One of my favorite movie scenes is in Apollo 13 when mission control has to strategize a way to get the crew home with a limited amount of resources. “Well, I suggest you gentlemen invent a way to fit a square peg into a round hole,” the flight director, played by Ed Harris, says. The team dumps a pile of random ship parts on the table, and with that pile alone, they find a way to get the crew home safely.
By using only what was available and in front of them, they met their goal. There weren’t any fancy gadgets, guided booklets or practice drills to get them there. They just used what already existed in a brand-new way. In doing so, they also revolutionized space travel.
What does this have to do with education? Well, as a teacher, I feel we don’t often take advantage of gathering our curricular materials from the resources we have available right in front of us. Imagine if your principal came to you and said, “The only way you can develop your curriculum this year is from using the resources that surround you in this neighborhood.” Would you know where to go? Would you know what is available? Would you be ready, or would you feel completely lost?
If you dig deep, there is a WEALTH of curricular materials right outside the door of your school. Have you ever looked?
As a language arts teacher, I know I’m blessed with the chance to be creative with my text choices and still teach the skills students need to learn. However, even with the freedom to be creative, how often have I pulled something from the typical literary canon? How often have I pulled online news articles to cover nonfiction comprehension? Pretty darn often, at least in my first few years. I really didn’t trust myself to develop material from scratch yet.
But as I grew in my confidence, I realized that students most wanted to talk about what was going on directly around them. Why wasn’t I tapping that source?
This past year, I taught a speech class. While we did talk about current events going on all over the world, each week’s speech topic was narrowed down to a local community context. When we talked about poverty, students discussed the closings of the Double 8 grocery stores in the low-income areas of Indianapolis. When we talked about the criminal justice system, students spoke about their experiences or their friends’ experiences with law enforcement in the city. When we talked about the housing collapse, we took a close look at the areas of the city that were most affected. I had a student who, on the first day of class, tried to sleep all period. By the end of the first week, she was eager to participate because she had an aunt who had bought a cheaply built house before the housing collapse. It was so poorly built she remembered the front door falling right off when she’d made a visit.
It was culturally relevant pedagogy, and it was EASY to implement. My students were more engaged in the material, and once they realized their ideas could mean something, they were also more motivated to become active citizens.
Now, I know some skeptics reading this will say, “Well, what about mathematics? Or science? How can you possibly pull all of the curricular materials for those courses from the surrounding neighborhood?” Time to put a square peg in a round hole. Think about it. Numbers are everywhere. Instead of having students learn only the skills needed to pass the state test, make the numbers stand for something. They’ll still learn the skills, but they will care. Look at the demographics of the neighborhood and calculate the changes by examining census data over the decades. Collect soil and water samples and find out how much lead remains in the ground.
It’s culturally relevant, it’s focused on social justice, and it’s still a way to teach students the skills to get past those exam seasons. What is there to lose?
Time. Yes, time is the most valuable resource to a teacher. It will take time to build up a curriculum from scratch based on the unique neighborhood in which your school resides. But wouldn’t it be fun to try? Don’t you secretly want to feel like that team in mission control, putting pieces together you’d never thought to put together before and coming up with something amazing?
It’s easy to lose the magic of teaching when we’re so bogged down with everything else that comes with the job. But I encourage you to start small and build up. Challenge yourself to do ONE unit with only curricular materials from the surrounding space you’re in. Once you see how the students respond to it, you might be hooked. It’s there in your line of sight; the gold for your future lesson could be in your own backyard. Go out and get it.
Hannon is a life coach and teacher at The Excel Center University Heights in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in urban education at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis.