One Day in the Life of Bartholemew Mathers a reader response by Sharon Holzscherer for EDU 5265 Internationalization of Curriculum Studies

One Day in the Life of Bartholemew Mathers a reader response by Sharon Holzscherer for EDU 5265 Internationalization of Curriculum Studies

As usual, at five o’clock that morning the alarm clock was sounded by the blows of a hammer on the top of the old clock hanging up near his sleeping quarters. Bartholemew Mathers slowly rolled out of bed and headed to the shower. Soon, coffee and toast consumed, he was on his way to his job at 104th Street Secondary School. The hallways were still silent. The students had yet to arrive. His first class was Grade 9 English to 32 Applied students. They didn’t particularly like English, or at least they were not particularly good at it yet. If they had been, they would have registered for the Academic class. So his job was to get them through, to meet the curriculum expectations as specified by the Ministry.

Today’s lesson was on making inferences. Mathers had been teaching this class for nine years. So he could almost recite its curricular expectations by heart.

Making Inferences – make inferences about simple texts and some teacher-selected complex texts, using stated and implied ideas from the texts (e.g., state what the actions of a character in a story reveal about the character’s attitude; draw conclusions about the subject of a biography from a photograph and find evidence in the text that supports or contradicts their inference) (Ministry of Ontario, Grade 9 Applied, 2007, P.59).

To do so, he utilized “The Rocking Horse Winner” by DH Lawrence. It was a short story everyone used. Over the years he had got some different project ideas, like designing a title page or making a collage of images from the text. And at the end of the day, he felt he was a good enough teacher.

He had chosen English as his teachable because he enjoyed reading. Nowadays it was Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum. In high school it had been the Russians, like Solzhenitsyn or Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Now that was a novel that you could really sink your teeth into. All about social justice and morality. That was fun stuff. But back to today’s class.

His applied classes rarely did the reading for homework. So, he prepared to read the story to them. He tried to animate his voice to draw in their attention. But their attention was always so fleeting. After nine years, it was hard to keep the students straight in his mind. Surely that group of bored boys in the back had been there every year. The faces and clothes changed but the attitude was the same. He started to read. The boy raced his horse and his mother bet away their life. It was a good story, and this should capture their attention. He then explained reading strategies for making interpretive inferences. The class bell rang and he shelved the curriculum for another day.

* * * * * *

In this short “day” we might ask the question if any learning took place. The teacher followed a curriculum but the students were not engaged. Instead of this traditional method, Schwartz proposes a different approach “intended to educate teacher rather than students” (Schwartz, p.449). If teachers are working through the process of learning, this becomes a “rehearsal” for guiding students through the same process. Curriculum is therefore written for the teachers so that they may first go through the process of disjuncture, or unlearning, and research leading to innovation, or new understanding. Mathers would need to re-examine the story and find his own inferences. Then he would direct the students through a similar process of disjuncture, discovery, and resolution or re-learning (Schwartz, p.454). The students would need to not only understand how inferences are made but to apply this new discovery by making their own inferences. In this manner, learning will take place.

Bartholemew Mathers is fictional but he represents a large number of teachers. I personally have met him, or her, several times. Teachers usually have three levels of curriculum, one set by the Ministry and passed down through the school board, one written by curriculum-writers, and one which they develop themselves. According to Schwartz, the students are not learning because Mathers is not learning. He is using a “map” written by curriculum experts who know neither him nor his students. There is not only a gap between his students and his lesson plan but there is also a gap between his lesson plan and himself. Mathers cannot guide his students because his map is just a piece of paper. He has never travelled it himself. Mathers is teaching “via the ‘static conventions’ of a written curriculum” (Schwartz, p.449). Schwartz is proposing that curriculum-writers can take teachers like Mathers along a map as a rehearsal.

What I believe Schwartz is saying is that meaningful curriculum engages and often represents the passion of the teacher (yes). Impassioned teaching bridges the gap between lessons and students. If Mathers had taught Solzhenitsyn, perhaps “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch”, then he might have been able to engage them. He could have shown them how to pull out the inferences about Soviet policies. Or what if the story was on the everyday lives of his students and their daily struggles, or about youth culture and their struggles in the 21st century? He might have actually taught them the required curriculum and they may have, even as Grade 9 Applied students, learned.

The Ontario Ministry of Education produces a very general curriculum, which guides the content of what should be taught, perhaps so that it reflects the values of this current society. However, a specific curriculum, such as the rehearsal curriculum that Schwartz advocates, cannot be written by external curriculum writers. The problem lies not only in the diversity and unpredictability of the classroom but also in the diversity of the teachers. What sparks the imagination of one may be irrelevant to another or already known to a third. Overly and Spaulding’s concept of the curriculum as a novel fails to consider that while one novel will transform one reader it may leave another untouched. If, as I have suggested, there is no one novel which will transform all readers, then that would imply that there is no one curriculum which can engage all teachers.

Can such a curriculum ever be written by anyone other than the teacher himself? Perhaps the best curriculum is no prescribed curriculum at all, beyond the bare basics. If each teacher is allowed to frame the content in their own way, that engages their interests and students’, then we will have much better teachers. Teaching cannot be predicated on fixed lesson plans. That is not the real world of schools. “What happens in the learning experience is an outcome of the original, creative, thinking-on-your-feet efforts of the teacher – which often lead the class in directions far, far away from the anticipated goals of the curriculum writer” (Schwartz, p.450). Any curriculum process must take this into consideration. Like Schwartz, we need to rethink the concept.

“Education is the result not of the mastery of information but of an ongoing engagement in the act of reflecting, reconsidering, and revising one’s own understanding” (Schwartz, p.453). This process is as true for the teacher as for the students. With this is mind, Schwartz states that, “Curriculum needs to be written, therefore, in a way that will motivate the teacher to learn as well” (Schwartz, p. 453). We should make a distinction between Ministry curriculum policy document, a curriculum written by an external curriculum writer, and the curriculum a teacher creates from that (unit plans, lesson plans, and assessment plan). Because teachers are always in the recursive process of learning, whether it is new content, new strategies, or new ways in which students respond to their curriculum designs, such a curriculum needs to be written by the teachers, individually. No one else can write a relevant rehearsal curriculum for another without a thorough understanding of their experiences, perspectives, and existing fund of knowledge; especially those of one’s students. Therefore, there cannot be a comprehensive rehearsal curriculum written by an external curriculum-writer which is relevant to a large body of teachers.

The definition of curriculum is very difficult to pin down. The document from the Ministry is called the curriculum. However, it is merely the highways on the map. At the next level we have the curriculum-writers, who might be seen to add the smaller roads and main points of interest. The map is still flat and uninteresting until the teachers and students add their own details. If we consider this evolving map as the curriculum then anything that engages is part of it. Just as Sputnik changed the faces of many maps in the 1950’s, today the growth of electronic media and globalization have changed the maps. And each map is individually changed through the filters of the interests, passions, and experiences of each teacher or student. And we cannot mistake the map, for our students’ experiences of the territory. Time to go exploring!

* * * * *

Bartholemew Mathers had spent the entire weekend thinking about what Morey Schwartz had discussed. He could now see that his role was more than just covering the Ministry expectations. He reread “Ivan Denisovitch” and thought about what injustices or gulags his students might be experiencing. He should get to know them. Relearn their world and see what inferences they might pull from Solzhenitsyn. It might be a shock for them. They might actually be intrigued enough to pay attention. Schwartz had made him rethink his methods. He would pass on the favour by getting them to rethink Grade 9 Applied English. It was time to write his own curriculum. Today was going to be fun!