“When am I ever going to use this?”

We’ve probably all heard that from students. To engage today’s tech-savvy kids, many schools are reaching for the latest technologies. While potentially valuable, technology-based “innovation” overlooks something much more basic: the content of the curriculum

Creating a “curriculum makeover” does not depend on gadgets or gimmicks. Rather, it is based on one powerful idea: that students’ lives and communities should serve as the basis for inquiry. I’m not talking about one-time service projects or feel-good lessons assessed by the size of the group hug. I’m talking about the rigorous, culturally relevant learning experiences that all students need and deserve.

Let’s take a look at the elements of a possible unit. You’ll see that these basic ideas can be adapted for a variety of ages, and that opportunities for meeting standards are (in the words of one superintendent) “jumping off the page.”

Consider these guiding questions to drive the inquiry:

  • What social and ecological communities am I a part of?
  • What makes a safe and healthy community?
  • Who makes decisions in our community?
  • Why factors shaped our community’s demographics?
  • What I can do to ensure the story of my community’s future is positive??

 These big ideas define content-rich learning outcomes:

  • Cultural, linguistic and ecological diversity contribute to community resilience.
  • Changes in a community can be driven by economic, cultural, and environmental changes.
  • Zoning and land use policies have environmental and social justice implications.

Here are just a few sample activities for different disciplines:

  • Social studies: Mapping students’ origins and languages; researching historic settlement patterns in the community; engaging local leaders to shape policy.
  • Science: Mapping food, energy and water; conducting water, soil, and air quality testing.
  • Language arts: Communicating about community issues using multiple genres (reports, fiction, etc.)
  • Math: Graphing demographic data.
  • Arts: Community murals; local architecture; theatrical recreations of historic events; traditional songs and dances
  • Health: Assessing access to parks, healthy foods, health care, etc.

All of these activities are powerful vehicles for students to develop and apply a full range of academic skills. The relationship-building and collaboration skills also support social and emotional development.  Now that’s worth a group hug!

Wondering what it looks like in practice? Let me know!

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