Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Middle school curriculum proposal

on 1999 March 1

This proposal is to develop and experiment with Middle School curricula on the topics of sustainable design, planning, group decision making, and contracting.

The choice of these interrelated topics is meant to inspire and empower young people to tackle the problems that will challenge their generation. Here in the 1990s, sustainability has slowly become an accepted goal, but the work of re-engineering our economy to meet the goal has barely started. This curriculum is meant to show the next generation a way to actually accomplish the goal of sustainability.

Answering the question of how to accomplish sustainability is approached from multiple levels. First, we are teaching the next generation to protect democracy, not just as a symbolic patriotic gesture, but critically and in detail. A broadened concept of democracy will be necessary to heal our troubles, and each person’s voice will be necessary. Participation in local planning – a cornerstone of democracy – will help ensure that communities are planned to be sustainable. At a lower level, a segment on contracting will show how work actually gets done.

Overview of curriculum

1. Sustainable design: In this segment, students learn what makes something sustainable, they map product and services to basic human needs and invent new ways to meet our needs sustainably – i.e. without compromising the needs of future generations, and without lowering our quality of life. In an early experiment in this curriculum, one fifth grade student said, paraphrased: “I have an idea. For newspapers, each town should have its own little forest, and we can make paper using solar energy, and deliver papers by walking (since you can’t use trucks because they use oil), and then take the papers back to that factory to recycle them.” His idea on a sustainable way to make newspapers may not be entirely practical, but on the other hand it makes more sense than the way we do it now! As he gets older, if he remembers this lesson, he will be able to carry the values of sustainable design into many other situations. This part of the curriculum is intended to inspire young people to explore these kinds of connections in society, technology, and economy, and visualize futuristic solutions.

2. Contracting: This segment is done in the form of a game. Its aim is to give kids the knowledge of how to get things done in the real world. It provides a basic understanding of how the government and businesses get things done, and gives insight into starting a business. School in general teaches kids how to work for others, and is weak when it comes to teaching independence. In the Contracting Game, students compete for government contracts, which are awarded by the teacher acting as the government’s contracting officer. They get paid real money (token amounts) for accomplishing projects that could have real benefits. In order to get the money, they have to write an acceptable proposal, organize their expenses, and write a report of their work. Some of the contracts will be on the subject of sustainable design and sustainability projects in the school and neighborhood, insofar as these can be arranged.

3. Creative writing: This creative writing class is meant to be a place where students can find their own voices. This is done with deep positive feedback – a concentrated effort by the teacher to find something he or she genuinely likes about a student’s work, and expressing that back to the child. The teacher can pick a few papers from each day to respond to, and make sure to respond to each student once in a while. Creative writing plays a role in the overall curriculum by giving a way for the students to process the earlier segments by writing about their experiences, and also to help them find their voice and develop personal values and opinions, separate from their peers, which will be necessary in the decision making segment. Creative writing can be interspersed in the other segments.

4. Democratic decision making: The independence and responsibility learned from contracting, plus the private voice strengthened by creative writing leads into a study and experience of democracy. The purpose of this segment is to experience being part of making a group decision about something meaningful – the future of their school and neighborhood. Students will talk about jurisdiction, public versus private, sovereignty, and forms of decision making, and will experience how certain kinds of decisions are more democratic than others. Students will also practice visioning their preferred future and will experience making decisions in the context of distributed power and diversity. The context of the deliberations will be planning for a sustainable future within their school or neighborhood. Hopefully the class can be charged with real authority over some aspect of their environment.

5. Economy: Microeconomic concepts will be part of the design, contracting, and decision making segments. It may also deserve a segment of its own. The goal is for students to get an intuitive understanding of sustainable local economies, rather than an academic introduction to neoclassical economy. The basis of understanding will be on labor meeting people’s needs.

Budget and continued development

It is envisioned that the development of this curriculum will require several experimental classes before it can be published nationally. There are several general unanswered questions, including:

  1. To what extent will the curriculum be replicable? (Participation of parents and outings to local meetings are envisioned.) Will teachers not versed in the subject matter be able to offer the class?
  2. Are the concepts accessible to Middle school students? Are the activities age appropriate?
  3. Is there a reliable way to measure outcomes?
  4. How many class hours will it require?

And of course all the details have yet to be fleshed out. To this end, we propose an experimental class to be held in Summer 1999 for 4-6 weeks, three mornings per week. Two to three teachers will collaborate on the offerings, and will meet frequently to evaluate and plan. The existing course notes will be revised based on the experience.

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