ED 670 Middle Level Curriculum Homepage



ED 670 Syllabus


Email Mark


A few words about this experience:

One of the coolest things about being a teacher is the creative work that goes into the craft. You get to create environments that connect your students with important ideas - and how you do so is almost completely up to you! This course explores a few different ways of doing so... premised on the idea that overcoming issues of motivation and engagement are fundamental to success in the classroom. If your kids are bored to death... they aren't going to learn much without threats or rewards - things that ultimately make their learning unsustainable. Successful students in this course treat it like a design studio... where you get the opportunity to play around with different ways of thinking about teaching, learning, and creating learning experiences. Have fun with it.

Course objectives:

Most course conversations will be grounded in contemporary social-constructivist thought with these specific objectives in mind:

  • Student will learn key concepts, models, and strategies related to motivation, engagement, and teaching for transformative, aesthetic experiences using a big ideas approach.
  • Students will learn key concepts, models, and strategies related to teaching with either: (a) technology; (b) problem-based learning; (c) service learning, or; (d) more on using a big ideas approach.

Course Overview:

There are two major strands in our study of curriculum in the middle school grades. The first is about what I call the fundamental curricular challenge in working with middle level students; overcoming serious issues with student motivation and engagement. The second is about some common curricular solutions to this fundamental challenge. The second strand is actually a series of optional units - you pick the one that is most interesting to you and complete all associated tasks within. The course navigation bar (which is included on all middle level curriculum pages) has links to each of these strands as well as the four units associated with each. This course (ED 670 Middle Level Curriculum) is designed for you to first complete the curricular challenges strand before moving on to selecting an optional curricular solutions unit.

There are 3 assignments that we will actually turn in – and they are described below as key assignments. There are also, however, prompts for each unit that point you to WebCT to discuss critical issues in the readings related to that unit and strand. Participation in on-line discussions factor in to your final grade as “participation” – the success of this class depends, in part, on the richness of conversations we have on-line. You will receive points for participating with at least three postings in each of the discussion threads under each of the units – think of these as one initial posting/response to the question prompts and at least two responses to other people’s initial postings – this should generate some conversation! In other words, for the curricular challenge strand there are four units - you need to participate with at least 3 postings in each of the four unit discussions for a total of 12 postings in the curricular challenge strand. You only need to participate with 3 postings in each of your optional unit strands so you could potentially get out of this course with only 18 total postings - make them high quality and don't feel like you can't offer more!


Big ideas unit sketch (3 pages)

My hope is that through our study of aesthetic experience, John Dewey, and re-seeing for aesthetic understanding you'll be ready to challenge yourself to design lesson plans to help teach big ideas through transformative, aesthetic experiences. Your first task will be to identify a big idea in some content that you might teach in the future. Make no mistake, this is the hardest part of this assignment and you should spend considerable time and energy working on this first step. If nothing comes to you right away, have a conversation with Mark.

Idea - what's your big idea?

Select content that is fundamentally powerful. This is one of the hardest things to do in teaching a big ideas lesson. Mull over carefully what are the important and powerful content ideas that exist in your area. Remember to make a distinction between ideas (causes re-seeing) and concepts (bold-faced words). Also, keep in mind that ideas will lead to bold-faced words and conceptual understandings... but that isn't where inspirational teachers begin.

Metaphor/analogy/story - how will you help people get their heads around it?

One of the best ways to introduce a big idea is to use a metaphor. Metaphors seem to allow us to make connections between disparate things in ways that few other tools allow. Design a metaphor (simile, analogy, or even a story) that connect learners with your powerful idea and illustrates its power in ways that blow minds. If a metaphor doesn't work for you... consider some of these other suggestions:

  • Restore concepts to the experience in which they had their origin and significance (geocentric vs. heliocentric model of the solar system)
  • Foster anticipation and a vital, personal experience (erosion as war... walking along the banks of the Columbia River and rock stories via Major John Wesley Powell)
  • Use metaphors and "re-seeing" to expand perception (atmosphere as ocean of air)

World - what do you want people to see differently?

Model how the idea changes your world and encourage and reward your learners for acting and being different in the world - on fire with the idea you've shared. In the process, model the transformative power of the idea for your students. Help your students to see through your eyes - eyes that see differently through your big idea!

