In Rabbit Trail Learning Part 1, I introduced the concept of emergent curriculum. So what does emergent curriculum look like in today’s classroom? Let’s look at an emergent curriculum in a History class.
Emergent curriculum comes from the marriage of student interests and teaching goals. It allows you to build relevance because it allows the student to feel in control of the direction the learning takes. Let’s say you’re teaching History and part of this year’s scope and sequence is World War I and World War II. Emergent curriculum doesn’t discount the scope or the standards however it does require that you be willing to grasp teachable moments that may pull the lesson out of sequence.
You overhear your students are discussing a recent episode of Falling Skies before the bell rings. As a science fiction fan yourself you’ve been watching the show. You’ve even had discussions with your peers about your thoughts on the show as repackaged version of War of the Worlds. You join the student conversation until the bell focuses everyone on the topic of History. The conversation has planted a seed. You begin to wonder if you might be able to tie the show in to a history lesson. With a little research you learn that War of the Worlds was written during WWI and is classified as invasion literature. A little more digging and you learn that Orson Welles radio show aired in 1938. You now have your entire into the WWI/WWII era discussion.
However there’s a problem. Your sequence doesn’t call for the lesson for a few weeks. You have to make a choice. Take advantage of the teachable moment or let it pass. You choose to embrace the opportunity and the next day you launch into the introduction of WWI studies.
You might start with “Sages” allowing students familiar with Falling Skies and War of the Worlds film adaptations to share what they know about the story. “Sages” is a wonderful collaborative learning exercise that allows the students to take the lead in this particular rabbit trail. You bring the class back to a single focused group by doing a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting the plot lines of the two tales. This group activity allows them to practice classification skills while providing you with a bridge to the lesson.
Science fiction has long been a tool to address contemporary issues in a nonthreatening way. When H.G. Wells wrote the story it was a reflection of the fear of invasion that was gripping Britain. By connecting Falling Skies to War of the Worlds you create a bridge that makes this type of conversation meaningful to your students. From there it’s a simple step to move from the fear of the time to what was causing the fear
Now your class has a frame of reference for a discussion about World War I through a discussion on how science fiction has long been a tool to address contemporary issues in a nonthreatening way. War of the Worlds allows you to move to World War I invasion literature which gives you the context for the real conversation about the war. In true rabbit trail from one of your students brings up the Welles radio show. You tell them you’re going to put that conversation on hold until you’ve finished the World War I discussion and that it’ll be used to introduce the discussion of World War II.
You finish the unit on World War I and the students really seem to get it. Returning the power to the students you conduct a KWL activity (know, want to know, & learned) on the Orson Welles War of the Worlds Radio broadcast. This allows them to set the direction of the conversation. Since this broadcast happened as the world was building to World War II you have a perfect bridge to the next discussion. You choose to hold off the Learned portion of this activity until the end of the WWII unit.
Captain American came out this summer and you ask if anyone in the classroom has seen it. You talk Steve Rogers and his frustration at not being able to join the military to fight. This allows you to talk little about civic responsibility, selective service and current military actions the US is engaged in. You then move on to talk about Dr. Josef Reinstein. This allows you to talk about German scientists and how many fled to the states providing the example of Albert Einstein.
The introduction of Einstein allows you to discuss the Manhattan Project and ultimately our involvement in World War II, Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. As you have this conversation someone mentions they were watching Eureka and in one episode the characters travelled back into the past on an Einstein Rosen Bridge. You acknowledge the contribution and get the class back on track. After class you let your colleagues in the science department know it was brought up so they can perhaps build on the conversation.
Your rabbit trail has taken you from a summer television show to the Einstein Rosen bridge by way of World War I and World War II. You’ve achieved your learning goals, taught to the standards and allowed the students to feel as if they were completely in control of the direction of the process. When you finally get around to the Learned part of the KWL you students have breadth and depth of knowledge in European History but you really didn’t know where it would end up. That is emergent curriculum in action.