March 25, 2017

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What We Learned | Crafting Standards-Based Lessons

o 2ver the course of this school year, for this column, we have brainstormed unit possibilities for science, math, and social studies at the primary, intermediate, and high school levels. Our purpose was to show how nonfiction literature supports inquiry and integration across the curriculum, while at the same time meeting Common Core and content-area standards. It was hard but satisfying work.

It’s now time to reflect on that experience. Here are our top 10 takeaways, beginning with Myra’s five:

Creating curriculum requires time. I am reminded of James Cross Giblin’s comment that the idea for Good Brother, Bad Brother came to him one day in the shower. It was after he had spent a long time thinking about how to write a book that combined his love of theater with his interest in the Civil War. Suddenly, one day, he discovered his subject—a dual biography of Edwin Booth and James Wilkes Booth.

Like Giblin, I have walked around for days with the challenge of what to write about and how to do it. To create a unit, I read books, think about activities, consult standards, and try to find a focus. When I do, it’s an “aha moment.” What was important for me to learn was to accept the time I needed to mull over a curriculum problem.

A grab bag of material helps. Once I select a topic for a unit, I search for books and materials to support it. First, I peruse my own collection of books. Then I consult databases and library catalogs. I also ask colleagues for suggestions. Ultimately, I collect more than I use, which means I must sort the material into categories—useful/not useful. The important thing I learned was not to choose materials too hastily, and to keep looking for connections among sources.

Fluency in the standards is an ongoing process. I truly believe I can now speak Common Core, C3, and NGS fluently. That’s because every time I construct a unit I read the relevant grade level and topic standards. Reading the standards refreshes my memory about the kinds of activities that I need to include and helps me make connections. Once I became familiar with the standards, it became easier to work with them, and to write and talk about them.

Developing activities provides a variety of ways of thinking about a topic. With a topic and standards in hand, I begin thinking about activities. Reading, writing, speaking, and listening experiences provide different approaches to subjects, and ways of thinking about them. For example, when writing, will students be providing descriptions, narrating a sequence of events, arguing a point, or offering an opinion? How will the writing be illustrated? How can students’ ideas be shared? I learned that thinking about these options helped me design a range of distinct, but complementary, activities for communicating ideas and opinions.

Creating enthusiasm for learning is primary. While teaching any particular unit or subject, it’s important to reflect on how it advances and encourages lifelong learning. To develop lifelong learners, it’s crucial that we provide in-depth learning experiences. Writing units of study confirmed how important it is to provide time for students to acquire substantial background information about a topic, and to use that information purposefully. I have also discovered that it’s these experiences and projects that students remember most fondly.

Mary Ann adds:

Planning curriculum is a recursive process. All of our columns contained the same sections, but no column was written in the same manner. Sometimes stockpiling exciting texts and waiting for a time when the grade span and content area mesh is the way to go. Sometimes starting with standards and then looking for texts that would help shape an interesting context is the best method. The discovery of one text often leads to another, and a new way of thinking about the content. In school, teachers have to create units with a narrative arc. We learned the process doesn’t need to be linear. You can miss out on too much!

When crafting a unit of study, the permutations are infinite. Brainstorming curriculum standards/units can take you in many directions. One direction isn’t necessarily better than another; all can be exciting/or highlight different instructional purposes. Curriculum can be integrated across genres in language arts exploring theme; curriculum can be integrated with science and language arts, or science and social studies. There is no right way to create it. That’s the beauty. Different learners respond to different experiences, so feeling comfortable about offering a variety of narrative arcs keeps school interesting for both students and teachers.

Standards-based curriculum is not a bad thing, but the influence of standardized tests is. We admit it—we believed this before we started writing the column. Curriculum can be standards-based and engaging, developmentally appropriate, intellectually stimulating, culturally relevant, inquiry-oriented, and hands-on. We’ve read the newspapers, and witnessed the outcry in some quarters about the influence of standardized testing on curriculum.  We don’t like the tests either, or the undue influence they have on curriculum, which is reduced to test prep in too many places. But it does not have to be that way.

The standards and the tests are different entities. We view the standards as fluid, flexible documents that can be used to shape engaging curriculum; we see integration made easier because of the ways the C3 Framework and the Next Generation Science Standards dovetail with the Common Core English Language Arts and Content Literacy Standards. Teachers and librarians need school leaders who allow them to focus on curriculum and instruction, and to appropriate a wide range of locally-constructed formative and summative assessments.

The Common Core Content Literacy Standards grades 6-12 are still a missing piece in many schools. While integrating literacy and content learning up and down the K-12 continuum in science, social studies, and math, we realized how little attention the secondary content literacy standards are receive in many schools. The Core Standards webpage requires that viewers choose the English Language Arts Standards before locating the secondary Content Literacy Standards. They are, however, accessible as a separate place on the table of contents, clearly marked as content literacy standards.

On many state websites, this is not the case. In Massachusetts and New York, where we work, the secondary content literacy standards are folded into the English Language Arts Standards. Will science or social studies teachers assume that these standards apply to them when listed in that way? Pennsylvania seems to have the right idea—creating separate documents for these standards.

Collaborative planning makes for better curriculum. I was very lucky, in that I learned to plan curriculum collaboratively from the beginning of my teaching career. This year, everything I worked on was better because I worked on it with Myra. We have different and intersecting areas of interest, as well as different strengths and weaknesses. We trust and respect each other. Team planning can make planning more complicated, but it can also make it easier. It is always context-dependent.

Wherever you are, find someone else on your team to work with. Teacher collaboration shouldn’t be considered an option, or a luxury. If you are a teacher, push for more time with colleagues, including the school librarian. If you are a school librarian, insist that you get invited to team planning on a regular basis, if possible. You can use the expertise in the building to create engaging curriculum that students and teachers care about and feel invested in.

The sum of our advice: Give teachers time to plan and talk together. Build local networks within schools and districts to create a curriculum that engages both adults and students as learners. Think creatively. Map classroom activities back to the standards. Use a range of texts to juxtapose student thinking on content. Make sure that everyone is talking to one another—adults with adults, adults with kids, kids with kids. Create the change you want to see. Push back the next time someone says that standards-based curriculum means the curriculum has to be teacher-driven, standardized, and regimented. It doesn’t have to be anything of the sort.

Eds. note: Mary Ann Cappiello and Myra Zarnowski’s columns featuring standards-based lesson planning can be found on the Curriculum Connections webpage. Recent columns have addressed Earthquakes and Eruptions, Abraham Lincoln, Our Ecological Footprint, and Measurement.

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  1. Here is a good discussion of the Common Core and a sample lesson plan for a K Math standard.