Curriculum Design: Here’s What. So What? Now What?

2006.

I think this was the first time that I found myself facilitating a curriculum mapping initiative. Even then, it was all about culture ahead of curriculum. I was fortunate to have mentors who helped me seek representation from those who would be most effected by the work, ahead of doing it. They helped me establish better feedback loops. They challenged me to think hard about how I would sustain our learning and our work.

In short: It was never about making the mapping more important than the learning, community, or culture we were trying to create.

And here’s what happened.

Good things, for the most part.

For instance, teachers began collaborating about what they were teaching and how and why far more often, because we made room for this. Many expressed increased confidence in the quality of their curriculum as we began aligning it, too. Performance improved, and in this instance, dramatically (although establishing causality is an impossible dream, typically).

At the time, our work was worth the investment, even though some teachers remained skeptical about the initiative as a whole, others disliked conducting a granular analysis of what they were teaching, and some struggled to reach consensus or more often, compromise with colleagues on their own or other teams. It was never easy work, but I’m confident that it was necessary and worthwhile.

These were my experiences from school to school, year to year, for quite some time.

I’ve led this work in dozens of places within and beyond New York State at this point in my career, standing on the shoulders of the giants who inspired me, and doing my best to honor their thinking and work. This mattered much to me then, and it still does, even as my own experiences have grown and informed me. Best practices matter. Our shared history matters in this field as well.

We shouldn’t go messing with what works. I appreciate this, and it’s served me well–in ways that I didn’t even anticipate.

For instance, in places where mapping took root and began to blossom, the arrival of the Common Core didn’t create much chaos. In these places, it seemed that a certain capacity for mapping and alignment was built, and this perspective sustained them even as they entered an entirely new world. This felt like an accomplishment.

Things were different then, in a number of important ways. For instance, in those early years, I worked with each grade level team for nearly ten full days in order to fully articulate and then achieve grade level and vertical alignment. People weren’t as tech comfy then as they are now either, and kids didn’t have as much access and opportunity as they do today to consume and create new forms for far more meaningful purposes.

If I’m being honest, a whole bunch of other unexpected things happened too, including a few things that were far less than ideal. I learned much, as we all do, from these experiences. This is how I relayed the best of that learning to the teachers that I began supporting with curriculum design earlier this year:

So what? Well, as it turns out, this is the most important thing that I’ve learned over the years: 

No matter how well I honored best practices, and no matter how hard we worked inside of any system to create and sustain a culture for curriculum mapping and improvement, everyone–including me–still struggled with the unintended consequences of pursuing alignment without tipping toward what some refer to as hyper-alignment.

Teachers are creative, passionate people…..until they aren’t. And when that happens, it compromises everyone’s enthusiasm and energy for learning. It also brings innovative problem solving to a halt.

This is one of the unintended consequences of alignment work.

Hyper-alignment also compromises morale, inspiring some teachers to leave the field entirely, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t think we can’t afford to lose more teachers right about now. Anyone trying to secure substitute teachers lately? Or permanent ones? I see you, and I feel your pain.

When I first began facilitating mapping initiatives, we spoke openly about the need to create equitable learning opportunities for kids. It wasn’t fair for one set of students to consume a contemporary, multicultural curriculum while others were exclusively reading the works of dead white guys. It wasn’t fair that some were writing prolifically and across forms while others were never asked to produce any writing at all.

I also appreciated the analogy of the empty chair in every session. I remembered how it represented our students. I knew their voices mattered just as much as alignment did. We never did a good enough job of accessing or leveraging them in service to our work, and we still aren’t, if I’m being honest. I’m getting better at this, though. I know others are, too.

Equity, student voice, and choice matter, but there’s something else on my mind lately, and it might make some of you uncomfortable: As much as quality curriculum creates equity for kids, I know that I need to lead this work in ways that creates equity for teachers, too.

