Growing Back to School: The Child Is the Curriculum

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Center for Responsive Schools (then Northeast Foundation for Children) was founded in 1981 and in 1985 published its first book, A Notebook for Teachers: Making Changes in the Elementary Curriculum, in which cofounder Ruth Charney wrote:

The source of the curriculum is the child. The knowledge of children informs curriculum and we first seek that knowledge in the direct testimony of the child. (p. 79)

The knowledge of children and child development became the cornerstone of the Responsive Classroom approach.

Charney’s words are especially relevant today as the pandemic continues to impact the physical and mental health of children and families in every school. Mainstream media and educational news outlets, along with federal and state governmental educational agencies and departments, are promoting a storyline of student learning loss, academic skills decline, and students falling behind curricular and data goals for their grade levels as educators adapt to teaching during the pandemic. While there is some truth that these conditions exist for certain students—especially for those from low-income families and students of color in underfunded schools and underserved communities—the storyline of “falling behind” requires an understanding of falling behind what, exactly.

Responsive Classroom was incubated in the 1990s when developmentally appropriate practices provided classroom environments and teaching approaches designed to meet the developmental needs of children in early and middle childhood. Since the early 2000s, though, the focus of education policymakers has been on a return to direct instruction, with increased standardized data-driven assessment of student progress at grade level and yearly, subject-specific standardized testing of student achievement at state levels. Predictably, these assessments provide more data that may well show individual and congregate test scores “falling behind” last year’s test results.

Standardized achievement tests in the middle of the pandemic are not going to be diagnostically reliable. Hybrid, remote, and in-person testing create impossible grade level variables. Growing back to school, we must make the time for the children to show and tell us what they have learned at home, in hybrid classrooms, and virtually—not only by testing them, but by trusting students to reveal what they need as we begin again the work of creating safe and joyful places for learning as the challenges of educating during the pandemic are addressed. We need to spend more time observing and we need to assess student needs in relationship to what we know about developmental patterns of physical, social, emotional, and cognitive growth. (See the December 2020 issue for my first article in this series.)

Cognitive growth, for instance, is so much more than direct, academic instruction, with which it is often equated. As Barbara Rogoff (1990) notes, “Children’s cognitive development is an apprenticeship—it occurs through guided participation in social activity with companions who support and stretch children’s understanding of and skill in using the tools of culture” (p. vii). You, the teacher, are likely one of those most reliable companions. You are the one with access to the “direct testimony of the child” from which our curricula should spring. We are all learning a lot during these difficult times for education, and we are learning just how important the role of a companion is to the students who apprentice with you. It is your relationships, your attunement to your students, that stretch their understanding of everything they are learning in school. The positive increased emphasis in education on social-emotional learning is a priority, both for yourself and for your students whom you are coming to know so well.

Rogoff (1990) noted some thirty years ago something that we are only now becoming more aware of and that is so essential for who we are as teachers today: “The particular skills and orientation that children develop are rooted in the specific historical and cultural activities of the community in which children and their companions interact” (p. vii). Rogoff goes on to explain why this is important to our teaching with this prescient precaution:

To understand development, we must examine children’s skills and interaction with their partners in terms of the function of such skills in achieving locally valued goals, conscientiously avoiding the arbitrary imposition of our values on another group. It is impossible to avoid judgements of good and bad courses of development if one is attempting to influence another group. But if the aim is to understand development, it is essential not to impose assumptions about the goals of development of one group on individuals from another. Interpreting the activity of people without regard for their goals renders the observation meaningless. (p. 117)

With this in mind, teachers who are white have an especially important responsibility to ourselves and to our students to become moreaware and to recognize implicit biases that, despite our best intentions, we carry with us because of our own, often very different backgrounds.

A 2017–2018 study by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that of the 3.5 million teachers in U.S. public schools, preK–12, 76 percent were female. Seventy-nine percent of the teachers were white, 7 percent were African American, 9 percent were Hispanic, and 2 percent were Asian. The same study found that of the 49 million preK–12 students, 47 percent were white, 27 percent were Hispanic, 15 percent were African American, and 5 percent were Asian (NCES, 2020).

In 2019, The Washington Post analyzed school district data from 46 states and the District of Columbia to see how student diversity is reflected in the educator population.

The Post found that

  • only 0.1% of Latino students are enrolled in a school system where the percentage of Latino teachers is the same as, or more than, the percentage of Latino students.
  • 7% of Black students are in a school system where the percentage of Black teachers matches or exceeds the percentage of Black students
  • 4.5% of Asian students are in school systems with a percentage of Asian teachers that matches or exceeds the percentage of Asian students.
  • For white students, it’s 99.7%

The chances of a student having a teacher who comes from their own cultural or ethnic group during preK–12 education is determined by these percentages. Ask yourself, who is most advantaged? Who is most disadvantaged? There are three resources I recommend for continuing growth as a white educator. First, Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom From Young Children in School, by Carla Shalaby, which allows us to see ourselves in the mirror as we follow teachers and students in the many familiar territories that we inhabit each day in our work in schools. A second resource is the research of an impressive collaborative team from several universities in “The Essence of innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children” (Goff et al., 2014), and a third is Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood from the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law (Epstein, Blake, & González, 2018).

Next month, we will continue to explore the way a school’s adult community builds trust and connection in the classroom and beyond. I will explain the concept of relational trust in the context of schooling and share some of the research from this field.