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Engaging Curriculum: A Foundation for Positive School Culture

Post written by David Hunter

As a curriculum designer who advocates for project-based learning, I strongly believe that curriculum plays a major role in the school culture but can often go unconsidered when developing a vision around that culture. At first glance, curriculum and culture may seem to be separate issues, but when you look deeper, curriculum can be a foundation for the culture because it's representative of how students are interacting with learning on a daily basis. To that end, creating a positive school culture requires that students play a part in curriculum design and implementation.

Involving students in curriculum development sounds challenging, but as a teacher, I found small, easily executed steps that help build a culture where students feel heard and engaged about what they are learning. Here's an example of what worked for me: after I had designed the major portion of the curriculum for a new unit, but before starting it with my class, I would hold a "Curriculum Lunch." I invited students to bring their lunch to my classroom, where I would present a preview of my plans for the next project. I shared the standards and learning objectives as well as the projects I was preparing for the students to work on, then asked for their input and feedback.

At our curriculum lunches, students were positive about upcoming projects and mostly gave feedback on how to make them more interesting; engaging; and, in some cases, challenging. Student feedback, even if I couldn't use all of it, helped me refine my curriculum in student-centered ways. What's more, these curriculum lunches also helped create a buzz of excitement for upcoming projects. Students who attended the curriculum lunches would often hype up the project to their classmates, which in turn helped create positive morale going into a unit. Students were excited about the next thing they were going to learn!

Student interests can hook students into a topic that might not normally interest them, but project-based learning allows us to engage students at deeper levels, with challenging content. For example, as a curriculum designer, I set my geography curriculum, Zombie-Based Learning, in the zombie apocalypse because it was a topic kids talked about with great interest. I tried to think about what would connect with the most disengaged students, and surviving a zombie attack was a perfect fit.

To truly engage all students, however, interests need to be integrated beyond a surface level. So, I asked myself, "If I were in a zombie apocalypse, how would I actually use geographic concepts?" For example, in one of the projects, students have to choose the best location for their group to settle after the zombie apocalypse. Students study the physical characteristics, resources, and local migration patterns of a location before reporting back on their decisions. This curriculum puts national geography standards and student interests at the core and allows students to apply newfound knowledge and concepts with depth, using project-based learning, to survive in their everyday (albeit fictional) world.

Curriculum and school culture cannot be incongruous with each other. We cannot reach for a positive culture where students feel represented and then ignore the students as we develop their learning experiences. Curriculum design is a perfect opportunity to include students. Consistently engaging every student will improve the morale of any classroom and also cut down on the later need for corrective classroom management. By considering and involving the students throughout the development and implementation of curriculum, you will end up with better curricula and more engaged students, contributing to a positive school culture.

David Hunter is the founder of Zombie-Based Learning, an innovative middle school geography curriculum aligned to National Geography Standards. He also authored Dead Reckon, a graphic novel to accompany this coursework. Hunter taught at the Bellevue Big Picture School in Bellevue, Wash. This article originally appeared in ASCD Express.

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