George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Stay Caught Up with the Curriculum

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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You mention to a fellow teacher during lunch or after a faculty meeting how far along you are in the curriculum and they respond, "Oh, I'm way past that." Gulp. Not what you were looking to hear, right?

First off, curriculum "races" among teachers are just as common as fishing stories. To compare is to despair, I say, and the key to avoiding such despair? Stay focused on the talents and strengths of your group of learners, as well as your talents and strengths as their guide and teacher.

Around this time of year, the truth is, I hear a lot of anguished statements from teachers who I support, like, "I'm already behind," "things are taking too long," and, "I've got to pick up the pace."

So why are so many teachers already feeling like this so early in the year?

One reason could be pacing plans that are sometimes used as mandates rather than guides, and are created by people outside of your school (down at the district, or maybe even in another state). And let's be honest, the authors are not always teachers. Possibly once they were in the classroom, but they've since forgotten that learning goes way beyond just covering an enormous amount of material. Real learning that sticks takes doing -- practicing, applying, and experiencing -- and reflecting.

So, consider quitting the covering curriculum contest, take a deep breath and enjoy teaching again. I promise your students will enjoy learning that much more. Hey, they may even do better on the state exam.

In the Classroom

Let's talk practical now. Yes, as teachers, the reality is we do have a lot to teach in one year and we want our students to transition effortlessly to the next grade and be thoroughly prepared. This means identifying exactly what students need to know and be able to do when they exit your classroom in June.

Setting Goals for Learning

Start by creating learning objectives for each unit (remember, learning objectives are measurable and include outcomes). Then, strategically plan and sequence your lessons. Rigor in the classroom is important, but you don't want to leave your students in the dust, so be sure to check for understanding along the way.

If an activity, class or homework assignment is not directly connected to your learning objectives, you probably need to eliminate it. Simply put, cut out all the fluff. To do this, you will have to take a close look at those activities you've possibly been doing for years and decide if they are really necessary (even if it's that character collage, or science inquiry poster the kids absolutely love making). Or, you can create an abridged version of the project, or make it extra credit to be done at home.

Also, keep this in mind when warding off that little demon called time: If it's important work but doesn't need teacher guidance or peer support, send it home to be completed independently.

Seek the Sages

If you frequently find yourself running out of time, your instruction might be more activity based than learning goals based. One suggestion: consider reaching out to the teachers you admire at your school site (or those master teachers you've heard about at other sites). Why re-invent the wheel when you can get your hands on finely tuned, engaging lessons and projects that they've been creating for years, and that address the learners in your community. (If you have these lessons, please share with your colleagues and especially those new teachers in your building. They need your help and your expertise!)

Modify, Accommodate, and Move On

When students are struggling to comprehend new ideas and material, and the content is crucial to achieving the learning goals for the unit, find reading material that is an easier reading level so they can access the important information. Also think of other ways the students can learn the content and concepts: a brief documentary clip and discussion, a simulation, a Q&A with an expert (possibly via Skype).

If a small group of kids are still having a hard time with that new concept or content, don't stop to re-teach the whole class or slow the instructional pace (this will lead to twenty or more restless, bored students). Instead, move on, but do re-teach and modify the assignment for that handful either after school or while the class is working independently (check out my post on differentiated instruction here).

Depth over Breadth

After you have decided on learning objectives and chosen material, dig in rather than gliding over. This will take a change in pace, but sometimes you have to slow down to go quickly. What does that mean? As we've established, there's a tendency and quite a bit of pressure these days to cover heaps of material, and quickly -- breadth over depth. That means teachers are being put in the situation to tell rather than show, and therefore students are forced to be passive rather than doers and creators.

Simply covering material is not teaching; it's checking off a list. If we focus more on getting through the curriculum than on creating meaningful and enriching educational experiences, we forget such vital parts of our job, such as checking for understanding, re-teaching, and reviewing.

If you find yourself telling and rushing much more than showing and creating opportunities for students to discover, check out a diagram of Dale's Cone of Experience here. It gives a strong argument for diving in and allowing kids to discover, experience, discuss, and reflect. This is the kind of learning that sticks.

Still feeling an incredible amount of pressure to race through that curriculum? Educational research shows that only about 10 to 15 percent of students learn best auditorily, but 80 percent of instructional delivery is auditory. Yikes.

