Reimagining Education: Let’s empower teachers to co-write curriculum with students and families

Chris DeRemer is the dean of instruction at a high school in Denver, CO. This is part of our series on reimagining education.

A few years ago, when I was in the classroom full-time, my students and I did a project on gentrification. I was new to the school and the neighborhood, part of the changing face of the community: educated, affluent, white.

The rapid change made students anxious. They worried about their families being pushed out. They had to fear being judged by new neighbors. So, we studied it. The history of the neighborhood, the forces of change, and their implications on the lives of our kids. It’s a way of teaching we subscribe to at Manual High School in Denver’s historic Whittier neighborhood. We want our curriculum to meet our students where they are. We want the world of our classes to match the world in which they live.

Why am I thinking about this now? Well, I’ve been hearing a lot about all we’ll have to do for students to “catch up” on lost learning. I understand the impulse – most kids haven’t been receiving full-time instruction since March. But it’s deficit-thinking. It fails to account for all the ways our students have been learning – about racial injustice, public health, communities coming together and being there for their loved ones during challenging times.

To be sure, our instruction needs to be aligned to the standards. But just as importantly, it needs to be relevant to our students’ experiences, as they are now, today – and as they should be. This will take reimagining our curriculum. We’re going to need to empower teachers to be curriculum writers, co-creating learning plans with students and families.

Can our teachers begin the year with one unit planned – say, for the first three or four weeks of school – and then co-plan the next unit with students and families? Can they face their students for the first time from a place of inquiry rather than presenting them with a roadmap? Can they meet their students by asking, “Who are you? What are you interested in? What’s going on in your world and in your community?” Can they then plan ways to cover their standards with the content students ask for?

In my community, we’re going to try. And we don’t have it figured out, not by a long shot. But I wanted to share the steps we’re taking and invite you to join us in developing instruction that runs toward kids, not away from them.

Turn PD and staff meeting time into teacher co-planning time.

Teachers have limited time. So, when I’m asking them to write their own curriculum, I’ve got to chisel out time for them to do that. What that means is our professional development is run by teachers who sit together for four hours a week. They plan together, give feedback on each other’s plans and set goals together – without an administrator present, or with an administrator there only to support and co-plan. We’re in it with our teachers, all of us, together. This is essential: school leaders need to be intimately familiar with what teachers are doing in their classrooms – and champions of their plans.

If possible, teach a class of your own.

Not every school setting can pull this off, but when possible, I think administrators should think about teaching one course. At my school, we are fortunate to have a leadership team big enough that there’s time for each of us to teach a class once a day. For example, our juniors and seniors take their college-level English from our assistant principal. Then she, in turn, runs the English PLC, and it’s powerful to see the amount of buy-in her team has when she comes in and says, “Man, today was a struggle.” By doing this, everyone understands one another’s experience and empathy and support abound.

Work in phases. Don’t take on too much at once.

I think we can have an impulse to try to do everything at once, but we ultimately do a disservice to our goals when we move too quickly. In our community, we started by focusing only on collaborative planning and feedback last year. That was it. That was our priority. This year, we’re adding a layer of co-planning assessments. It’s going to be a huge ask for teachers – and for all of us – to design assessments, and I know we’re going to run into roadblocks along the way. But we’re ready, because we’ve laid the groundwork.

There’s no way around it: The work of reimagining curriculum is demanding. But I believe it has to happen now, in this devastating pandemic, in a divided nation that’s still living and breathing our problematic history. If we don’t greet our students with an offer to meet them where they are right now, we’ll send the message that we, as educators, control their learning. We’ll send the message that we see this as just a moment we’re all passing through, unchanged – rather than a historic shift of the ground beneath our feet.

Instead, let’s show our students that we’re being changed and growing alongside them. Let’s ask them where their minds are right now. Let’s decide what’s worthy of our time and attention – together.