“It’s a sit on your desk sort of day, Ms. Dedini!” Jana said it as a command, not a request. My class of 16 Honors Chemistry students knew what she meant. We all settled in (teacher taking seat on desk, as instructed) for what needed to be talked out before we could return to acid and base equilibrium.
Adolescence is a constant search for equilibrium, and chemistry -- or any subject for that matter -- is just another vehicle to explore, expand, discover limits, and find ways to return to center. The problem is that in most schools, the curriculum isn’t “independent” enough from its content anchors to be seen this expansively. If January 6, 2021, wasn’t a day to halt instruction in every chemistry class across the country and use human behavior as a metaphor for activation energy or precipitation or redox or neutralization (metaphors aren’t that hard to find in chemistry), then how did chemistry teachers diffuse all the chemicals that flooded the adolescent brains so they could keep teaching chemistry? And, perhaps more importantly, why did those chemistry teachers think that it was more important to teach chemistry than to teach children that day?
Classroom teachers want to grow strong, analytical minds, but they are held captive by their content-driven syllabi. The solution is independent curriculum, wherein teachers never have to sacrifice teachable moments for the day’s agenda. In the simple scenario above, that Honors Chemistry class was designed backwards from competencies -- the outcomes and aptitudes of a chemist and a citizen scientist. If a student could explain acid-base chemistry via the data they generated in the titration lab, that’s an A. But if a student could explain neutralization using a metaphor from the quelling of social discord with some qualitative analysis on paper, then that’s a valid path to mastery of the topic too.
Independent curriculum let me do that. Make no mistake: both kinds of kids are ready for college chemistry. But the teacher didn’t abdicate their responsibility to respond to the teachable moment because the content gods said “stick to the schedule,” the neurotransmitters flooding the adolescents’ brains weren’t ignored, and the students basically stayed on the path to learning chemistry. Independent curriculum lets teachers and students be present every single day because of, not in spite of, what’s happening outside the classroom.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)