What that means is to serve our learners in an authentic, meaningful way where the learning lasts, all that telling (direct-teaching) has to be toned down and replaced with lots more visual, hands-on, and experiential learning. And that, as we know, takes time.

What tips would you like to offer for staying focused and on track? We look forward to your suggestions.

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Comments (13) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jeanie Robinson's picture

I really "found myself" in your article. I am always behind but, my kids learn so, I have never really played the "curriculum race" game. However, I have always had the luxury that social studies was not a tested subject. My class was more activity based and I taught major concepts. Now, my students may not know the major battles of WWI, but they understand the causes and effects of that war.

However, now I teach Civics and it is a tested subject. The test is like a giant jeopardy game. Its not concepts - its more trivia like. I have a 65 page lesson book that breaks down civics into a daily bore. According to my district I must follow this lesson book. This has helped me pace myself but my students and I are totally bored. When I get them next semester I am planning on adding a problem based project concerning our local river. Hopefully, I can manage both. Wish me luck!

Donald Johnson's picture
Donald Johnson
Fired ex-Geography/Journalism/English teacher, Houston, Texas

[quote]It's wonderful when teachers can get in depth with the kids and really help them learn something completely. But what about the standardized tests that want the kids to know WAY TOO MUCH material?![/quote]
Whoa. How do you base your decision about how much material is "too much?" On the basis of the complainers who say aloud that they "don't get it?" What about the ones who are getting it and would likely be bored if you dwelt too much on a single issue? This is a judgement point, I'll agree, but from the tone of your writing, I suspect that you're worried about administrative repercussions if even a single student or his parents complains.

[quote]The kids need to pass those tests.[/quote]
Your undue concern about them "passing the test" is the classic case against standardized testing. Note that you're fretting about minimum competency while saying nothing about the excellence that may be achieved if the children were at least exposed to the material you fear is "too much." Withholding knowledge in this manner is akin to censorship.

[quote]So while they are "really" learning in the classroom with a great teacher, it won't show on the test because they aren't covering what the state wants them to cover.[/quote]If they're "really" learning, it may be a result of the supplementary reading you bring in as Alber suggests. Students cannot learn everything they need to know in the classroom. Much more has to be done to spur intrinsic learning and one way to do that is to insist that they learn as much from independent reading as they do from teacher-centered discussion.

[quote]What are teachers to do?! I wish I could teach in depth, but then my kids will do poorly. It's a no win situation...[/quote]So you'd sacrifice their future for a mere 70% now? This outlines the basic problem we have in American education, that administrative edict tends to drag the bar down rather than the student up to it.

Donald Johnson's picture
Donald Johnson
Fired ex-Geography/Journalism/English teacher, Houston, Texas

Rebecca, while I'm essentially agreeing with you in the depth v. breadth discussion, I see indications that some of your methodology may stifle, rather than encourage the amplification of learning that must occur if we are to keep pace with other industrialized countries.

I specifically take exception to your absolutist statement: "This means identifying exactly what students need to know and be able to do when they exit your classroom in June."

Spoken with the authority of omniscience but without the creativity of prescience. I've found this approach to imbuing knowledge rather than sparking it objectionable ever since it was drummed into me while student teaching.

Such rigidity can work against concurrent goals of promoting critical thinking skills, for the box it creates precludes even looking for solutions outside of it.

Sue J's picture

When I taught "from [I forget what ] to the present" I decided ahead of time what I wanted my students to know -- and know forever -- when they left my classroom. First thing I discovered was that they didn't know what we celebrated on July Fourth ("Freedom!" "From waht?" "Um... slavery?") ... we had a quiz every wednesday with that "backbone" stuff. That freed me up to do things like "demonstrate impressment on your neighbor!" (reading a few paragraphs to them from a sailor's journal about the green slime on biscuits got their attention -- and they thought the cafeteria food was bad!)
(These were, however, pre-NCLB LD classes. *No* expectations.)
Now in the community college, I get a lot of the people from those classes where the teachers decided that as long as some people were getting it, his/her job was done, because after all. Standards, you know. So, the ones from already edumicated famblies did fine -- and hey, that's how it works in the U.S. of A.