I need to do my part to make curriculum design and all of my work with teachers rich and rewarding for them. This may be a service profession, and I agree that teachers are responsible for serving kids well, but the system is responsible for serving teachers, too. And I’m a part of that.

We’re humans who are hard-wired for self-actualization. When our vocation undermines our endeavors to achieve it, we suffer. Mightily. Don’t get me wrong: My work isn’t about making things easy or enabling lousy practice. I’ve learned that it has to leave everyone feeling better for the experience, though. It has to help teachers achieve their own vision and leverage their own strengths and talents even as it prepares them to support their students better. When I don’t remember this, I run the risk of damaging people and the places they come from. What’s likely is that those very nice people will be compliant in our meetings and then go rogue the moment they return to their classrooms.

This realization shifted the way that I approach curriculum work. I’m less about mapping, even though I work everyone toward the production of useful, aligned frameworks. I’m more about assessing needs and interests, practicing empathy, and helping people truly create a curriculum that achieves a far greater vision. I take more of a design thinking approach now. 

That’s why I describe what I do as curriculum design. It’s still about the what–not the how–but the process is very different now.

Rather than bringing wildly different teachers together to achieve alignment by asking people to make big sacrifices in order to meet mandates or compromise in ways that strip them of their passions for this work, I bring wildly different teachers together to celebrate and embrace their diversity. We speak openly about it and articulate it well. We own who we are–myself included. And then, we uncover the alignment that exists between us, and we work from there. We align to the standards. We define critical learning targets and create must-do lessons. We determine which resources we might all agree to use, because they are just that fabulous.

And we leave plenty of room in these grade level blueprints for teachers and kids alike to rough-in the details and even change them from year to year without taking down the entire curriculum or the alignment we’ve worked so hard to achieve.

These were important lessons, but my learning didn’t stop there.

These ten discoveries have meant everything to me:

