Sunday, February 23, 2020

Natural Curriculum [TE 818 Cycle 2]

Naturally, I am having a hard time getting this blog post off the ground. Last time I processed through the nature of curriculum, now it’s time to consider what a natural curriculum would look like. Please pass the natural granola bars and let’s pick up the rest of this conversation on a nature hike.
For being such a used and possibly overused word, natural is a bit hard to define. In regards to consumer products it can mean next to nothing, and yet in the graduate class readings for this cycle it is loaded with significance. How do we determine if an idea, process, or product is actually natural? Does being natural justify something as effective? Is nature all there is?
I will attempt to connect and reflect to the notion of natural curriculum using the following outline:
  1. Link and quick summary of a course reading.
  2. Personal vignettes. These are personal experiences that came to mind as I read - for what that is worth. I guess we will see. 
Act 1: Curriculum from Birth
Jill Lepore writes about the history and current state of breastfeeding in our society. Breastfeeding. I have loads of personal experience with this topic. 
Let me rephrase that. Or maybe just start over. Our fearless graduate class leader gives an interesting leading article this cycle along with the thought experiment, “If we start at the beginning of life, is it fair to say that food is our first curriculum? And if that food is milk, how does the nature of the alimentary relationship put us on a trajectory of growth and development?”
I am by all means out of my league here- I have never lactated. However the history and trends laid out by Lepore are fascinating, and with child number three set to arrive this summer, I’ve had and will have more close proximity milk and babies. The article noticeably doles out clear skepticism of the current value systems of the workplace and motherhood. It resonated with me. 
“Non-bathroom lactation rooms are such a paltry substitute for maternity leave.”
"The stark difference between employer-sponsored lactation programs and flesh-and-blood family life is difficult to overstate.”
“It appears no longer within the realm of the imaginable that, instead of running water and a stack of magazines, “breastfeeding-friendly” could mean making it possible for women and their babies to be together.”
“Pumps can be handy; they’re also a handy way to avoid privately agonizing and publicly unpalatable questions: is it the mother, or her milk, that matters more to the baby?”
“When did “women’s rights” turn into “the right to work”?”
Vignette 1
My wife is a stay at home mom. My family is a happy one. 
Hold on. Our household isn’t a rerun of Leave it to Beaver. I actually enjoy doing my own laundry, and when company is over I’ve never dreamed of saying “quiet dear, men are talking.” Actually, at one of our yearly get-togethers the guys go wash the dishes after dinner while the ladies drink tea (that is also the party where our French Canadian friend entertains with his classical violin playing but I digress…). In any event, I suppose I am prepared to be labeled as a relic of the cult of domesticity, an extreme supporter of the patriarchy, and a denier of the death of chivalry. So be it. 
Women are achieving success in various fields. Our society celebrates cheers on warrior women with careers who still get dinner on the table and make all the soccer practices. I commend these ladies;  it is amazing work. 
My wife chose the stay at home route. Maybe it’s old school. Maybe we are behind the times. Maybe the budget is tighter. Is the wife at home the only acceptable way to parent? No. Is it always possible for every family? No. But with a domestic engineer diligently, lovingly, and skillfully keeping our growing family cared for day in a day out, we wouldn’t trade it for anything. 
Act 2: Curriculum as Parenting Styles
Jessica McCrory criticizes mixed judgement of “free range” parenting. Parenting trends have transitioned from the helicopter parents to a much more “they’ll be fine outlook.” I find myself wavering between both camps. McCory hones in on unfair higher parenting standards or at least skepticism often placed on parents in poverty. I hope I am not guilty as charged. In the midst of navigating boundaries, risks, and limits for our young kids in an urban neighborhood the article to have ample reflection fodder.
Vignette 2
This probably sounds silly. I write a few words then glance out the window. Read a bit more and then amble up the stairs and ask my wife for the third time “wait, when should they be home?” I start to wonder what this will be like when we get to the teenage years.
My daughter is six years old. Tonight she caught a ride to church with a family friend. This is obviously  not the first time she’s ever been out and about without us, but I found myself anxiously waiting for her to get home. She finally arrives and we cuddle up in the chair to talk about her evening. It’s been all of two hours, but it feels good to have her back. 
I remember the first time she walked herself over to the neighbor’s house to play a few years ago. Out the front door, hands in pockets on a winter afternoon. Down the steps to the sidewalk. One house over. My wife and I watched out the front window, melting. Maybe we are weird. 
Or the time our kids went around the block on their bikes last summer. A cyclist myself, I am pleased that both of my children took to the balance bike early, and started pedaling before age three (training wheels is swear at our house). We were staging in our alley facing the garage for a family walk. The kids were confident they could handle a warm up lap themselves, so we blew kisses and sent them off. We craned our necks to see them make the first turn on the sidewalk and peered through the yard fence to watch them go by the front of the house. We did the “good grief, they grow up so fast” small talk. We held hands and realized the small talk wasn’t so small. Two bikes whipped around the corner at the other end of the alley and two giggly smiles rolled toward us, chirping as they arrived.  “We saw Granny Pat!” (a neighbor). “We were a little scared!” “We knew we could do it!”  
Of course you could. The evening is young, let’s all go for a walk. 
Act 3: Curriculum Outdoors
Richard Louv bemoans the divorce of childhood and the natural world. Back in my day we made dams in the creek, built snow forts and slept in them, and didn’t have this newfangled Snap-stagram nonsense. Kids these days.This article hit close to home for me- my home place is rural northwest Iowa (the old country), contrasted with my postage stamp urban lot. The “woods” wasn’t my upbringing but outside certainly was. I live in the city now. Are my kids… city kids?
Vignette 3
We all stop and stoop down again. The moss patch near the trail feels the same as the last one but it doesn’t matter. Cool. Damp. Such a brilliant green. That awkward but addicting sponginess. Finally we are up again and trekking on. 
It was my family’s first time at the bog preserve. I had been here once back in college botany class; my professor may or may not have taken us out on the actual sphagnum moss surface of the bog and jumped into false bottom.
The glowing memory gives way to an idea- I stop, kneel down and call my kids over to a rotting log. More than willing to help, they gently roll the log over and lean close. “What are the chances?” I think to myself. “Could we really find one on the first try?”
A quick wiggle in the dirt answers my question. It takes on a bit of skill and even less curiosity to catch a salamander and in a moment my kids are cradling the little guy in their chunky toddler and preschool palms. He gets a name, probably becomes slightly disoriented in all the excitement, and hopefully not tugged on too much. Finally the kids gently tuck him back into his home and we replace the log. Time to find another log. 
Our first victim friend was a red-backed salamander. Before long we find some blue spotted ones. Their skin is cool and tacky. Midnight blue with white specks that look like stars. Note to self, we need to go out stargazing again before the season change.
Pretty soon the kids are turning and returning logs on their own and needing fewer and fewer reminders to be gentle and kind. My hands are freed up to slip into my wife’s and our hike turns to slow stroll. 
I start to wonder if my kids could grasp concepts of salamanders being an indicator species of pollution presence and ecosystem health. In the meantime I hear the chatter and giggles of making yet another amphibious friend. I think that is indication enough for now. 
Act 4: Curriculum. Integrated. 
David Jardine says “dude, it’s all integrated.” More seriously, he says things like, “In the end, the integrated curriculum requires a deep reflection on our desires to disintegrate children's curricular experiences in the name of manageability, easy of instructional design or territorial notions of the separateness and uniqueness of subject-matter specializations.” 
I am having Dewey flashbacks. 
I plan in good faith to return to the topic of integration in a later post. Breaking the silos of high school content areas is one of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of my job at the Museum School and I’d like to write more with a fresh slate. 
A Tidy Bow
I realize in hindsight now that storytelling may have been the most natural way to talk about natural curriculum. Concrete isn’t natural per se, but I guess I would do well to end with at least a few concrete statements. 
Curriculum naturally starts with love and care in a home.
Curriculum naturally is a balance act of risk and protection. 
Curriculum naturally is rooted in the created world. 

