A peek behind the curtain of curriculum

The lesson plans that Lillie Michael, a senior middle and secondary English education major, creates are inspired by both colleagues and online resources. Photo by Terry Ngai

JACK WILLIAMS | STAFF REPORTER | jrwilliams@butler.edu 

It is easy to tell when a lecture is going well. Hands fly up into the air, the professor grins and students may stay an extra five minutes after class to discuss what they learned. Both educator and student are equally engaged. However, lectures can just as easily turn into an hour-and-fifteen-minute snooze-fest. Curriculum and lesson design are some of the main elements of teaching that play into this dynamic, but they are often hidden from view. The back-end work that goes into teaching is equally as important as the student-facing portion. 

Jeana Jorgensen is a lecturer in the Department of History, Anthropology and Classics (HAC) and in the Core Curriculum. This year she is teaching several sections of Global Historical Studies on the modern Middle East and North Africa (GHS 211). Jorgensen’s curriculum is shaped by factors such as academic conferences, her own scholarship and her peers’ recommendations. 

“I often think about which readings I want to center in the course,” Jorgensen said. “I’m very immersed in the scholarship on a variety of topics, and I want my students to also have that experience. I want to know what academics and regular people involved in this field are saying, writing and thinking.” 

Jorgensen first models the terminology and analytical methods that her students need to be familiar with. She then assigns essays that provide students with a selection of topics to choose from, which allows them to apply what she modeled. Students have the opportunity to practice the real-world scholarship skills Jorgensen uses in her own work. Ideally, this leads students to engage with the curriculum on their own terms and become invested in their work. 

A class that begins with a solid foundation of readings ensures that students are prepared for any assessments within. When educators build curriculums without a strong sense of direction, they risk making students take assessments that don’t match what they have learned. Direction can be found in the skills students are projected to learn, a final assessment or a list of topics the class should cover. 

Not all educators formulate their curriculum or lessons the same way, though. The formula varies based on the audience. No two sections of a class are exactly the same. Education majors, who may work with a wide variety of ages during their time at Butler, have an even greater adjustment to make. 

Lucy McRoberts, a senior English and education double major, plans to be licensed to teach both English and English as a New Language (ENL) for grades six through twelve. She prepares specific lessons for the classes she works with in her teaching practicum — the hands-on experience education majors have in the classroom with a mentor teacher before they begin student-teaching — rather than entire curriculums. She believes there is an important distinction to make between pedagogy, the teaching of children, and andragogy, the teaching of adults. 

“From an education [major] standpoint, we get trained in pedagogy,” McRoberts said. “That’s where the classroom management comes in. I don’t have to apply at the college level some of the skills that I learn in my education classes. When it comes to college, the teacher [is not] there to hold your hand.” 

Part of McRoberts’ time is spent making sure that her students are well-behaved and engaged with the class. This is less important in a college setting, where students are acutely aware that their money or their family’s money goes into every class. The college professor’s role is to provide the spark and resources for students to direct their own learning. 

For example, Jorgensen trusts that her students can engage in serious scholarship, even when it’s difficult, showing that she sees them as adults. This strengthens the relationship between the student and the professor. 

This relationship encompasses many aspects of the classroom, both academic and social. McRoberts enjoys professors who are flexible and willing to meet their students where they are. 

“If everybody’s having a rough day, [the professor can] take it easy for the day,” McRoberts said. “I’ve had professors who will [have the class] go for a walk. Some teachers can get very married to what they are doing, even when it’s not working. Those are the classes where some changes need to be made.” 

The professor-student relationship succeeds when both parties realize that class is a collaborative effort. Professors can adjust the day’s lesson according to their class, but the class can step up in their own way as well. There are few things more terrifying than a dead silent, discussion-based class at eight in the morning. Office hours, a clear syllabus and transparency on why students are being assigned the given material help to facilitate this two-way street. 

Lillie Michael, a senior middle and secondary English education major, is studying to be certified to teach middle school through high school in English and ENL. The teacher-student relationships she builds look different than those between a college professor and their students, but they are equally as important. She adjusts the level of support that relationship entails based on the needs of her particular class. 

“[If] parents or guardians don’t speak English, [you need to] make sure to establish a relationship still,” Michael said. “That includes sending an email that is translated into their primary language or meeting with them and a translator. You need to not only modify [for] the students’ needs but the guardian as well.” 

Parents and guardians are an integral part of a student’s education at any level, but this is particularly true for the middle through high school age groups Michael works with. Parents and guardians facilitate everything before and after the school day. The communication between the educator and the student does not stop where the classroom stops. It continues on through all the structures that support students in school. 

Michael’s willingness to adjust her class prioritizes the student experience. Meeting standards and requirements on paper does not directly translate to lasting learning for students. The educator is a mediator who transforms a set of goals into a deliverable lesson, in conjunction with their students. The community built from this process extends to the educator’s peers as well. There is collaboration at every level of education. 

“Every GHS class is developed by a handful of professors at once,” Jorgensen said. “You might have only one person teaching it next semester, but the idea is [that] because GHS is part of the core [curriculum], we need it to be sustainable. You need multiple people who can teach it.” 

Sustainable is the key word. Professors are able to learn from each other’s successes and mistakes and hopefully improve their GHS year by year. A diversity of teaching methods casts a wider net that targets multiple learning styles. 

These elements bring longevity not only to the class but also to the professors who teach it. Starting each year from a blank slate would be a Herculean task. Moreover, burnout is a serious issue for educators who may be stretched thin and navigating complex laws that regulate what they can teach. Professors are able to lean on each other and share resources so that each curriculum becomes a quilt of influences and texts. This resource sharing can be via online forums, academic literature or at the coffee machine. 

McRoberts often searches for lesson plans that other teachers have posted online before she crafts her own. Websites such as Teachers Pay Teachers provide forums for teachers to share resources with other teachers while being compensated for their work. Michael modifies the lesson plans she finds to meet the needs of her class and the specific requirements of the school she is working in. 

“[The internet] is a collaborative space,” Michael said. “That’s how ideas spark, and education is always changing. It’s nice to know what other teachers around the world and in the U.S. are doing.” 

The community element becomes not only a perk of teaching but a necessity. Working with other teachers is more than a social activity that lightens the load on individual teachers. It is a key part of the job that ensures students receive an education that incorporates what the best and brightest in a given field are thinking. These are the bonds that keep educators coming back, even when the pay is low and the demands placed upon them rise

“Education is very collaborative,” McRoberts said. “My mom is a teacher, so she has sent me her stuff before to draw inspiration from. [Teachers] don’t want to develop an entirely new course every single year.” 

Students benefit when educators draw from a wide array of inspirations and pool the knowledge they have built up over the years. That inspiration takes place in the bowels of Irwin Library as often as it does over lunch. The power of a curriculum to shape future educators and the general student body means it is worth asking professors why they added a particular material to their curriculum. There may just be a rich history of debate and collaboration submerged right beneath the text of last week’s homework.


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