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Posted on Sep 1, 2008

Curriculum: Clammed Up or Uncovered?

by Joanne denBoer, SCSBC Director of Learning  ◊  

June 21st was the lowest tide of the year at Birch Bay, WA. It marked the occasion for a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored, family-oriented sand castle or sculpture contest, with a guaranteed prize. That clinched our decision to go to the beach on that overcast Saturday.

The curriculum was negotiated enthusiastically. A sand castle was too ordinary. A sand sculpture was too hard. “But not if you do just one sea animal,” said the youngest. It was agreed; they would make a sea turtle.

“It will be easier if you go in with a plan,” I suggested. Huddled around the kitchen table, four children sketched their turtle.

From the greenhouse they gathered flower pots for buckets, stapled plant tags together for spatulas and scoops, picked up two garden shovels, and loaded them in the car. As we lugged our tools down to the beach, we marveled at the ebb tide – it was lower than ever. The children jammed the shovels into the rippled sand. Next came the horrifying crunch! We shuddered.


“Oh, no!” they groaned.

The shock and dismay of inadvertently killing some of God’s creatures triggered a chat about ethics. They created a ‘hands only’ rule and resumed clamming, for where there’s one clam, there will be lots more! Scooping out clams by the hundreds, the children kept busy for a long time. The coveted prize was forgotten.

As I began to prepare the foundation for the turtle sculpture a few meters away, I reconsidered the process, somewhat mystified. First of all, what happened to our agreement? A sand sculpture would land a prize, not a flowerpot full of clams. The children’s unexpected discovery of burrowing clams shanghaied our ‘curriculum’.

Or did it? How does it happen that “…major biblical themes … such as stewardship, community, environment, worship, and the purpose of life” 1 find their way even at the beach on a Saturday morning? These themes “include ethical considerations wherever appropriate. In science, they ask questions about how human beings have used their scientific discoveries and whether those uses reflect God’s moral law.” 2 At a child’s level it may be as simple as how do you use a shovel wisely?

Secondly, this wasn’t school. This was the beach. But what did this diversion teach me about school? Can a classroom teacher, who tries to cover the curriculum, afford “detours” like this? Isn’t it true that some of the most interesting things are hidden from view or emerge spontaneously? Many times I have forgotten that published curriculum documents are guides only. They are to keep me on track as I plan to provide a balanced program. 3 Children agreeing to respect God’s creatures is the curriculum. Clamming, even if unplanned, could achieve the same outcomes as a text book.

And then came my surprise. Spying the approaching judges, all four children hurried over to assist me with the sand sculpture. Working quickly, they dumped many pots of sand onto the base. The mounds of sand added the needed texture. Done! We met our curricular goals. So I thought.

Dissatisfied with the plain result, the children quickly rinsed their hoarded clams and decorated the sculpture with them, around the edges and on top. The youngest placed hairy seaweed around each mound on the turtle’s shell. The final project exceeded our expectations. The judges, too, were impressed, even more so with the children’s plan to return the clams safely to the sea where they belong.

The sandy beach nudged a memory from a curriculum development course I took last summer. Then, as now, I recognize my pedagogy is prone to being supplanted by the required curriculum. And whose curriculum is it anyway? Thus when I asked, how does a teacher cover the curriculum, the instructor replied, “Easy.”

I was astounded.

In my rookie years of teaching I struggled to cover the curriculum. I was mindful of the PLOs and was always uncomfortable that I never, ever really did cover them all, though I intended to. Though experience and God’s grace gradually enabled me to switch my focus from curriculum to children, the tension between these two remained a pernicious challenge.

So how could it be easy?

“Like this.” The instructor tore off a flip chart paper and laid it over a large pile of books, binders, and papers that littered the table. “The question isn’t ‘How can I cover the curriculum?'” said the instructor. “Rather, it’s ‘What will I uncover?'” 4 In that moment it made so much sense to me. Why hadn’t this been a part of my mental model 5 before? Though my teaching practice was flexible, and though I embraced learning “detours” now and then, I still had pangs of guilt when I knew I didn’t cover the curriculum.

On that overcast Saturday we experienced the joy of taking care of God’s creation – a more enduring and endearing curriculum than the prescribed sand sculpture. Uncovering clams had a lasting impact. The decorative clams not only converged with the curriculum but surpassed curricular expectations.

What will you uncover?

Or better yet, what will you let your students uncover?


  1. Donovan, G. 2003. Teaching Redemptively: Bringing Grace and Truth Into Your Classroom. Purposeful Designs Publications. Colorado Springs, CO. (p.220)
  2. Ibid
  3. Van Brummelen, H. 1998. Walking With God in the Classroom. 2nd Edition. Alta Vista College Press. Seattle, WA. (p. 140)
  4. personal notes, EDUC 623, July 2007, TWU
  5. Senge, P.M. 1994. The Fifth Discipline. Bantam Doubleday Dell, New York

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