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Classroom Instruction -- It's About the Journey, Not Racing to the Finish

Voice of ExperienceThe No Child Left Behind Act and achievement tests that test the entire wide curriculum require teachers like Max Fischer to examine what it important and how best to create learning experiences that will make those important concepts memorable.

Max W. Fischer
It's been 35 years, but I still remember the distinctively different teaching styles of two of my high school math teachers...

The "Algebra Accelerator," made it his goal to cover the entire book during the course of the school year. In order to complete the 500-page Algebra II text, he assigned 40 to 50 problems each evening. In class the next day he would work out one, maybe two, solutions from the assignment. Dutifully -- and without hesitation -- he would move on to the next concept, often leaving his students in the vacuum of his accelerated pace.

I think his teaching contract included a bonus clause for finishing the book.

Then there was Mr. Gerin. I was fortunate to have Mr. Gerin as my "bookend" math teacher; for Algebra I as a freshman and Advanced Math as a senior. Mr. Gerin routinely assigned 12-15 problems. More importantly, the next day, he spent whatever time was needed to ensure that the solution to each problem was thoroughly understood. He taught his students about the intricacies of mathematics.

It would be an understatement to say that I try to keep Mr. Gerin in mind as I think about how I teach every day.


At times it seems to me as though most curriculum was created by teachers of the same ilk as the Algebra Accelerator. Distinguished math professor and researcher William Schmidt said it best when he decried our math and science curricula as "a mile wide and an inch deep." Schmidt exhorted a more focused curriculum in math and science, a curriculum that limits topics during any given school year, so those topics that are taught can be investigated in depth.

You can read more about Schmidt's research in this area at

I'm not sure, however, that a more focused curriculum is the direction in which we are headed. Our curriculum seems to get "wider" each year. The No Child Left Behind Act is stimulating an escalating emphasis on testing for all students; as a result, the scope of each academic discipline is being scrutinized in many states and school districts. Teachers are left to deal with the mandated breadth of their individual curriculums.

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In my own classroom this year, my seventh grade social studies curriculum will reflect nearly 3000 years of ancient and pre-Enlightenment world history. The vast majority of that era of western civilization will be totally new to my students who will, in all likelihood, not revisit it during the remainder of their public school career. It seems heretical to me to limit the study of the Renaissance to two weeks (during the onset of a pubescent growth spurt). However, I will approach it in as pedagogically sound a manner and as professionally as possible.


With such a systemic amalgamation of content, concepts, and skills -- and a mere 180 days in which to work our magic -- what are classroom teachers to do? I've been giving that a great deal of thought.

First and foremost (it goes without saying), I must optimize instructional time. I need to lay out realistic units according to the annual scope of my curriculum, and I must plan well each lesson within those units. I must separate the wheat from the chaff, focusing instruction on the critical areas I'll be held accountable for under my district's/state's standards. I always have been a firm believer that the planning stage of teaching is the most critical, and this is no time for me to slack off. With the imminent initiation of NCLB testing, I cannot maintain a laissez-faire attitude about modifying -- or dumping -- lessons I have taught in the past.

Second, I must pack the most I can into each and every class period. I must employ a wide variety of organizational strategies to achieve this. I can train students to enter the class and get right to work on a learning prompt posted on the board. I can pass along to students the responsibility for dispensing materials. I can use that time while students are working to hold individual mini-conferences. To the inexperienced novice, a 40-minute period might seem like a lifetime; I know better. I know that a class period can disappear like so many slices of pizza at a cafeteria table of junior high football players.

Third, I must focus on the obvious -- no two students learn exactly alike. I must maintain a constant vigil on the instructional radar screen for those best practices that will help me effectively teach and reach the greatest number of students in every class. I must plan an eclectic instructional approach that will benefit all my students.

Finally, unlike the "Accelerator," I must remember that teaching is an adventure, the merits of which are found along the journey, not in a sprinter's dash to a final destination. If I don't have the discipline to organize myself to efficiently to teach one concept, topic, or skill at a time in a systematic continuum, I risk missing the mark and leaving students in an academic lurch.

Racing through a curriculum just to say I covered it will not produce positive achievement; it will not result in engaged learners; it will not satiate my professional satisfaction in a job well done.

It is no longer 1968; the stakes are significantly higher now. Even though my curriculum may be a mile wide, my students are expected to "cross it" with success, and I am in charge of navigating the best course for each of them.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max Fischer
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