Curriculum Mapping as a Journey: Part 1— "Why Map?"

Our journey in mapping….not always a straight path and not always easy, but it as we struggle up that mountain, it is important to remember our destination and to reflect on the process.

I’m hoping that the following curriculum mapping journey will be helpful to other districts who are also going through this process.  Another objective is to provide myself and members in my own district the opportunity to pause and reflect on the beginning of our process and in subsequent entries—how far we have come from these beginning stages.

Our Journey In Mapping

1.  Kick-off

 2.  Why Map?  6 Big Ideas in Curriculum Mapping

At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year our faculty members watched and discussed the following video on the 6 Big Ideas in Curriculum Mapping, presented by Atlas Rubicon representatives, as we embarked on beginning the process of Stage 1 of mapping desired results.

3.  The Vision of our Graduates:  We discussed that all of us were working together to prepare our students to graduate college and career ready and collaborated on what skills we wanted our graduates to have for life.
A graduate from the Mendon-Upton Regional School District Should be able to…..

4.  Curriculum as Building Blocks in Learning.  The Strength of the Standards:  We looked closely at the standards to uncover how they are building blocks of skills that will lead our students to be college and career ready by graduation.

5.  Thinking about Enduring Understandings:  We discussed our own reasons why creating curriculum maps were important.  We discussed setting priorities for the work.

6.  External Support:    We received external support from the DESE DSAC representatives at some grade levels to help with the process:

7.  Framing what is Essential:  Check out this Movenote screencast created to explain how to frame an essential question:


8.  Outline of Curriculum Guidelines:  The following curriculum guideline packet was provided to all teachers to assist them through the various stages of the mapping process.

Best of luck to you as you begin your own journey in mapping!


Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

Does your classroom foster a growth mindset?

The role of praise:
“Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence—like a gift—by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.” 
― Carol S. DweckMindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential

The role of teachers:
“Like my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, these teachers preached and practiced the fixed mindset. In their classrooms, the students who started the year in the high-ability group ended the year there, and those who started the year in the low-ability group ended the year there. But some teachers preached and practiced a growth mindset. They focused on the idea that all children could develop their skills, and in their classrooms a weird thing happened. It didn’t matter whether students started the year in the high- or the low-ability group. Both groups ended the year way up high. It’s a powerful experience to see these findings.” 
― Carol S. DweckMindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential

Watch this video which provides a great overview of Dweck’s growth mindset philosophy.

Strategies for Fostering a Growth Mindset in Your Classroom:

1.  Change Your Words.  Change Their Words.
2.  Help Students Focus on the Process of Learning.

3.  Check Yourself.  What is Your Own Mindset?  What is Your Own Internal Voice Telling You?

Mindset Self-Assessment

4.  Give Your Students on the Right Kind of Praise.  Praise Effort Not Intelligence.

5.  Read more to learn all about Growth Mindset:


Student-Centered Conferences

Putting students at the center of conferences


The date has been on my calendar for months:  Parent-Teacher Conferences.  I’ve done it a thousand times in the role as a teacher, but stepping into the role of a parent in the conference is still something I’m trying to get used to.  I usually prepare in advance and make a list of my questions or concerns at home.  I pepper my son with questions trying to understand how he is feeling about school and what his areas of strengths and weaknesses are and I receive a simple “I’m good at math and I like science” or the very frequent “let’s just not talk about that now Mommy, it’s not school now. Let’s go play.”

Then something unusual happened…. I received a notice from the school inviting my son to come to the parent-teacher conference, turning it into a student-led conference.  Now, the educational side of my brain thought immediately, “This sounds great!  I’ve read a lot of research articles about the positive impact of student led conferences.”  Then the parent side of my brain thought, “But what about all my questions I have for the teacher?  Will the teacher be completely open and honest with my son there?”  I knew I would be bringing my son, but I still wasn’t completely sure how it would work out.

The next day my son came home and said, “I can’t wait for you to come to my student-teacher conference.  I’ve been working so hard this week to prepare and I have some surprises for you for when you come.”  Who could resist this introduction?  Now I’m getting really excited for the conference.

