K-12 Curriculum as a Mystery Novel

May 2, 2013

Unsolved Mysteries, December 19, 2011. (http://news.discovery.com).

Unsolved Mysteries, December 19, 2011. (http://news.discovery.com).

This week, my son will complete a fourth-grade project in which he interviewed his Pittsburgh grandmother about her migration experience from rural Arkansas to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the Depression decade. Sounds pretty good — and very advanced — on the surface of things. But the reality of how this school project evolved shows how much has changed — and not for the better — regarding schools and curriculum. For my son’s school in Silver Spring, Maryland, for Montgomery County Public Schools and for schools across the country.

You see, the bulk of testing season is over for MCPS’ elementary schools. So instead of practice tests, formative assessments (otherwise known as “formatives”) and the actual exams (MSA, MAP-M and MAP-R), the teachers now have to focus on lesson plans that aren’t test-driven. For April, the fourth-grade teachers at my son’s school decided to do a social studies project on immigration. They started with a wax museum project at school, as well as a field trip to the Phillips Collection in DC.

This was where things began to get interesting for me as a parent. The permission slip for the field trip presented this unit as immigration. Yet in my son’s trip to the Phillips Collection, him and his classmates would peruse a set of Jacob Lawrence’s paintings on migration. For those of you who don’t know, Lawrence’s most famous paintings were of the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North between roughly 1915 and 1930.

Jacob Lawrence: Migration Series, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC (1993), May 1, 2013. (Elizabeth Hutton Turner; http://ucdavis.libguides.com/).

Jacob Lawrence: Migration Series (Cover Art), Phillips Collection, Washington, DC (1993), May 1, 2013. (Elizabeth Hutton Turner; http://ucdavis.libguides.com/).

I could barely contain the historian side of me when I read such an obvious and unbelievable error. But I decided to not assume that the fourth-grade teachers made the decision to treat immigration the same as migration. So I hand-wrote a note that politely suggested that they make a correction on the permission slip and for the overall assignment, since immigration and migration aren’t the same at all.

This was the response I received by email on April 4:

“We have had this wonderful trip planned for the 4th grade for the past 4 years and we always make sure to front load the students with information about the migration process.”

When teachers go into placating-mode without actually addressing my concerns as a parent (and an educator, for that matter), it’s usually a sign of trouble where there otherwise shouldn’t have been any trouble.

Then, nearly two weeks ago, my son brought home his interview/presentation assignment based on the wax museum project and his Phillips Collection field trip. It was titled “Immigrants in Their Own Words.” The fourth-grade teachers had charged the students — including my son — with the task of finding a family member who had immigrated to the US, interviewing them and asking them questions like “In which year did you come to America?” and “What is the biggest difference between America and your country of origin?”

Flabbergasted is just the beginning of my deep sense of puzzlement over the assignment. It was an assignment straight out of a Facts of Life or Head of the Class episode from the 1980s, culturally and racial insensitive to the core. After all, the height of White immigration to the US ended nearly a century ago. For Blacks, well, if I have to explain it, then it may be worth the while of those of you who do teach to take my History of American Education course (that is, whenever I get to teach it again).

My wife wrote an email about this follow-up assignment, to which my son’s teacher replied, “[e]migration and [i]mmigration are almost splitting hairs.” Really? In what history or ed foundations course? With some prodding, we were given the opportunity to adapt the assignment so that my son could work on migration. Of course, even without that note, I would’ve insisted on him doing migration anyway.

Mysterious...the new Sherlock Holmes, January 17, 2011. (H. Armstrong, Roberts/Corbis; http://www.guardian.co.uk/).

Mysterious…the new Sherlock Holmes, January 17, 2011. (H. Armstrong, Roberts/Corbis; http://www.guardian.co.uk/).

That this process was poorly executed is only part of the story. For nearly five years, my son’s curriculum has been a mystery to me, as it jumped around from pre-algebra to basic addition, from writing letters in which he could write phonetically to having to write about beetles in grammatically correct but short sentences. After five years, my son has never brought a textbook home. The weekly emails from teachers and postings on the neighborhood school website and the MCPS website tell me a lot about nothing.

In sum, I know quite a bit about test dates, subject areas and sometimes subject matter in which the state of Maryland and the school district will test the students. What we don’t know from day one of any school year are the themes for each subject for the year or for any given marking period. Because of the priority of testing above all else, the amount of time in the curriculum on subjects like social studies has narrowed, and with it, a teacher’s ability to be autonomous and to think through curriculum in a critical manner. And without textbooks, I as a parent can’t truly anticipate how to help prepare my son for any new or potentially challenging materials.

