More Time on the Why

Our RePublic team is spending the bulk of the summer reimagining our curriculum. We are making a top to bottom rebuild -- starting from first principles. 

One of the first changes we are making is spending more time on the "why" for our academic work. Our teachers and scholars must be inspired by the curriculum and understand its relevance. 

This change will be apparent to teachers and scholars from the first sentence of every unit and the first second of every class. To take one example, here's the introduction to the first Unit ("Unit 0") for 5th Grade History (written by our rockstar Director of History, Christine Rua):

Our goal is not to drive our students to Wikipedia, pen in hand, trying to plot the twists and turns of two rivers they may never see. Our goal is to push students to deeper meaning-making."

At some point in your career as a History teacher, you will find yourself with “a Wikipedia Problem.” Holding your head in your hands, you will grumpily Google the precise location of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the conditions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, or the reign of the Tang dynasty. You will not be able to recall the contributions of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the theme of the Mahabharta, or the events of the Battle of Alamance and Regulators. The charge of filling a ten-year old’s brain with three centuries of these facts and details is akin to ingesting a set of encyclopedias – there will never be enough space and there is certainly not enough time.

So how is the charge of a History teacher different? Deft History teachers are able to wade through centuries of information, isolating details that will allow their students to make the past meaningful. While the location of the Tigris and Euphrates is important, it is unlikely that a labeled map will leave a lasting impression on the minds of students. As History teachers, we recognize that our students must be able to answer the question “Where?” but we ask in service of the question “Why?” Where are these rivers? Why is the location of these rivers important? 

As we reflect on our own experience as students we likely find that, not only are we better equipped to answer the latter question, but we are also more willing. Our goal is not to drive our students to Wikipedia, pen in hand, trying to plot the twists and turns of two rivers they may never see. Our goal is to push students to deeper meaning-making.

In History, students will make meaning by applying content knowledge to rich primary sources, keenly articulating how these texts enrich their understanding of a period. Over time, students will begin to draw connections between different time periods, recognize recurring historical themes and apply these themes in their analysis of primary documents. Our students will become scholars of History.

Here's another example -- this time from the introduction to Unit 1 in  7th Grade Math (from Liz Mullins, our Director of Curriculum, Data, and Assessment):  

"Ratios, rates, and proportions are EVERYWHERE! Our students have conceptually been thinking about proportional reasoning for a long time. They notice a friend has more cookies than theydo, they wonder why more boys play basketball than girls, the notice that some adults drive at a faster rate than other adults. Unit 1 sets the stage for 7th grade math at RePublic Schools. Proportional reasoning is the ability to make and use multiplicative comparisons among quantities. This unit will help students to develop their understanding of what multiplication and division actually mean. Unit 1 will set a foundation for our students to be able to think conceptually about contextual situations, and apply/practice their reasoning skills.

Unit 1 is especially exciting because students see demonstrations of proportional reasoning everyday. Cars traveling at 25 mph, sorting 2 roses and 3 pieces of greenery in every bouquet, a 30% chance of rain etc. A firm understanding of proportional reasoning will help ensure our students are informed scholars. Students should be excited about the significant real world connections they can make to identify with proportional reasoning. 

In sixth grade students are exposed to comparing ratios and using ratio tables to fill in missing information. Our students should come to seventh grade being able to answer questions such as: “The ratio between boys and girls at a school is 8:6, and it is the same for every class. If the school has 154 students, how many boys are in the school?” In seventh grade, we extend this understanding even further. We now want students to be able to compare proportions contextually. Such as, which car will arrive at the destination in a shorter time? And, of the three products, which product has the best unit rate? Seventh graders also get to learn how to plot proportions on coordinate planes, and how to interpret those points."

Here's yet another unit intro for 7th Grade English (from Moira Moynihan, phenom 8th Grade Literacy Teacher at Nashville Prep):

"This unit is designed to simultaneously be remedial and a headlong dive into the 8th grade curriculum. The unit will explicitly teach foundational literacy skills such as reading comprehension and the interpretation of figurative language that will serve as the bedrock for the rest of the year’s curriculum. While these skills will be remediation of things taught in prior years, this unit will also introduce new, high level reading skills that will be spiraled throughout the year. Students will tackle the idea of multiple truths with a text, transitioning from a single correct interpretation to many valid interpretations that exist contingent upon the selection and explanation of best evidence. 

This unit will also be an introduction to some new freedoms afforded to the 8th graders, who, as the leaders of this school, will be given scaffolded independence that pushes scholars to take ownership of their own learning. Understanding why literacy is important and empowering will be critical to the successful execution of “Lit Flex,” the time in which scholars independently tackle literacy tasks. This introductory period to Lit Flex will help scholars establish good habits of reading and keeping readers/writers’ notebooks. Scholars will practice explicit reading comprehension strategies and work on self-revision and evaluation of their own writing based on what we’re learning in class. Moreover, scholars will work on building effective arguments, focusing on finding evidence to support a claim, acknowledging a counter argument, and distinguishing between reasons and evidence. 

The central text of this unit is Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This text is high rigor due to the importance of context within the novel, non-linear time structure, the inclusion of Igbo dialect, and thematic arcs that may challenge our kids’ preconceived ideas about certain subjects, such as the role of the parent and the dangers of religious zealotry. The novel is extremely high interest and is written from the point of view of a young girl, about the age of our scholars. Additionally, this book contends with culturally responsive issues specific to neo-colonial Nigeria and is written by an African-American female author. In some ways, the novel is a bildungsroman, where an incredibly disempowered girl learns that conditions need not remain as they are, a narrative I hope will inspire our scholars in the same way. Although the family in the story is wealthy, the issues our scholars content with (poverty, racism, systemic inequity) can be viewed as analogous to those the narrator faces, in that hegemonic narratives can unjustly posit some people as more or less valuable based on arbitrary traits. The complementary book club novel, Chains, is also a high interest novel that aligns loosely with what scholars will be learning about in history. This novel is high interest and part of a series, so it can ideally inspire scholars to find and read the other books in the series. 

The writing components of this unit similarly hope to empower scholars to use their literary skills to advocate for meaningful, just change, but these also reflect a very real need for our scholars to be competent writers as they enter the workforce and seek higher education. This unit will be one of three major argumentation projects happening in the scope of the year. Scholars will tackle the question of whether or not child soldiers should be given amnesty, working to construct meaningful, nuanced claims that are supported with evidence. Mechanically, scholars will learn to distinguish between reasons and evidence; to write with multiple sources; and to acknowledge counter claims. Scholars will also dabble in the process of revision, working to self-assess and align their work to the TN Ready rubric’s expectations for a 4."