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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Key to Good Conduct: Get a New Curriculum

As a longtime educator and a classroom English teacher for twenty-seven years, I've seen all kinds of student "bad behavior." Most of my classroom experience focused on teaching so-called at-risk youth. I chose teaching to make a difference, and, to me, teaching at-risk youth was where I could make the most dramatic difference.

I struggled for seventeen years and never created the classroom I envisioned that changed the lives of students. Of course, I had my successes and helped students, but not always to the degree that I wanted. Many at-risk youth have poor reading and writing skills, and I taught the very subject they disliked the most. The biggest challenge for me in teaching English was to make the subject matter interesting to the students; my biggest success was a unit that linked poetry to current popular music. It wasn't until later that I realized this was relevant to students.

In 1986, I interviewed for a teaching position in a brand-new program: the California Partnership Career Academies, as an English teacher at Bakersfield's Health Careers Academy. I thought that combining English concepts into science and the medical field and team teaching with a science teacher would be exciting challenges. I lobbied hard for the job and was hired, and it wasn't until much later that I discovered I had been the only applicant.

I will not sugar-coat my first year. It was the most difficult one in my entire career. To my dismay, most of the students were reading at a third-grade level; I had a lot to learn about science and medicine, and most of my students were gang members. The good news was that in the second year of the academy, the local health community became our partners and helped me create relevant lessons around medical concepts.

Medicine has very rigorous reading and writing requirements, and, to my surprise, my students willingly struggled to read the material and write about medical concepts. For the first time, discipline problems in my classroom decreased. Subject matter I had previously taught by threatening and cajoling students was now considered interesting.

For example, when I taught Romeo and Juliet, a poison-control center in Fresno, California, sent a team to my school to instruct on various poisons and their antidotes. Students asked difficult questions involving chemistry and biology. Most importantly, they liked the play's story. These activities led the Health Careers Academy to adopt project-based learning that involves English, history, science, and math. These projects also spilled over into student job-shadowing and internships opportunities and linked the classroom to real life.

The long and detailed description appearing above can be summed up in two words: engaging curriculum. Curriculum students perceive as relevant decreases bad behavior; students on task are not disturbing the classroom. More importantly, they can be encouraged to participate in more rigorous learning activities. I encourage teachers to bring relevancy into their curriculum. If you have trouble finding relevant curriculum for project-based learning, go to the Web site of the Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies and read about its curriculum, which is both integrated and project based. It is also free and can be downloaded from the site.

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Jason Faulk's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I agree with Sandy. I teach at a 99% African-American school where the students live in an age of MTV, BET, and other "Generation X" TV shows. I am a 9th grade Social Studies teacher and I found when I create lessons that utlize current trends I get more engaged students. I take the ideas that I want the students to learn and come up with a lesson that allows them to think about it in "2007" terms and ideas. They really like it. It is fun for me as well. With education being so constricted on what they students are suppose to learn, it allows me creativity with my lessons.
Donald McNeill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Sandy,

We are always looking for teachers to further test our product and theory that students have a greater retention rate when learning is fun/funny.

We have developed language as a game and it has won numerous awards from the toy and game industry and we are getting great feedback from teachers and students alike.

I would gladly send you a copy of You've been Sentenced! if you would use it in your class and give us a report on your findings.

Sincerely,

Donald W. McNeill
Chairman
McNeill Designs for Brighter Minds

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is a great to keep students engaged and active in the content areas even if it involves creative ways that may be risky to try (professionally and acceptable of course), and may not work the first time.
I teach a carpentry and cabitnetmaking class to mixed grade students in a high school in Baker county Florida. The students always perk up and behave better when they have something in mind they want to build instead of the projects that are assigned in teams. Individual projects such as a birdhouse, skate board ramp, or whatever interests them that is acceptable to build of scrap materials with take over the interest of the whole classroom. We have half class time in construction manuals, involving math, and english. Then we have half time in the shop. The subject should be engaging and complex enough that
these kids have to think. I like it most when they use their own creativity.
Of course I am there to help get them started and encourage the laggers that don't seem to be creative. Once they pick an individual project, I let them take it from start to finish and see some interesting objects turned out.
We deal in technical data in books most of the time and have to find ways to stimulate interest, which can be very difficult at times. There are a lot of ESE students that are in the vocational electives and it is interesting to share ideas with others about what makes their students behave as they should.
We have so much to compete with, i.e., television, video games, street entertainment, and generally anything else more interesting than learning in the classrooms, so it can be difficult to sway them away from their interest enough to get their attention and maintain it throughout a project. Enjoyed your thoughts on using the game you came up with.

Terry

Shawn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would first like to commend you for being a risk-taker. It takes a lot to go outside of the box. Also, it takes a insightful person to be able to recognize what is working and what isn't. When you saw that things weren't working, you were not afraid to change and actively engage your students. I bet they have not forgotten you or the wonderful instruction that you have provided them. I appreciated what you have done for those "at-risk" kids. I find what you did for those students is something I can provide my high school ESL kids with. I think that getting them actively involved in their learning, as well as the community, is beneficial. Thank you so much for the inspiration.

Ricky Qvist's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Jason

I saw on Dave's esl that you're looking for opportunities. How about Trujillo, Peru?
We need a teacher who could come around Feb. 2008 and stay for at least till Christmas.
Could you tell me something about which year groups & subjects you'd like to teach, also
if you have any special skills for teaching, e.g. cooking, art, music, etc.
Also if you could me an idea of how much you expect to earn for a 7.30 am.-2.30 pm. job.
(free afternoons to teach more or whatever).
Hope to hear from you soon.

Kind Regards
Ricky Qvist

Sean's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sandy,
I enjoyed your article. I just spent three days at the Illinois NCLB conference. I was pleased to attend so many relevant sessions. Probably the most inspiring was put on by IMSA (Illinois Math and Science Academy) on PBL. I think you are right on target. Creating lessons based around engaging problems that are relevant to students not only decreases discipline issues in the classroom, it can really inspire students to make connections across the curriculum and empower them in their own learning. Keep up the good work.
Sean

paul Ferris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I take heart and follow your lead: taking risks, dveloping a high interest math curriculum and YET appeasing standards and "No Child Left Behind."

It would be wonderful to apply hands-on activities to align with basic math skills and entering algebra and geometry.

However, I run out of ideas.

I like the idea of projects and group work- but I need a headful of resources that enable special ed, learning disabled, high school kids to latch unto real problems and solve them.

So haas someone complied these projects or must I contiue to be eclectic and search again and again?

Just asking as I sense there are no easy answers to my quest,
Thanks,
Paul Ferris, Math h.s. resource center teacher in need of resources
\p.s. I have $300/ yr. as my budget!

ken akers's picture

I Sandy,
Iwe lost contact! I think of you and your family often. Hope all is well. Would love to hear from you
Ken Akers

Michael's picture

The author of this has nailed the most important ingredient. Relevence is a way to connect with the audience you speak to, and such with no connecdtion comes no learning. All teachers strive for the opposite effect.

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