To date, my experience with the Third ‘R’ has been limited to a form of curriculum negotiation in my Year 3 class of 2008, but what a story I have to tell …
As I began my teaching experience, exploring our Under the Sea theme, my initial planned learning experiences were primarily teacher-directed. Over the course of those eight weeks I learnt how to facilitate open-ended learning tasks, encouraged students’ sharing of their prior knowledge and experiences, learnt to keep my “teacher talk” to a minimum, and (unwittingly) tapped into a wealth of community knowledge.
A good example of my early approach was the science lesson about fish adaptations, which saw students observe, handle and draw the features of real (dead) fish. This highly authentic and extremely unusual activity created quite a stir amongst staff and students; and while it achieved the desired learning outcomes, some students’ still live in “fear” of Mr Graffin’s “little friends” returning to haunt them!
Negotiating the Curriculum to Reflect Students’ Experiences, Knowledge, and Interests
As I became more confident in planning and facilitating student learning, I began to inquire into my students’ lives and communities through my “Fishing Equipment” & “Fishing Letters” activities. While I initially perceived this as a natural extension of my teaching, this change represented a fundamental shift in my theoretical understandings of my teaching practice, moving towards encouraging students’ active involvement in the learning process.
Halfway through the term, I decided that students would write letters to inquire into the commercial fishing industry, supporting their achievement of the Society & Environment – Investigation, Communication & Participation outcomes.
As a prelude, I invited parents and students to share their fishing expertise and experiences with the class. The response blew me away, as they brought lobsters pots, fishing rods, shells, crab pots, a tackle box, diving float, mussel floats, rope splicing equipment, and even a GPS unit to class, much of which they loaned for our Open Night displays.
My students happily spent an entire lesson examining the different types of fishing equipment, and I had several boys and girls, including “Roy”, enthusiastically teach the entire class (and the teacher!) about how they used fishing rods, crab pots, and hand-reels in their lives. I discovered Roy’s deep love of mussels (shellfish) and interest in crabbing; and learnt that another student’s father ran a local mussel farm.
This activity marked a turning point for Roy, the most challenging student in the class. I had finally found a topic which he was interested in, and about which he could contribute his knowledge to the class. From this movement forward, I noted a significant decrease in his challenging classroom behaviours (while I was teaching), and a corresponding increase in his enthusiasm and engagement in his learning.
Later, students brainstormed questions they had about the fishing industry, and wrote letters to various family members, local businesses, and John West Tuna (Simplot Australia), seeking answers. We ultimately received answers to most of our letters, with some amazing results.
We received a wonderful letter from the marketing department at John West Tuna, who decorated their office with our students’ letters. They also sent us an inflatable tuna can, inflatable fish, and a carton of Tuna to Go. Naturally, the teacher got first pick…
We also received letters from WA Mussel Co-Op, and several students’ relatives working as commercial fishermen throughout Western Australia
So, what did I learn from this experience?
- Negotiating the curriculum, even in a small way, can have significant, and sometimes unexpected positive impacts on the learning process
- Students, and their families, can bring useful knowledge, expertise, and skills to class. Recognising these boosts students’ self-esteem and impacts on their classroom behaviours.
- As a teacher, your choice of learning experiences, curriculum design, and teaching approach significantly influence your students’ motivation and classroom behaviours.
- Effective, proactive classroom managers seek to engage students in their learning by making it interesting and relevant to their lives and experience. Motivated, engaged students are much less likely to misbehave.
These ideas are reflected in my teaching philosophy: “What students bring to class is where learning begins. It starts there and goes places.”
Ira Shor. (1992). Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change.