Holidays vs. standards: Which curriculum rules your school?
Friday, October 24, 2014
I remember that in elementary schools 30 years ago, the year was chronologically marked by holidays. We even had a display outside the classroom where we posted our stories, starting with a summer story, then a scarecrow or scary story, followed by a turkey story and ending the year with something about a snowman.
The new year would offer a change of pace with nonfiction text, featuring Martin Luther King, Jr., then it was back to narratives: Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day and Easter bunnies. I don't recall anything about May other than lots of end-of-year parties.
As a student, it never occurred to me that studying holidays wasn't a normal part of the curriculum. In fact, it appeared to be so important that we would do it every year, often times punctuated with activities from Mailbox magazine.
As states and schools dig deeply into new curricular standards, it's a perfect time to ascertain whether the unwritten curriculum — the hidden curriculum — is ruling the roost.
Consider these three short scenarios:
- "I’m running out of ideas about what to do next with my witch," lamented a first-grade teacher during a collaborative planning session in mid-October. "I have had her peek out of the candy bowl, come out of the ceiling, be in a child's desk. I'm not sure where to hide her next. Any ideas?"
- "Kids, I am so excited to go to my storage unit this weekend," shared a second-grade teacher. "I have a whole slew of books about bats that I know you're going to love. Why might we read about bats this month?"
- "You can dress up at the Book Character Parade next Friday," the media specialist excitedly shared with a primary-grade class. "The rule is you need to have a book to go with your costume. So, who has a costume they've already picked out for Halloween? We could then brainstorm for you what books you might hold during the parade. Savannah, what are you going to dress up as?"
In the age of Common Core and far more rigorous standards, I am befuddled by the three aforementioned interactions — all actual events from 2014. Are we still allowing the hidden curriculum of holidays and seasons to run the show?
If we examined grade-level curricula in many states, we would probably find holidays are tucked inside a Kindergarten social studies unit probably titled "Our Community." This would probably be equally true for the four seasons. I doubt that any state asks intermediate-grade students to study autumn and then write a story about jumping into a pile of leaves.
It also seems important to note that this phenomenon appears to exist in more affluent areas. Most urban schools I coach and support do not have the stench of the nearest holiday. In fact, in many elementary urban schools, often times the choice of texts is driven by social studies and science curriculum — an attempt to integrate that oft-forgotten content.
What's the big deal? What's the harm in enjoying these moments? The trade-off is the big deal.
Asking a roomful of second-graders to write personal narratives about scarecrows probably could align to several writing standards. These writing pieces could be written in sophisticated ways, with varying sentence structure, figurative language, even a correctly-used semicolon. However, the writing is highly inauthentic, unless this class frequently interacts with scarecrows.
A teacher who proudly displays seasonally-appropriate books and uses them as instructional material for reading instruction often sacrifices assessment data for the perceived memorable experience. In other words, in October a teacher might find the "perfect" Halloween book and use it with small groups instead of using her reading assessment data to choose a better-aligned book to the group's reading level — a book probably not about scarecrows or autumn.
A well-intentioned media specialist argues that parents should be able to "double-dip" their Halloween costume and use it twice, so she asks students to work from the costume backward — find the connection to a book that has maybe been read.
Trading authenticity for holidays is at the heart. The inauthenticity of these three examples (scarecrow writing, fall-themed books, and book character parades) is just a microcosm of the larger practice around "holiday teaching." The question to consider asking: "If it wasn't [X] month, around [Y] holiday, how would this assignment change?"
So, what are some possible actions for school and district leaders? Consider the following:
- Walk through your school(s) and look for posted writing samples that are holiday or seasonally specific.
- Walk into a classroom and count the number of holiday/seasonal decorations compared to posted examples of student work.
- Use a text to enter into a conversation with faculty about December holidays before the time is upon us.
- Ask: "What did you start with — the standards and then worked into the holiday? Or did you start with the holiday and backed into the standards?"
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