Sonoma State University
Education 437
Integrated Curriculum: Preschool Through Elementary

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Generating Curriculum: Building a Shared Curriculum

by Bobbi Fisher, Josiah Haynes School, Sudbury, MA
and Pat Cordeiro, Associate Professor, Rhode Island College
Primary Voices K-6, Vol. 2, Number 3, August 1994 (2-7)

Ask parents their goals for their children in school, and they'll mostly say that they want their children to love school; be engaged in learning; and learn to read, write, and do math. These are the goals of most teachers, too, and meeting them is a monumental task. We have found that teachers who work within a generative curriculum have success in meeting these goals because engagement and learning flourish in an environment where both the children and teachers become learners together.

Our current thinking about a generative curriculum is based upon experiences in our own classrooms, hours of discussions together, more hours of discussions with our colleagues, professional readings, and our memories of when we were elementary age children. We invite you into our classrooms where you can get a glimpse of generative curriculum in action as we join our students in being both teachers and learners.

What is a Generative Curriculum?

A generative curriculum is a creative, intuitive curriculum because it derives in a creative and intuitive way from the ongoing life of the classroom. But a generative curriculum is not a freewheeling, anything-goes effort. It has boundaries, directions, and goals that become naturally evident through the dynamic collaboration of the teacher and children.

It starts and develops with children's interests, interests that remain at the center of the inquiry. As children and teachers pursue areas of interest, new curriculum is created collaboratively, learning becomes dynamic, and one avenue of interest leads to another. As themes and topics are initiated and pursued throughout the year, connections and relationships are made. Working with curriculum this way allows for authentic learning and provides teachers with opportunities to be learners, too. Teachers become learners who teach (Cordeiro, 1993) and the children become curriculum coordinators with teachers. In this way, a curriculum fosters lifelong learning.

Pat writes: When we were learning how to work in a variety of number bases in mathematics, we didn't organize ourselves the way we had in the past. Sometimes the class came from another activity and went right to work an their projects, without waiting for my teacherly signal or command to see what would come next in our day. I had given up the right to determine every minute of their day. And because we had agreed that we needed to proceed with this inquiry, we all came into the room, talked to each other for a moment, and then went right back to our particular investigations with energy, purpose, and authentic and appropriate direction. The boundaries and directions we responded to came from our own interest in what we were doing. I think my students would have been quite surprised if l had interrupted our work to do something else - if I had valued something else over an exploration we all agreed was fascinating to us.

Bobbi writes: One year it seemed that every time I turned around, the children were drawing mazes during writing time. Not much writing was getting done, but they were clearly engaged in creating their drawings and in discussing their work together. The children were generating curriculum, and as I watched and listened, I realized that I could join the learning, pursue my interest in Greek mythology, and at the same time encourage the children to extend their interest in mazes into the realms of literature, writing, and mathematics. I read books to the class about Theseus, demonstrated some techniques for drawing mazes (such as using rulers to draw parallel lines), and suggested ways to write stories about them. During silent reading, I reread parts of The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (1968), this time focusing on Theseus and the Minotaur. We were all learning.

In a classroom organized around a generative curriculum, we do things a certain way because that is how we must proceed in order to accomplish the business we have all agreed is important. Boundaries and directions arise from the work and activities going on in the classroom. The dialogue among children and teachers creates the "rules"; the life of the class is internally derived rather than externally applied.

Generating Curriculum in the Classroom

There are many ways of looking at what we do in the classroom, at what the curriculum is. In our early days as teachers, curriculum was segregated: we kept subjects separate. Our next step was trying to achieve an integrated curriculum, where we connected subjects thematically across subject areas, but teachers still did the planning and guiding so that the class traveled a path we had set and everyone ended up at a predetermined point (Cordeiro, 1992 & in press). Currently, teachers are learning about generative curriculum - about ways to give their students input into what will be learned and to collaborate with them on curriculum. To accomplish this, teachers draw on several sources: the interests of the children and their wants and needs, the interests of the teacher and the prescribed school district curriculum. Using a generative focus enables teachers and children to create personal paths of inquiry even within the prescribed curriculum.

Bobbi writes: The topic of westward expansion started as part of a school-wide study, and continued as I read fiction and nonfiction to the class. But the actual setting up of a homestead in the classroom was generated from the interests and creativity of the children. One day a group in the block area started building a homestead and there was no stopping them. As Rachel explained in an article she wrote for our class newspaper:

"When are studied Westward Ho my first grade class set up a homestead. Some people brought in things from home to put in our homestead. When people were going west people built houses out of logs. Some people lived with other families. We played as if we were a family in the olden days.... When my group played in the homestead we had an ox, a mother, a father, two sons and a daughter. We pretended to be a family. It was a very hard life for them. I liked it and I learned."

