To make dreams apparent to others and to align people with them requires not just mere explanations or clarification but the creation of meaning.
I have recently gotten into biking. When I purchased my new bike I was encouraged to add on bike clips. I was told that the clips would support an even pedal stroke which is the key to a good ride, and that they would also minimize fatigue, injury, and incorrect form. I agreed to the new shoes and pedals even though I didn’t even quite understand the concept of an even pedal stroke. I wasn’t convinced that having my shoe clipped to the pedal was a good idea, even though all the avid bikers I knew gave me similar spiels telling me that I would want clips. Honestly, what I understood and feared was being clipped into the pedal while crashing to the ground.
Two years of riding with clips and I have fallen lots of times, my most recent fall being just last week. But at the same time the ride is so smooth, and the power while riding up hills so noticeable, that I know there is no going back to the old toe cages. Even though I was “told” about the bike clips, it was something I had to experience on my own in order to make meaning of their benefits. Now I find myself in the position of trying to convince my father to switch over to clips. I know it’s not something that you can convince someone of by just telling them. In order for my dad to fully understand the benefits of toe clips, he will need to experience them and make his own meaning.
It’s Not Enough to Have a Written Curriculum
How often in education do we simply try to convince others of our ideas through lip service? How often is written curriculum handed over to teachers with expectation of implementation with little or no explanation after only a small group of educators have worked on it? And then we wonder why there is no ownership, little understanding, and zero buy in with the staff. But can you imagine what would happen if we provided all teachers with opportunities to work on curriculum and make meaning together?
I feel like I have been working on curriculum realignment in some fashion for over twenty years. We are a district that has always had a written curriculum. We have always had a curriculum committee and have paid small groups of teachers to write and develop new curriculum during the summer. But,the reality has also been that when the school year started and doors closed, we all taught using our own best interpretation of that curriculum that was printed off and copied with little or no explanation.
When the Common Core came our way I thought, here we go again — more curriculum work. But it wasn’t just about the Common Core. The bigger issue was that our current curriculum wasn’t being implemented with a consistent interpretation within and across grade levels. Knowing that we had had a rich written curriculum and that it was not being implemented consistently, we needed to approach curriculum development in a fresh way. It wasn’t enough that we had been posting the written curriculum electronically through ATLAS. That was simply another form of a written curriculum. We needed a change. We needed a process that would involve all staff in curriculum development — a way for teachers to work and make meaning together.
Finally a Process that Involved All Staff
This time around we wanted to implement a process that provided opportunities for all teaching staff to make meaning of the curriculum together. Our belief is that if all staff held a common interpretation of the curriculum and had ownership in its development and realignment, then we would raise the level of consistency in how it was implemented within our classrooms (ultimately leading to increased student achievement).
Over the course of the year, all teachers in grades K-5 have been involved in curriculum work. Not every teacher is pulled every month, but all have been involved in this work over the last year. When teachers are pulled for meetings it is expected that they will bring the unit back to their entire grade level for continued conversations and development. The understanding of the unit only deepens as grade level teams develop, implement, and reflect on it.
This is a process that each grade level cycles through each month. During every month each grade level is following the same process: a release day, followed up by continued work on the curriculum during weekly grade level curriculum meetings and early release days.
The literacy specialist, math specialist from the building, and/or the instructional specialist from the district are involved in this work. Since we are trying to build capacity and gradually release the teachers, the goal is that as we develop a process for the work the teachers at the grade level will be able to sustain the process without outside specialists being involved in every meeting. The specialists might be involved, but come and go as needed. As we proceed into the second year of this process I see the grade level teams taking on this process more independently, and working their way through all of the content areas. It is truly a gradual release model.
Snapshot of a Month-Long Curriculum Cycle
Reviewing/Developing Units — Monthly Release Day
Several teachers from a grade level were provided with a release from the classroom to work on curriculum. We typically chose three to four teachers from the team of seven for each release day. We rotated through the team so that all teachers over the course of the year were involved in the process. The focus unit was chosen by grade level team prior to the release day. They worked with the district instructional specialist and literacy specialist to identify the standards, content, and skills of the unit. They then sketched out instructional strategies that would support new staff coming into the school. It is not expected that all teachers need to deliver the units in the same way, but that we have a common interpretation of the unit. It was also expected that the assistant superintendent and building principals sat in and participated in the discussions.
Weekly Curriculum Grade Level Meetings/Early Release Days
The teachers involved in the curriculum work during the release day then brought the unit back to the rest of their grade-level team. These meetings were held after school. Teachers reviewed the unit together. They used a unit organizer to jot down their thinking and to launch the conversation around the unit. It is a tool that helped them unpack the curriculum and translate what it might look like instructionally in the classroom, and we used it across content area discussions.
Reviewing Student Work
Once the unit was taught by the grade-level team, teachers brought in sample of student work and again talked about the unit, this time with a focus on instruction. They asked themselves, did the work reflect what we wanted students to know? This is an ongoing process and we expect that teachers will continue to use this process for units in all content areas. This process will cycle over each month and repeat itself over years to come.
Warren Bennis writes, “To make dreams apparent to others and to align people with them requires not just mere explanations or clarification, but the creation of meaning.” We have learned through experience that the most successful initiatives have been those in which groups of teachers have made meaning together. Our process for curriculum development and realignment has given us an opportunity to move forward with our school initiative of curriculum alignment, and at the same time provided time for teachers to make meaning of the changes together.
Bike clips provide a structure for cycling, but this structure still allows for some flexibility, some “float” of the foot, just as a solid curriculum provides a structure for teachers but it too allows for “float” — the personalized way that each teacher delivers instruction. The key to this process is that teachers have the opportunity to develop a common interpretation of our written curriculum.