The Nullest Curriculum

Let’s pretend you’re 19 again and this is interp of lit. I’ll be your deadlocked, self-loathing Caucasian TA for the duration of the post.

1. Alumni Should be Your Barometer:

Recently, I ran into a former student who was manning a gas station. He had obviously changed his path during post-secondary, which is not uncommon. He had returned home, which is also not rare.

What really caught me was how cogent he was about math ed with the awkwardly short conversation that we had.

“Hey, good to see you!” I said, happy that I remember his name; not something I’m usually that good at.

“Hey, Mr C, what’s up?”

“Nothing really, just getting ready to try and teach people stuff.” I said as I made sure I was buying the most ethical kind of beef jerky, you know, as an example of good financial stewardship.

“Try? You were always pretty good at teaching. Is that all, did you get gas?”

Beepbeep, beep.

“Thanks, but it’s really hard to get big ideas to stick with people.” I responded.

“Yeah, like freaking loans and taxes and stuff. Why don’t they teach us about that?” He got a little incensed.

I had taught this student about General Relativity, more about parabolas than any one person ought to know, and how to do a chi-squared test.

2. Teacher’s Lounge Fodder:


It was Friday night at 10:25. We had just returned from an intense, 16-hour field trip to some of the most advanced physics labs in the country. We saw ATLAS, the Tevatron, etc…

As we were cleaning out the vans and getting into our own vehicles, one of my favorite students mentioned for the first time that she’d be in Mexico for the entirety of next week. The week before spring break.

As a teacher you have a few ways to respond to that. Before I could, she asked, “What can I do to make up what I’ll miss?”

I bet you think you know where this is headed, but you’re wrong. In fact, the whole system is wrong.

Traditionally, this student would be effectively punished for her opportunity to visit another country. She would be punished with extra reading, extra worksheets, goalless internet searching about “related rates,” and a plethora of other class-time mimicry.

Instead, the questions should be: how can you learn while you’re on this trip? How can the school honor the experiences you’re getting and help you turn those into curriculum competencies?

How can we avoid the feeling that she’s “getting away” with something by missing this much school and not failing? That whole thing just creates friction between the joke we call class and what real people do while they learn (they do).

Why are you going? Oh, a mission trip? How can we do some comparative religion? Oh, just vacation? How can we take data about income inequality and math? Can you learn some Spanish? Perhaps a study of the specific dialect you’ll be immersed in? Oh, you didn’t know there were regional dialects in Mexico?

Again, how can the school honor her experience so that the embarrassingly common null curriculum is avoided; that is, that the real world doesn’t count unless we’re studying it right now, this week, on this test.

Even typing the last clause of that sentence just made be barf in my mouth a little.

A Challenge:

So, let’s talk about ways we’ve honored what our students do outside of the classroom by giving credit, building investigations, or otherwise seeing school as a hub with radial paths outward into awesomeness.

I’ll start: I once had a students create a cladogram of all the monkeys she could take pictures of while she was visiting Panama. She then compared the cladogram to one made by biologists 100 years ago (canal time!), and to a genetic one she built using NCBI. This felt right, and really wasn’t even that bell-and-whistle-y.