This posts builds on the last one: Mapping curriculum terrain: The beaten track and beyond, using geographical metaphors to consider curriculum design issues.
New York. A Case Study.
Let’s imagine, in the metaphor, that New York City represents an area of the curriculum. Our goal is for students to learn about New York and we need to design a curriculum that enables that to happen.
The practical question we need to answer is: where do we need to go to and learn about in New York in order to give a good representation of the city. Importantly, the answer depends on the reason for going there. So, first of all, we need to think about why we are going there.
It could be that New York represents cities in general. That would steer us in certain directions. New York has features in common with other cities – in the US and worldwide – so we’d look at typicality on our trip. It could be that New York itself is the specific destination. It represents a particular curriculum area that, whilst having things in common with others, has value in its own right. This would lead us to focus on the things that make it distinctive; to explore the New Yorkness of New York.
An important practical consideration is about how much time we’ve got to spend. If New York is competing for space amongst many other destinations, we need to have a feeling for the depth of study that we’re looking for in one visit or, perhaps, spread over time. It could be that multiple trips are needed and, knowing that, we plan accordingly: you can’t ‘do New York’ properly in a day but you can get a broad feel for some aspects of it.
When we know why we’re there, it’s time to think about the detail of where we’re going. What combination of destinations and experiences in New York City constitute a good basis for understanding the city. Every visitor has a unique set of interactions and itineraries and can all say they’ve been to New York, even if their sets barely overlap. But there is a difference between stumbling around New York taking in what you find and designing a set of experiences for people you are responsible for. Whilst all aspects of the city have some value, some are more important – more powerful – than others in giving visitors a full understanding of what makes the city the place that it is.
So, the task becomes one of making a selection of key destinations and experiences that might characterise the city in the deepest, richest way possible given time constraints. Some of these things – aspects of knowledge in our NYC curriculum – will be experiential. Going to a New York deli, riding on the subway, getting in a yellow taxi and chatting to the driver, looking up at skyscrapers, seeing the Walk/Don’t Walk signs, buying food from a street vendor, getting a sense of the geometric street/avenue grid – all kinds of things that give you a sense of the city without having to specify where they happen. New York can be experienced without knowing where you are; there is a sense in which the spirit of the city is the key learning outcome; the thing you value and remember the most. However, that’s too nebulous in many ways. You can’t get a feel for the city on that level without going to places; without being somewhere in it. So, even though the ‘spirit’ might be a valid goal, we have to plan the visit to actual destinations knowing that experiential memories will form on our travels. If we want a truly ‘powerful’ trip – one that will build wider knowledge and foster deeper interest and understanding – we can’t just wander about; we need a plan.
Let’s plan the trip. To begin with, it’s important to recognise that the city is comprised of many interconnected neighbourhoods and districts each of which has its own niche features. The Bronx or MidTown only have meaning as being part of New York if we know how they connect and what they represent relative to the whole. A new visitor needs some kind of big picture orientation. It’s great to get lost in the backstreets of Greenwich Village and Soho but they only have meaning if you know how they contrast to Fifth Avenue and the Wall Street area.
We might start with looking at the a set of destinations that allow us to see the city as a whole. A trip to the top of the ‘Top of the Rock’ in the Rockefeller Centre, a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge or a ride on the Staten Island Ferry – taking in the Statue of Liberty – allow us to see the city in wide-angle; we can pick out the landmarks and orientate ourselves. With our sense of purpose in mind, we could take a number of themed approaches: Shopping; Theatre; Museums, Art, Restaurants, Parks, Tall Buildings, Famous Movie Locations… Or we could sample some of each and hope to return later to visit more. Some places feel hackneyed – ‘touristy’ – because everyone seems to go there. But, really it’s only by knowing these places that we can then appreciate the deeper richness that comes from going off the beaten track. Famous places are famous for a reason – reasons we should know about.
It’s true to say that, in the case of New York, no one single place is absolutely essential to visit. Maybe Central Park. Maybe you need to see the Empire State Building at least from the outside. Maybe you need to see theatreland around 42nd street. Maybe, for any sense of a contemporary understanding you need to visit the World Trade Center memorial – ground zero.
Once we have made a selection of landmarks – orientating ourselves to the big picture of the city, we can dive in – to gain the experience and knowledge of a neighbourhood. I once spent a long time one summer working out of an office on East 20th Street. I loved knowing that area: the bagel store; the coffee shop; the little park nearby, the way to the subway.. feeling just a bit like a native New Yorker. A deep-dive in the curriculum map brings rewards of a different kind; a different type of knowledge.
Next Stop: Paris .. and then, the Sahara.