It’s difficult, though, to anticipate that your son will come home with an assignment on immigration in the fourth marking period of fourth grade. Especially when I as a history professor know how complicated these processes are for undergraduate and graduate students to wrap their brains around. Especially since my son has yet to write a full-fledged book report on any any book he has read for school. Or spent significant time on history or other, non-test-related subjects. Education should always be a journey, but never a mystery.

Colleges, HBCUs, and the No-Profit Motive

December 20, 2010

Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh, December 20, 2010. Source: http://www.photohome.com

At the beginning of my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh (’89-’90), I took a cross-listed English lit and Black Studies course on African American women and men in literature. I took it partly to fulfill a writing requirement, and partly because I wanted to explore literature written by Black authors for once.


Besides the decidedly poor view of Black men in this literature — no doubt why Tyler Perry sees no need in developing a Black male character with the minimal complexity of a Worf of Mogh from the Star Trek franchise — there was another issue I needed to overcome. It was a 5:45 to 8:10 pm class on a Tuesday evening. Prior to the fall of ’89, I’d only taken one course that started after 4 pm, an assembly language course, and I withdraw from it after switching my major to history the previous fall.

But this course was great, despite books like The Women of Brewster Place and A Woman’s Place. I knew what some of the smartest Black women on campus thought of me before I opened my mouth. But much more important than that, I got to know a greater cross-section of students than the traditional daytime students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. Nontraditional students — adult learners as we educators call them now — populated our classroom.

They were housed in the College of General Studies, which didn’t mean anything negative to me. Some of my older friends from my freshman courses were CGS students, and were sharper in wit and wisdom than many of my Honors College friends and Humanities classmates from Mount Vernon High School in New York. They added tremendously to this course, and made it so much more fun than I would’ve had with other twenty-year-olds.

I ended up taking six 5:45 to 8:10 courses in my last two years of undergrad, and two more evening courses my first year of grad school at Pitt. They were some of my most memorable courses, with a diverse student population because of CGS, with students who were fully capable of performing well in a college setting. In part because counselors and other student services staff at CGS were available to help these students overcome their relative lack of academic preparation and because almost all of the courses these students took were fully integrated into Pitt’s course schedule.

It seems obvious. But treating adult learners with the care they needed and giving them courses that any traditional student could take made them feel more at home, and probably were significant factors in the success I saw so many of them have.

Fast forward eighteen years to my two semesters as an adjunct professor at Howard University. Besides

Founders Library, Howard University, Washington, DC Photo taken 9 April 2006 with Canon Powershot SD300. David Monack, author, released photo into public domain.

the laziness of the students in my Teaching Black Studies course — not to mention the stuffiness of the faculty (imagine referring to all of your colleagues as “Dr. So-and-So,” and not by their first names) — the main problem I had with them was with the times offered for my course. They originally wanted me to teach on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday noontime schedule. But I worked full-time, and preferred to teach an evening course. The Afro-American Studies department compromised, and gave me a 5 pm course that met Monday-Thursday during the summer.


My fall course, though, fell through, as the latest Howard wanted to schedule it was at 4 pm, and then mislabeled the course on top of that. It was a ridiculous experience, dealing with underprepared and entitled, spoiled students, not to mention a lethargic faculty and administration. I learned later that Howard didn’t offer evening, weekend or distance learning courses at the undergraduate level. I learned soon after that many universities — historically Black and otherwise — were more like Howard than they were like my student and teaching experiences at Pitt, Duquesne and George Washington.

There’s real money that universities — especially HBCUs — are giving up to maintain a false sense of the college experience for faculty and students alike. Even among traditional students, working part-time jobs and having expansive extracurricular activities makes it difficult to fit appropriate classes in between 8 am and 5 pm. While online teaching is one way to go, putting together course offerings that fit the schedules of twenty-first century students is a better place to start.

While the Harvards, Yales, Princetons, and even Carnegie Mellons of the university universe can afford to act like its 1969 still, Howard, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta and so many others cannot. You want to stay solvent and academically relevant? Dusting off the course booklet and looking at evenings and Saturdays to accommodate all of your potential students is a great place to begin.


April 9, 2010

Stanford University's Hoover Tower

This week, The Daily Beast posted their piece “The 50 Most Stressful Colleges” (see link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-04-04/the-50-most-stressful-colleges/?cid=hp:beastoriginalsC1). In the piece, the writer or writers emphasized five (5) criteria for college stressfulness: 1) cost; 2) competitiveness; 3) acceptance rate; 4) engineering; and 5) crime on campus rates. Sounds great right? Not if the writer or writers relied mostly on US News and World Report for most of their data in ranking what they believe are the Top 50. It seems to me that reporters with little background in higher education, the psychology of talented high school youth and college students, or financial aid should refrain from writing about such a topic. Still, since they did bring the subject up, it’s probably a good idea to address it from perspectives The Daily Beast would likely not consider.

