A course of study is broken into academic units. The units are guided by enduring understandings and essential questions. For example: Did Martin Luther King’s dream come true?
“A lot of kids will come in with a hard yes or a hard no, but maybe, when they leave, it’s somewhere in the middle,” said Amy Preston, a tenth grade teacher who has also taught middle school in her eight years with the district, who was working alongside Patrick Bergin on a middle school social studies unit.
Preston and Bergin were two of about 40 teachers that met at Woodlawn Elementary School earlier this month to plot out new curriculum units for classes throughout the Schenectady City School District. Using a new process and framework for developing academic units, the teachers worked on units from King to energy dynamics to second grade classroom rules.
The teachers developed a mere fraction of what is ultimately needed to overhaul the district’s “haphazard” curriculum, but school officials expect the curriculum project to grow exponentially in the coming years.
Behind a shelf of books in the Woodlawn library, a pair of second grade teachers and a reading specialist worked on a second grade unit for early in the school year that introduces students to rules – rules that govern both language and the classroom. Another group of teachers were working on a unit that connected classroom rules to rules that govern society.
Working in Google Docs, the teachers plotted out the overview and rationale of the unit, listed essential questions students should answer, developed an end-of-unit assignment or project and figured out what resources and material teachers had to use and what resources teachers should consider using.
“This is all combined, so the kids will grasp it better,” said Beatrice Costanzo, an intervention specialist and reading teacher in the districts.
The new process strikes a stark difference to the way things had been done for years – what was described by school officials and longtime district teachers as haphazard and ad-hoc efforts by individual and groups of teachers to make improvements to loosely structured curriculum plans.
A group of middle school science teachers had built an energy unit around a final project of building a “Rube Goldberg machine,” elaborate contraptions that take a lot of steps to accomplish something small – like popping a balloon. They also planned to tie in modern examples of current energy issues.
Seventh grade teacher Jo Marie Fretto welcomed the opportunity to work with other teachers and learn how the district’s new curriculum plans will work.
“I don’t think we ever spent the time to work together,” said Fretto, who has taught in the district for over 30 years. “I may have done this myself; I maybe didn’t even write it down.”
But to Schenectady schools Superintendent Larry Spring that doesn’t qualify as true curriculum. In his four years leading the district, Spring started with implementing a literacy plan for the youngest grades and building to a broader curriculum rewrite. Or, to some, build a curriculum starting point. Going forward, he said, the district plans to have teachers “touch” every academic unit at least once every four years.
“You don’t get to count that as curriculum,” Spring said in an interview earlier this month when asked about the science teacher’s comments. “I don’t think we really have curriculum.”
UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN
The teachers that gathered at Woodlawn Elementary for a full week of curriculum writing this month employed a “backward design” process, starting with where they wanted students to be at the end of a unit.
The teachers then figured out what evidence would show that students understand the key principles of the unit and how that evidence would be assessed, sometimes with a test, sometimes with a project. From that starting point, the teachers selected “non-negotiable” skills and materials – the must covered content of the unit. They also listed “instructional strategies” that teachers should employ during the course of the units. (Teachers have the flexibility to develop daily lesson plans that add supplemental material and adjust their plans based on the needs of the students in front of them.
“The approach here is to take something that we have done over the last few years of teaching and make an ideological shift to things that are more real world and require more critical thinking,” said Patrick Bergin, who will be teaching at Central Park Middle School next year, and worked on the King unit.
The foundation of the unit plans are the enduring understandings and essential questions. These are big, thematic questions that guide students through the unit. “They are the big ideas we expect students to walk away with,” said Tonda Dunbar, the district’s director of instructional support. “If students walk away with nothing else but the answer to that essential question, we would feel really good about that.”
Each night during the week of curriculum planning after the teachers went home for the day, the district’s subject area coordinators provided feedback in Google Docs about the work completed on the units earlier in the day.
The final unit document, which will be reviewed by subject area coordinators and given final approval by the superintendent, will be added to an online folder that all teachers can access (but changes to the plan won’t be possible). Over time, more and more unit plans will be added to the folder, giving teachers a structure for what is expected of students as they progress through their course of study.
Now, that folder sits empty awaiting final approval of the first 10 entries and hundreds more to come in the next few years.
A BIG UNDERTAKING
In his office earlier this month, Spring drew a large grid on a whiteboard. He listed the subjects taught throughout a school year: English language arts, math, science, social studies, art and music. He added columns for ten months of school – September through June. Beside the chart, he drew a separate chart that showed the different layers of work in each unit: What is unit about? What are students expected to know? How do teachers assess that students know that?
The message was clear: a lot of work goes into writing units for a district of nearly 10,000 students. The scale is massive, Spring said. Each month, students learn maybe one or two units of material. At roughly 80 units per grade level and 13 grades, the lessons start to add up; the district teaches over 1,000 distinct academic units a year.
“And we are writing about 10 of them,” Spring said of the weeklong curriculum writing this summer. “This is a relatively small beginning; this is the start.”
But this summer is more about solidifying a process for developing new curriculum units in the long run and training the teachers that will lead future curriculum writing sessions. By “building capacity,” the district hopes to accelerate its curriculum building over the next few summers, writing between two and four times as many units next year and even more three and four years out.
Once the district is running at curriculum-building capacity – possibly the summer after next, Spring said – teachers would be reviewing, improving and rewriting around 250 units each summer. At that pace, every unit taught in the district would be up for a review and update every four years.
As the scale of the curriculum grows, so does the amount of staff time needed to approve new units, publish and communicate them to teachers across the district and deal with any technical problems. While some new units may require direct training for teachers, the vast majority of new curriculum will be communicated to teachers during regular staff meetings, where any questions can be answered, Spring said.
To determine what units are most in need of attention, district officials look at results from assessments, listen to teacher feedback and focus on areas where standards have recently changed. This summer, for example, many of the teachers at Woodlawn worked on social studies units to align plans to new learning standards adopted two years ago.
A district’s curriculum is always in constant flux.
“It’s not about when are we going to get to a place when it’s done,” Spring said. “Curriculum is always going to be fluid; we will always need to be looking and adjusting where our curriculum is.”
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