Set the bar high for yourself and your learners. Yes, your students should learn something important about the world... but they should also learn something about themselves and be more alive (aware, interested, happy, sad, mad...) because of your idea! My hope is that you will literally play with these ideas and see if they might buy you anything useful in your setting and with your students. My other hope is, of course, that you might actually implement your design but… that is not a requirement. Have fun with this!

Send your big ideas unit sketch to Mark via email by midnight on Sunday, November 21st!

Optional unit solution sketches (3 pages each) - COMPLETE TWO!

Independent of whether or not you were persuaded by my solution to issues of motivation and engagement in middle grades (teaching with big ideas for transformative, aesthetic experiences)... there are many other ideas out there about how to best teach middle level students. Several versions of these ideas are represented in the optional units. Your task, after you have completed your optional unit and assigned readings and discussions is to basically do the same thing as you did in the big ideas unit sketch but sketch out plans for teaching a unit using TWO of the optional strategies you explored (i.e. service learning, technology rich units, problem-based learning, or big ideas redux). Instead of responding to the prompts above for the big ideas work - respond to these ones as they reflect a bit more traditional way of thinking about curriculum:

Content - what is it that you want your students to learn?

Take a paragraph or two to identify what it is that you want your students to learn. Try to be as specific as you can but don't feel as though you need to write goals and objectives - those are as painful for me to read as they are for you to write! Just offer some narrative in explanation of what you want your kids to learn.

Strategies - how will you get them there?

Because of the different approaches represented in these optional units I have tried not to be too prescriptive under this section. In other words, I could require lesson plans and it may make sense to do so... but if you'd rather just write in narrative fashion about how you will use the ideas of technology, service learning, problem-based strategies, or even another shot at big ideas... do so. However, the pressure is on you to provide enough detail and scope to help your reader (me) see where you're going and how you're going to get there.

Assessment and wrapping up - how will you know you go them there?

You should also spend a paragraph or two talking about two things - (1) how will you assess in ways that make sense given your instructional strategies... what makes sense here? How will you really know? Also... (2) take a few sentences to talk about any concerns, special circumstances, necessary resources, or other unique challenges faced as you think carefully about teaching in these new ways. Also... anything you might be really excited about or nervous about as you think these ideas through. This is an opportunity to be candid.

As with the big ideas unit sketch, the idea here is to play around with some new ideas and imagine how they might be useful to you in your classroom - or in a middle level classroom! Again, there is no requirement that you actually use the lessons/unit you create but it would be cool if you did and I'd love to hear about your efforts to do so!

Send one of your optional unit sketches to Mark via email by midnight on Sunday, November 6th AND the other by midnight on Sunday, December 5th!


I have identified the following characteristics I believe are indicative of a genuine commitment to the spirit of this course. Please be resigned to attend to these expectations:

  • Are you “present” in class?
  • Do you exemplify professionalism in your interactions with the instructor and your classmates?
  • Do you submit the assigned work for the course in a timely manner?
  • Are you a regular participant in the class discussions?
  • Do you support and respectfully challenge your classmates in discussions?
  • Can I see evidence in your writing that you are using reflective and analytic strategies and questions to think about your experiences and practices?
  • In discussions and in writing, do you provide explanation and support for your claims and beliefs?
  • Do you demonstrate a commitment to the intellectual work of the class and a willingness to be moved?

I believe strongly in asking teachers to engage in readings and assignments that are important and meaningful.  I believe the assignments above reflect this commitment.  As you all know, grading is the bane of teachers but my experience has been this: engage fully – read, write, reflect, and learn with genuine commitment and grades tend to take care of themselves.

Just so you know, however, I will weight our assignments according to the following scale.


  • Big ideas unit sketch - 25%
  • First curricular solutions optional unit assignment - 25%
  • Second curricular sollutions optional unit assignment - 25%
  • Participation (on-line) - 25%

And grades will be assigned according to the following scale:

  • A                      94-100%
  • A-                     90-93%
  • B+                    87-89%
  • B                      84-86%
  • B-                     80-83%
  • C+                    77-79%