For starters, the high correlation between their five criteria and the most prestigious research universities in the country — including Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, University of North Carolina, and my doctoral alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University — seems okay on the surface of things. But really, are students at the University of Pittsburgh who are engineering majors less stressed out than English majors at Carnegie Mellon? Or could a student at a liberal arts school like Oberlin be experiencing higher levels of stress than a student at a school not on The Daily Beast’s list — say George Washington University?

Based on my own experiences as a professor and a student, yes, highly selective, research-oriented universities with competitive engineering programs can deliver stress to students on a platter. Yet, it’s not as if the other liberal arts colleges, state colleges and universities, and schools of similar elite ilk not on the list. The Daily Beast could’ve used pre-med and biology programs — such as those at Tufts and Johns Hopkins — as examples of competitiveness, as if engineering students are particularly prone to stress and suicide. I think, though, that this is the main point about The Daily Beast’s piece. It’s the taking of the recent news stories — students killing themselves or murdering students and faculty — and drawing the conclusion that it’s combination of the criteria that’s the difference here.

The piece discounts the experience of millions of college students under the stress of financial aid, whose programs, though not as prestigious, are likely as demanding, and with the pressure of high expectations from their schools and their families. It discounts students, quite frankly, and the baggage they bring with them when they enter college. The schools they list could cost $150,000 a year to attend, have acceptance rates or eight percent or less (I have no idea how Carnegie Mellon made their list with a thirty-seven percent acceptance rate), and pressure-cooker engineering programs, but the suicide rate and violent crime rate would likely not correlate at all. It’s all about how students handle pressure, and how schools help students with managing the pressures they experience at competitive and selective colleges and universities.

I should know. Halfway through my first semester at the University of Pittsburgh, I experienced stress because of the baggage I brought from my Mount Vernon High School days, specifically in the form of a young woman I wanted to date but couldn’t. I spent the last six weeks of that semester missing more than sixty percent of my classes, withdrew into a alcohol-binge one weekend, and generally didn’t seek any social outlets for my emotional and psychological pain. Because I knew that there was a stigma attached to seeking psychological help, I didn’t, and struggled my way through the end of ’87 and into the first days of ’88 wondering if the sacrifices I made to get into college in the first place were actually worth it.

I think that student mental health is a much neglected aspect of pre-K to graduate education. Period. We act as if students and parents are solely responsible for the maintaining of student mental health, when in point of fact, most students and parents see the exploration of the subject as a stigma of some sort. Of course they are wrong. Still, I think that every school and every school district in this country should have at least one psychologist on staff (age-appropriate, of course), and that every student be given a mental health evaluation at least once a year.

Going a step further, I think that mental health fitness should be a part of the college admissions process, and that students who have the academic abilities but show signs of mental health issues be given additional resources to deal with these issues before the stress of higher education has had a chance to effect their undergraduate journey. I also don’t think it would hurt to make faculty, staff and administrators at universities to take professional development seminars in student psychology, so that they themselves can understand the difference between normal and abnormal behaviors of their students.

Some of you will think this idea beyond crazy. After all, those who can’t cut it are losers, right? And, since when can a university look at the mental health fitness of applicants, anyway? How many parts of doctor-patient privilege don’t I understand? I never said that this would be a perfect solution. This would provoke a number of controversies and lend itself to multiple obstacles. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be good for students and parents to have a sense of the kinds of stresses that can affect the well-being — academic and otherwise — of someone before they went off to a college or university?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all on this matter is the issue of competition. There’s nothing wrong with having students in a competitive environment. It often brings out the best in them academically (and the worst, unfortunately, hence my comments in the previous two paragraphs). Suffering setbacks in the process of competition can even teach us more about ourselves and the world around us than constant success. That’s what folks say, at least. So students shouldn’t be afraid to compete. But college campuses — and public schools also — should wrap this competition in a velvet cocoon of excellence. Meaning that from an early age, students are encouraged to strive for and achieve excellence, academically, socially, athletically, and so on. Along the way, healthy competition should be inculcated, but within the context of students performing well to begin with.

All so that by the time students arrive on a college campus, the stress of competition is managed through an atmosphere that is all about excellence. This is not a zero-sum game where the winner takes all and the loser should think about becoming a janitor. These are human beings, after all, whose lives should be about more than A’s, and competition about more than destroying their opponents. It took me until my third semester at Pitt to learn that lesson, which made my transition to a healthier mental health easier.


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