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This post is published with permission from Amplify, the Core Knowledge Foundation’s publishing partner for the Core Knowledge Language Arts® program. Susan Lambert, specialist in Early Literacy at Amplify, reminds us just how important a content-rich curriculum is for students today: “Encourage students to keep looking for more. And never be afraid they might learn more than you.”

When I was a teacher, his name was Jacob. He was the kid teachers remember. He knew stuff. He’d been places. And he wanted to know more. Not more about any topic, but one particular topic—the Ancient Romans.

It wasn’t the third grade curriculum I was teaching that ignited Jacob’s fire—it was already lit when he arrived. He consumed that content like a ravenous scavenger, and his enthusiasm for it was contagious. He understood the architectural intricacies of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. In class discussions, he would contribute myriad details about how the Ancient Romans lived and how they died. Especially how they died: in the ashes of Pompeii, or in constant and highly successful stream of military campaigns. As he shared his vast knowledge of Ancient Rome with classmates, they too found themselves wanting to know more. Jacob would then march with them to the library and make book recommendations personalized to each of them.

I don’t remember if it was a parent or grandparent that first introduced Jacob to the Roman Empire, or if he happened upon it through a movie, a book or a museum visit. But of all the times I taught that unit, I was thankful to have his content knowledge and voracious curiosity as part of our learning community. He was a model of what happens when kids encounter lots of topics and find something that lights the mind’s fire.

But many kids never get opportunities like Jacob—neither at home nor school.

Enter the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and its goal of “well-rounded education.” ESSA represents the first reauthorization of federal education policy since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, one of the legacy hallmarks of which was the narrowing of our elementary curriculum.

NCLB left us hyper-focused on reading and math skills, dehydrating the sponge of curiosity that every preschooler possesses. We lost time in the instructional day for content that develops knowledge and generates a thirst for more in critical areas such as science, history and the arts. Instead, we had to shift our concentration to skill development and test prep.

ESSA reintroduces us to broad, knowledge-based instruction that gives kids opportunities to see beyond schooling as skills. It encourages us to put an emphasis on knowledge and content that motivates the minds of our youngest learners and provides a place where our Jacobs can find their passion. Contrast that with the topics Kate Walsh, former director of Language Arts at the Core Knowledge Foundation, found in a survey of typical reading basals: what teddy bears look like; what makes grandmothers special; what could happen if everyone brought their pets to school.

Things of value are worth knowing by heart: the origins of worlds, the endless parade of peoples and cultures, the great and evil deeds of history, and the vast panoramic photograph that is nature.

Easier said than done? Maybe not.

Understand what teaching content is really about—dynamic, multi-faceted instruction and learning that meets multiple goals. I was reviewing an ELA lesson that was used on an exemplar website for teaching content. The content focus statement was: How are families around the world similar? The lesson didn’t actually teach anything about different families around the world; it used a literary text about a family. Students compared that family to their own. I’m not opposed to teaching about families, but teaching content goes much deeper. Find content, like the human body or Ancient Rome, that involves rich vocabulary and engrossing associated concepts—content that lends itself to layered analysis and thinking that sparks interest, which then leads to engaging and invigorating conversations.

Get special area teachers involved—e.g. art, music, physical education—to extend content learning in compelling ways. When I taught the Ancient Rome unit, I enlisted others to add color and action. My students studied and recreated various pieces of art, found rhythm in Ancient Roman music and recreated chariot races. Content like this unifies school communities and allows students to experience an inspiring and stimulating learning environment.

When kids discover new information, encourage them to share it with you, their families and peers. Nothing is more motivating in the learning process than affirmation. When a kid learns something new, they want to share it with you and with their peers. Make that “new learning” time part of your day—and encourage students to keep looking for more. And never be afraid they might learn more than you. Expect and hope that they will!

11 comments on “When Kids Collide with Content”

  1. 1
    Marlene Hinojosa on November 14, 2017

    I love the topic of the Ancient Roman Civilization. I can relate to Jacob because when I was in the third grade, my mother took us to Mexico City for the summer. We saw the Aztec pyramids the Sun and the Moon Pyramid. When I went back to school and we were asked what we did for the summer, my trip was the only thing that motivated me to lead in the discussion . I can understand how personal experience can truly be part of many learning experiences. As a teacher, I feel that we are more driven by standardized testing but I do see and know how important it is to provide students with meaningful learning experiences. Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is an ideal opportunity for our students and very promising for learning. Incorporating other areas of learning does help develop students into well rounded learners and guide them in a more powerful learning aspect.

