What Spaghetti Sauce Has Taught Me About Curriculum

Spaghetti sauce has become a staple in my family’s culture. My mom, my aunt, my grandma, and now even both my brother and I, make our own, homemade spaghetti sauce. Sure, it’s a bit more work than buying a jar of Prego at the grocery store, but the time we’ve lost by investing ourselves into our sauces has compounded into a rich family culture, a culture from where I get a lot of my childhood memories.

I always remember Mom’s two big pots of sauce, cooking for hours, filling the house with aromas of tangy tomato and smoked meatballs; I remember Grandma and Grandpa coming over to take care of my siblings and me, bringing fresh baked bread and Grandma’s version of spaghetti sauce–a bit lighter, but soaked with pieces of perfectly cooked ground beef. As I was making my own the other night, I reminisced on all that has come from a rather simple recipe, with rather simple ingredients, but has somehow evolved into these incredibly different versions of the same thing.

So what on earth does this have to do with teaching? Or with curriculum?

Curriculum has always been a hot topic. Companies and schools invest millions of dollars into copious amounts of resources, trying to find the best or the most comprehensive resource that will enable them to reach as many kids as possible. Over the years, these industries have become laden with political initiatives, under-the-table deals, and selfish motives simply to sell material, and every time, we find that we’ve come up short: we find that the material isn’t quite comprehensive enough, that it’s always going to be changed, and worse off, that the universal resource we thought we were making isn’t really universal at all. Instead, it’s one-size-fits-all, and that just isn’t going to cut it in the modern day classroom.

If we look at the underlying assumption here, it seems to me that what these companies are assuming is that one curriculum could meet the needs of all children. But what happens if we flip this assumption on its head? What happens when we assume that one curriculum will never meet the needs of all children? What if we, instead, assume that we need as many curricula as possible to meet the needs of all of our students?

At first, this sounds like an impossible task. It sounds like, not only a larger financial investment, but a larger time investment. But I’m not entirely sure that’s the case.

Ingredients and Recipes

I sat in a curriculum meeting the other day, and our school is attempting just this idea. Through our network of microschools and our network of educators, we are trying to build a database of curriculum, one in which any teacher at any school in our system can find discrete skills, activities, and units, sourced from teacher-curated materials, as well as materials our system has been licensed to use.

“It’s like making a gumbo,” one of my colleagues mentioned. “I might look up a recipe for a roux when I make my gumbo, but what else I put in there depends on what I have in my fridge that day.”

Mom’s “Spaghetti Mary Poppins,” spruced up with some new ingredients, thanks to my boo.

He said this, sending me back in time, back years and years to my family’s spaghetti sauce recipes, but also back to the recent past. I visualized my boyfriend cooking–using his base knowledge of how certain contents mix together–to create new and unique dishes, each equally as delicious as the next. He rarely has a strict recipe that he follows; instead, he has lots of pieces of recipes that he knows, and he synthesizes them to create a new dish each time. Perhaps this is why he loves cooking so much; perhaps it’s the challenge, the rigor, and the uncertain outcome that keeps him guessing, wondering, and engaged in the art of cooking.

And now that I think about more it, I think that’s what keeps me engaged in the never-ending cycle that is curriculum development.

Curricular Ingredients

Curriculum is no different than cooking. There are a fairly limited amount of subjects to teach, coupled with a few basic principles that apply to most, if not all, children. On top of that, we have a plethora of ingredients at our disposal, especially in the age of Internet-based education. Websites, online curricula like NewsELA, Khan Academy, and BrainPop!, and tech-based assessment tools provide us the opportunity to be artists–just like chefs in the kitchen–where we can mix, match, and mold our curriculum to meet the needs of a class full of learners, and even iterate for nuances in learning preferences on an individual level.

This year, specifically, I was able to exercise this idea by teaching a unit on health and wellness. My goal was to teach the kids about healthy eating, appropriate portion size, and food in general, meanwhile incorporating lessons about fractions and measurement, personalized to various levels. Not only was this an incredibly real-world charge for my students, but it also required me to use the ingredients of good curriculum to make the richest and most robust experience possible. I included field trips to the grocery store, a snack budgeting project, and analyses of our own diets, meanwhile still finding time to give skill-building practice using tools like Khan Academy and IXL.

This unit is now logged in our system, so at some point, other teachers can tap into the work already done. They can see the activities I’ve built and iterate on them for their own respective classes, tailoring each activity or sequence of activities appropriately and personalize as needed. In fact, when I think about this idea that my school has begun by making these units available to other teachers, I can’t help but think of my grandma–the originator of our spaghetti sauce culture, in all its glory. From this one recipe–and all of its ingredients–has come a diversity of recipes, all as delicious as the next, personalized to each individual chef and to his or her dinner guests.

Lessons on Large-Scale Curriculum

In short, curriculum–even the curriculum that we try to market large-scale–doesn’t have to be prescriptive, and it doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all. Instead, the curriculum we try to market large-scale should promote artistry and an active inquiry into what really works for children. What’s more, it should aid teachers in personalizing materials by giving a foundation on which to stand, not a cage in which to sit, and it should contribute to a collective knowledge and understanding–an iterative and dynamic network of related curricula, that diversify with time and across generations.

Originally published at paulemerich.com on June 25, 2015.