When I first started teaching, the textbook was king. If you didn’t know what to teach, you just started on page one and taught through Modernism or, in the case of Social Studies, the Vietnam war. But luckily we live in an age of standards. Standards are not “the test” nor are they curriculum; they are the expectations for what students will master by each grade level. For teachers in the state of Kentucky, the Kentucky Academic Standards, a 745-page behemoth, lists the skills and content a student should master at each grade level, as she progresses toward graduation.
These standards are what we teach; curriculum, on the other hand, is how we teach it. In Kentucky, our standards are the same from Paducah to Pikeville, but our curriculum may be different from classroom to classroom. A teacher’s curriculum includes “scope and sequence,” which is edu-speak for how deep and wide you teach a concept (scope) and the order in which you teach the elements of that concept to enhance comprehension (sequence). As an English teacher, you will be responsible for teaching the standards in four areas: reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language. What you teach is established by the state; how you teach it is often determined by your teaching style, the students who populate your classroom, and the instructional resources available within your district.
Good districts create, maintain, and communicate to all teachers a large picture of all the moving bits of curriculum – instructional resources, materials, lessons, units, modules, assessments— that support their learning objectives and goals. This big picture is called a curriculum map. The curriculum map shows how the standards are taught in each grade and how the curriculum aligns vertically, so that the fifth grade math teachers know what the fourth grade math teachers covered, and the fourth grade math teachers know what the third grade math teachers covered, and so on. The purpose of mapping and aligning the curriculum is two-fold: so students have no gaps as they progress to graduation, and so students aren’t taught the same thing every single year. Each year their learning should build on the skills they mastered the previous year.
Regardless of whether the teacher in the previous grade level did or didn’t teach the standards he was supposed to, it is now up to you to figure out what those kids sitting in your classroom know and don’t know. Tip: There’s nothing lamer than a high school teacher blaming the middle school teachers, unless it’s a middle school teacher blaming his student’s deficiencies on the elementary school teachers. Impugning other teachers helps no one. Be solutions-oriented, not a blame artist.
Here are some more tips:
- Know your grade level/content standards like a lover’s face. For an 8th grade ELA teacher, there are only 42. Learn them inside and out. The current college and career ready standards were developed by a non-partisan task force of education commissioners, governors, CEOs, business leaders, and teachers like you. They were designed to make American students globally competitive, and they were adopted by 42 of the 50 states. They are quality standards. Don’t just cut/slap them onto a lesson plan template, but know them deeply and widely, and understand why these standards are appropriate and beneficial for students.
- Do not re-invent the wheel. First, ask another teacher, your department chair or your principal for the district’s or school’s curriculum map in your content area. If this is not available, Google is your friend. There are literally hundreds of curriculum maps online. Download four or five, and use them to build your own scope and sequence.
- Figure out what your students know. All good teaching starts there. Without knowing what your students already know, you will not be able to move them to master the skills they don’t know. In edu-circles, this is called “formative assessment,” but I call it relationship building. This kind of data gathering can be a pencil/paper test, a thumbs up/down comprehension check, or a longer conversation that helps you begin to grasp each student’s intellectual and academic profile.
- Be transparent and get the kids in on the gig. Give them the standards. Ask them to analyze and break the standards down into learning goals of their own. Charge your students with calling you on any activity that isn’t connected with one of these standards.
- Everything you teach should be related to the mastery of one of those 42 standards. Every activity and assignment should be intentional. You only have 177 days of instruction; every lesson, every activity, every unit must count.