Connect the dots between larger goals and the specific needs of your students.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
As an instructional coach and elementary specialist for CPET, much of my work with elementary schools has involved helping teachers unpack and make sense of the chosen, school-wide pre-packaged curricula they’re asked to work with — a curricula that is designed by professionals to meet grade level and subject requirements, and includes most, if not all of the materials needed to teach. I often facilitate workshops and professional development sessions, introduce teachers to the curricula and its components, as well as engage in classroom visits and critical reflection conversations with individual teachers to support the implementation of the curricula.
While the curricula is packaged, there’s often a surprising amount of tweaking and adapting involved to make sure the curricula fits the school calendar, the style of the teacher, and most importantly, that it meets the needs and interests of all students. This can be a daunting and challenging task for educators.
How can you make sense of and revise curricula to meet the needs, goals, and interests of your students?
Identifying your goals
One of the biggest challenges I see when it comes to the adoption and adaptation of packaged curricula is just the magnitude and density of it all. There are often many components, books, inserts, handouts, and templates, and this can make it difficult for teachers to even know where to begin. They often express feelings of overwhelm or lack of time or opportunity to make sense of and collaboratively plan with the curricula.
Because packaged curricula often includes all of the individual lessons, with varying levels of detail and information, teachers often fall into the trap of teaching lesson to lesson and relying on the teacher manuals to drive their day-to-day instruction. But this can result in losing sight of the larger goals and what these lessons are in service of. Essentially, teachers can start to become the mouthpiece of a script.
I recently began to work with a school that had just adopted a new curricula for reading. After using a program for a number of years, many teachers were unsure and rather uneasy about this transition. After meeting with leadership and discussing their needs, my goals as the instructional coach were to:
In support of these goals, it was my intention to facilitate a number of workshops with the teachers to first and foremost ease their anxieties, answer questions, and cater to their varying levels of familiarity and comfort with the curricula. From there, we worked together to unpack the curricula in a meaningful and productive way, the specifics of which I will share with you, as I believe they can be helpful when it comes to adopting and adapting any new curricula.
Starting with the end in mind
In order to know where you’re going and how you are going to get there, you need to understand the larger goals and objectives of a curriculum, the driving questions, and the final tasks or assessments. To do this, I would suggest starting with the end in mind. Most curricula I’ve seen offer a unit overview or summaries that are often found at the front. Taking the time to read or skim these overviews can be a helpful starting place. With the teachers I worked with, each grade level engaged in jigsaw readings, where one teacher took on a portion of text from the overviews and underlined and annotated, made comments in the margins, and then shared their thinking, questions and interpretations.
From there, we examined the culminating assessment, asking questions such as:
This exercise was intended to not only understand the assessment as it’s suggested, but more importantly, to provide a lens through which to recognize opportunities for revision, including scaffolding or extending the task, and then consider the implications for instruction. No curricula can take into account the needs and interests of all students, so it is up to teachers to revise and adapt the curricula with their students in mind.
Lastly, we considered the necessary materials, resources, rituals, and routines that would be needed in order to implement the units successfully:
With this larger, more robust understanding of the curricula, teachers can more effectively navigate their curricula and instruction and move away from feeling bound to a script.
Pushing into the pacing calendar
Most often, pre-packaged curriculum includes a pacing calendar, sometimes called a scope and sequence. This calendar offers a snapshot for instruction, including when particular units, (also known as modules or bends) should be implemented, and for how long. These calendars can be helpful when thinking about a school year at large — where you’re going, and how long it’s going to take you to get there. In my experience, the suggested pacing calendars often need to be changed or revised to take into account breaks, testing, and school events. Perhaps more importantly, the pacing calendars need to be adjusted based on teachers’ understanding of the larger goals, objectives, and assessments.
With my teachers, we compared the suggested pacing calendar to their school calendar and grade-specific calendars, asking questions such as:
Asking these questions supported teachers in taking action to make adjustments. Having a larger calendar for instruction can make things feel more manageable.
