Curriculum Maps, An Audubon Sanctuary, & Penguins Who Fly

November 14, 2010 at 1:35 pm Leave a comment

posted by Alisa Algava ‘08, leader of a small Hudson Valley progressive school

“It is not down in any map; true places never are.” ~Herman Melville

“Be like the bird in flight . . . pausing a while on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her, yet sings knowing yet, that she has wings.” ~Victor Hugo

I love maps. I love looking at them, reading them, finding interesting names of towns and cities, exploring places I’ve never been. And they’re useful, too…if I want to travel somewhere I just find where I am now along with my destination so I can figure out my path. During a recent Teacher Retreat, we sat in a circle around a big piece of chart paper. Curriculum was our big topic and we were creating a “map” of a study/project/experience that everyone in the entire school is currently excited about – birds.

These maps can be content-oriented (animals’ homes and habitats), skill-oriented (creating an observation station/experiment), concept-oriented (reptiles —> birds, evolution, and change over time), or some combination of all of these. Notice that some of the areas in the bird map overlap or connect in multiple ways. Note the blank circles, which are perhaps the most important ones of all (because we can never anticipate everywhere a group of children might need to go, nor would we want to). Consider the journey of learning in a progressive school and the role of a map such as this one. It shows the territory to be explored, learned, grappled with. But it is not a predetermined route. We may address some areas and not others. Some children might become experts in one topic and others might delve deeply into a different one. We could take a scenic path, a detour, or even travel off the map if the opportunity arises. At the same time, we have a big picture idea of the goals and intentions that guide the work we do with children every day.

At the school where I work, curriculum is both emergent and negotiated. This means that while teachers typically start with an idea and a plan, the learning then evolves in collaboration with the kids. We pay attention to them – to their interests, to their needs, to their strengths. We notice what they are ready to understand and do and we create an environment and activities that are responsive to each child and group of children.

A few days after this bird-mapping-curriculum conversation, I got to jump into the journey by spending an incredible morning with an extraordinary group of kids in an amazing place. If you haven’t visited Constitution Marsh and the Audubon Sanctuary in Cold Spring, NY it is absolutely worth a trip. Our Emperor Penguins (that’s the group name chosen by our 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds) saw bald eagles, a great blue heron, a sharp-shinned hawk, black vultures, crows, and more. They used binoculars, a spotting scope, bird illustrations, and field guides. They learned new ideas and information from Eric and Rebecca, our guides, and shared their own knowledge with them, too. And, well actually, they completely wowed Eric and Rebecca. Knocked their birding socks off. (Our 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds’ teacher has been guiding them in their study of birds for well over a month now.) This is a direct quote from Rebecca who told me she has worked as an environmental educator with kids of all ages in schools throughout the region: “I have never encountered kids this active and engaged and interested.” I wrote it down. Because those adjectives perfectly describe our kids and the ways in which they encounter the world. They are true explorers who use the maps we offer them. But they don’t stop there…they create maps of their own. And then they take flight.

Alisa Algava graduated from Bank Street’s Leadership for Educational Change program in 2008. For the past 15 years, she has taught and learned in public, private, and charter schools in NY, NJ, and RI. She has posted on the Alumni Blog about her experiences leading and learning in a small progressive school. Alisa loves learning. She loves moderating The Alumni Blog. And she really loves her nephew.

Entry filed under: classrooms, constructivism, curriculum, environmental education, integrated curricula, professional development.

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