Learning Matters: Getting beyond 'One More Thing'

I understand the temptation to add "one more thing" to statewide public school curriculum. I have my own list of subjects I'd like to see all students learn, from choral music in the primary grades to academically integrated work experience in high school.

After all, public schools present the best opportunity to expand understanding and affect behaviors for generations of Californians.

So it comes as no surprise that some legislators are proposing curriculum adjustments to address the country's fake news problem. Nor was it unexpected that at least one school board candidate is promoting financial literacy instruction, much as I did in a column last month. ("Education challenges are nothing new," Jan. 21-22.)

But adding a course, even adding new material to an existing course, presents challenges for schools and students alike.

Many students will tell you, "There just isn't time in the day." Especially among students aiming at a four-year university, the "A to G requirements" — the core academic and elective classes needed for college admission — rule their lives.

Since most courses take a year to complete and take up one-sixth of a student's normal six-period day, adding a class is no small thing.

For schools and teachers, new courses present other challenges. Curriculum must be written and approved. Since high school teachers need subject-matter credentials to be considered highly qualified, they may need additional coursework to teach a new course.

Even new material within a subject area requires teacher training and dedicated staff-development time, always of some concern to teachers' unions.

In advanced placement classes that can provide students with college credits, the pace of instruction and scope of the year-end test leave teachers with little or no time for additional topics.

Even in elementary classrooms, where teachers have received arts instruction as part of their credential, arts often take a back seat to the "core" curriculum areas in which they feel more comfortable — and which are tested. But arts are usually best taught by teaching artists anyway.

A classroom visitor will often impress students in ways a classroom teacher won't, however well-versed the instructor. I've heard teachers bemoan how their students respond to their advice in the same unimpressed way they respond to their parents. But bring in "a professional" saying the same thing, and the students listen.

Our district has engaged professional artists more than once in my experience, using a "train-the-trainer" model for elementary arts instruction. In those cases, visiting artists led students in multiweek programs in music, dance or drama as teachers observed. The classroom teachers were then expected to incorporate the lessons into their own instruction in the ensuing years.

I think most of the teachers whose classes participated in the programs would agree that the follow-up teaching didn't quite happen — and for understandable reasons. A classroom teacher who's not a dancer will not model dance moves as effectively as a dancer could.

We can't and shouldn't expect classroom instructors to teach their students everything we want our children to learn. So how can we ensure our students receive the important information they need without overburdening them, their teachers or the system?

I say we envision a school system with schedules designed so classroom teachers regularly welcome consulting experts to augment instruction. Teachers could focus on the fundamentals of their curriculum — which industry representatives remind us remain extremely important — and their critically important role in building relationships with students. The visiting partners would add their artistic expertise or real-world stories of the skills they use on the job.

In the primary grades, for example, all students might get 10 weeks of classroom choral music and movement, taught by musicians.

Upper-grade elementary students could study drama to build teamwork and oral-presentation skills.

Middle schools might create career-exploration classes, with regular participation by visiting engineers, graphic artists, scientists and entrepreneurs of all kinds. Classroom teachers could incorporate the real-world examples into their math, science and art instruction.

Consulting experts could address noncurricular areas, too, including physical and emotional health. I attended a training on emotional intelligence offered last week by Glendale Community College. The focus was on recognizing and dealing with the emotional responses of others in the workplace.

"Wouldn't it be great if we could take this information to kids in the schools?" a mental health counselor asked me. She'd love to figure out a way to help students learn early how to navigate the sea of human emotions.

In the new economy, where so much employment is project-based and so many people work at two or more jobs, is it unreasonable to imagine a school where teachers collaborate regularly with outside experts who are between jobs? Everyone would benefit.

So, though I understand the challenges that come with teaching one more thing, I can't help looking for ways to do it... and to fund it.

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JOYLENE WAGNER is a past member of the Glendale Unified School Board and an advocate for many things. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.

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