Transforming Curricula and Schools: An Interview with Julie Meltzer

Transforming Curricula and Schools: An Interview with Julie Meltzer

Julie Meltzer has served in a wide variety of roles in education in several states over the past 30 years. Her work has always been within the context of equity and capacity building. She is a systems thinker who collaborates with others to improve education at the local, state, and national levels. Julie is a published author, a sought-after presenter, and a leadership coach and enjoys being a thought partner with others who are passionate about educating the next generation. She has a particular interest in increasing access and opportunity in the arts, STEM, and quality educational experiences at all levels. Julie holds a bachelor’s degree from Colorado College, a master’s degree from Lesley University, and a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. We are honored that she also serves as a member of our Board of Directors.

IHE: As someone who’s been in many educational roles – teacher, professor, consultant, and, most recently, Curriculum Leader in Maine for eight years – what do you think needs to change in schools and curricula, and what do you think are the best strategies to create such changes?

Julie: I think we have to agree on why we are educating students. I believe that public schools have an obligation to educate students to successfully meet their futures. In order to do that we need to develop critical and creative thinking, problem solving, and a variety of essential literacies in all of our students. This includes, of course, the ability to read, write, speak, listen, and think but goes beyond that to include health literacy, science literacy, technology literacy, equity literacy, numeracy literacy, and civic literacy so that students understand how to use these to support their own well-being and to contribute to the world. 

We also need to thoroughly integrate and constantly coach kindness, respect, responsibility, and perseverance. Since students come from so many different backgrounds, we have to facilitate a wide variety of experiences to engender wonder, agency, collaboration, and inspiration. This is a capacity-building instead of a deficit model – building on student strengths instead of assuming they are deficient and must do “skill and drill” to be “fixed.” However, this is not the type of preparation that most teachers currently have, so it is very hard to scale this to a whole school or district and to get beyond the work of individual teachers. That means that some students benefit and some do not, depending on teacher strength and preference and the district mandates that are in place. 

So one strategy is to gain consensus at the local and state levels about what we are trying to do. A second is to revamp both teacher preparation and administrative training. And a third is to set up key aspects of education in the U.S. to be systemic and sustainable, which will involve setting a clear vision and expectations and also providing and supporting teachers with more time and resources and quality professional learning opportunities.

I think that we still have remnants of the “factory model” in our schools, and that there is a lack of imagination in teacher education. Both of these hold us back. We have to make schedules and requirements and use of space in schools serve our goals, instead of the other way around. We have to stop age segregating and allow more student voice and choice. If schools were designed to do the things I describe, public schools would look, sound, and function quite differently than most do now.

I also think we need less of a barrier between “school” and “life.” We need to ensure that learners get opportunities to do apprenticeships and internships in the real world; to try out lots of different things to find their passion; and to develop the skills and confidence to tackle issues they believe need to be addressed. I am a big believer in pedagogies like the “genius hour” and project-based, place-based learning.

I feel strongly that the funding formula for schools needs to change as well. We need to invest in education in specific ways – including in teacher preparation –  that will level the playing field across rural, urban, and suburban schools. It would also be productive to organize schools into nodal networks that could work on solving and addressing some of the current barriers to being innovative. Administrators could be trained to build capacity instead of monitor and manage. I think if we could implement all of these strategies synergistically, we would come much closer to our goal of ensuring that all students have access to quality teaching and learning that affirms who they are and prepares them to be productive and literate global citizens.

IHE: Almost half the states in the U.S. have already passed or have introduced legislation to ban or curtail education about racial injustices, and “Critical Race Theory” has become a polarizing term that’s keeping important topics from being discussed in school at all. Avoiding controversy in the classroom is not new, despite the fact that schools are among the best places to explore complex and controversial topics. How might educational leaders combat what education reformer John Taylor Gatto referred to as the dumbing down of curricula so that the critical issues of our time can be addressed and discussed in classrooms?

Julie: Public schools are some of the last public spaces in the U.S. where everyone, regardless of political party, worldview, prior experiences, and socio-economic background, can come together and learn how to talk about difficult topics; how to listen to one another even if there is disagreement; and how to learn about different perspectives than one’s own. All students should read and consider multiple perspectives when studying any period in history. If school does not serve as a place where this happens, we could be in danger of losing our democracy, because future generations will not know how to speak with one another across divides to find solutions that support our country to live up to its goals and stated values. The ability to have people engage in vibrant respective dialogue is key.

We also need to teach teachers how to facilitate challenging conversations. Schools should not be places of indoctrination of any kind. Education should equip students with the ability to read, question, analyze, and discuss. Assuming this is what is happening – as opposed to the brainwashing teachers are being accused of – school board members, Commissioners of Education, and deans and professors in colleges of education need to speak out, stand up, educate parents and communities, and challenge the rhetoric of misguided politicians fighting to limit what is able to be talked about. We need public affirmation that teachers will be supported when they facilitate discussion. We need a public service campaign to help set it all straight. Meanwhile, we need to educate students – that is our job. And teachers need to know that we have their back. This is going to go to court in multiple states. We have to reclaim our mission, or American educators may as well quit and go home.

IHE: We know you’re a big fan of IHE’s solutionary approach to learning. What about the solutionary process do you find particularly valuable for schools and students?

Julie: The Solutionary framework goes further than most problem-based learning approaches in two ways: First, it encompasses systems thinking and stresses the importance of analyzing any issue using a systems lens. That is critical because looking at issues in isolation is not adequate to come up with real solutions, as opposed to “bandaids.” Second, the Solutionary framework includes a moral imperative – to do the most good and least harm to people, animals, and the planet. I also think that the Solutionary process is clearer than many similar approaches, and that the Solutionary Guidebook for teachers and How to Be a Solutionary guidebook for students provide step-by-step guidance for teachers and for solutionaries-in-training. Use of the Solutionary framework supports robust research, inquiry, agency, creative and critical thinking, and communication. The Solutionary process engenders teaching and learning that matters and that truly prepares students to successfully meet their futures. By practicing the process with different issues, students get progressively better at being solutionaries as well as more confident that they can contribute to positive outcomes to the challenges they will inevitably face during their lifetimes. This is something that can be done at a scale that will ready an entire generation to become solutionaries – a most worthy educational outcome!

IHE: You received the curriculum leader of the year award in the state of Maine, which is quite an honor. What about your work do you think came to the attention of the state? 

Julie: My colleagues told me that they consider me to be a thought leader and a team player. They watched me dig in with educators across the state as well as in my own district to figure out solutions for how to implement state mandates in ways that were good for students. I gave time to support new curriculum leaders and facilitated workshops, shared work we were doing in our district, and shared resources. I also spoke up at the local and state level, addressing things I felt strongly about. People seemed to think I played a constructive role. I was very honored to be recognized with the award.