It sounds crazy to say, but I have not yet had a year where I haven’t re-built my curriculum from scratch. When I started teaching in the suburbs of Chicago–almost eight years ago now–I had no choice but to build everything from scratch. After all, it was my first year teaching. Because I looped, I had my first group of students for two years, meaning that my second year was just like another first year of teaching: I taught fourth grade the first year and fifth grade the next, forcing me to build yet another curriculum from the ground up.

The year after that was the year of the Common Core. New standards meant a new way of thinking, and a new way of thinking meant a new curriculum. And since I was looping, one year of new curriculum unavoidably begot a second year of new curriculum. Needless to say, I was a bit frustrated that I had to keep rebuilding the curriculum.

What Good Teachers Do

“Good teachers replan their units every year,” a veteran teacher at my school told me one day, probably while I was complaining about my predicament. She had worked there for decades and was known far and wide for her innovative projects and engaging curriculum. Turns out she was right.

If you think about it, it’s impossible to do the same curriculum two years in a row. Why? The world changes so much over the course of one year, and we have to take into account those variables when planning learning experiences for our children. Over the course of that year, historical context, trends, and pop culture change. As a result, different sets of children bring different sets of experiences to the classroom. What’s exciting and engaging to one group becomes an agent of disengagement for the next, causing us to reinvent ourselves each and every year.

I realized this when I attempted to take some of my formerly used curriculum to San Francisco with me. Not only were some of my lessons a bit outdated, but they didn’t quite mesh with the culture of San Francisco schools and students, which I so sorely realized in my first month teaching out there. I watched a formerly successful lesson crumble in front of me, my children writhing in their seats.

I had no choice then but to adapt. I had to change along with my students, otherwise I’d be wandering down a road of behavior plans and authoritarian classroom management practices, none of which aligned with the humanized type of learning I had hoped to see in my classrooms.

In the years following, I encountered more opportunities to build and rebuild curriculum. Not only did I begin teaching kindergarten and first grade, but I was teaching multi-age classes, each with different mixes and distributions of kids, until I finally came to this year, where I found myself in a self-contained third-grade classroom. I was faced with the task of building a new curriculum yet again.

If it sounds a bit overwhelming, it is. It’s hard not to get lost in the anxiety that comes from not quite knowing how the year is going to shake out. But a change in mindset can actually help assuage some of this anxiety and help you see the challenge of rebuilding curriculum each year as an opportunity for professional growth and learning, as opposed to the now cliché “reinventing the wheel” that so many teachers see it as.

Moving from Creating Curriculum to Curating Curriculum

The words create and curate sound remarkably similar, but they actually have quite different definitions. When we create something, we generally bring something brand new into existence–or at least that’s what it connotes. But when we curate, we take the pressure off of ourselves to create something entirely new, and instead, allow ourselves to “beg, borrow, and steal” to curate a series of learning experiences that are meant to anchor us in the present moment and fit the children we see every day. Curating curriculum even allows us to take what we’ve done in the past and “tweak” it for future groups of children.

What’s more, curation of curriculum allows us to reposition our lessons in the curriculum, not necessarily as media for the didactic transmission of knowledge and understanding, but instead as a medium for provocation and inquiry. As a result, we allow curriculum curation to be a shared responsibility between educator and student–resulting in the co-construction of knowledge and allowing the curriculum to take on a different form each year.

When we curate a set of learning experiences, we make space for the unit to change. However, far too often when we create a unit, we do so with a fixed mindset. We put an exorbitant amount of work into the sequence of lessons, when in reality, we know all too well that the unit we’ve planned never ends up working out the way we envision it to. So how does one make the transition from creating a curriculum to curating it? How does one build a structure for curriculum, meanwhile allowing it to evolve, change, and reinvent itself with each new year?

There isn’t an easy answer here, but I have a few ideas of places to start.

