When I was in elementary school, looking back on it now, rarely did I feel that my teachers were trying to teach more than just the lesson. Everything was very compartmentalized. Social skills were taught by the guidance counselor, social studies was taught in social studies class, and reading was taught in language arts class. There was no blending or integration of topics or subjects at the schools I attended. There was no hidden curriculum, hence I was frequently bullied and made fun of. Teachers taught content and left it at that. I wish now that my teachers had been more versed in teaching cross-curricularly. I wish my teachers had better addressed the social issues happening in my classes. I wish my teachers had cared enough about me and my classmates to genuinely help us all grow and develop as students and people. If only I had found my mom’s magic lamp back then.
As a teacher, I make it a priority to get to know and care for my students. I don’t look at myself as a teacher of content and standards. I teach my students how to be kind, curious, caring, questioning, and creative people. Knowing when a battle took place or what the stuff inside a cell is called is useless if you don’t know how to communicate with others, ask for help, or solve problems on you own. I teach my students to be great people.
So, when I teach a unit or lesson, it’s not just about the skills or content, oh no. It’s about everything else too. Sure, I want my students to learn lots of valuable knowledge nuggets, but I also want them to learn how to be a good friend or teammate. There is much hidden curriculum to every unit I teach in the sixth grade. For example, in my current STEM unit on Astronomy, my students aren’t just learning about the solar system. They are also learning how to coexist with their peers to solve problems, think creatively and critically about problems encountered, struggle and utilize a growth mindset, and produce professional-grade work. Now, my students may not always see this hidden curriculum right away, but we do discuss it and are deliberate in how we ensure the students learn these ungraded life skills. On Thursday in STEM class, as the students worked on the Astronomy Group Project, one group was very confused about the task they needed to complete. They struggled to accomplish the assignment accurately until I provided them some guidance. I didn’t give them the answer, I merely clarified the instructions. I expected them to put the pieces of the puzzle together, mentally, as a group to then complete the task correctly; and sure enough, they did. They incorporated my ideas into their discussion and were open to the idea that perhaps their original interpretation of the instructions was inaccurate. They used a growth mindset to see the assignment instructions in a new light. At the end of class that day, I mentioned this a-ha moment and named it as such: What began as a struggle for one group, led to task completion thanks to their Growth Mindset.
Following today’s amazing class debate, my co-teacher and I debriefed the entire American Presidential Election Process unit with the students. We asked the students the following questions via a class discussion:
- What did you learn throughout this unit?
- What did you enjoy about this unit?
- What do you wish you could have changed about this unit?
I was blown away by their responses to the first question: What did you learn? They of course mentioned the big ideas that we had hoped they would extract from this unit, but they also mentioned some of the hidden curriculum in the unit. They talked about learning how to collaborate and coexist in a group and how to effectively listen to their peers. I was surprised that they had gleaned all of this from our unit on such a high level that they were able to verbalize it. I was impressed. I shared my excitement with the students as well. “While these ideas weren’t the focus of our unit, they are probably even more important than learning about the electoral college and how the president is elected. Teachers call this the hidden curriculum. We don’t always tell you that we’re trying to teach you these life skills, but they are embedded into the instruction. You guys figured it out. Great work!” This group of young men never ceases to amaze us. They are so bright and talented. We are very lucky educators. However, my favorite part of our reflection discussion was hearing what the students enjoyed about the unit. I certainly wasn’t expecting some of what the boys shared:
- They enjoyed the Big Debate Project.
- They liked learning about the presidential candidates.
- They enjoyed learning about the way leaders are elected in other countries.
- They liked how much of the unit was student-centered and not led by the teachers.
- They enjoyed the group work aspects of the unit.
- They liked learning how to speak in front of a group.
- They enjoyed using coexistence and critical thinking skills to accomplish various tasks.
- They liked learning about the issues important to people in our country.
I was amazed. They really seemed to like this unit for more than just the final debate project. They liked learning about content that is not usually covered in schools today. It was so great that they noticed how student-focused we tried to make this unit. I was floored that they were able to pick that out of everything. Again, this goes back to the hidden curriculum. My students are learning to think for themselves and answer their own questions without the help of a teacher.
Lessons and units in school need to do more than just convey knowledge to students; they need to teach students how to be effective students and good people. One easy and sometimes tricky way to do this is by imbuing it into the curriculum covered in the classroom. While the students are learning about the battle of Gettysburg, they are also learning how to work with a partner to create a map of the battlefield using various materials. Integrating vital life skills with the content is crucial in helping to prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society.