The Curriculum of the Bells

I awoke the other morning from a long dream, the first one I can ever remember having specifically about science education. Sure I’ve had hundreds of dreams in which I was walking down school hallways or standing in front of a classroom of kids, generally one of us was not behaving well. I bet you have too. And over the years, I’ve had even more dreams of sitting in teacher meetings. Or were those technically nightmares?

In any case, this was a long and convoluted dream in which I was designing a curriculum, a curriculum of the bells. It seems that there were magnificent church bells at various locations in proximity to the school, the school sitting somehow in the center more or less, and the lessons I was planning were taking advantage of that fact. At one point in the dream, as I recall, the bells were being installed for this particular curriculum. Now that’s power! Most teachers would be happy with a few more reams of paper that they didn’t have to buy themselves.

Bell Towers ... Imagine a School Nearby

Bell Towers … My Dream Image

Anyway, the lessons I was developing involved students gathering data on the bells and trying to construct a map of where they were by using their hearing and certain measurements they would take of the sound as it traveled to them. Yes, the science is suspect. I have no idea what devices would have used to arrive at these measurements.

Somewhere toward the end of the dream, I thought it might be good to involve my colleagues in planning this curriculum with me, and so we did, meeting around a table and kicking ideas around. Oh and there was a helicopter that flew higher than most jet planes, but it was covert and only whispered about. I never got to see it. Typical dream!

The point is when I woke up I was on fire, thinking “what if I can capture some of these plans? What a great lesson!” Silly me. Dreams have a way of shape shifting once we become too conscious, make coffee, let the dog out, and get dressed. You can identify with that, I’m sure.

But still, I think there’s something in that dream, and I want to explore it from three vantage points.

Dreams, for example, can be reflections on the residuals of your day. What in my real life might have made my brain conjure up the notion of a “curriculum of the bells?” By almost literally emphasizing the word curriculum in my dream title, I think it may have sprung from a meeting I had two days ago with the iTEAM at one of our STEM Institute partner schools. It’s a wonderful little school with a great principal and excellent teachers, all of them highly motivated and dedicated to bringing more STEM education to their students, children from a demographic group underrepresented in STEM professions. So there’s a sense of urgency in their work. What makes achieving that goal challenging, though they try their best, is the schedule and the requisite allocation of classroom minutes to the two 500 pound gorillas in every classroom these days — English Language Arts and Mathematics (taught in isolation from other content.) One teacher actually said “Well, we could eliminate social studies.” Given today’s political and economic realities, that doesn’t seem like a great idea to me, nor did it to her. But that’s how desperate we get, and brainstorming is what it is, just a starting point.

But in effect, the status quo represents the hidden curriculum in schools these days, and it is in fact a curriculum of the bells, the bells standing for the breaking up of education into discrete content areas, reminiscent of the school bells that used to ring at the beginning and ending of periods. Just as nailing desks to the floor in neat rows in classrooms of yore was a curriculum of sorts, teaching students that team work was frowned on and that the teacher at the front of your classroom, the exact point your desk was facing, was the dispenser of all knowledge, school schedules and blocks of time dedicated to only two subjects along with multiple tests each year measuring only those subjects, teaches both teachers and students something about what is valued and what is not. It’s a hidden curriculum, and it can be even more powerful than the actual curriculum we detail in our lesson plans.

As a reminder, Wikipedia has this introduction to the concept: “A hidden curriculum is a side effect of an education, lessons which are learned but not openly intended, such as the transmission of norms, values, and beliefs conveyed in the classroom and the social environment. Any learning experience may teach unintended lessons. Hidden curriculum often refers to knowledge gained in primary and secondary school settings, usually with a negative connotation where the school strives for equal intellectual development as a positive aim. In this sense, a hidden curriculum reinforces existing social inequalities by education students according to their class and social status. The unequal distribution of cultural capital in a society mirrors a corresponding distribution of knowledge among its students.”