1. Invest most of your time identifying desired results and building assessments.

In order to teach responsively, it’s necessary to have a vision. If you don’t, your teaching simply becomes a series of benign and decontextualized activities that don’t contribute to meaningful learning. By identifying clear standards for learning and building assessments that help you gauge success, you are able to build a strong structure on which you and your students can play. When we play, we tend to go lots of different directions, allowing our curiosities to guide us. But with clear desired results and well-designed assessments to support us, we are always able to find our way back to the vision–even if the learning takes a form we never anticipated.

The best part of this is that the heavy lifting only needs to be done once when identifying desired results. While it’s possible the standards could change, in my experience, they don’t change radically from year to year. Identifying these and building what I like to call a “flexible frame” of learning objectives and assessments allow educators to play with the curriculum each year by using the identified desired results as a North Star while learning experiences emerge in your classroom.

2. Use blank journals as opposed to workbooks or packets.

I know it’s tempting to print off a bunch of worksheets and staple them into a packet. It’s even more tempting to help your students fill in the boxes, put a gold star on it, and call it learning. But we’re better than that. We know that true learning doesn’t come from regurgitation. Instead, true learning comes from provocation, inquiry, and making meaningful connections. Instead of doing worksheets, provide your children with thoughtful provocations and tasks, and have them document their work in a journal. It’s not only better for the kids, but it’s better for you in the long run, too. It allows you to modify the sequence of tasks or provocations, all the while grounding each of them in your desired results.

3. Leverage your formative assessments to figure out where to go next.

Standards lay the foundation for a unit of instruction, and strong assessments give you the map upon which you can navigate the units you curate for your classroom. By building strong assessments, we build in checkpoints that allow us to pause and reflect on what type of learning has occurred, if any at all. These checkpoints allow us to adapt and respond over the course of the unit, without falling into the confines of a rigidly planned sequence of daily lessons. The daily lessons can then emerge based on the results of the assessments.

Admittedly, this is quite a change in the thought process behind planning and preparation. By starting with standards and then building checkpoints for assessment, teachers wonder what will happen in between. For this, I suggest rethinking the way we curate resources for a unit.

4. Make banks of activities–as opposed to rigidly sequenced packets–so that you are able to respond to your children’s needs.

Just because we’re curating curriculum and allowing our children to shape it, doesn’t mean we can’t anticipate what they might do and say. And it doesn’t mean we can’t shape the curriculum along with them.

Good teachers begin the planning process by deconstructing outcomes and anticipating student misconceptions. They are ready for those misconceptions and have a bag of tricks ready to help them navigate those obstacles and work through them with productive struggle. By creating banks of activities, you can have a variety of activities on-hand should you need to use them. And you can do this rather easily with your team–using Google Drive or some other sort of shared folder to keep these available. I like to do this with math games, math tasks, or even with guided reading books. I tend to pull a bunch that I think might be relevant to my unit, making sure I’m taking into account reading level, and use them if/when I see fit. It allows me to be responsive, while still focusing on the learning objectives I designated while planning.

5. Build strong routines with your students.

Curriculum emerges not necessarily from the books children read or the workbooks they complete: curriculum emerges through the knowledge children construct when they interact with such provocations. However, children cannot get there without a strong classroom environment to support them. Strong classroom environments support the autonomous construction of knowledge through reliable routines and high expectations. It is in this way that we can share the responsibility of reinventing our curriculum each and every year, for the different groups of students will not interpret the same provocations in identical ways.

Reinventing Ourselves and Our Curriculum

The truth of the matter is, the wheel has been reinvented–or maybe reimagined–many many times, and it’s been for the better. In fact, if we were still making wheels as they were made thousands of years ago, we’d find the common inventions we take for granted wouldn’t work. Cars would rumble down the roads, the wheels crumbling with every sharp turn or bump we hit. We need to afford ourselves (and our students) the opportunity to reinvent our curriculum–and, by proxy, ourselves–each and every year.

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3 thoughts

  1. Thank you Paul! As I contemplate my move to a different position I have been pondering how I should spend my summer work and thinking. This is a succinct and helpful reminder of the power of thoughtful design. I’m fired up now instead of meandering through my bookshelf of teacher books. Have a restful summer!

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