Creating Responsive Curriculum

Author: Alythea McKinney

Posted by Alythea

The work described here took place as part of a classroom residency, where Critical Explorers was collaborating with 7th-grade humanities teachers to develop a series of activities on ancient Mesopotamia. Listening along with a classroom teacher to her students’ observations helps deepen our understandings of the historical materials we chose — and gives rise to much more interesting, more flexible curriculum than we could have imagined before.

Much curriculum tends to be static:  It prescribes what students should notice and what they should think.  How can educators create curriculum that changes as students and teachers engage it — curriculum that engages students and all their varied observations and ideas? In critical exploration, students encounter materials the teacher has chosen; at the same time, they actively develop their own observations of and thoughts about the materials, free from the influence of the teacher’s ideas.  One important benefit of this approach is that the students’ observations can help direct the teacher’s attention, illuminating aspects of the sources the teacher might not otherwise have fully appreciated, helping her to create a responsive curriculum by deepening her understanding of the themes she is teaching and of the ways learners at all levels can discover them.  In this post, I’ll share a specific example to show how this movement in critical exploration works.  Though the example comes from history/social studies, the pattern of interaction among the materials, the students’ observations, and the teachers’ thinking and planning holds beyond it.  By looking closely at this example, we can better understand how student-centered teaching and learning can inform and enliven curriculum in any subject matter.

British Museum Ashurbanipal relief
Wall panel from the palace of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria, c. 640 B. C. © Trustees of the British Museum.

In our work with the 7th-grade humanities teachers at Watertown Middle School in Watertown, Massachusetts, we’ve been studying Mesopotamia.  One of the primary sources our collaborating teachers and I have worked with is a relief (above) that once decorated the walls of the palace of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria.  The relief dates to 645 – 635 B. C.  I had suggested this image to the teachers primarily because it shows streams of water scholars have understood to be irrigation canals, and I knew agriculture and irrigation were two themes the teachers wanted the students to think about.  When I first chose the image, I don’t think I appreciated the potential of the figure I understood (after consulting scholarly articles) to be a king in his tower surveying his carefully cultivated property. If I had found another ancient depiction of irrigation canals — one that showed farmers and crops in place of a king and trees — I very likely would have chosen that one instead.

Then one of the teachers studied the image with her class. She started as we always do in critical exploration:  She asked what the students noticed (she didn’t offer them any information about the scholarly interpretations I’ve described). She sent me a list of her students’ first observations. I noticed that many students mentioned the figure I thought of as the king or the space I thought of as the castle garden.  But for every observation that referred to a king, castle, or garden, it seemed that there was another calling the same elements a religious figure, a temple or church, a sacred place. These observations, in numbers almost equalling the kinds of observations I had expected, surprised me.  I read the entire list again, taking notes only when the students seemed to be describing the figure or its setting as royal or religious, and collecting the two kinds of observations together:

forest and a temple or church

looks like a garden — plants or layout of a garden

castle in the background

sacred place — hidden place hidden by trees

in the middle a statue — tall structure

castle on right walled with towers

little man on top looks like a king

looks like Jesus at the top of the middle pillar

looks like a church at the top

With the students’ observations in front of me, I looked closely at the image again.  As I tried to see the place as the students did — as sacred or hidden, as a temple or church — I became aware of its stillness. The garden became a refuge, a sanctuary, and the lone figure in its dramatic, even ritualistic pose only accentuated these qualities.  I had noticed the tower and figure before, of course, but as I experimented with more of the students’ observations — a statue, a tall structure, looks like Jesus — I became more aware of the height of these features. I had understood this height to create a convenient vantage point for the observer and possessor of the landscape.  Now I saw it as steep and dramatic, lending the figure monumental, even god-like qualities.

If the idea that the panel depicts a palace garden were unquestioningly accepted, I realized, many of its details and much of its significance would be obscured. A temple or a church, a sacred space, a figure that looks like Jesus — through these observations that at first seemed so out of place, the students were calling out details of the piece, revealing aspects of its mood — in short, beginning to describe for themselves, and to help clarify for all of us, the complexity of this work of art.

As observations of a tall statue and temple emerged alongside observations of a king and garden, the students were also describing and gathering evidence of themes central to the study of Mesopotamia — themes that, before thinking through the students’ observations, I hadn’t realized this particular image could support.  One of these themes is hierarchy.  A closely related theme is the connection between hierarchy and religion — the way those in elevated positions were treated like gods, and considered to be close to and even descended from the gods.  As some students pointed out evidence of political hierarchy, then listened as other students described evidence that the hierarchy is religious, the work of the class was setting the stage for further student discussion of these themes.

We were about to read with the students a much earlier source also from Mesopotamia — a letter from a Middle Babylonian tablet (1531 – 1155 B. C.) — in which Kalbu addresses his “guenna-official” or provincial governor about a water supply problem.  The substance of the message is prefaced by this long opening:

“Tell my lord, the perfect, the gorgeous, the offspring of heaven, our protective angel, the expert and effective warrior, the light among his brothers, the shining gem, the trust of all important persons, endowed with nobility, the provider for scholars, the table laden for all people, outstanding among his peers, to whom the gods Anu, Enlil, and Ea, and also the goddess Belet-ili, have granted a treasure of graces and riches — tell my lord: Kalbu, who is dust and but your favorite slave, sends the following message.”

The elevated and god-like position of the official — “the offspring of heaven, our protective angel” — and the great distance between him and Kalbu, “who is dust and but your favorite slave,” resonate with elements the students’ observations highlight in the image:  the sheer height of the tower and the silent figure in its noble pose framed in the archway at the top, positioned as if to illuminate or focus the attention of the countryside.  Before reflecting on the students’ observations, I had not understood the relief and the letter to be closely related. Now, I realize that each of these sources can support students as they develop and test their ideas about the other. And together, these two sources from different periods can help students reconstruct and understand enduring characteristics of Mesopotamian civilization. The Ashurbanipal relief can support student thinking about the themes of hierarchy and religion in addition to the theme of irrigation. And when, in the second paragraph of his letter, Kalbu protests to his lord, whom he worships and who he hopes will meet his needs, that “They have cut off my access to water,” we see that this pair of sources offers us occasions to think about the ways hierarchy, religion, and irrigation were intertwined in ancient Mesopotamia — to the point that the importance of water and of means of controlling it, and of the centralization of the power to distribute it, may have helped give rise to the characteristic religious/political hierarchies. Now that the students have encountered this image, and now that I have thought through the students’ observations, I have a deeper understanding of the image and how it works — and of its potential to work with other sources, such as Kalbu’s letter, to help students think further.

In critical exploration, teaching, learning, and curriculum development are interdependent.  The teachers choose materials because of what they have noticed about them.  Then they encourage students to encounter the materials and share what they notice. The students’ observations reveal new possibilities in the materials and help the teachers envision new ways to use those materials in their teaching.  Each teacher, with her colleagues, becomes actively involved in ongoing curriculum development.  The curriculum changes and grows as students respond to the new combinations of materials and activities with more observations and ideas, and as the teachers listen to students, understand the sources still more deeply, and — again and again, year after year — imagine more things to try.


A. Leo Oppenheim. Letters from Mesopotamia: Official, Business, and Private Letters on Clay Tablets from Two Millennia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967, pp. 116 – 117.

Alythea McKinney is the director of Critical Explorers.

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