Project-Based Learning (PBL)

How to Create Your Own Curriculum

Options abound for going off script.

October 18, 2006

Eric Matez doesn't know what he'll do next. To put it euphemistically, he has been given the gift of time. To put it more bluntly, Matez, a 17-year elementary school teacher in Norfolk, Massachusetts, is out of a job, fired in January 2006 from the Freeman-Centennial School. His offense? Going off script.

Matez was let go from the school for not teaching the curriculum to specification and for phoning the parents of his students to explain why he might be suspended; the latter act added the charge of insubordination to his disciplinary filing. "There's magic in my classroom," he says. "Going by the book, I couldn't make that happen. I wasn't going to give up the magic."

This isn't a case of poor test scores ending a teacher's career -- after his dismissal, an online message board for the town was flooded by testimonials from parents and students alike: "You were very kind to my son and made him fit into your classroom, when in previous years he was always the odd kid out. We appreciate that," read one. "You also made learning fun for him at a time when he started to hate school."

"He also has an inspiring integrity that spills over into his students, and I, for one, am ever so grateful for that," read another.

Matez's success in connecting with students and the community, and the school district's unwillingness to retain him, speaks to a bigger problem facing the education system today. Teachers across the country are increasingly becoming fed up with the mandated curriculum of the No Child Left Behind Act, of being told what and how to teach.

At the same time, school systems are afraid of what might happen to their federal funding if they allow teachers to explore alternatives -- no matter how successful those may be.

In this sense, Matez and others like him who have been fired or have quit out of frustration over curricular restrictions may one day be looked on as forward sentries, the outliers who paved the way for teachers to think outside the test and begin to take back the classroom from the bureaucrats.

When frustration mounts within a confining system, two common reactions unfold: First, seek out fellow travelers. Second, search for alternatives. This situation has led many teachers to bond online and use the Internet to find encouragement and alternative lesson ideas.

Not surprisingly, a trove of educational materials, sites, and tools exists on the Internet, catering to teachers hoping to ditch the textbook and, instead, reach their students in new ways. Tapping into these resources can be an exhilarating experience for educators, renewing their love of teaching, says Jim Moulton, an independent educational-technology consultant in Bowdoin, Maine, and blogger.

"Isolation is the great killer of teachers," he adds. "When they see there are other people out there providing resources, the receptivity shoots up. Teachers aren't looking at a script. They have plenty of scripts. The lights go on when they see tools."

Ingenious Instructables

Tools to help teachers breathe new life into their classrooms can be found all over the Internet. As with anything people create, however, some resources are better than others. Many of the alternative tools have been created to adhere to educational standards; others are simply the informal work of individuals or groups.

And, as Matez's example points out, teachers should be careful before abandoning district-mandated curriculum wholesale. But in most cases, these materials can be used to augment standardized lesson plans or for extracurricular activities.

Some of the most intriguing aids reside at Instructables, a site produced by Squid Labs, a silly-sounding but serious organization staffed in part by alums of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. Instructables, part of the group's Engineering for Good program, tackles projects that, according to its Web site, it hopes "will make a positive impact on the world," allowing anyone -- not just educators -- to upload detailed instructions on how to build or create a wide variety of projects. They're illustrated by photos or step-by-step drawings and include how to build a robot out of a computer mouse, how to craft a marshmallow gun, and how to create a helicopter toy.

"We're trying to create lesson-free learning, helping communities document their findings," Instructables cofounder Saul Griffith says. "People can show what they're building."

More than 600 "lesson-free lessons" are available free on the Instructables site, and Griffith hopes the number will grow as people in general -- and teachers especially -- discover project ideas as well as use the site to allow students to create their own Instructables.

"We live in an age when video games are dominant," he says. "It's important to make hands-on educational activities as fun as video games. We want to make projects mischievous and adventurous, and make learning about science and completing projects as fun as video games."

One of the highlights of the site is a section called Howtoons, which contains ingenious one-page paneled cartoons that offer instruction on topics such as how to make a flute from a turkey baster or how to create an underwater viewer using a 2-liter soda bottle. The cartoons (some of which will be published in hardcover), are licensed by the open-content organization Creative Commons, and interested teachers are encouraged to print them out and use them in their classrooms.

"The response to Howtoons has been very strong," says Griffith. "I've received a lot of email from teachers who are using them in classes. I assume that for every response, there are ten people using it and not telling you."