Pat writes: In my school, we worked with a school-wide social studies curriculum organized around four main topics throughout the year. Every class did the same topic, focusing on different aspects, and the whole school came together for a culminating activity . The enactment of that prescribed curriculum produced great variety. Even though we all worked on the same topic and shared resources, each class found an amazing array of differences in every theme. No one wound up doing the some thing. As the whole school studied our town, for instance, classes focused on a wide range of projects: people's nicknames, architecture, the fishing industry, the history of smallpox epidemics that once affected town life, industries - the list was almost endless and respected interests derived from the children and the various teachers.

Interplay between Content and Process

In a generative curriculum, there is a continuous interplay between content learning and process learning. Learners apply the processes of reading, writing, speaking, listening, art, music, drama, and mathematics to gain meaning and understanding from the content areas of social studies and science with children's Literature playing an important part in linking these processes and content. Content is learned through process, and process through content. The two complement and enhance each other (Fisher, 1991).

Bobbi writes: The integration of process and content was apparent in our use of an index. We didn't learn to use an index as an isolated skill. We learned it as we pursued information we needed because we were engaged in meaningful inquiry. For example, when our fish died, we referred to the index of a big book for some answers and found a heading entitled "Survival." When Carolyn was working on a project about birds, she wanted some information on beaks, but discovered that the book she was using didn't have an index. I acknowledged her frustration, and we discussed the benefits of an index.

Pat writes: Each year we made charts and graphs of information we found in the almanac section of the daily newspaper. We charted sunrise, sunset, moonrise, tides, highest and lowest temperature, whatever appealed to us. We started charting in September and kept it going all year. Eventually most of the charts had to be moved out into the hall, where they stretched from the sixth-grade classrooms all the way to the cafeteria. My goal in developing our own charts was for students to learn about the decision making involved in preparing charts and graphs; most curricula only teach how to read then. Sometimes students would keep a chart for a month or so, then start all over again because of something they had learned that would make their chart better, easier to read, or more accurate, or because they had suddenly come to understand the content of what they were charting in a new and insightful way. What was amazing was how much we learned about the "near universe" - the content we acquired as we engaged in a long-term process.


Following the Students' Leads

A generative curriculum is open to various classroom activities and artifacts. In following our students' leads as often as we ask them to follow ours, we are showing our interest in several aspects of what children have to share - topics or sub topics that interest them in their life outside school, resources and artifacts that they provide, and happenings that we didn't plan on. And we draw all this from kidwatching (Goodman, 1985), from the talk and interaction that go on in our classrooms.

Bobbi writes: As I read more and more mythology, I noticed the class interest was spreading beyond writing and group story time. At workshop time, when the children pursued their own topics of inquiry, Marina, whose parents were from Greece, picked mythology. She painted a map of Greece and contributed it to a mural. Several children drew their version of the Minotaur with cray-pas (after my teaching assistant, who is an artist, demonstrated how to draw portraits). Others brought in fabric to make feathers for the wings of Icarus and Daedelus. Visual arts became the natural vehicle for the children to express their emerging interest. These projects weren't assignments; they were generated by the children from their own interests, knowledge, and curiosity.


Topics, Themes, and Concepts in a Generative Curriculum

We think of themes as the broadest category for organizing curriculum, e.g., "How People Survive." Topics are more specific and concrete, e.g., "Westward Expansion" or "Portugal." We also organize curriculum through development of concepts, such as "Changes," "Infinity," or "Friendship." In teaching, we often start with a topic because it is concrete, immediate, and visual. Then, through the topic, we begin to see themes arise, linking the relationships between various aspects of topics. In the process of this evolution of what is commonly called "thematic teaching," we begin to develop various concepts. These are the fundamental notions that organize our thinking and always overlap the boundaries of topics and themes.

Pat writes: When we developed our unit on the period in American history when the United States' land west of the Mississippi River was settled by Europeans, we started with a topic called "Westward Emigration." This allowed students to focus on concrete aspects, ideas, and artifacts as they constructed maps, miniature wagons, and tiny models of furniture. As the topic study proceeded, we began to explore larger themes, such as how people survived under difficult conditions and why people migrate from one place to another. These themes allowed our dialogues to move away from one specific topic to other relevant topics, such as turn-of-the-century immigration to America, and the lives of modern-day boat people. These broad discussions permitted the evolution of concept development as we struggled to understand concepts like "brotherhood," "democracy," and "cross-cultural collision."

Bobbi writes: One year it became apparent on the first day of school that "animals" was a topic that especially interested the children. Chuckie had found a tomato worm and we made a home for it. At the end of the day we decided to let it go, but the next day we found it dead outside. This generated an intense conversation about our responsibility toward the animals we have as pets, a theme that continued throughout the year, especially when we arrived in class one morning and were surprised to discover that our hamster had had twelve babies over the weekend.