Identifying the structure of instruction
In my experience, most packaged curricula have a consistent structure and organization, and even specific rituals and routines that define the units and individual lessons. Looking across the lessons and identifying these structures can be very helpful for teachers. Examples include rituals and routines like turn and talks, reflective writing, stop and jots, or structures such as progressive scaffolding. The adopted curricula of this particular school was organized around the workshop model, starting with a connection which led to a mini-lesson, an opportunity for student practice, and then culminated with a share out and reflection of the learning.
I supported teachers in understanding and unpacking these various components and their purpose and then modeled a few of the lessons for them. To facilitate this, we used a template to plan one or two of the lessons, adopting what we liked, and taking out what we felt wasn’t necessary. We revised anything necessary, based on our larger understanding of the goals of the lesson and what teachers thought would be most relevant and important to students. Lastly, we worked to revise the lesson to ensure it reflected their voice and their style, fostering a sense of authenticity and ingenuity that supports relationship-building with students.
By identifying and understanding the key structures, rituals, and routines of a curriculum, teachers can move through the lessons with more clarity and confidence.
Implementing packaged curricula takes a great deal of patience, persistence, and flexibility. We know that no curriculum can be implemented as it’s written if it is going to meet the needs and goals of a particular school community. We have to work strategically, creatively, and collaboratively with our peers to examine the curricula, consider aspects we can and should implement, and what needs to be revised, replaced, or even eliminated.
Are you adapting curricula in your classroom or community? Get in touch with me to receive support throughout the daunting — but doable! — process.
In this episode
In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, educators and schools across the nation are navigating anti-racist, anti-bias (ABAR) work. Often used in concert and sometimes interchangeably, by definition, these terms represent an activist approach to educational curricula that attempts to challenge prejudices, including racism, sexism, ableism, and ageism.
We're joined by Columbia University graduate students for a discussion on cultivating an anti-bias, anti-racist pedagogy, the process of developing an ABAR framework, and the lessons they are learning along the way.
What is a goal or vision for how teachers can use this ABAR framework? What would you like to see?
Using Invitations to Create
Engaging students in the reading of classic texts can be difficult, particularly when teaching and learning is happening remotely. Invitations to Create reinvigorate students — and teachers! — through project-based, collaborative curricula developed around challenging texts, ultimately increasing student engagement and building classroom community in the process.
WHAT'S IN AN INVITATION?
If a prompt is like a camera lens, pulling your task into focus, an invitation is like a colorful string you can’t resist pulling to see what happens next. Writing an invitation for the reader to connect with a text offers them an opportunity to reflect, analyze, and synthesize the text at hand.
By DR. ROBERTA LENGER KANG
A well-developed and effective curriculum is the cornerstone of an excellent education. Many schools go to great lengths to ensure that they can identify a highly-rated curriculum on behalf of their students. This often means spending a great deal of money to purchase a complete, professionally-designed curriculum which may include textbooks, web-based resources, unit plans, scripted lesson plans, and student-facing resources.
But there’s a big difference between having the curriculum and teaching the curriculum. It isn’t as simple as reading aloud from the Teacher’s Guide. Unpacking a pre-packaged curriculum takes focused and continuous effort on the part of teachers and their whole school community. When we work with schools who are implementing a new curriculum, we advise using a three-step process: adopt, adapt, apply.
The curriculum is the driving force behind the teaching and learning within a course. Whether a school is moving from one curriculum to another, or moving from teacher-designed to a pre-packaged curriculum, there’s a lot of work that goes into adopting something new. We encourage school leaders and teachers to unpack the curriculum materials by focusing on three main pieces — structure, key components, and tensions — and making connections to current instructional practices, student culture, and school climate.