Do-It-Yourself Textbooks

Any teacher who doubts that students, given the chance, would endeavor to create an Instructable or share their knowledge through a similar site should talk to Shanel Kalicharan, a 17-year-old high school senior living in Mississauga, Ontario, near Toronto. Between sessions spent filling out her college applications, Kalicharan stumbled across Wikibooks, part of the Wikimedia Foundation, best known for the open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia.

The site came under fire in late 2005 when someone vandalized the article on journalist and political figure John Seigenthaler Sr., but it's generally a tremendous resource and a strong testament to what can happen when you pool the collective intellect of a large crowd. Nonetheless, teachers are strongly cautioned to verify material found here before using it in a substantive way in the classroom.

With Wikibooks, Wikimedia founder Jimmy Wales hopes to create online textbooks that can be used to supplement classroom learning; current books include those for algebra and general biology, plus a wealth of other subjects. Kalicharan discovered a project dealing with the solar system, one on dinosaurs, and one on ancient civilizations -- three topics of strong interest to her, so she set about contributing to the books.

"I've always loved reading, and I remember when I was younger I wanted to participate in making books," she says. "It's been great. The other contributors listen to your ideas, and we're working together to push everything along. I think others would benefit from doing it -- interacting with others, learning about other backgrounds and cultures, and learning more about themselves in the process."

Wales is known as a provocateur, and he displays it when asked about how the Wikibooks project got its start three years ago. "The academic system is stifling," he says. "It needs a breath of fresh air." At the same time, however, he's quick to point out the modest goals of the Wikibooks project in its current phase.

"It'll be a year or two before we can show something to teachers that they can use in the classroom setting as a textbook replacement," he says. "For K-12, teachers aren't given the flexibility to choose materials. They have to choose books from state-approved list. To get on the list, it's a process, and we're not there yet. Today, however, we can be used as a supplement, as a way to encourage students to contribute to a cool educational project."

New Sources, New Energy

Kathy Schrock, who runs the popular teacher-tech site Kathy Schrock's Guide for Educators, a resource hosted by the Discovery Channel's, encourages teachers to breathe life into their standardized curriculum through the use of technology. Though Schrock cautions against using Wikibooks substantively in a classroom, she regularly hears from teachers desperate for additional resources.

"I get about 150 emails a day, and 99 percent of them are from teachers looking for help," she says. "There's so much teachers have to cover because of accountability and mandates. As a result, it's very hard to fit anything additional into the classroom."

On her site, Schrock points teachers to what she considers the best online resources. These sites and programs are broken up by subject matter, with links available for topics from Agricultural Education to World Languages and Regions. "There's so much out there," she says. "It has definitely piqued the interest of teachers."

Whether this interest is due to the realization that a lot of content exists online or increased frustration at the standardization effort is up for debate. Jim Moulton, however, knows one thing: Bringing alternative lesson ideas into the classroom electrifies the students.

"I just got back from consulting with a classroom in California, and once the teachers introduced the Web-based resources into the classroom, the energy in the room was tremendous," Moulton says. "It was amazing, actually."

Despite the tremendous feedback people such as Griffith, Schrock, and Moulton receive from teachers who turn to the Internet to infuse their classrooms with new materials, most teachers aren't taking advantage of the resource and reaching out to fellow educators, specifically by blogging or podcasting to create resources for one another. "Teachers are introverts," says Moulton. "Teaching is an act of intimacy, and teachers aren't ones who typically reach out."

Part of the problem, of course, is that educators who do reach out, that do upset the status quo -- even if their methods are successful -- are often the ones who are punished. "Schools don't treat innovators kindly," says Moulton. "Teachers of the Year don't come back. Standardization is sapping innovative platforms in elementary schools. In a knowledge-based economy, that's suicide."

Back in Massachusetts, Matez, inspired by a conversation with a former student's parent, originally decided to fight his dismissal. "A mom called me and said, 'You know, Eric, we're never going to get good, innovative teachers here in Norfolk if teachers think they're going to get fired for doing their job better'" he says. "Through this whole ordeal, she was the only person who made sense to me."

Since filing a grievance with the union, however, he has decided to avoid a drawn-out litigation and resign. He is now looking for work in another school district.

Eric Hellweg is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who specializes in business, technology, and entertainment issues.

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