Writing curriculum for 4-H: A national challenge

Dr. Wendy V. Hamilton 4-H Youth Development Specialist 
New Mexico State University

Over the past few years 4-H has been moving more and more toward encouraging motivated groups to write curriculum for nationwide appeal. The evolution has been a longtime in coming. in the seventies we saw counties printing curriculum on colored paper with duplicating machines. In the eighties, states brought together curriculum committees to discuss project needs. In the nineties, state Extension administrators activated resource reallocation efforts and the evolution of regionally and nationally designed curriculum began. This evolution from county based to nationally developed curriculum is happening for- a number of reasons, most significantly driven by cost and quality concerns. Other reasons include the new simplicity of pulling together like-minds through technology, the continued declining number of extension subject matter specialists at any given institution and the realization that if one state has a project need, chances are twenty-five other states also do. 

A national 4-H jury process is beginning it’s fourth year. The 4-H Juried Curriculum process involves evaluation projects against fourteen criteria. These measures can also be used as guides for adding and deleting curriculum. At the federal level, 4-H program leaders and others have spent an amazing number of weeks, months and years developing and implementing action steps to compile a pool of curriculum 4-H can be proud of. 

The 4-H Cooperative Curriculum System (4-H CCS) has also evolved into a curriculum production business. Beginning its third series of curriculum development grants, 4-H CCS is actively recruiting agents and specialists to write 4-H curriculum after assessing states’ needs. 4-H CCS oversees and, to a degree, financially supports, the development of certain curricula, working in cooperation with the 4-H Juried Curriculum people. 

Having just completed a three year term as a national 4-H curriculum juror and a two year term as co-director of a 4-H curriculum development project, I now have a broad appreciation for national 4-H curriculum needs and the degree of commitment curriculum development takes. My intent for writing this article is to provide some insights into the curriculum development process which can benefit others considering involvement in the same task. The following is a set of suggestions for anyone thinking about writing 4-H curriculum for national distribution: 

Gather up your background tools. Take the initial time to read through some of the excellent resources we have available that have been developed as a consequence of 4-H curriculum writing in the past. Pieces I used included Curriculum Development for Issues Programming: A National Handbook for Extension Youth Development Professionals; Writing for 4-H, and Developing Youth Curriculum Using the Targeting Life Skills Model. My experience points to a need to get up to speed on the experiential learning process, understand the objectives for writing 4-H curriculum and not only know who your audience is but acquaint yourself with how to present age appropriate interactive learning on the printed page, video or computer screen. 

Plan to delegate, postpone and/or eliminate about 50% of your other assignments. Writing national 4-H curriculum is a large and serious commitment to timeliness, professional writing and attention to detail. The process uses a lot of internal and external resources. Staying on top of all your responsibilities becomes difficult when you are writing or directing a project on top of your normal tasks. 

Keep your team In close proximity. This goes against the grain of what the 4-H CCS is recommending. A lot of time and money is wasted if there is a facade of team members scattered throughout the U.S. Multi-state teams have to wait for calls to be returned, critical information to be sent, or planning meetings to be scheduled around travel plans. The lack of face to face designing and planning hinders project creativity and impedes progress. 

Select the very best specialized people you can find to be on your team. Think carefully about what each curriculum development task will require. Write out job descriptions and then find the best person to fulfill those tasks. Highly skilled and talented individuals working together will not only speed up project development, it will add a richer creative element to the entire project. 

As a project director, cater to your team members. Keep your team excited and provide them with incentives to keep them going. Seeing a curriculum develop from start to finish is a very grueling, yet rewarding process. (However, the rewards may not often be felt until the entire curriculum is printed and distributed.) 

Concern for diversity should be a curriculum underpinning. Writing an inclusionary curriculum should be top priority if 4-H is to reach the goal of meeting at least some of the needs of today’s youth. There are many good resources to guide you. Try the Anti-Bias Curriculum Tools for empowering Young Children. Some of the main themes to use in writing curriculum include: -Write with a mind set that everyone has a culture; -Do not generalize cultural practices within cultural groups; When referring to a family, emphasize that a behavior is particular to them. (eg. “This is what the family does.”; -Do not emphasize historic cultural traditions at the expense of contemporary life; -Do not use just one source of literature when relating to a culture; -Avoid “holiday tourism” that stereotypes events as representative of an entire group of people; – Avoid the editorial “we”. 

Working on a shoe string is bad for your health. Carefully examine the amount of in-kind contributions your budget/faculty can afford to contribute to the project. The grant funding you receive will probably only cover a portion of the cost of development. Be prepared to look for additional funding or plan to make a substantial inkind contribution. Having to cut corners is frustrating. 

Pilot test, pilot test, pilot test. And be sure to pilot test across the country, too. The pilot process is one of the most valuable parts of project development. Schedule plenty of time for it. Give your pilot testers a flexible period of time to tryout pieces. Without unbiased feedback, curriculum will NOT satisfy long term usage. 

Have a time line and stick to it. Do everything you can to stick with it. Burn out is a big problem with large, long term projects. A major reason for keeping to a timeline is that the longer the project lasts, more difficult it may be to keep team members motivated and excited. And be weary, project tasks will probably take twice as long as you think. 

Throw a party and enjoy your accomplishments. At the conclusion of the curriculum development process, with completed products in hand, take time to celebrate. Bibliography: Derman-Sparks, Louise and the A.B.C. Task Force. (1989). Anti-Bias Curriculum Tools for Empowering Young Children. National Association for the Education of Young Children: Washington DC. Hendricks, Patricia A., (1996, July). Developing Youth Curriculum Using the Targeting Life Skills Model. Iowa State University Cooperative Extension Service, Ames, Iowa. Kurth, J., Davis, M., Smith, A., Cirincione-Coles, K., Westwood, G., & Zurcher, T. (1992). Curriculum Development for Issues Programming: A National Handbook for Extension Youth Development Professionals. Extension Service, United States Department of Agriculture. Southern Region 4-H Literature Educational Materials Committee. (year unknown). Writing for 4-H. Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service.