  2. 2
    Elizabeth Hoare on November 18, 2017

    Ms.Lambert , Sorry I am late coming across your article. I was so inspired by your discussion ‘When Kids Collide with Content’ As a teacher of 30 years, I have seen programs come and go across the years. The schools’ demands to meet the Common Core Standards (CCSS) and or the State Standards have increased, becoming the root of much anxiety among teachers. Often in teachers it becomes how much of the curriculum can we meet with our quarterly, semester and or yearly objectives , and less focus on understanding and enjoying the process of learning. I teach in an American International School (Asia) There is a great burden to not only teach in English to 6-7 year old English Language Learners (ELLs) but also to teach them about culture and traditions greatly different to their own.
    I do firmly believe that ‘kids and content can collaborate’ if the right teaching-learning environment is created. If the teacher takes the content and presents it in a creative way that is meaningful to the learner, the learning outcomes are more likely to be be achieved. It the teacher merely relies on drill work of the content, the learner is not likely to retain the necessary information. Weimer (2009) notes that teachers’ should differentiate the teaching process that taps into students knowledge and skills and empower them to feel they are successful learners. When students feel they are able to learn, the learner not only learns better, but they enjoy learning more.
    In order for any teacher to incorporate the ESSA Act in a school that has 92% ELLs, in what ways would you suggest – to bring about effective learning outcomes.
    Weimer, M (2009) Effective Teaching Strategies. Retrieved from November, 2017
    Elizabeth H

  3. 3
    Cook22 on January 24, 2018

    Jacob is one of a kind! That experience of witnessing your students truly engaged and curious is so special. Teaching Family and Consumer Sciences brings me great joy, especially when my students realize how their own experiences relate to the content. In addition, including other subject areas within teaching life skills assists in the realization of cross curricular connections for students. I appreciate when my students share their acts of using information from other classes, such as math, in the kitchen or how they learned about equivalents and measuring in a different setting. Modeling a life long learner is a great way to teach students to be life long learners and encourage them to keep looking for more.

  4. 4
    josh on May 17, 2018

    I was just like Jacob but my fascination was welding, my dad is a welder. We grew up very poor and dad worked many jobs on the side. I was his helper/worker so at a very young age I was around tools, welders, grinders, etc.. I am currently a Welding teacher surprise surprise. But it brings me to my next point you would not believe the number of students that I have in class that other teachers say is bad kids, they do not want to work. I find them to be the best kids, most of the time it is because they are not challenged in their class. I differentiate my curriculum for each kid. It takes a lot of time and effort but each kid has a different curriculum to follow. I get so much work done with these kids, because they have a choice, but I hold them to their choice. But it brings in all kinds of math, problem-solving, and it is amazing to me how much these kids can remember if they want to. It is ashamed that with NCLB that teachers can not do what I am doing with the kids. They have to stick to the curriculum and it takes away from their lesson delivery. Which in return bores the kids, and drives them to not want to do anything.

  5. 5
    Norma Beas on May 23, 2018

    Allowing students to explore areas of interest will definitely propel them to keep searching for new knowledge. Learning the necessary skills that will be tested is important in order to be successful when it comes to standardized tests; however, children can benefit more from actually delving into topics that are of interest to them. When we find what interests student, then we can begin to plan our daily lessons with an assurance that students will be engaged because it is a topic of interest.

  6. 6
    Madison on November 14, 2018

    Wow. Let me just say that what you have shared is really good material. I am an elementary school teacher that related to that student who “knows it all” and thinks that they are right. I had a different view of this kid that I wanted to share with you all. I found out that the smart comments that my child made towards me were just a defense mechanism to issues that needed to be resolved. Every student needs to feel loved and know that someone cares about them. When the student felt that I loved them when they went from the worst student that I had to the best student. You never know what a child may be going through. We as teachers have the opportunity to impact lives each and every day. If you are a teacher out there, continue loving and serving the students you teach because you never know how much of an impact you can make.

