First Person

Curriculum, Part V: How To Go Open-Source

In my last post, I made the case for why educators should collaboratively develop and share curriculum materials. Now I’ll offer some ideas about just how that can be done in a world that seems set up to keep teachers working in isolation.

The opportunity presented by the widespread adoption of the Common Core Standards can be harnessed by a collaborative design model that has proven extremely effective in the field of software development. This model is known as “open source.” When you hear that term, you most likely think of “free software,” and much of the open source movement has been oriented around concepts of equity in access that lends itself to that conception. But what has been most revolutionary in the open source approach is not simply that the products created are sometimes free, but rather that the process of production is entirely transparent and accessible to anyone based on a GNU-style license of software code. This license turns the traditional notion of property on its head by basing ownership upon the right of distribution, rather than exclusion (for more about this concept and the success of the open source model, read Steven Weber’s provocative and insightful book).

If we agree that public education is indeed “public,” and therefore part of the commons, then it is no great stretch to suggest that the content we teach to our students should also be purveyed with transparent and accountable public access. The fact that most of our curriculum — when it is even acknowledged — is developed under proprietary license speaks to the fundamentally flawed priorities of our society. Do we consider it more important to protect the rights of corporations than that of children? In the field of education, unfortunately, this question is far more than rhetorical.

I strongly believe that the curriculum we design and implement, as in open-source software, should be produced and distributed under a non-proprietary license, such as the now well established Creative Commons license. This will open access to curriculum to anyone who finds it useful and applicable, whether a home-schooler, a private school, charter school, or public school teacher. It allows anyone to take that content and modify it as they see necessary, so long as they give credit to the makers of the content they used. And when they modify it, they can then present their modifications back to the community, to be embraced and modified yet further.

Our federal government has signaled support for recognition of open educational resources (OER) by establishing a new technical framework for sharing, which can be viewed on its Learning Registry website. I’m excited by the potential that the framework — a form of metadata, called paradata, that can facilitate a sophisticated and evolving system of embedded data — can provide in linking disparate OER across the web.

The next step is in ensuring that this curriculum is developed in a collaborative manner that recognizes expertise and fosters excellence. I believe this requires a common vision and starting point for effective curriculum design. Curriculum design models I have found that are based on solid and equitable principles are the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) models. Using these models, I have created my own templates for unit and lesson design. You can view and copy my unit plan template here, and my lesson plan template here. Disagree with something in my templates or feel something must be added? Then modify it and share it! These are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License, after all.

Teachers, consider this — our curriculum will either be developed for us, or we will develop it ourselves. And which curriculum would our nation prefer — one developed by non-public interests that stand to gain loads of money, with little accountability or oversight? Or one developed by our professional public educators that work directly alongside our children everyday, in collaboration with content experts in higher education and other areas of professional practice? I believe the answer is clear.

I have outlined in this series of posts the dramatic about-face that is required in educational reform. We must focus directly within our schools, directly into our classrooms, and target the product that will have the greatest impact — both immediate and over the long haul — on our nation’s future: the content that we deliver to our children every day.

In creating a curriculum that can target inequity and enable all students to achieve in our society, we must address these factors:

  • Curriculum must explicitly address the non-academic skills proven necessary by research for life and career success, such as social skills, self-control, perseverance, and character
  • Curriculum must be unified to clearly delineate the underlying foundations of content
  • Curriculum must be an adaptable, living creation developed collaboratively by actual teachers and content experts via networks operated under a GNU-style license

If you believe in any of these precepts, then I encourage you to follow some of these steps:

  1. Go to the Shanker Institute and sign your name to support the concept of a core curriculum
  2. Advocate for scheduled and paid common planning time that is consistent and structured
  3. Join or set up an EdCamp “unconference” and host an open source curriculum development session with educators.
  4. Go to my website on open-source curriculum development to see some of the baby steps I’ve taken in this direction — or start your own!

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.