Designing High Quality Writing Curricula

I’ve spent much of this school year designing writing curricula with primary, elementary, and middle school teachers in different schools throughout western New York. Our process is iterative: We don’t design to deliver units to students. We are prototyping, piloting, and redesigning as we go, in response to what we learn from our clients: The young writers we serve.

There is much to be gained by rethinking our roles as curriculum designers and the way we craft a year, a unit, and a single single lesson plan. We’re learning how to lean in, listen, and let students lead their own learning in classroom. As I’ve led curriculum design initiatives in schools, I’m working hard to do the same with teachers, and all of us are working harder to access and honor student voice. They need to be collaborators in our curriculum design processes. Using an iterative process is key.

Colleagues have been asking what our process looks like, and my short response is that it’s constantly evolving. In essence, we begin by investigating our students’ needs, our own needs, and the needs of others in our system. We define our collective why, and we articulate measurable standards that align to it. This is critical work, and when we rush it or overlook it entirely, we disengage teachers and kids. We also fail to meet the unique needs of the system. Establishing local standards holds us accountable for pursuing our core values. We drop them into unit and lesson plans, and over time, we determine how we are going to measure them as well.

Of course, there is much planning around what writers will produce, when, or for which audiences. Authenticity has been a huge topic of conversation in my world this year. Teachers are eager to know how to help writers of all ages produce real work for audiences that appreciate it. This is another post for a different day, but I’ve learned a lot, and I know that the teachers I support are sensitive to this need and passionate about pursuing this ideal.

We center our writing units around meaningful catalysts, dilemmas, concepts, or (yes) even texts. We align them to other learning that students are doing, and we define the long term and supporting learning targets that we will help students meet. In addition to exploring authenticity, teachers are beginning to distinguish documentation and assessment from testing and evaluation. We’re defining what type of assessment should happen when and who the results should inform.

And when we’re done, we wonder how well these plans will serve our students. So we pilot our units, test our assessment practices, and gather feedback from colleagues and students. We use this to improve the quality of our work and develop far more precise tools for intervention.

This entire process positions us as learners and our students as our teachers. This has been incredibly rewarding work. I’ve been studying and refining this approach for the last five years. It’s evolved significantly in that short time. The chart below provides a snapshot of what this work looks like. If you’re passionate about design, curriculum, or the relationship between making and writing (including curriculum writing), I hope you’ll reach out to me here. You can find me on Twitter at @angelastockman as well, or in the WNY Young Writers’ Studio Facebook group.

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2 Comments

  1. As I’ve come to know you through our social media interactions, I’m pleased to find your use of iterative processes in the unit development – as expected!!!

    What I always find concerning, is the ongoing development of units, lesson plans, even curricula – fearful that too many educators / administrators, policy people, and yes politicians see as scripts to be followed in the classroom ‘as received’… I know this is not always the case of course but for me even one person thinking this way is one too many!!!

    The mere thought of student control, individual student needs, and individual student passion is inconsistent with scripts and ‘units’ for my thinking!

    And of course I’m curious about your work with teachers on topics such as grade / no grade and textbook / no textbook. I’m going to have to get your Hack Learning series book and see what I can learn there.

    To me, I’d like to see reading and writing both as part of other courses – any course I would suggest would work. But my choice would be to use the general education courses in K-12 even if not defined as such there.

    Random thoughts on a cloudy, misty, cool Saturday in Connecticut…

    • Angela says:

      Hi John–Good to “see” you here! I was out in my garden all day, and I just came in to see your thoughtful comment. I apologize for the delay 🙂 When you say you are concerned about curriculum guides becoming scripts, I find myself nodding a bit. Many of the local school districts that I work in adopted the New York State English Language Arts curriculum modules (designed by EL) and domains (designed by CKLA) when the Common Core came to town. I think it is so, so critical for people in my position to remain agnostic when it comes to programs. As an outsider, I feel that it is extraordinarily presumptuous for me to assume what a system needs. My job is to listen to the teachers and administrators in a school, to lead them through a quality review of varied options, and to make sure they are really well informed of what quality curricula are so they can compare the programs they choose to those criteria. I don’t think it’s my job to enlighten teachers. That has always felt a bit condescending to me. I’d rather help them uncover their own vision, investigate what great curricula look like, and seriously consider their needs and the needs of others in their systems. What serves one school well is an absolute disaster in another.

      All curricula require adaptation, regardless of whether we are designing or adopting.

      Several years into this work, many of the groups I support are adapting the curriculum they piloted to create richer and far more authentic writing experiences for kids. I will say this too (and you may disagree with me loudly here, as many do): When schools choose to adopt a program rather than design, I ask that they teach it with fidelity for a year. Not crack-a-whip and shame people for deviating fidelity…that’s about distrusting teachers and lacking confidence in their abilities to do great things. No, I’m talking about the need to teach a program with fidelity in order to have informed conversations about where and how adaptation could take place. We practice a whole ton of confirmation bias in this field. It’s my biggest pet peeve–those who think they *know* better. It is far healthier to help people figure out what they know rather than imposing our brilliance or passion on them, in my opinion. This way, they may their own choices. If they choose to adopt a curriculum, they need to teach it. Well. This way, they can truly speak to what must be changed. And I refuse to work in situations where the need for adaptation isn’t recognized and supported. We aren’t automatons, and the curriculum we teach isn’t a silver bullet. We’re learners and diagnosticians. We need to respond to what we learn about our students.

      This year, our schools endured one of the worst substitute teacher crises in my known history. Few have time to design curriculum from the ground up. Sad, but true. Of course, I champion those who have the time, talent, and resources to design their own curriculum. I do this work too–and the tools I share support it. You are echoing a concern specific to programs that I hear often, I thought I’d speak specifically to that.

      Nearly all of the school districts I work in are going gradeless at the K-5 level. That said, most are just beginning to recognize the importance of shifting the system before changing the report card. Practices are slowly changing at that level. It’s much slower at the secondary level. Many who are interested in going gradeless are doing it inside of traditional systems. I honestly think the CC would have been better received if we would have transformed our grading and reporting practices first. These are rigorous standards. No one is mastering them in the first quarter of a school year. So, this leaves teachers to either fail students or inflate grades. It’s all meaningless at best and pretty damaging, in general.

      Thanks for stopping by, John! Hope to hear from you again soon….

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