By: Elizabeth Kelsey, Kendall Hunt RPD Intern
“When you’re in middle school …”
Several times a week, our fifth-grade teacher waxed poetic about the increased rigor that awaited us in sixth grade. We would have to turn in our homework the moment we walked into the classroom, he said, and if the bell rang before we did so, it wouldn’t be accepted. Retakes would not be offered. Homework assignments would be longer and more arduous. We needed to start preparing now, he exhorted us, passing out another review packet.
In sixth grade the following year, we found that very little of this was true. Our teachers did have high standards, but they were far from drill sergeants, and they were much more willing to work with us than we’d been led to believe.
This was far from the only time a teacher used the approach of “this will be useful later” to justify a curricular decision. In third grade, when we learned cursive, we were told that in fourth grade, we would be expected to use cursive in all our work.
That didn’t happen.
In fifth grade, we were instructed to buy erasable pens, which we used for our final drafts of writing assignments, because in middle school, we were told, all our work would be done in erasable pen.
That didn’t happen either. (Plus, those pens were totally ineffective.)
And many people have seen the memes comparing what high school teachers describe as required college email etiquette (complete sentences, polite salutations) to real emails from professors (slang and grammatical errors).
This is not to say that students should not learn cursive or should send emails full of “ttyl” to their professors. Professional writing is important, both in terms of cursive and emails.
(I don’t have much justification, though, for those erasable pens.)
Rather, the point is that although the curricular decision may have been right, the reasoning was wrong because frequently, when we students arrived at the moment where we’d been told this information would matter … it didn’t. That made us think that our teachers had been out of touch with reality, and so we became less likely to trust a future teacher who explained a curricular choice with “you’ll use this next year.”
Is it any wonder, really, that students so frequently ask, “When are we ever going to use this?”
For teachers, two tips. First, do your research. No one expects you to be able to accurately predict what’s coming for every student in the ensuing years. But that research is still important because learning about the curriculum in the grades following your own both eliminates “false advertising” and ensures that you really do teach your students what their next teacher will expect them to know.
This emphasizes the caveat here: yes, it is true that there are times when you need to implement a behavior standard or teach a concept solely because it’s a required building block to help students understand what’s to come. But by using that reasoning only when it’s true, students are more likely to believe it when they hear it.
Second, don’t make a curricular decision based solely on the philosophy that this is going to be used later, so we should prepare students now. That mentality is a good one because it helps ensure that students aren’t left floundering when expectations increase, but what it sometimes discounts is the current developmental status of your students.
It’s best to base your curricular decisions on what’s developmentally appropriate for the students in your class and what they need to help them learn best at that moment. If they need a challenge, then, by all means, implement a heightened expectation or more rigorous assessment method to prepare them for what’s to come. Just make sure (a) that you’ve verified, to the best of your ability, that this really does reflect the coming reality, and (b) that you have other developmental or curricular reasons for making this change besides “you’re going to have to do it next year.” After all, there’s a reason why that particular practice was implemented next year and not this year… because next year might be when students are developmentally ready for it.
Kendall Hunt Religious Publishing Division (RPD) curricula are created with these ideas in mind—for example, using grade-appropriate literature and vocabulary in our Pathways 2.0 curriculum and educating instructors on how to tell when a child is ready for new challenges in Kindergarten Stepping Stones. Use our customized curricula to help make informed and pedagogically sound decisions for your students’ needs, regardless of what’s coming (or, as the case may be, not coming) “next year.”
Oh, and stay away from those erasable pens.
What are the "erasable pens" of your educational career, and how can you change the cycle with your students?