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Riding the waves of curriculum change

A longtime 1st grade teacher reflects on staying creative through more than 40 years of new directives.
  • holmes curriculum
    Photo: Harvey Finkle

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Marilynn Holmes has taught 1st grade at Isaac A. Sheppard Elementary in West Kensington since 1968. A native of a coal-mining "company town" near Pittsburgh and a graduate of what was then known as Cheyney State College, she's been a first-hand witness to 40 years of curriculum changes.

Holmes works at a school that has been targeted for closure due to its low enrollment and aging facilities, but she is quick to laugh about all the challenges she's faced. She worries less about the specifics of the District's curriculum than she does about its dwindling resources.

Here are the highlights of our conversation with Holmes, who talked about the changes she's seen and the advice she'd offer the next superintendent.

Notebook: You've been at Sheppard for over 40 years. The curriculum's changed quite a bit in that time, hasn't it?

Holmes: I've been through Scott-Foresman [publishers of the famous "Dick and Jane" readers]. I've been through Lippincott Phonics, I've been through Story Town [the District's current elementary reading program], the whole thing. When I first started, I had to teach colors, numbers, handwriting, everything. Now they've taken that out of the 1st grade curriculum. [Students] are supposed to come to us with that [from kindergarten] – some do, some don't.

Notebook: In your first years on the job, who gave you curriculum guidance?

Holmes: It came from the principal, who got it from the [central office]. The reading teacher told you, "This is what we're going to read, this is how we're going to do it." The reading teacher brought in the books, tested the children when they first came in. A lot of it was lock-step, where now it's more individualized. [But] back then, you had a lot more help. I even had an assistant in my classroom. Now, that's out.

Notebook: How did new models, like phonics-based instruction, reach you?

Holmes: They'd bring in the representatives from the company, and they taught us, and they'd be here in the classroom to make sure we did it right – we had a lot of meetings. It's like that now, too.

Notebook: It sounds like from your perspective, the big changes come when the District switches from one company's system to another.

Holmes: Yes. One time, they changed the science program twice in one year.

Notebook: How does that kind of change impact the kids?

Holmes: As a teacher, you're not supposed to let it impact them! You have to tell them, "This is how it's supposed to be." It's not, "Oh, my God, they're changing again!" You don't say that [to the students]. Among yourselves, maybe. I can't speak for other schools, but here, that's how we've done it.

Notebook: Did you ever have to abandon a system you liked?

Holmes: Yes. Lippincott [a phonics-based reading curriculum], I liked but they changed that. I felt that with Lippincott, they should've added a comprehension component, but that's not what we did.

Notebook: What was your first impression when the "core curriculum" was introduced under Paul Vallas? Did you say, "Good idea," or "This is nuts," or "Just another day in paradise"?

Holmes: All of the above. It was another day in paradise. It was, "Oh, my God, why?" But I got used to it. It was just like when they put report cards on the computer. I was set against that. But then once it was in – I loved it! You learn to use it to your advantage.

Notebook: Did the core curriculum help the kids?

Holmes: Definitely. In kindergarten, they now learn certain things. So when they get to first grade, they learn a higher level of information. It's the same everywhere [if students switch schools]. We knew what we were going to teach [throughout the year], you could look ahead and prepare; you could be stronger.

Notebook: Does it restrict teachers' creativity?

Holmes: Not me! Tomorrow, we're going to read a story about a boy's weekend in the neighborhood. So we'll bring in different things [that we'll study later in the year] – the seasons, the weather, science. It makes it more interesting for the children, and they make connections. Kids say that all the time – "I made a connection!" You just love to hear them say that.

Notebook: Supporters of No Child Left Behind and high-stakes tests say that even with something like a core curriculum, we'd reached a point where students just weren't learning. Do you think that was true?

Holmes: I think that society – and where kids are – is just different. When I first started teaching, I was a teacher. Now, I'm a lot of different things. A lot of the problems that kids have now, when I went to school, we didn't hear about. ADHD? Autism? Never heard about it. I'm not set up to know about that. But I have to.

And that's not in the core curriculum, either – but I have to teach the core curriculum, even to people who have to be taught a totally different way.

Notebook: Sheppard wasn't an Empowerment School, so you didn't have to deal with Arlene Ackerman's scripted curriculum. It sounds like you didn't notice much change in the curriculum between the Vallas and Ackerman eras.

Holmes: That's how things are, down at the bottom. Things trickle down very slowly, unless there's a big change. If we'd been made an Empowerment School, [it would have been different] … but we were working very, very hard to make AYP. That was our battle cry.

Notebook: Sometimes it seems like as long as there were enough teachers and resources to support it, just about any curriculum would work.

Holmes: You're right. Because, I don't care what they've brought in here – it's all been the same. You've got to learn the words, you've got to learn the sounds, you've got to learn comprehension – there's nothing new. There's only so many ways you can teach A-B-C.

Notebook: If the next superintendent asked for advice about curriculum, what would you say?

Holmes: The first thing I would say is, "How are the children learning?" I have children who go on the computer, and go "zip-zip-zip." I'm saying, "What did you do?" And the little boy's saying, "Ms. Holmes, just push that button." You can't teach them with the nuts and bolts they used when I started.

Notebook: It's a good point – screens and tablets and digital applications are the standard tools of the 21st century.

Holmes: Yes. They have to be taught using that. The best ones will learn any way you teach them. But then you have that middle group.

Notebook: Would you put phonics back in the curriculum if you could?

Holmes: I would. It's so funny – I was reading the other day about a "new method." And wasn't it phonics under a new name?

Notebook: I can see how sometimes you get frustrated. But it sounds like you see your job as adjusting no matter what the system is.

Holmes: You have to – that's what being a teacher is. Whatever the authority says, you have to be able to work with it. If you're a chef in a big restaurant, you've got to take what you get and make a good meal. If not, you're out.

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