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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue C ::: September 2003

Creating Curricula for Challenging Circumstances

by Barbara Garner
I think of curriculum as a combination of scope and sequence: what will be taught, and in what order. I differentiate among curriculum, materials, and methods, although I recognize that together they result in what gets taught, how it gets taught, and, perhaps, what gets learned. As a classroom teacher, my preferred curriculum is one that emerges from the interaction between me and my students. That's a luxury we had to forgo in Guinea, West Africa. 

World Education/Guinea staff members and I had to create a basic Pulaar literacy curriculum to be used by more than 1,000 adult basic education teachers who have no access to computers, photocopiers, or even flipcharts and markers. The restraints of the environment required that the materials be created for the teachers: no last minute rushing to a photocopier in a community 40 miles of unpaved road from the nearest electricity. The teachers would be volunteers chosen for their literacy skills and for their standing in their communities rather than for their professional status; most turned out to be farmers with two to five years of formal schooling. They would receive only two weeks of teacher training, so the methodology had to be predetermined as well. The task became developing a learners' book and a teachers' manual: curriculum, materials, and methods rolled into one.

The scope of the curriculum was easy. This literacy course is a component of a larger project that focuses on the community's role in improving the quality of public education at the local level. The project strengthens parent associations that, among other tasks, build schools, recruit teachers, dig latrines, and encourage families to send girls as well as boys to school. The topics covered in the course would be the same as those covered in the training given to the parent association board members. The reading skills covered would be letter recognition, sound/symbol identification, decoding, and comprehension. The writing skills would move from gripping a pencil to writing letters, words, and sentences. We did not worry about capital letters, punctuation - except for the lowly period - or grammar until the second phase of the literacy course, and the second phase of curriculum development. 

The parameters of the project dictated the topics to be covered in the curriculum. The content - what to teach about each topic - had restraints as well. It had to be a manageable amount of information that the teachers either already knew or could master easily. A team of 30 Guineans responsible for training the parent associations reviewed each training topic to determine the three points about the topic that they considered to be the most important to convey. These points became the content.

The sequence of the material was trickier. It would be determined as much by the methodology as by any logical unfolding of topics. We would use a modified version of the lesson plan used in many World Education literacy programs around the world. Each lesson starts the same way: the learners work in small groups to analyze a picture that illustrates a problem related to the theme and content of the curriculum. Following the analysis and discussion, the teacher introduces a word or phrase related to the discussion, and, via that word, a letter, or sometimes two. The new letter or letters form the focus of the literacy skills part of the lesson. For example, the theme of one lesson is the value of having water available at a school. The illustration shows children outside a school, a hot sun blazing above, and everyone looking very thirsty. The related word is "water."

Why start with analysis of a picture? One reason is that it's interesting. The learners are men and women who come to class after doing hard physical labor, gathering water and wood, cooking, and cultivating. It's hot outside, and even hotter in the classroom. The benches are hard. Knowing that class starts with an engaging, stimulating activity is motivating for students. Another reason is that it gets the participants accustomed to analyzing and finding solutions for community problems they often have not realized that they can change.

The literacy part of the lessons hinges on what World Education calls a "key" word or phrase and the new letters therein. The image analysis and key word approach is an adaptation of the Frierien concept of codes: pictures and words used to initiate a critical analysis of a situation. In the classes in Guinea, however, because of the focus of the project and the limited amount of teacher training time available, the analysis rarely goes beyond the surface to the more political underpinnings of a problem. 

Teaching words that relate to issues in the learners' civic lives is another deliberate choice borrowed from Friere; it also honors the tradition of the Citizenship Schools, in which African Americans learned to read and write to pass the voter registration test, using the Constitution, among other texts. These schools emphasized problem solving and the idea that there is no such thing as a "hard" word: words that represent substantive issues in learners' lives are words worth teaching, regardless of their length or unfamiliar meaning. In addition, World Education's method doesn't make learners wait to read real words while they learn the alphabet. Moving directly into reading and writing words before the full alphabet is learned - a story, using words that include only the letters taught in lessons one to eight, begins in lesson eight - is motivating as well. 

As for sequence, the challenge becomes determining what words or phrases to use to represent each topic, and in what sequence to put the topics. Each key word is the source of one or, at the most, two new letters. The sequencing of each word is of paramount importance. It's like doing three-dimensional tic-tac-toe. For example, the phrase in the first lesson is "be soodii defte," which means "purchase books." The first two letters are i and t. The phrase for the second lesson, "mahen suturaaji ka lekkol," which means "construct a latrine at school," contains i and t, and introduces two new letters: u and l. And so on. The same team of 30 teacher trainers and teachers worked with me to come up with appropriate illustrations and key words to introduce all the topics and all the letters of the alphabet. We shuffled and reshuffled words, moving words that provided high-frequency letters to early spots in the sequence, and moving those words with letters used less frequently in common vocabulary to later spots. Since we were actually creating the same curriculum in two languages, Pulaar and Malinke, we did it twice. 

Once we were done, we had a curriculum: a scope and sequence - what would be taught and in what order. We also had materials, in the form of a learner's book, and methods, captured in the teachers' book. The course is being given now in more than 200 villages. I'm writing this article in Dabola, Guinea, during a week of in-service workshops for 29 of the volunteer teachers and 11 teacher trainers responsible for supporting all the volunteer teachers. The impact of the course on communities and community members is already noticeable. Parents are giving their daughters less housework and more time to do homework, some girls have been enrolled in school based on what their parents learned in class, among other effects. Literacy skills have been put to use: tailors report writing down measurements (we also created a math course), parent association boards are keeping minutes of meetings, parents are checking their children's notebooks to make sure their children are being diligent in school. 

While this approach to curriculum may not be my favorite - subject rather than learner focused, workbook-based rather than authentic - the curriculum, materials, and methods respond to the conditions in which they are used and to the resources of those who use them. In addition, the content of the curriculum is just what the learners want. Many of them are members of parent association boards. Their pleas for a literacy course that would enable them to do their jobs as parent association members were what caused us to create the course in the first place. 

About the Author
Barbara Garner is the editor of Focus on Basics and a co-editor of NCSALL's Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy. A former ABE and ESOL teacher, teacher trainer, and materials development specialist, she is also responsible for World Education's literacy work in Africa.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL