I appreciate the discussion and I truly do appreciate your blog!

  10. Hi Deven
    Came across the blog post via Twitter contact in the US.
    I work for the Geographical Association in the UK, and what you are describing here is what we call “Living Geography”: not the geography in the textbook, but something that is coming from a topical event and the connections / reactions of the students to it, and the activities are co-constructed between the teacher and the students.
    Nice work !! 🙂
    Best wishes

    • Deven Black says:

      Thank you. Actually, the over-arching question I had on the blackboard was “Is geography important?” The answer was a resounding ‘YES!”

  11. Joan Young says:

    Making connections and acting on their learning.. wow! Isn’t that what true learning is all about. I appreciate you sharing and I hope it shakes up some people who feel that they should “stick to the planbook” above all else. Thanks for sharing an inspiring lesson.

  12. Lara Ivey says:

    You made a difference with that lesson. A lesson that they will not likely forget any time soon. It’s those teachable moments that makes your job so special. I’m glad that you didn’t let the “little test at the end of the year” get in the way of seizing the moment. I actually went to teach 1st from 4th because too many demands were being put on what, how, and when you needed to teach things. My mom was actually a teacher as a second profession…started at around age 50 as well. She had the amazing opportunity to be teaching in Arlington, Virginia when the Pentagon was hit. I say amazing because the experience she led her 5th graders through is one that there is NO WAY they will ever forget. They created the 5th Grade 5 Star Bakery. My mom had them walking (2 blocks) from their school to my dad’s church (he was a minister at the time) to bake rolls and coffee cakes from scratch! While some groups were cooking, others were in the social hall working on assignments. I wish that they had documented it a bit more because it was a true example of what learning should be. Teaching children to seize the moment and how to use your gifts to help others.

    Thank you for this post as I know need to remind my mom of what an amazing teacher she was.

  13. Jo says:

    Thank you for sharing your amazing lesson! This is exactly what our kids are losing in the high-stakes testing environment our educational system has become: real learning that has a profound impact … not just facts and definitions, but horizon-widening, conscience-forming edification.

  14. Julie says:

    My daughter’s Principal and his wife were planning a trip to Haiti but because of the earthquake were not able to go. They have a non-profit site to help Haiti and offer teacher resources for K-12:

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