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For 23 years, I’ve had to create curriculum from scratch. Here’s my advice as Chicago revises that approach.

An International Baccalaureate class at Senn High School in Edgewater on the North Side of Chicago.
An International Baccalaureate class at Senn High School in Edgewater on the North Side of Chicago.
Steve Hendershot/Chalkbeat

At every school I’ve taught at (and I’ve been around), I’ve had to start curriculum from scratch. That means countless times since 1995, when I first entered the classroom, I’ve had to find texts, design learning experiences, and create assessments — all while getting to know students and their needs.

It’s overwhelming. And students lose out as a result: When our time gets devoured by creating curriculum, we lose time and energy that should be devoted to interacting with students. Teachers burn out quickly.

As a high school English teacher, I have it relatively easy. I teach two courses: AP English Language and Journalism. I don’t want to imagine the challenge of elementary school teachers who have to figure out how to teach a full array of subjects in engaging ways every. Single. Day. Cheers to them!

So when Chicago Public Schools announced this month that it would be launching an effort to build a home-grown curriculum, I was immediately skeptically optimistic. Our district needs a solid curriculum teachers can use if they need it. (There are also some situations where some teachers need to be told, “Uh, you need to replace what you’re doing.” That apparently is not part of the district’s plan.)

But I also had some questions. I’m sharing them now in hopes that my experiences can benefit the district, its teachers, and ultimately students.

1. Will the new curriculum include culturally relevant learning experiences that go beyond a student’s race?

City education officials say having a culturally relevant curriculum will help Chicago improve the performance of students who historically have struggled, especially black students. I trust people creating this initiative know that simply including materials about African American — or any minority students — will not magically transform education in Chicago.

In the early 1990s, we started hearing about culturally relevant teaching. Most of the work focused on including texts by and about minority voices, encouraging the cultural connection with content. Latino Lit classes in colleges appeared and grew. Many of us who graduated in those years pushed to diversify curriculum in high schools. Everyone bought “The House on Mango Street.” We heard about the Maya and math.

But today’s context is different. Young people’s identities are complex and intersectional. These days, what’s been most valuable to my students is learning about the impact of smartphones on their lives, exploring ethical dilemmas such as the paradox of forgiveness, and examining the effects of toxic masculinity. They use an article about gender fluidity as a mentor text for their own research paper. It’s also been valuable to challenge their concepts of success and social mobility.

The district’s curriculum needs to take on some controversial current issues in age-appropriate ways. When the courts handed down a verdict in the case of the police officer accused of fatally shooting Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald, the district built a lesson around the event that fell short. Instead of following some basic conversational prompts that CPS suggested, I asked my students to evaluate a speech by Mayor Rahm Emanuel using Aristotle’s classic rhetorical guidelines.

The goal? I wanted to make them think, not just have an emotional reaction. And I definitely didn’t want to neutralize the situation.

So I hope the curriculum takes on the issues our students face at an age-appropriate level beyond simply “being Latino” or “being African American.”

2. Will the new curriculum emphasize real-world applications of learning?

The trap we face as teachers is isolation. Our classrooms sometimes close us off from the world and we believe that if it’s good for our classroom, then it’s good enough. The professional development sessions I attended this year with the CPS Office of Literacy challenged these outdated misconceptions: They, too, work against the worship of the tired ol’ five-paragraph essay. So I’m hoping this ideology cuts through any impulse to include tired approaches and trite projects. How many dioramas does a kid really need?

We need students to create information in responsible and engaging ways through projects that prepare them for the world they will live in. Every subject must include opportunities for students to apply the learning in authentic ways that have value outside of our classrooms: art work, writing, problem solving, questioning of the status quo. And there’s nothing wrong with some skill and drill for stuff to stick.

Some years ago, I explained how the Latino Studies curriculum created by the district, while well intentioned, failed at the real-world application. I’m hopeful that the new curriculum succeeds where that one fell short and results in authentic products that can live and breathe outside our classrooms.

3. Will teachers get everything they need from the curriculum?

One of the first curriculum efforts I experienced was in the 1990s, when every ninth-grader read “The Pearl” and “Romeo and Juliet” as part of something called the CASE curriculum.

That attempt at a curriculum required only these two texts. But teachers still needed to figure out how to teach the texts, how to assess learning, how to engage students. The high point of that initiative? Students took boring tests where they regurgitated major concepts and themes citing textual evidence — and we had to grade them! So if this is a curriculum — make it a curriculum, with all of the materials required to bring it to life.

Teachers need robust resources that include how to launch a unit. They need multiple formative assessments that are already adapted and adaptable for students with different needs — including the high-achieving ones. They need learning experiences that engage students in intellectual, emotional, physical, and technological ways.

The assumption here must be that teachers will and should be challenged to engage students in complex experiences. The risk with developing a curriculum at the district level is that we end up with something that’s bare bones, so generalized that it ends up being disappointing because it cannot resolve the issues teachers face.

4. How will the district support innovation even after the new curriculum exists?

My curriculum has definitely changed over the years. In AP English Language, I cannot use the biographical videos from Barack Obama’s and John McCain’s 2008 political campaigns in our study of rhetoric. Students won’t be moved by those dated texts. I no longer use personal essays about the challenge of being bilingual. That’s not a dominant identity struggle anymore. I need to keep our study of language and images current. I find ways to incorporate analyses of Trump’s speeches or our new mayor’s rhetoric. In journalism, the texts we read change every single year. That’s just part of the gig. And I need to find ongoing ways to give students a choice about what to do. It ain’t easy.

This $135 million to develop this curriculum is really startup money. Curriculum has to adapt. So I hope the district plans on continuing the investment.

Students also need an opportunity to give feedback on the new curriculum. I have students give me feedback on my teaching at the end of every quarter. And they’re honest. This helps me improve what I do.

Even though the district says teachers can apply to be part of this initiative, something needs to happen before any curriculum writing begins. I’d like to see the staff leading this curriculum effort organize a few small focus groups with high-achieving teachers so they can share what needs to be included for this curriculum to be useful and used.

Finally, the curriculum needs to be managed: professional development, practice (which will include some failure), maybe even a help desk of sorts.

After 23 years, I’m inherently skeptical. That’s not a bad thing.

I hope this project succeeds. We have too much at stake for it to fail.

Ray Salazar is a National Board Certified English teacher in Chicago. A version of this piece originally appeared on White Rhino: A blog about education and Latino issues, Salazar’s column on Chicago Now. (Author photo by Eric Ortiz)

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