Conversations: A Curriculum of Lives

Last week was exam week.

I teach students in the senior English Language Arts. I don’t assign traditional final exams.

Around here, we have conversations.

Don’t get me wrong. Students in my classes still learn the necessary skills. They know how to write essays, craft solid topic sentences and weave together persuasive arguments. These are skills. We practice skills often in class. In fact, sometimes, sometimes, we even practice the skill of beloved test-taking. However, I don’t torment kids by making them prove all their skills all at certain times when all of them are under pressure.

In fact, what I ask kids to do is become, along with me, “an integral part of the curricular process,” (Clandinin et al, 2006). The evaluation process around here is for the high school student, grades 9 to 12, to have conversations with a key stakeholder. Afterwards they have a conversation about that conversation with me. I’m doing graduate work, and the Student Led Conversation (SLC) is the most comprehensive final exams I’ve witnessed.

Each year, in September I introduce our final relational narrative assessments and the way in which the students and I will be using them in our classroom and throughout the term. The students and I capture most of our learning, or we try to, in two places, in paper portfolios and digital portfolios. As part of the student-led conversation at the end of the term, we reflect on our learning. There is a practice conversation mid-way through the term. The kids spend 20 minutes leading a conversation and sharing their learning with a key stakeholder – usually a parent or guardian (although about 15% of the kids choose our principal) – and then another 20 minutes in post-conversation with me.

Our SLCs have evolved over the years. I’ve blogged about them a few times, here and here. When I first began SLCs, I chatted, not really allowing the kids to lead, certain my voice was necessary. Now I sit on the periphery and take pages of notes, sometimes film, sometimes both.

In the beginning the students didn’t reference their formal curriculum either. A couple of years ago I spent a week in the summer, writing and prepping for classes. I was sharing SLCs with a former Director of Education. She calmly suggested that if she were my director, she’d insist that the students have the language – that simply celebrating their successes – though lovely – wasn’t enough. She was right. I wasn’t keen on the formal curriculum driving the conversations though; there had to be a middle space. Today’s students not only use the curricular language, but students are in conversation with their formal curriculum. Today’s students are curriculum makers in class where they, as Ellsworth states, “seek, in other words, new ways of knowing that also transform knowledge, self-experience, awareness, understanding, appreciation, memory, social relations and the future,” (2005).

Conversations are who we are, after all. (King, 2003).

The last day of exams, because of bitterly cold temperatures, the busses didn’t run. Many students, keenly responsible for and proud of their learning, messaged me and quickly rescheduled their SLCs. The next day was a teacher preparation day. A student, Trent (pseudonym), arrived for his rescheduled SLC at 9:00 am along with his mom.

Trent arrived dressed for his formal presentation. He is in grade ten. This is his second year doing SLCs. He arrived wearing his best black Stetson and his dress cowboy boots. His mom was beaming. He arrived prepared for his final.

When this student began sharing at SLCs a year and half ago, he read from the curriculum pages; his mom nearly fell asleep. Watching this early sharing was painful. Back then, we discussed the SLC at the post-conference and we talked about the process of prepping for his SLC and why thinking critically and creatively about our learning is important. When kids come to own their learning, to value what they do and how they create, and how they share, they become aware of the pedagogy of their place. This “is the force that created the experience of learning self,” (Ellsworth, 2005). Here, students begin to see the beauty in not only thinking critically about their lives, but also creatively. In this space students are able to understand they are their stories, this is their story to live by. Here, SLCs become ‘pivot places,’ and serve as a “vehicle through which we come to know differently,” (Ellsworth, 2005). 

Friday morning, at first glance, it appeared Trent began simply by sharing a product, a digital storytelling summative piece he’d created. However, Trent was gentle in sharing. He introduced the piece, the criteria and then expanded on how the piece fit the indicators. He then storied – his voice and reflection on his learning filling the room.

He didn’t stop there. He had crafted a 20 minute conversation with his Mom. He spoke often of the ways he’d failed during the past five months of his Language Learning course and what he’d learned from those experiences. He shared, responded to her comments and shared more of his work, weaving his curriculum into conversation and pulling his Mom into conversation with his learning, his successes, his failures, the formal curriculum, our lived curriculum and his learning journey.

His Mom had the language now too; she’s been at every SLC alongside Trent. She isn’t just a stakeholder in his life, but she is a curriculum-maker in our class too.

Our space is beautiful; “The experience of the work is critical to its understanding,” (Ellsworth, 2005). Clandinin et al ask us to rethink formal curriculum into a “curriculum of lives,” (2006), a curriculum that includes the voices of families and kids, that is led by real stakeholders, our students using their own narratives.

During post-conference, what did I ask Trent?

What went well? What would you like to change? Interestingly, the one area he missed, and a minor area too, was that he’d not introduced his Mom. Sure, some students find introductions redundant, even ridiculous. Trent reflected, “You know Ms. Saas, I forgot to introduce my Mom. I went right to the computer to set up. You know my Mom so well that the two of you started talking and I forgot. I was formal all other places, and I transitioned into the conversation and out of the conversation, but I forgot the introductions.”

And he did forget, in the moment.

Here’s the thing: he also didn’t forget. 

The beauty of narrative and reflection – no exam allows space for the “Oh, I wish I’d said that!”

Trusting spaces do. Conversations do. Trusting conversations are the “very expression of potential,” (Ellsworth, 2005).

At the end of every conversation with the stakeholder, the student usually asks if the stakeholder has any questions. The student ends by sharing the student’s course take-away.

At the end of the 20 minute post-conference I generally ask students to share yet another take-away, one a bit different, perhaps one about SLCs.

The weeks leading into and during finals are difficult. SLCs are not easy. Not all the kids have bought in. The in-class preparation is intense. The time spent with kids during exam week is intense; I spend 45 minutes with each high school student enrolled in ELA, and I teach grades 9 – 12.

I believe in a curriculum of lives.

A few kids showed up to SLCs unprepared, and felt they could ‘wing’ it. I know this isn’t unique to my courses. I know that down the hall in the Math and Science room, these same stories are told about the students’ lack of preparation for the traditional exams.

I remember that Director of Education saying to me those years ago, “Where is the evidence of their learning? Do their parents understand it and can the student explain it?”

Yes. I believe all the curriculum makers in the room can.

In our learning place an interesting thing happens; I learn too. And I can’t hide my growth; just as Trent cannot hide his. Often my principal is in the room. This is good. She sees the good and the bad and the beauty that exist in the middle. You know what? I feel it. In this post, I am trying to express it. I know students are beginning to share it.

I believe in a curriculum of lives.

Trent is in grade ten. One of the slides of this digital presentation was about SLCs, “Last year I would have never imagined sharing my school work with my Mom. Now I am able to read my poetry at 4H. Imagine what I’ll be able to do once I am in grade 12.”


A curriculum of lives.

1 thought on “Conversations: A Curriculum of Lives

  1. Cori,
    I continue to find myself very sincerely grateful to have discovered your sharing space here and to connect with you. The more of your writing I read the more I realize I have so much to learn from you about stories, storying, teaching, and being. This is not the first post of yours that has jerked tears from my eyes and stirred the passion pot of my teaching for the better. It is clear you are an amazing person and educator; your students and community are very fortunate to have you. Thank you for sharing.

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