Sparks surrounding the script….

Holy Smokes, I never thought my Calling Audibles post would draw such a reaction from readers!  It’s neat, though, because it indicates exactly how passionate educators are about protecting their “craft” and exactly how willing my readers have become to push back my thinking and to engage with one another! If you look back to post one here on the Radical, you’ll find that was what I’d hoped for all along—so many thanks to Mike, Bob, Ariel and Parry for making it happen!

Now, on to “scripted curriculum.”

Like many of you have noted, “scripted curricula” can mean many things to many different people—ranging from the “paint-by-numbers” lessons that Parry and Mike despise to the collaborative work that Ariel did with her Bank Street College mentor.  And in my thinking, there’s probably a place for every approach along that spectrum.

Let’s start with Ariel’s viewpoint first because it’s the one we’re most likely to agree on—and it is the one that I’m most receptive to as an accomplished teacher:  Scripted curricula can mean a collection of lessons that are developed by colleagues working together on learning teams who have an intimate understanding of the students and content that they teach.  While the lessons delivered in different classrooms closely mirror one another, there is room for teachers to experiment with new variations or approaches.  When successes are discovered, they are shared with the group and become a part of the adopted ‘script’ for the next time.

In many ways, this approach takes autonomy away from teachers.  Collaboration replaces individual decision-making and the collective knowledge of the group supersedes the brilliance of any one educator.  But collective work ensures two things:

  1. That all students are exposed to the same content regardless of classroom.
  2. That all students are exposed to effective instructional practices—including those assigned to the least effective teachers in a building.

As an accomplished educator who is working on a professional learning team with colleagues that I’ve grown to trust and appreciate greatly, I’m jazzed each time that our team comes up with what we’ve started to call “required lessons” because it gives us a measure of standardization that we can use to make fair comparisons across classrooms.  I also have been exposed to new instructional practices that I would never have considered had it not been for our team’s commitment to identifying lessons that we would all teach.

Had I retained complete autonomy over the instructional decisions in my classroom (read: isolated), I would have relied on the practices that I was most comfortable with, regardless of the impact that those practices had on my students.  This opportunity for exposure to new practices—and the conversations that colleagues must have to agree upon shared lessons—help to drive reflection and continuous improvement in even our most accomplished educators.

That, alone, makes “scripting” valuable.

As for tightly scripted programs that go as far as to tell teachers exactly what to say and where to be on a particular day at a particular time, I think they have a place in education as well.  Now hear me out before you hit the comment button in a rage!

What would you say if I told you that I would have LOVED a scripted curriculum last year?

You see, I was teaching science for only the second time in my fourteen-year career.  What’s more, I found out that I was teaching science about a week before the school year started.  I walked into that classroom with very little understanding of the content that I was supposed to teach and even less of an idea about how to make that content approachable to kids.  I didn’t know how to best sequence material and couldn’t foresee the common misperceptions that would bog my kids down as we studied.

Essentially, I was “blind” in the classroom.  My work was horribly inefficient—I’d spend hours and hours planning for lessons that would flop miserably and then go home frustrated.  I’d commit full periods to topics that my kids would master in moments and breeze through thoughts that they’d wrestle with for months.  I did very little creative work in the classroom simply because it’s difficult to be creative until you’ve got a strong understanding of the basics.

Now, I survived—and so did my students—only because I’ve got a strong foundational understanding of what effective instruction looks like and I’m a determined son-of-a-gun who was willing to work 12 hours a day for months on end to improve over time.

What I’m left to wonder is how many teachers are willing to flail through a school year the way that I did.  How many give up—on both themselves and their students—because the work is just plain “too hard” to manage alone?

While scripted curricula are limiting to masters of their content and their classrooms like Parry, Mike, Bob and Ariel, how many Parrys, Mikes, Bobs and Ariels are there in the world?  Can we really count on ALL teachers—including those working in the poorest communities in our country where recruiting excellent teachers for every classroom is proving to be nearly impossible—to make the kinds of decisions that come naturally to masters without structure?

The argument against rigid scripts for classroom teachers has been that they cheapen the quality of education that is available to children.  Scripts, we believe, limit a teacher’s ability to adjust and to make effective decisions based on a nuanced understanding of the needs of the children in their classroom.  What’s more, scripts teach to the lowest common denominator and threaten to eliminate opportunities for higher level thinking in our classrooms.

But all of those arguments operate from one flawed assumption:  That every teacher in every classroom is—or has the potential to be—a master.  When we look at scripted curricula through the lens of accomplishment, we cringe.

What I’m arguing is that the quality of teaching in many of America’s classrooms where under-prepared and unsupported teachers are toiling alone should make us cringe too—-and heavily scripted programs may just make the difference between an average educational experience and a complete waste of time for some of our students.The key to anything, I guess, is differentiating our approach based on the skill set of our teachers and the amount of support that we’re willing to provide to our colleagues.

In an ideal world, no teacher would ever be “in over their heads.”  Instead, they would have gone through a comprehensive preparation program that included preservice experiences in challenging classrooms.  They would have the support of a mentor for several hours a day—perhaps working in a co-teaching situation.  They would never be assigned to subjects that they weren’t trained for and they’d have a complete complement of instructional resources at their disposal.  What’s more, they’d be working with a team of caring and brilliant colleagues like mine.

Does this sound like the world where you live?  Because if it does, I’m moving tomorrow!

Alright…now you can fire off a comment or twelve!  I’m looking forward to the sparks….