Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Preservice Teachers Experience Middle Grades Curriculum

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Preservice Teachers Experience Middle Grades Curriculum

Article excerpt

Picture this idyllic scene: A seasoned father strolling with his young son out to the end of a dock jutting into a sparkling lake. The time has come for the lad to learn to swim. Expecting that his caring father would ease him into the water and offer gentle instruction, the boy was eager to master the elements of swimming. In seconds his heart was pounding as he sputtered for air, alarmed to discover that he was immersed in cold water up to his chin. In the distance, he could see his father making crawling motions and yelling, "Kick, kick! Use your arms! You can do it!" Angry, flailing, beseeching, the boy was stunned by the fact that his father had just tossed him into the lake and expected him to swim.

That startled, insecure boy represents what a cohort of 17 preservice middle grades teachers encountered as they learned to "stroke the crawl" in a curriculum lass that was to provide an unconventional approach to understanding middle grades curriculum concepts. In spring 2006, as they entered the first session of this middle grades curriculum class, collaboratively taught by two professors, they were given a syllabus that was 70% blank (See Figure 1 for the performance objectives on the syllabus and Figure 2 for the initial outline of course activities prepared by instructors) . Given the students' familiarity with the paradigm of "taking classes" honed from 16 years of a passive education, this was hardly what they were expecting. The cohort of students was told that their challenge, through consensus decision making, was to complete the nearly empty syllabus. They were first to determine the ways in which the objectives for learning about middle grades curriculum would be met and assessed and then to settle on the time and activities to do so.

Given a deceptively simple charge on the face of it, the students soon reacted to the shared responsibility for learning much like the young boy. Some of them were gasping for air, trying to figure out what they "really" were supposed to accomplish. Some of them were incredulous and could not conceptualize what was being asked of them, while some expressed feelings of abandonment and resisted participating in a process that felt unnatural. Having never encountered such an openended, ill-structured task, they patiently tried to keep afloat as it became ever more difficult to avoid drowning, all the while hoping that someone would come along to toss them a life preserver.

Before the semester began, the students had been assigned to read This We Believe in Action (Erb, 2005) and A Reaspm to Teach (Beane, 2005) in preparation for tne class that met twice weekly for 75 minutes. At that point, the readings were informative for the preservice teachers, but their understanding of the concepts they contained was insubstantial. While they may have acknowledged that they did not truly understand the meaning of terms such as active learning, integrated curriculum, learning community, and democratic classroom, they certainly did not foresee something so drastic being done to help them make sense of the abstract concepts. Nor did they expect they would have to undergo such discomfort to truly understand theoretical concepts.

The professors had decided that leaving the planning process largely unstructured would enable the students to experience the terms, in all of their anguish and exultation, thereby making it more likely to result in significant learning outcomes they could apply to their teaching practices. What follows the Background section is a conversation between one of the professors and one of the students who experienced the course and wrote this article as their means of making more sense of their differing perspectives on the experience.


The seeds for middle grades curriculum can be traced to the "progressive movement," in which reformers such as William Heard Kilpatrick (1918) promoted the project method as a means to experience learning. …

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