The same week I received a worksheet to fill out and return to prepare for conferences that had two areas I would like my son to work on and one area that I was proud of.  I loved filling this out because I knew it would be a good entry point for the couple of questions/concerns I wanted to address at the meeting.

Finally… the parent-teacher–student conference time was at hand and it was incredible!  My son sat between his dad and mom and shared work that he had prepared as evidence of the areas he was proud of and then areas he would like to work on.  He showed me his pre-assessment data and post-assessment data and how much he learned in math.  Then he shared a writing assignment that had multiple steps and how proud he was of the final product because of how much he was able to write and explain.  He got so excited about a story he was sharing about how he was trying to help a fellow student know how it was unsafe to push people on the stairs that he jumped out of his seat in a highly animated fashion to describe the situation.  Then he agreed with his teachers that he should not rush through problems when he thinks they are easy because he makes careless mistakes and he said he’d try to work on organizing his materials better.  These descriptions were light-years away from my typical afternoon responses of “Math is good.  Writing is hard.”

At the conclusion of the conference I inquired as to how many teachers were going to be doing the student-led conferences and I learned that this whole grade level decided to give it a try.  I am so glad they did!  The conversations and agreed upon goals created a link between home and school, but also with my son.  Now we are all on the same team with shared goals, with my son being at the center of the conversation.

For more information on initiating student-centered conferences, check out the articles below.  A few suggestions from my experience, but also from the research literature include:

  • 15 minutes is not long enough, 30 minutes is more appropriate to allow for the student to share
  • The advance communication to parents is key.  This is new for parents and the upfront explanation was helpful.
  • Advance preparation of the teachers/students is necessary to ensure a successful meeting.
  • Goal setting sheets with input from teachers, students, and parents helps to drive the conversation to next steps.
  • Including a balance between what the student is proud of, alongside areas to work on is key

Educational Leadership:  When Students Lead Parent-Teacher Conferences

Education World:  Student-Led Conferences:  a Growing Trend


SMART GOALS  “Focus on the big Rocks”

As we are embarking on setting up our SMART Goals for the 2014-2015 school year, it can sometimes feel like an overwhelming task at first, specifically when we want to establish an effective student learning goal. I’m hoping the following strategies will help support you in turning a goal into a SMARTER goal.

STEP 1: How do I even begin?
A great place to begin in deciding on a goal is to review the following items:

1.  Self-Assessment.  You want to take some time to see how you rate yourself and your skills against the educator evaluation rubrics.  If there are areas that you are in the Needs Improvement category, you would want to start there.  Also, are there some areas that you rate yourself as proficient, but would really like to work towards exemplary?

2.  End-of Year Evaluation.  Take a look back at your end of year evaluation (summative or formative) and determine if there were areas that were identified to work on for the following school year.

3.  Evidence.  Analyze student data or other pieces of data to determine if there are areas you would like to target in your professional practice or for student learning.  In doing so, think about what the “big rocks” would be for making a significant impact in student learning.

4.  District Strategic Plans and School Improvement Plans.  Alignment is really important for the district to move together on common goals.  Your goals should be aligned to the District and School Goals, so it is a great place to begin.

5.  Interest.  Think about areas you are really eager to take on and what you are ready yourself to make a priority.  You have to have self-interest in the goal you are about to undertake.

STEP 2:  Power of collaboration
Not all goals have to be individual goals.  There is a lot of power to collaborating with your peers at your grade level or department on a similar goal.  Look to see if there is an opportunity to create a Team Goal.  This provides focus and clarity for the group and is a way to maximize the impact of the goals.  It avoids the feeling of being off on an “island to oneself” and fosters new ideas from the collaboration.

STEP 3:  Write a draft of the elements of the goal
Sometimes you just have to begin with writing your thoughts down.  It won’t be in a perfect form at first, but it is a necessary step.  Then work through this process:

1.  Identify WHY this topic is important and strategic. (Strategic)

2.  Write down a draft of the goal objective.

3.  For professional practice goals:  identify what skills, knowledge or practice you will acquire through achieving the goal.  (Specific, Rigorous)  For student learning goals:  identify what class, grade span are the focus.(Results Focused)

3.  Identify when you will achieve the goal.  (Realistic, