Written by Amber Villa-Zang and Kelby Zenor, FariaPD
“An excellent education is not just what gets taught today. It’s the cumulative effect of a coherent, cumulative, thoughtfully sequenced, and knowledge-rich curriculum that broadens and deepens over time, within and across grades.1“
For the past several months, schools have been disrupted. Moving, in a matter of days, from in-person teaching and learning to some form of remote learning. Teachers, students, and families have had to rethink what learning looks like.
As we catch our breath after a mad dash to implement remote learning, how do we ensure the big picture curriculum goals don’t get lost? And if they do, how do we pick back up efficiently in the fall? It is critical to clearly understand where students are in their learning continuum and what the learning goals are for each grade level. Therefore, it’s more important than ever for schools and districts to have a documented curriculum that outlines the learning goals for each subject and grade level because, “When teachers are encouraged to view every lesson as a one-off, either explicitly or tacitly, curricular coherence is lost.” 2
What is a documented curriculum?
Let’s start with what it’s not. Curriculum is not a set of standards or benchmarks. It’s also not a textbook or reading list or class project. Those are the materials and resources that are used within a comprehensive curriculum. A curriculum is composed of the content and skills identified from standards and bundled into units of instruction. These units are carefully sequenced throughout the year to reflect student readiness and the flow of concepts. Within each unit, understanding is framed, whether it’s with a conceptual lens or enduring understanding. Driving or essential questions are developed to guide student inquiry. Assessments are built to measure student growth and understanding. And finally, learning activities and daily assignments are aligned to the learning objectives of the unit. With clear learning goals, they can be modified to reflect the unique interests and context of students. In other words, a curriculum is a dynamic and comprehensive blueprint to guide and ensure effective teaching and learning.
How does a documented curriculum support remote learning during COVID-19?
As we shift to remote learning, the documented curriculum allows teachers to prioritize what students learn for the remainder of the year within a year-long context. When unit plans clearly outline learning targets, teachers are able to flexibly adapt and develop assignments appropriate for remote learning.
How does a documented curriculum prepare schools for the 2020-2021 academic year?
Schools will be disrupted in the fall. As leaders, we need to get out of survival mode and accept that learning will be different. To prepare for this it’s more essential than ever that schools and districts have units that clearly map what students will study and the essential skills they will develop in each grade level. Empowering teachers to do this work well requires a strong understanding of what the curriculum is and how to use it.
It doesn’t matter if school starts in-person or remotely next year, teachers will need to know where their students ended the previous year. They will use that information to guide what needs to be taught in order to meet the goals of their grade and subject. It won’t be about reteaching, it will be about learning. The gaps will be there, there is no way for them not to be. A key to identifying those gaps is a documented curriculum, allowing Intervention specialists and instructional coaches to develop targeted interventions aligned to student needs.
What needs to happen now?
Now is the time to look at the continuum of learning as developed in the curriculum and figure out what was accomplished this academic year. As schools in the northern hemisphere begin to wrap up the academic year, whether you use Atlas, AtlasNext or another tool, it is essential that teachers document what they covered between March and June so there is a clear record of what was taught and what wasn’t.
For those who are continuing to plan curriculum for the remainder of the year, use your plan that you had before all this happened and adjust the units. Determine what the priority standards are [see our blog for more information] for the remainder of the year. Ask what students really need to be prepared for next year and focus the teaching and learning on those critical standards.
Encourage teachers to take a copy of what they had planned on teaching and revise that copy. Come at it from the lens of the Unit not the Lesson. At the start of the pandemic, teachers might have moved into survival mode of getting out remote learning lessons that may or may not have aligned directly with what was planned to be taught during that time.
Example in AtlasNext:
The bolded text shows what was focused on during remote learning.
Example in Atlas:
The standards that are critical to the unit are flagged as Focus Standards. The text highlighted in red shows what was covered during remote learning.
If, at the end of the academic year, there are clear, documented units of what was taught then schools will be able to plan for the shifts and changes to the curriculum for next year.
Want support with this? We offer a variety of professional development options to guide schools in this work! Email us at: email@example.com.
1,2Pondiscio, Robert, et al. “Digging in the Dirt for Quality Curriculum.” The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2020, fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/digging-dirt-quality-curriculum.
Passionate about pedagogy and the role school leaders and teachers play in creating and providing dynamic, high quality curriculum and instruction, Amber leads professional development sessions for domestic and international school districts. She supports districts in developing standards-aligned curriculum and guides teachers through the process of developing integrated units of instruction. She also collaborates with district curriculum planning teams and leads professional development sessions for differentiated instruction.
Amber graduated from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in Secondary Language Arts. She spent seven years in a public high school teaching a wide range of Language Arts courses, including Senior IB. She also coached volleyball and was active in the school community.
Kelby Zenor guides the coordination, development, and facilitation of Professional Development programs both nationally and internationally. She has presented at international conferences — ECIS, NESA, EARCOS — and many others on curriculum review, analysis, and process. One of her great passions is bringing diverse groups together to facilitate deep conversations around meaningful curriculum reform.
Over the years, she’s been noted for her ingenuity and enthusiasm when leading events. (That, and the famous Portland donuts she totes to teachers on cross-country flights). Kelby is a graduate of St. Mary’s College in California and her former work as a director of an environmental education program and classroom teacher in New York City provides a strong foundation for consulting with schools on a range of topics.