So maybe my unconscious mind was speaking to that reality and trying to forge a solution  I could share with that school. I’ll sit with that for a while. It hasn’t steeped long enough yet. But it’s worth considering what your school’s schedule communicates to kids, teachers, and others about what’s important?

The second interpretation, if you will, has something to do with dreaming itself, and the role of dreaming in the creative process. Teaching is, after all, a creative act … or should be. After all, don’t we sometimes call it “lesson design?” But how often do we actually incorporate a design frame of mind when creating our plans?

Engineering Design Cycle Posted in a Classroom at Earle STEM Academy

Engineering Design Cycle in a Classroom at Earle STEM Academy

Dreaming can lead to what psychologists call the Eureka Effect! We sometimes call them “Aha!” moments. Those are the times when the solution to a previously intractable problem breaks into consciousness. Such moments have accounted for breakthroughs in science, engineering, and the arts. Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, Elias Howe’s sewing machine, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, were all born of dreams – incidentally, another argument for moving STEM to STEAM.

Born of a Dream

Born of a Dream

But those aha moments can happen at more mundane times as well. Today’s teachers lead very crowded lives; in schools, they barely have time to go to the bathroom, much less plan creatively, and in general are hard pressed to find time to incubate creative ideas for lessons or to solve the problem of a schedule that doesn’t leave enough time for science. There are so many things that are urgent to be attended to, and not all of them are important, as important as designing significant educational experiences for their students. And urgent generally trumps important.

So how does one buy time to do the creative work of planning educational experiences for students? Perhaps it’s a question of attending to those stray thoughts we have in the shower or on the drive to work, finding ways to capture them, and allowing ourselves to think of ourselves as creators, as artists, as inventors. After all, this blog post emerged from a dream when I was experiencing a brief bout of writer’s block. It could just as easily have come to me while gardening or on the long drive home. Several of our STEM faculty (Bill Grosser and Jim Effinger) frequently jog together and get some of their best teaching ideas during those runs.

But that brings me to the final insight of that dream. At the end, I sat with other teachers, my colleagues, and together we got to work on that curriculum of the bells.

And that reminds me of a recent conversation I had with Bill Grosser, the director of our STEM Institute faculty. Bill was describing one of the new activities he and his team recently designed.

“It began when John Lewis wanted to model the principle of why the Fermilab accelerator had to be four miles in circumference and why the new accelerator at CERN is 17 miles in circumference. He wanted to design an activity that elementary teachers could do with their kids. Jim Effinger took that idea and improved on the provisioning (the marshmallows and blow guns), allowing us to use it to show teachers how to align an activity with NGSS, incorporating things like experimental design, controlling variables, and collecting data. Then together we came up with a way to process the data using mathematical modeling and graphing, which ties in with NGSS and CCSS Math. The three of us came up with a very successful activity that is fun to do and that addresses multiple standards.”

Tonti Collage

Stacy Gibson Takes a Shot at Principal Gerardo Arriaga (left) While Jim Effinger Shows Bert Rodriguez a Tool for Cutting Blow Pipes (right) ~ Fermilab Accelerator Activity at Tonti Elementary

That kind of evolution comes from teachers talking to each other and building on top of each other’s ideas instead of trying to work by themselves.NGSS aims to get students to collaborate with each other in problem solving. It’s important for teachers to model the same spirit of collaboration in our own problem solving.

Bill continued, “Similarly, one of our most popular lesson sequences began with an offhanded remark I made when a group of us were stuck in traffic. ‘Hey, guys, we need an activity for the fall follow-up session.’ Over the course of our conversation, the idea that we should do something fall themed evolved from some pumpkin activities to what we call “Pumpkinology,” which includes activities for all grade levels and tie-ins with Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Math. We wouldn’t be successful without collaborating.”

And there you have it — the curriculum of the bells: Tackle the hidden curriculum, harness your creativity, and collaborate with colleagues for change.

~ Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here.


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