  7. 7
    Robert Aiden on December 27, 2018

    I don’t remember if it was a parent or grandparent that first introduced Jacob to the Roman Empire, or if he happened upon it through a movie, a book or a museum visit. But of all the times I taught that unit, I was thankful to have his content knowledge and voracious curiosity as part of our learning community. He was a model of what happens when kids encounter lots of topics and find something that lights the mind’s fire.
    Happy New Year!

  8. 8
    Tiffini Brooks on January 28, 2019

    I enjoyed this blog! I truly believe that teaching content and “the whole child” is super important, and it got lost with so much emphasis being placed on tested areas. Social Studies often falls on the back burner in school because it is not tested. However, it is very important. Social Studies helps kids understand why things in life are the way they are, and how the past affects the future. By making a unit such as Ancient Rome relevant, students can make comparisons and come up with solutions for today’s problems in society. Students can also understand the significance of various landmarks and physical features in the world.

  9. 9
    Lauren Tauchman on July 18, 2019

    Hello Susan,

    Thank you for posting this. I believe the most important thing we can do for students is to allow them to shine and to personalize the learning as much as possible. Often this means finding what interests them and going deeper.

    As a Spanish teacher, we don’t have standardized tests to prepare for, but we still have material that we feel pressured to “cover.” However, real learning takes places when the content is compelling to them. Through brain research, we know that students learn more when learning is a pleasurable experience (Willis, 2007). By personalizing the experience, more learning will be retained. Also, when you spark curiosity, by sewing the seed of a larger story, connected beyond the classroom, as you do with the Roman empire, students are eager to learn more (Laureate Education, 2009). As teachers, we know that these strategies work and that teaching to the test is not creating a joyful or curious learning environment. Therefore, let’s make these changes in our class and continue to advocate for joyful and deep learning in our profession.



    Laureate Education (Producer). (2009r). The understanding model [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author.

    Willis, J. (2007). The neuroscience of joyful education. Educational Leadership, 64(9).

    1. 10
      Allison S. on November 15, 2019

      Lauren – You’re absolutely right. We have to make learning enjoyable for students. I often hear students talk about how they hate math or have never been good at it, which is truly disheartening. So when I can find a way to relate content to students’ interests and help them apply meaning to their experiences outside of school in relation to math, it makes the stressful days worth it. Each Spring, I do a percent unit centered around the NCAA Men’s March Madness tournament. Every student gets one of the teams in the tournament and works on finding their winning and losing percentages for the season, as well as different averages and shooting percentages. Students use their calculations to make decisions on which team will win and they have to justify their reasoning with evidence from the statistics. I keep a big bracket on my bulletin board in the hallway and students get so excited to see if their team won or if their predictions were correct the next day. Even students that are not necessarily interested in basketball get involved and engaged. It’s truly one of my favorite units each year because students get to be excited about math and use it in the real world. They see connections to their lives and talk about math in ways they haven’t in previous years. And all of this simply because they are being taught in a way that gets them curious and excited for the lessons ahead.

  10. 11
    Allison S. on November 12, 2019

    Reading this post through the lens of a middle school math teacher, I cannot help but feel inspired and encouraged that there are others out there feeling the need for change. Many in my content area have probably experienced the “teach to the test” pressures that were commonplace in most schools for many years. Thankfully, more and more educators recognize the benefit of a well-rounded curriculum. Students must be able to think logically, make comprehensive arguments, provide justifications, and problem-solve. However, many skills are lacking because teachers have focused on teaching the surface of standards instead of allowing students to delve into a more profound understanding. Students must be allowed back to times of discovery, awe, and wonder about content they are learning. As the only constant in education, intellectual curiosity must be awakened for education to take place (Henson, 2015). Students must experience meaningful learning, and engage with topics they eagerly seek to know more about; otherwise, learning becomes a task and not the adventure it should be. So rarely do we see students excited to learn that when they are, we often do not know how to respond. But we must share in their excitement and encourage them to continue in their quest for knowledge developing students’ passion for learning along the way.

    Henson, K. T. (2015). Curriculum planning: Integrating multiculturalism, constructivism, and education reform (5th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

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