THE COVID-19 ED CASE CHRONICLES, PART 5 – (Yet) Another Reason to Invest in Strong Curriculum

At the beginning of last school year, I left an instructive three-year detour into the nonprofit educational-support sector to join the staff of the school I’m at now, a charter that had contracted me to do some consulting, PD, and advisory work over the few years prior.*

* – Sorry, but I should correct a couple things on that nonprofit detour. For one thing, ‘confirming’ is probably a better word choice than ‘instructive’. Also: taken all together, the choice I made to work there is, without doubt, one of the single worst decisions of my life. There. Fixed it. Carry on!

From both directions, my fit with the school made a lot of sense: their leadership was seeking to go deeper on matters I’d previously assisted with in small doses (i.e., building a schoolwide scope and sequence, strengthening their teacher-development structures, continuous-improvement planning, etc.), and I was eager to get back to all those ed things I’m so passionate about on more daily bases. When they asked if I’d be willing to teach a few sections of high-school English (!), the position seemed almost too good to be true.

And from the jump, I found the work to be fast, furious, and fun. I planned for and taught my classes, but I also became directly involved with determining the school’s improvement priorities, teaching staff about those priorities (and subsequent strategies) in continual PD sessions, re-building observation-coaching-evaluation criteria and processes, and, naturally, other duties as necessary.

In all, I was grateful to work with one school again, and with so many parts of the school at one time. None of it was easy, but it was my kind of work. (And man: .as hinted at above, I really needed it.)

But wait, it gets better

Of all I was happy to be working on in that first year, though, I was probably most excited about the opportunity to lead the school through comprehensively strengthening its curriculum.

In light of several factors I’d observed over my previous work at the school, I’d been on leadership for some time about the school’s need for a more definite, knowledge-rich, expectation-high, and teacher-helpful curricular plan — something, in other words, that could act as a ‘stick in the sand’ for the school’s staff and families.*

* – For more on how I mean that, see this presentation deck I did for a past researchED conference. As I know slides don’t tell much of a story on their own, feel free to reach out if you have questions.)

The leadership agreed with these recommendations all along, but they admitted that their young, growing charter simply had too many other parts spinning to be able to give a full curricular overhaul the attention and space it deserved. When someone like me came aboard full-time to engineer it, however, we were able to get the process moving in earnest — and I was thrilled for the chance.

So in the fall of 2019, I pulled together a great staff committee that got busy (1) learning together which improvements were necessary (and why), (2) setting content targets aligned to the improvement priorities we landed on, (3) plotting scopes and sequences across all subjects, (3) researching materials, (4) studying and reviewing samples, (5) planning how we’d phase it all in (to include, of course, training staff) over the next 2-3 years, and (6) continually communicating progress to and seeking input from the larger staff.

And by the early spring of 2020, everything was right about on track…

Improvement, interrupted

…when, yes (but you knew this part already), Covid-19 sent us away to teach from home last March.

Hoping we’d be back to school as we knew it fairly soon, we did what we could to keep things moving on our improvement projects as spring went into summer. Infection curves, however (and you knew this part, too), didn’t flatten as we hoped they would.

Then in early August, with a school-opening unlike any we’d ever known getting closer and closer, we finally conceded that it wouldn’t be wise to continue as planned on our big curricular implementation’s first phase. Infrastructure and PD time would just be too compromised, fiscal resources too repurposed, to pull it off. Also, and quite obviously, we knew that the hybrid instructional model we were to begin the year with would be shaky ground, nowhere near sturdy enough to build upon. As teachers were effectively going to be re-learning how to teach (and for the second time in just a few months), it didn’t seem reasonable to have them work in all kinds of new — not to mention much more rigorous — content and methods.

While we had to squeeze the brakes on some of what was rolling, however, we got enough done last year to see some curricular upgrades operating throughout the school this year, Covid-compromised paradigm be damned!

(What! You weren’t expecting a story of total defeat, were you? Have you already forgotten the Covid-19 Ed Case Chronicles #1?)

For brevity’s sake, here’s a partial list:

  • The secondary math team’s work with me to define the upper-grades sequence (and, of course, the materials we brought in for them in accord) allowed them to get directly into our revised offerings in the fall.
  • Concepts and exercises from the supplementary lower-grades math materials we reviewed and selected, which had been specifically targeted in light of the revised upper-grades sequence above, are currently being worked into elementary teachers’ lessons.
  • For our teachers of our early grades, materials were brought aboard to help them do more explicit work with their students’ phonemic awareness.
  • The leadership team received training in the CKLA sequence over the summer (and adjusting loads for the distance paradigm), and, to provide a base for when things become a bit more normal, our K-3 leads strategically selected CKLA units to be adapted for distance teaching over the course of the year.
  • In middle grades ELA (which I teach, and which had nothing resembling a curricular plan previously), we fashioned a 6-8 scope and sequence based on Teach Like a Champion’s Reading Reconsidered curriculum and acquired necessary texts for immediate implementation. (In some future posts, by the way, I’ll talk a bit more about how my work with the RR curriculum is going.)

Grateful for progress, even if partial

And wow: As someone who has to teach through all this stuff, I sure am glad we got in what we did. As much time and effort as it’s taking to adapt my instructional materials for the disastance-learning paradigm, plus manage a mid-year load increase (due to a resignation in my department, I now teach a whopping six preps), I can’t imagine where I’d be if I had really no instructional materials to adapt. Preparing for classes every day will always be a lot of work; being able to look down the week, though, and know what’s ahead, maybe even with some ideas for activities, sure helps.

(Side Note: One of my heroes, Robert Pondiscio, recently did a thoughtful piece on the costs of teachers curating their own curricular materials. It includes intriguing findings from a recent RAND report, plus a discussion of the impact curricular-curation has on teachers’ time usage. As with everything by RP, it’s definitely worth a read.)

In all, my school’s Covid-interrupted curriculum-improvement journey has given me yet another reason to endorse ‘strengthening curriculum’ as an absolutely critical improvement lever for schools and districts (which is fairly remarkable, as I didn’t think it was possible to have more reasons than I already had): curriculum helps to streamline teachers’ workloads.

And in schools where workloads may become exceptionally and/or unexpectedly stressful for staff — schools that tend to have high teacher turnover, for instance, or, y’know, schools that have to deliver instruction during an international pandemic — it might be a good idea to have everything they can on hand to keep academic rigor at desired levels. Not investing in such resources is really only inviting rigor to sag, and teachers to break.

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