My classroom teaching experience was spent in smaller districts. The first “district” was a small, private school in Chillicothe where I literally had 7 middle school students (grades 6-8) and maybe 10 high school students. I don’t know that there was a set curriculum other than I was given a couple of textbooks and told, “Good luck.” I had a tremendous amount of freedom, no guidance, and a lot of work to do on my own. Without any sort of curricular plan, I was just following along chapter after chapter through the texts–using the stories I liked and that I thought the kids would like and disregarding those I thought were boring or that the kids would think were boring. No direction. No progression of skills. Hum-drum instruction.
I chocked this lackadaisical approach to curriculum off to the fact that it was a private school. Clearly, since they were not tied to state standards and standardized assessments, they were removed from the idea of an organized plan of what to teach and when.
Then I started teaching in a small public school. Lo and behold, I had no curriculum guidance. What I thought was a private-school-only phenomena was suddenly in the public sector as well, but now I was in charge of 130 students while I aimlessly led them through the textbook with no attention to skill/learning progressions or instructional best practices. (After all, how could I formatively assess when I had no real clue what I was teaching.) We read stories (again, those self-selected for personal interests as well as my perceived interests of my students), we answered the questions as written and dictated by the textbook company, and we made it through the year. I’m still not sure what I actually taught them, but I learned that with blind faith to the publisher’s alignment to standards and without any real knowledge that things could be different, I could make it through the school year and pat myself on the back for a job well done in June.
It is now as a curriculum director that I have finally had the opportunity to see what a pacing guide looks like and what a course of study is, and I see real benefit to both but not in the documents themselves, but instead in the work that goes into creating the documents.
A pacing guide, for those who (like me) haven’t seen one, is a guide for which standards should be addressed at which points throughout the year. It serves as a guide whether you are the ONLY teacher at a particular grade or a part of a slew of grade level teachers in a district that are at multiple buildings. So, if you’re teaching 8th grade math at Building A, the way your content/learning unfolds throughout the year should match that of 8th grade math at Building B. Or, if you’re the only 9th grade ELA teacher in District C during 2012-2013, your content/learning should unfold at the same pace during 2013-2014. It’s also beneficial in that it provides a structure for formative assessment. If you know your first quarter of the school year is spent working on standards 1, 2, and 3, then you know you should focus your planned formative assessments on standards 1, 2, and 3–you are paying specific and careful attention to these standards because your pacing guide is providing you with that focus. How my first years of teaching would have been improved with a document such as this!
Creating a Pacing Guide
Having not seen one before, I’m coming into the creation completely untainted by previous practice. Because I don’t know “the box” of how these have worked in the past, I get to create my own “box” for writing them. Here’s what I envision…
- To me, the pacing guides of our new standards (“Ohio’s New Learning Standards: K-12 ______(subj)_____” <—Hey! The name has stuck around a few weeks! It might be a keeper!!!) should not refer to standards statements themselves, but to the deconstructed learning targets committees of teachers create.
- Writing a pacing guide, then, begins with groups of teachers at each grade level (divided by content, obviously) creating learning targets for their content. What is really cool about the ELA standards is that for the most part, they are devoid of specific content requirements. This means that learning targets created for a certain grade level reflect actual skills to be learned–these skills can be learned and applied regardless of the content. So, if you’re a 9th grader taking Science Fiction Literature, you can still learn the same skills as a 9th grader taking World Literature.
- Once grade level teachers write their learning targets, some vertical work needs to happen. We need to make sure that the 9th grade Reading Literature targets for standard 3 (RL.9.3) build on those written by the 8th grade teachers. We also need to make sure the learning targets do not repeat. 9th grade teachers do not need to reteach concepts taught in earlier grades (Side bar–We really have to stop doing this. I always operated under the assumption that I had to start from scratch when teaching thesis statements because nobody in any grade before me knew how to teach thesis statements like I did. No. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. At some point we MUST hold students responsible for their learning and stop demeaning those professionals who are in line before us. Learning targets give us a clear framework for moving learning forward grade after grade–do not REDO the work of teachers before you.)
- Work on skill development over the course of a grade. Here’s what I see for this…we have these templates of deconstructed standards and their corresponding learning targets. 1) Determine quarterly power standards that you want to really hone in on, 2) Organize the learning targets that are connected to those power standards into a logical progression keeping in mind that they can be paired, grouped, etc. Ultimately, when you plan your lessons, you know you are inherently teaching many learning targets (thereby, standards) at once, but because you have determined power standards/power learning targets (your focus), both you and your students know specifically what will be addressed in the lesson. Subsequently, your focused and target-based feedback will correspond with that single learning target (although, again, you know you are addressing many learning targets during the lesson as well–they just aren’t you major focus).
- Plan for resources that correspond to those skills and put those into the pacing guide. Finding target-based resources in advance will only help with planning later.
Let’s think about all of that work for a minute…a committee of teachers (insert subject), carefully combing through each individual standard statement and collaborating to break it down into manageable pieces (learning targets) that make formative assessment more focused and feedback to students more effective, combined with a final document (pacing guide) that pre-plans and guides all teachers in ensuring skill development throughout the year…If that isn’t improving instruction by diving into curriculum work, I don’t know what is!
Go another step further with this work and begin creating common assessments with assessment items that are related directly to specific learning targets. Again, think about the amazing professional growth that comes from guiding teachers in diving into this kind of work and how that professional growth translates back into improving instruction.
I wish I had had at least knowledge of these instructional and curricular practices when I was weeding out pieces of the textbook at will during my first years in teaching.
The standards themselves will not change instruction. In fact, the standards can sit in their booklets on a shelf (or on the web, depending on which set of standards you are using) and never affect anything we teach. But through curricular work and the collaborative efforts of teachers, the standards can change instruction and our awareness of what we teach, how we teach, and why we’re teaching it.