Even the very, very best curriculum cannot be used straight out of the box. For a curriculum to be highly effective, it must be adapted to meet the needs of students, the style and personality of the teacher, and the mission and vision of the school community. After taking time to understand the curriculum’s structure, key components, and tensions, we’re ready to begin making adaptations.
After adopting the curriculum by unpacking its components, and adapting the curriculum to meet the needs of the community, educators will feel more confident to begin implementing the curriculum.
Curriculum design is an intensive and demanding process. Schools and districts can save teachers time by investing in high-quality curricula that allows teachers to focus on implementing instruction rather than on curriculum design. But in the process, we must remember that it isn’t as simple as pulling it out of the box and reading aloud from the book on the day of the lesson. School leaders will want to create space and time for teachers to analyze the adopted curriculum, make adaptations necessary to meet students’ needs, and apply it in their classes after critical reflection and opportunities for revision. Following through with these practices will ensure that the curriculum is being implemented with fidelity, integrity, and authenticity.
By G. FAITH LITTLE
By the time you’ve cultivated a course curriculum, it’s easy to run out of steam as you move into building a unit plan, the detailed guide that will support your lesson planning. One way to make the most of your time and energy is to plan using a batching strategy. We can think of this like grocery shopping for the week.
If I walk down the aisles (online or in real life), filling my basket with ingredients for Monday (breakfast, lunch, dinner) then Tuesday (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and so on, the trip will take a while. If I shop by meal type, like breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, I cut down on the time and effort I spend. Of course, it’s even faster when I identify ingredients that can be used for more than one meal type. I pick up eggs to scramble for my breakfast sandwich and hard boil for my evening salads. I grab apples to go in my lunch box and morning smoothie.
Like grocery shopping, when we identify areas in our unit plan that we can create or gather in batches, we cut down on the time we need to design that part of our plan. For instance, if we want to include transition tools for teachers to use in their lesson planning, we could develop our list in a batch starting with our own ideas and incorporating others:
Batch your transitions depending on what you and your students need in the classroom — is it about needing time? Do you want students to read, write, or talk to one another, or should they quietly move from one activity to the next? Do your transitions depend on whether students are individually working or in groups? Batch them in a way that works best for you, and drop the transitions you’ve collected into the batch that makes most sense:
One you have your lists together, it’s simple to drop transition tools, one at a time, into logical places in each unit plan. Even quicker, and possibly more empowering for other teachers, is to turn the list into a menu of options teachers can use to find what works best for their teaching style, content area, and students.
Here’s a menu we developed for educators at Jewish Home Lifecare who were teaching students how to provide services that support health, individuality, and dignity to elders. This menu allowed novice teachers to review a number of options and find transitions that were a match for their teaching style and their students for that session. Even the simplest of menus can be a good jumping off point for generating new ideas!
Writing out a simple agenda is helpful for easing transitions — it makes it clear where we are and what's to come. Write agenda on the whiteboard (sample below):
Check items off the list as you complete each activity/task so students know where they are in the plan for the day. Invite a student to read off what’s next as you go through the day and/or to reiterate what they’ve already accomplished.
Bonus tip: Have a very chatty/active student? Make them Agenda Leader for the day. They should help you stay on schedule by recounting what has been done and reading what should happen next.
Time to learn!
Play this as a little game that will result in a call & response. The more you practice this, the more the students will come to experience it as a cue to look up and engage. It takes a bit of time, so be bold and power through until this becomes a ritual.
This also works to get them back on their current task if they get distracted. Play around with ways to use this method, modifying it to fit what works for you and your students.
Organizing student groups
One of the hardest transitions to make is moving from individual work to group work. An effective way to guide grouping is to use post-it notes with a number or a letter, colored paper, or even playing cards. Using one of these items helps students organize themselves in their groups all at once, rather than calling out every student's name individually or having students wander around the room "looking" for a group.
Two minutes before one activity ends and another begins, make announcements about how much time is left and what students will be doing next (including what they need to have to move forward).
You're ready to move on to the next instruction!