Learning Strands

Within a generative curriculum, three strands of learning weave their way throughout the flow of the day: incidental learning, which involves all that goes on throughout the life of the classroom; mini-topics, which are small units of study that anyone, be it the entire class or a single student, focuses on for a day or two; and theme studies, which are topics that the entire class studies in depth for a month or more, and which include culminating events. Each draws from one or more sources of the curriculum.

Pat writes: When we were studying Portugal, my students and I decided it would be fun to explore that topic through a simulation - we would be modern-day travelers on a vacation to Portugal. Within that theme study, there were many mini-topics and a great deal of incidental study. The theme itself, played out through the simulation, went on for about a month and a half. In the course of it, the class developed an interest in American civics and aspects of citizenship, a mini-study that lasted for only a few days. In an incidental fashion, we one day discussed the various kinds of identification that travelers in any country must carry. This was not a theme that I had planned to cover, but because of our mutual interest in this inquiry, we pursued it. Of course, during the longer theme study, other unrelated mini-studies and incidental learnings were generated, but a surprising number of them arose from our sustained interest in the theme.



Our best tool for assessing generative curriculum is kidwatching (Goodman, 1985) - those times in the day when we stop interacting with our students and spend time observing them working alone or with their peers. Seeing them engaged in meaningful content where they are using reading, writing, art, and talk to make sense of their world indicates that learning is going on; close scrutiny of these experiences helps us understand the details of their learning. We are often amazed at their expressed depth of understanding and the maturity of their language.

Pat writes: It became a habit for me, in activating generative curriculum, to also activate a lot of talking and writing. I often asked my students to tell me about the learning they were doing, to tell me how they thought of this, or why they decided to do that, or how the whole group decided on a particular solution to solve a problem. I frequently asked them to describe the strategies they had selected, sometimes asking, "How would you teach this to someone younger?" We have found that adjustment is a function of observing engagements. Kidwatching for engagement provides data for assessing programs, and it helps teachers determine how students are interpreting and personalizing curriculum.

Bobbi writes: Recently in my First grade class, the children were writing information books about topics of their choice. There were books and papers everywhere. Some children worked at tables, others were stretched out on the floor; a steady hum of conversation filled the room. They were asking each other questions, reading interesting pieces of information to one another, and collaborating on their drawings and diagrams. I looked around the room for someone who needed my help. No one did. They were all engaged in teaching and learning for each other, so I took a book and joined the literacy club (Smith, 1988).

In a generative curriculum, students are invited behind the curtain that traditionally surrounds assessment to participate in the process itself. For example, they may have a hand in designing the categories and format of the reporting system; they may help write narratives about what has been happening in the curriculum; they may select a portfolio of work and write statements explaining why various items have been selected for inclusion; they may collaborate with the teacher or peers on the final product of the portfolio; they may write self-assessment statements; they may run the parent-teacher conference, sharing their work with their parents and teacher. We believe with Don Holdaway that performance is the best measure of success. Holdaway points out that when children are happy and confident with what they have learned, they will perform, and in this performance we will find our very best assessment. Successful learning, he says, is always accompanied by joy and laughter. Through joyful times in our classrooms, we know that children are learning.

The writers in this issue believe that when we look at curriculum from a generative point of view, both children and teachers direct its procedures and outcomes. Learning is an ongoing, dynamic, authentic, appropriate, and exciting. Generative curriculum goes beneath the surface of classroom topics, themes, and concepts, and involves everything in classroom life. Life and learning are an undivided whole in which each book, topic, area of interest, art project, experiment, or other pursuit increases understanding of the whole.


Campbell, J. (1968). The Hero With a Thousand Faces (2nd ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cordeiro, P. (in press). Social Studies, Whole Language, and Literacy: Classroom Profiles Grades K-5. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Cordeiro, P. (1993). "Becoming a Learner Who Teaches." Teachers Networking, 12 (1), 1-5.

Cordeiro, P. (1992). Whole Learning: Whole Language and Content in the Upper Elementary Grades. Katonah, NY: Richard C. Owen.

Fisher, B. (1991). Joyful Learning: A Whole Language Kindergarten. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goodman, Y. (1985). Kidwatching: Observing Children in the Classroom. In A. Jaggar & M. T. Smith-Burke (Eds.), Observing the Language Learner (pp. 9-18). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English; Newark, DE: International Reading Association

Holdaway, D. (1986). The Structure of Natural Learning as a Basis for Literacy Instruction. In M. Sampson (Ed.), The Pursuit of Literacy: Early Reading and Writing (pp. 56-72). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Smith. F. (1988). Joining the Literacy Club. Portsmouth. NH: Heinemann.

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