Professional Learning

How to Stay Caught Up with the Curriculum

November 2, 2010

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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  • Professional Learning
  • Curriculum Planning
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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