Redesigning the curriculum: taking student feedback seriously

Part 2
Part 3

“Community isn’t just what we want to build; it’s how education even happens”

The prioritization of community isn’t just a “nice to have” quality that enhances learning, says Martha Brackeen-Harris, Equity and Social Justice consultant to Watkinson. A former head of Watkinson’s Middle School and a renowned educator, mentor, and consultant across the state on issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity, Martha returned to Watkinson this year to help the school make the transition into an even more committed and effective program of anti-racism.

“Community isn’t just what we want to build; it’s how education even happens,” Brackeen-Harris says. “Real teaching is not just following a book and asking the same little questions that they give you at the end. It’s being in tune with the students sitting in front of you. The person writing the book does not know those students; you know those students. Knowing those students is how you teach those students.

“Community is also the way we become aware of the blind spots in our own teaching,” she continues. “Even in the choosing of curriculum, we need community. Even though we’re experts in our own field, we need more than that. I asked Christina and Rob” — Christina Bernbach, English Department Chair and Academic Dean of Grades 9 & 10, and Rob Deitelbaum, History Department Chair and Academic Dean of Grades 11 & 12 , who have been leading the redesign of the Upper School electives — “I asked them, ‘When you’re choosing a book, who’s in your circle? What does your circle look like, is everybody like you?’

“When you’re thinking about creating a course, or about what books to include in a course, even in the early stages you need to make sure you get all the voices in. Because even one well-meaning question by someone who thinks differently from you, who has different experiences from you, can be enough to spark you into thinking, ‘Wait, what assumptions am I bringing to this?’ And all of a sudden you find yourself looking at what’s in front of you in an entirely new way.”

Looking inward, looking outward

The process Brackeen-Harris describes, of seeking out other voices to inform your own decision-making, is not necessarily a common one in the world of education.

Says Teri Schrader, “In most independent schools, teachers go there to be left alone. The pervasive culture is the idea that what goes on in my classroom is between me and my kids. And, while there’s something to be said for autonomy, that kind of privatization of educational experiences also makes it much more difficult to move beyond what you already think and know, or at least what you think you know.”

This self-examination becomes particularly important when you’re trying to ambitiously redesign your curriculum, as Watkinson has been doing for the past five years as part of the Strategic Plan. It becomes more important still when you consider curriculum not as a stand-alone feature of the school but instead as one manifestation of the greater school mission and culture, inextricably twined with the other strategic goals of inclusiveness, equity, and community.

Says Schrader, “There are those who think of curriculum redesign as the low-hanging fruit, the easy part of the work. Nothing could be less true. This isn’t just a matter of swapping out books. Done right, done the way we are trying to do it, the Strategic Plan asks an entire cohort of teachers to look at their program, on their own and with each other; to investigate, interrogate, tear down, and revise topics they’ve had an affinity with, sometimes for decades; and to try and understand — and then actually do — what is right for students in today’s world.

“There’s nothing easy about any of that work. It’s also not work that any of us can do on our own. We need honest input about what’s best for kids from our field, from our highly brilliant and deeply committed colleagues, from directions and sources that are new to us. And we need honest input about what’s best for kids from the kids themselves.”

Students seeking more diverse stories

Receiving that input, sometimes unsolicited, can be a humbling experience, says Rob Deitelbaum — but a highly productive and rewarding one as well. Last summer, for example, he received an email from a group of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students about the Civil War Monologues, which have been part of the tenth-grade curriculum for years. These students had some trepidation about the project, the email explained, because it was difficult to find many voices of African-Americans who weren’t slaves. So while the assignment did unearth non-white voices, the narrative was a very singular one.

The signers of the email were interested in how to bring more diverse stories to the table. “Now, the assignment was originally designed to do that very thing,” says Deitelbaum, “to bring to life more experience than we usually hear. We and the students had the same interest and the same goal. But what I was hearing was that the way we’d designed the assignment was not working as well as we wanted it to, or was no longer working as well, and that it was clearly time for a change.”

Deitelbaum had received the email on a Friday or Saturday in late July. He immediately wrote the students back to acknowledge and thank them; he also forwarded the email to Teri Schrader, Director of Admissions and Assistant Head of School John Crosson, and several other key stakeholders.

“And by the end of the weekend,” Deitelbaum reports, “we were deep in a conversation about where we were on this as a school.” Watkinson had received related feedback from current students and alumni in letters, conversations, and the BlackAtWatkinson Instagram account, which also helped inform the decision.

“This isn’t just what we want students to do; this is actually what we’ve taught them to do!”

“The email was a catalyst to bring us into action,” Deitelbaum says. “Very quickly we started to identify alternatives that would meet our goals for the curriculum even better — to conduct historical research and build the skills of public presentation — while showcasing even more comprehensive examples of voices that have been missing from the story.”

By the fall, the team had designed an updated assignment that focused on marginalized voices in Twentieth-Century America, including the second wave of feminism, the Civil Rights Movement, modern environmentalism, and the myriad American relationships to the Vietnam conflict.

Deitelbaum acknowledges that these conversations can be difficult. “When you get critical feedback from a student, it can hit you personally, if it’s something you’ve worked hard on and thought a lot about, something you’re proud of and thought you did well. But you have to learn right away not to take it personally.

“And, when you think about it, this isn’t just what we want students to do; this is actually what we’ve taught them to do! The fact that they’re speaking up and telling you what could be better is a much more impressive thing for them to have learned than any particular lesson you designed. So the first step for me is always to come back to the student and say, ‘I really admire the risk you took to say this to me, this is really important for me to hear.’”

Students aren’t the audience for teachers, Deitelbaum says; they’re generative partners in the process. “It’s not that students are making curricular decisions,” he says. “We’re the trained professional educators; we’re the ones staying current with the research, having conversations behind the scenes, keeping our goals for skill acquisition in mind. But we have to be receptive to student-led ideas and to student feedback on our ideas, especially when there are legitimate concerns. We need their tuning. They’re the point of the work we’re doing. If we don’t hear back from them, how do we know our big plans are having the effect we want?”

Grades 11 & 12

New History Electives

“As a teacher, it is rare to be given the opportunity to think, create, write, and materialize an entirely new scope and sequence of courses and curricula. They’re not just ‘cool courses’ that any teacher would love to teach; they mark our best thinking about the broad and expansive thinking that is necessary for serious historical study in the 21st century. Instead of building out traditional survey courses that remain unchanged for years at a time, these electives, each crafted around an essential question, will adapt to various teachers taking up the questions each semester and the changing and evolving world around us.” — Upper School Head Ryan Reese

Challenges shaped the learning… but didn’t stop it

Redesigning the curriculum: taking student feedback seriously

Committing to the communal work of anti-racism: moving together through new territory

“Not just talk”: concrete investment in a different future