I’m a rather dreadful cook. Nonetheless, in the summer, with easy access to farm-fresh vegetables and the internet’s profusion of recipes, my wan table occasionally turns into something resembling a feast. And this phenomenon works in reverse. Even the best of chefs, faced with a cabinet of prepackaged dinners and frozen vegetables, could muster only mediocrity—better than the rest of us, but no Michelin-star course.
And so it is with school curricula. Give teachers skimpy books and instructional materials, and that’s how their classrooms will run. I’ve used bad curricula before and spent hours building my own—both with mixed results. Doug Lemov’s Teach like a Champion team has done us all the favor of providing top-quality materials called the Reading Reconsidered Curriculum, and this year I have had the privilege of using it.
I noticed its benefit most while teaching Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. It depicts in graphic detail the horrors of American slavery. The book opens with a whipping and several murders. Handling these scenes with care is essential, and I had misgivings about my responsibility to manage this well with my students. But I knew this unit had questions crafted, revised, and edited by fellow educators. I could rely on a team, not just myself. My class had the expertise of curriculum developers and workshopped questions helping us through difficult content.
Yet I never felt constrained. A few days after my students analyzed these difficult scenes, I could tell they were still struggling, so I sat with them and asked how they were doing with the book. It led to an impromptu forty-five-minute discussion that was one of the best of my career. It veered away from the official unit, yes, but the knowledge building, question asking, and analysis of the official curricular documents allowed it. We could not have feasted on such conversation without the content the curriculum had provided.
The necessity of a sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum has been thoroughly defended elsewhere. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, has spent much of his long career explicating the importance of knowledge to reading achievement. Consider how even American academics who fancy themselves proficient readers may stumble through a passage on cricket because they know nothing about the game. It’s their knowledge deficit on this topic, not any abstract reading skill, that prevents them from understanding the passage. Hirsch has also documented the prevalence of core curricula among the world’s best education systems. Building a broad schema of knowledge facilitates reading achievement, not just practicing vague, abstract comprehension skills.
While I’ve become a proponent of Hirsch’s theories, it has been difficult to put them into practice by myself. What does a knowledge-rich theory of education mean for my day-to-day instruction? Previously, Lemov has published best-selling books like Reading Reconsidered and Teach like a Champion to distill the theory. Even so, Lemov himself has acknowledged that “useful ideas” can be difficult to “implement in practice.” Teachers spend up to seven hours a week developing their own resources—time they could otherwise spend providing feedback, communicating with parents, grading, or reflecting on their practice.
I noticed this time-saving most when it came to non-fiction, supplementary texts. Such auxiliary readings serve two purposes in a class. First, knowing more about a topic can help students better understand and analyze a book. They need to know about fugitive slave laws, for example, to grasp Douglass’s cause for anxiety upon reaching the north. It also turns any unit into a knowledge-building machine, as the book and supplementary texts provide history, background information, and analysis that they can they use in future classes.
Lemov’s unit is filled with myriad additional texts: excerpts from biographies, primary texts, maps, pictures, engravings, articles from the time period, and much more. Again, through the expertise of the curriculum planning team, my students had access to content and readings that I never would have thought to include in a unit crafted by myself, not necessarily due to my own limits, but because of the sheer abundance of expertise that an entire team brings to the table. Regarding the time saved, it is tedious to find relevant texts, pare the long ones down, and write the perfect comprehension and connecting questions for student analysis.
A common argument against knowledge-rich curricula and Direct Instruction classrooms caricatures the role of a teacher in such a structure as a mere automaton, a vessel that transmits the pre-ordained content. At no point did I feel this way. If anything, it merely felt like I had a team of colleagues providing insight, materials, ideas, activities, and readings, a feast for my students to enjoy. And enjoy they did.