Donald Johnson's picture
Donald Johnson
Fired ex-Geography/Journalism/English teacher, Houston, Texas

It should be our goal to get people to know all things, though we know it's never possible to do so. Having this view, however, allows us not not preclude information on the basis of "it might confuse them" or "they don't need to know that" or "it might bother them."

Teachers are sometimes the worst of censors, albeit often unwittingly. They set the agenda, determine what is to be used or purged from the library, and set the tone of the discussion. To maintain openness, an atmosphere of safety must be established where students can read and say things which others may find distasteful. If a discussion led to vulgarity, I'd suggest the student write instead of talking aloud, for it only takes one parent's objection to scuttle a teaching career. Under no circumstances, however, was I to be the censor. I would only say that there are places more appropriate for that discussion and that we don't necessarily have the right to offend people in public places.

"We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people." ~ John F. Kennedy

brian mumby's picture
brian mumby
second grade teacher from reed city, MI

I struggle with teaching to the test. I feel like all I am doing is craming and jamming information into my students. I feel like there is so much information to cover sometimes it is overwhelming for them. If we don't cover it though they won't be ready to take the standardized MEAP in third grade, which I think is ridiculous. Especially since the test is given at the beginning of the school year after the kids have been on summer break for three months. How are they supposed to remember something they learned almost a year ago and haven't seen it in three months? I also find it amazing that they want to use those same test scores as a way to judge teacher's pay and evaluations. If they want to get accurate test scores, test the students later in the year when they have had time to readjust to school and review the information.

Donald Johnson's picture
Donald Johnson
Fired ex-Geography/Journalism/English teacher, Houston, Texas

While you're cramming and jamming, you're missing the big picture, the overlying concepts that blend ideas and create pathways to better understandings. You're also fueling rebellious attitudes, for there are always those who resist force-fed knowledge and attempt to subvert the entire process. Teachers find themselves in the counterproductive position of stifling those with the creativity that they mostly desperately need to foster.

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

When I was trying to teach my students I felt that I was always behind, always had enormous pressure, and was always fighting with them. I don't do that anymore. I design opportunities for them to learn, organize it into a lesson plan, and then give the plan to them. I do some direct instruction, but mostly help, and facilitate. I stop disruptions, keep them focused, and on schedule.
The reason project-based lessons work so well is because they do exactly what I have outlined above.
I don't think this will work in grades K-3. Grades 4-6 need a transition to this type of learning. A seventh grader is ready to be in charge of their education.

Judy's picture

I have just returned to the regular classroom after being a science lab teacher for three years. I printed and read most of the indicators I am required to teach over the summer to familiarize myself with them before I walked into a fourth grade classroom for the first time. I was overwhelmed by the number of objectives I am expected to "teach" in a given year. The second day of school we had a district level meeting where they gave us the pacing guides for each subject for the entire year. It looked great; until I actually had to start using it. I quickly learned I did not agree with the time frame for many objectives. Most where given a very short time to teach; one to three days. We also have to give language and math tests about every three weeks. Students do not always do well and they (district personnel) say, "Don't worry they will get it the next time it comes around (not so in science and social studies)." The pacing guides were to be that; a guide. Yet they continuously ask us where we are in them. Unfortunately I am currently behind. That is why I have been researching effective ways to try and integrate the social studies and science into math and reading. Hopefully I can get this accomplished effectively before it is too late. I like to teach so that the students understand the information before I move on. That means there may be information on the test I will not get to prior to administering it. All I can hope is that they have learned enough to remember what was taught and be able to use that to succeed in life.

Ryan's picture

I share the same beliefs that curriculum races are rather nonsense and typically causes tension amongst teachers. I don't think any teacher likes to hear that they are much further behind than the teachers around them even though you may know you are connecting with your students. Curriculum decisions can be the most stressful part of teaching because of the high stakes testing components that exist in the end. In a perfect world teachers would be able to cover all the standards within their curriculum with exciting lessons and have the students perform well on the tests. Obviously, this is not a perfect world so what we usually get judged on is those scores on the tests and not the real world applications you have spent countless hours teaching. Typically teachers don't have enough time, whether you are teaching breadth or depth, to cover all the standards by the spring testing.

So, I ask the question: Is high stakes test prep necessary? If so, how much time should be spent out of the curriculum?

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