Monday, May 09, 2005

Curriculum

Everything seems like a good idea when the option is to face the stack of lab reports that I should have finished grading two weeks ago... and so, in response to Nancy's questions, here's how I go about planning curriculum. It works for me. It's not based on any one book or concept, though I have probably absorbed and integrated several philosophies over the years.

Step 1: Figure out what the kids should know & be able to do. Read over (DO NOT MEMORIZE!!!) your standards documents. For some subject areas there are also national standards made up by various groups. Take a look at some typical curriculum materials for that age and subject area - for me, that's the textbook. Get a sense of what's reasonable to expect. Don't forget to take into account your own opinions, strengths, and interests, and your memories of what you knew and needed to know at that grade level. Don't depend TOO MUCH on your memories of your own education, but don't write them off either.

Step 2: Make a curriculum map. I make a chart in MS Word with four columns. In the first, I divide up the year into months, and I estimate the number of weeks in each month after you take out holidays, vacations, etc. The next column is content, the third is skills, and the fourth is assessments/projects. I use my notes from step 1 to organize the year into a bunch of short (3-6 weeks) units. Then, I sketch those into the curriculum map, playing with the order until it makes sense to me. In deciding what to do first, second, third, etc., I consider a few things. Obviously, some topics provide knowledge which is needed for other topics. Others are more flexible. I think about the flow of the year - what is my energy like that month? What is the students' energy like? What topic will motivate during low-energy periods? For science, I consider seasonal tie-ins - I'm moving plants to later in the year in the future, so that the edible plants walk will be warmer and more plants will have sprouted. I also think about the timing of various tests. Some of my revisions to the Life Science Curriculum Map are in response to my experience with the ILS Exam this year - I've discovered that certain topics need to happen earlier to ensure that the kids have been exposed to things that are definitely on the test. When I've figured out how to organize my units, I write them under the months in the first column. Some units take more than one month, or parts of more than one month, but it still works well for me to link them to the calendar divisions this way.

Step 3: For each unit, I think about the more detailed content objectives that I need to make sure my students understand at the end of that unit. I list those in the second column. Then I think about skills objectives - using a microscope, writing a lab report, etc. - that are on-going, and I try to find ways to spread them out throughout the year so that they learn all the important skills and have plenty of chances to practice and review the most important skills. Measurement, for example, is something we keep going back to, but between grades 6-8, I add more metric units (N, g, etc.) and expect greater facility with the more common units (meter, cm, etc.).

Step 4: Now I think about projects and assessments. I know what I want the kids to know and be able to do, but I need to find interesting ways to get information to them and to ask them to do something with what they've learned and show me some understanding and analysis. I spend some time with each unit looking through books and the internet, and I also come up with some ideas on my own. Then I sketch in the most important projects for each unit, and I try to keep in mind the flow of the year, so that they build from simple versions of projects to more complex versions of the same type of project as the year goes by. At the same time, I try to provide diversity in the type of project I assign - it keeps it interesting and lets different kids shine.

Step 5: Once you have your curriculum map, take it unit by unit. Look again at the materials you have and what's available out there. Get really familiar with the material for just one unit. Make a unit calendar (I use a table in MS Word, but you could also use calendar programs) or write out lesson plans for each day. Just remember, for all your planning, it will never go quite the way you intended, so don't get too attached!

And that's how I plan my curriculum.

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