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Know your harbor

5 min read


Many teachers beginning the process of deep curriculum work or practice/teaching transformations start in zones of comfort. It’s difficult sometimes to articulate the changes needed when everything is new, and starting from a known point (i.e., current curriculum unit, current assessment, current methodologies), strengthens foundations and helps to solidify the systemic growth I’m always advocating for. I call this “Knowing Your Harbor.”

Harbors are places of refuge, a shelter from the rough seas; they are known places. The assumption in the harbor is that you know where you are anchored, as well as know where to find what you need within that safe zone.

 We have to realize, though, that even when you are anchored in a harbor, you are still on a ship. A ship is not designed just for anchoring. In order to be a working vessel, it must be on the water, sailing. There’s a big difference when we break down the nouns and verbs here. Ship is different from shipping. Boat is different from boating. Sail is different from sailing. It is the verb, the action, that matters. This is a very important realization, and I discuss it often in my work with curriculum design and practice. If we are looking only for endpoints, for harbors and anchors as the barometer of our work, then we are not meeting the needs of ourselves, or our students.

We have to know our ships, too. We have to know that they are designed for action and are not about the ship itself — it’s what the ship can DO that matters. The ship, in curriculum terms, could be you the teacher, it could be the collaborative group you work with, it could be the system you operate within. Whatever you determine your ship to be, the actions you collectively take are what matters to the shipping event. You must determine who and what needs to be “on board” with you as you plan your journey. This includes content experts, interest experts (this could be students!), resources and technology, and could include elements beyond the ship. (Virtual experiences that relate to the learning.) All of these elements have roles, and those roles could change with different shipping adventures: captains, mates or other crew.

Coaching Point:

“Research on intelligence and the brain suggests that we learn best when we are engaged in meaningful classroom learning experiences that help us discover and develop our strengths and talents,” write the authors of the ASCD article “So Each may Learn: Integrating Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences.” When we think about the college- and career-ready student, what are some considerations for preparing them to be captain? If they are always crew, then they aren’t really being prepared to sail the ship themselves. How can we assure that the students are ready? By having them take on multiple roles. I’ve mentioned in multiple blog posts and online conversations how important it is for students to use collaborative and communicative technologies, and we need to make sure that they are “on the boat” with it all. In terms of communicating, this would be a good time to work with students on something like Thinking Routines, where students articulate how they are exploring, interpreting and justifying through communication and conversation. This moves communication from a planning event to an action event, as well as a teaching and learning event. Teachers could use the Thinking Routines as a mechanism for establishing and sustaining curriculum conversations.

The final step is about knowing your journey. We have to know the destination, and we have to make plans for what it will take to get us there.

“To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction,” writes S.R. Covey in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

If our destination is unclear, it’s going to be hard to figure out what needs we may have along the way, what roles we need to plan for, and how we keep to our intended path along the way.

When a teacher commits to a particular transformation or improvement in their professional practice and begins the process of revising and aligning curricular elements, the process of continued communication and collaboration (like we’re asking the kids to do!) allows for constructive feedback and additional revision moments. Committing, communicating and re-communicating are vital to meaningful and systemic transformations.

To complete the metaphor, these processes illustrate the “round trip” nature of good curriculum work. A boat sails out into the ocean on its journey, arrives at its destination, and sails home again to prepare for the next journey. The ship is always on the move and always finding new places to visit.

Mike Fisher (@fisher1000) has more than a decade of classroom and professional development experience. He is a full-time educational consultant and instructional coach and works primarily with school districts to integrate the Common Core State Standards, make data-informed instructional decisions, sustain their curriculum mapping initiatives and integrate instructional technology. Learn more at The Digigogy Collaborative or on his blog.