  1. Empathy isn’t just a feeling–it’s a practice that helps us create a powerful vision for our curriculum and our work. I need to practice it with administrators and teachers, and teachers need to practice it with students, in order to create one that is truly shared, though. These are the approaches that I value most. I’m learning how to ask better questions at certain times and how to use the answers I receive to shape the work. Teachers are learning how to be in better dialogue with their students too. We’re all learning how to use what we learn from kids to design better learning experiences for them.
  2. Accountability matters. Once we’ve established a clear vision, we set quarterly goals and outcomes that inspire us to monitor and deepen the alignment between our work and our vision. Otherwise, we worry that this vision might become a pretty bit of print that no one really pays much attention to. I’ve created a vision for my own work as the facilitator of this work and aligned my own quarterly goals and outcomes to them as well.
  3. Theories of change enable us to define the change that we seek, anticipate needs, plan well, communicate our plans to all stakeholders, and assess progress. They also help us pivot when we need to. If you are interested in learning more about how to create a theory of change, take a peek here.
  4. Feedback loops, when crafted with careful intention, inform those plans and our practice over time as well. I’ve established feedback loops between myself and the mentors who support me in my work. We’ve created loops between administrators, between teachers, and between teachers and administrators. We’ve also established loops between myself and administrators and between myself and teachers, too. Part of my vision includes building capacity for teachers to design their own curriculum over time, so that teachers might truly sustain this design work over time, even when standards, staff, or administration changes. I’m using tools like these to assess this growing capacity and change my work in response. 
  5. When our vision is clear, the way we center our units becomes far more meaningful and intentional. What are organizing centers? My friends at Learner Centered Initiatives explain here. 
  6. When we MAKE curriculum, using loose parts like those pictured below, teachers consistently tell me that they are better able to envision and plan their years, their units, and eventually, their lessons. The photos below offer a sort of aerial view of single units and all of their integrated parts. One chart captures the shared vision, unifying concept, organizing center, essential question, final authentic assessment, texts and other resources consumed, low-risk writing/formative assessments, and initial standards alignment. We unwrap standards to identify learning targets and shape teaching points from there. Designing this way invites divergent thinking, experimentation, debate, and play. We tinker with each component, using scrap of paper, index cards, or sticky notes to consider different ideas, translations on themes, resources, and tasks. This pushes us to consider complexity and variety as well as the intended and unintended consequences of the experiences and resources that we offer readers and writers… when…and why. I’ve learned much about coaching content knowledge and attending to text complexity from Stephanie McConachie and Anthony Petrosky. 
  7. Metaphors build and deepen meaning. We design curriculum using common architectures. Each teacher creates a blueprint. I provide a shared standards-based framework. Want copies of these tools? Sign up. I’ll send them to you. We get clear about our load-bearing walls. These are what we commit to protecting–together. Individual teachers and kids can rough-in the details, in alignment with their interests and needs. The frame is designed to bend and not break in the wind. It’s agile. Responsive. We draft. Seek feedback. Reach agreements. Revise. It’s messy. It also allows us to get to know one another and appreciate our differences before we seek the common threads that connect us. How is this accomplished? I typically invite individuals, partners, or small teams to create their own architectures beside one another. We begin with a shared framework, and they rough in the details. They consider our common vision, organizing center, shared concepts, and big ideas. Then, they articulate wildly different ideas, interpretations, approaches, and resources. I encourage everyone to go big here. The more ideas, the better. This helps us FIND alignment rather than imposing it on one another, as I mentioned above. We put our charts next to one another and search for what we have in common. This helps us reach consensus relative to tasks, learning experiences, and resources. These become our must-dos. The rest is what we may do. It often looks a bit like this:
  8. Positioning myself as a servant rather than an expert is honest, respectful, and humbling. Leaning in, listening hard, and using my expertise in service to others’ interests and needs helps me establish and sustain momentum. I’m not there to teach teachers. I’m not there to make decisions for them or lead them, either. I’m there to serve them. I facilitate learning…design thinking…problem solving.
  9. Evidence matters. Best practices matter. Evidence matters. Engaging in our own action research matters. Our opinions, biases, and excuses? Not so much. As much as I embrace quiet leadership, I know that I’m not hired to be a cheerleader who passively tolerates poor decision making. I’m hired to elevate thinking, change practice, and help people produce high quality work. I have to be brave enough to start hard conversations, but respectful enough to do so in a way that never shames anyone or allows others to do the same. The fact is that we are all afraid of something, unwilling to let go of something, misinformed, clouded, or delighted by our own unique experiences. Myself included. I’ve learned that when I’m having curriculum conversations in any setting, centering evidence instead of people is important. Sharing solutions and engaging teams in problem solving builds energy and renews hope. Bemoaning bad practice and getting personal only shames people. Protocols like these prevent this from happening.
  10. Plans are prototypes and our students are our clients. We test our units, seek feedback from our students, and iterate to improve them, with intention.

Now What?

I guess that’s what matters most, now that I think about it: my intentions and how they’re guiding my practice.

I intend to help teachers collaboratively design high quality curriculum in dialogue with their students. I intend to do this in ways that improve practices while leveraging the unique perspectives, talents, interests, and passions of everyone in the room. I intend to use tools and approaches that make the work as rewarding as it is necessary and as enjoyable as it is challenging, too.

What about you?

How have you grown into and as a result of your work with curriculum design?

What are you willing to share?

If you follow the links I’ve embedded in this post, you’ll find some of my favorite resources and tools. I’ve spoken about curriculum design in each of these quick videos, too. I’d love to learn more from you, and I know I’m not alone here. Drop a comment here or on Facebook or Twitter. This is tough stuff, all. None of us have all the answers.

4 Comments

  1. I would like your templates and copies which you generously offer to share in your article. Thank you.

  2. Karen Wegst says:

    Angela
    I’m teaching Education majors now at Daemen and I would love to use your resources to add to all the literacy, design and instructional supports…
    kwegst @daemen.edu
    Thank you !

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