Curriculum naturally integrated not compartmentalized.


  1. Hi Nate,

    Thanks for your work here. I really enjoyed reading your post!

    I enjoyed your stories. I would say that phenomenological analysis has revealed that a good chunk of your best parenting involves you holding your wife's hand while you step back and let your kids go to it :)

    But seriously. I assume you were trying to make a point here, but it is worth noting how much pedagogy involves absenting ourselves in strategic ways. It's Dewey's whole point, again: by indirection, to direct. We educate by shaping causes and conditions. Then we step back and let children learn to work within those confines--their little apprenticeships in choosing and responsibility. It's funny to me that we have not been able to build schooling experiences on this model--given what we know about healthy parenting styles.

    I liked your concrete closing statements. Statements 1, 2, and 4 are insightful though almost commonsensical--it's quite sad that we have not built school systems with these truths in mind.

    I spent more time thinking about statement 3. I read it in different ways at different moments. Mostly I was very taken with this notion of a "created world." It's a lovely phrase and resonates with a lot of the philosophical work I do. Then I reflected how you are likely putting a specifically Christian emphasis on this notion of "created world"--is that right?

    I'm no theologian, but the notion of incarnation is a lovely one and has much to say to what we are exploring here. I've heard it argued that the creation or origin of our universe is the first incarnation--the original outpouring of love into time. Maybe that's too new-agey for you, not sure. But I like the idea that creation is an on-going process of co-creation or working-with that which already is. Isn't that education as well? A co-creation with something or someone that completely transcends our limited humanity? A communication with something much larger than ourselves?

    It makes me think how important it therefore is that curriculum be rooted in this on-going act of creation. I truly believe that we are called to help bring into existence forms of community and human flourishing that are not currently with us. Having a profound sense of the powers we are working with, the source of creation and creativity, is what educators require.

    Quite a lovely post. I thank you for sharing it with me and letting me riff on it a bit.

    Take care,


  2. Hi Nate,

    I love how you set up your post! It makes for a very engaging read. I found your story about your wife as a stay at home mom refreshing. I think people can look down on mom who stay at home, when in reality that is a sort of “career” – and every bit as valuable as a woman working in a “regular” job. Thank you also for sharing your story about your children bike riding. Parents styles certainly impact the children in many ways that are unseen. What if you and your wife were “helicopter” parents? How would that impact your kids and how they would behave and live? Would they have had the confidence to bike around the neighborhood and see the neighbors?

    I also loved your story about your hike with your family. What a way for a family to grow and learn together! There are so many learning moments that come out of nature. At my school we have an “Outdoor Exploration” class for elementary school students. They walk in the parks close to our school, experiencing and studying nature. I think these types of activities are so helpful for children – and really for everyone. Learning should not be shut up in a classroom.

    I appreciated your summary statements at the end of your post – I agree with them, and your stories match up with your statements. The first in particular stands out to me because my students often do not have that love and care at home – that is a part of the curriculum we need to teach them at our school.



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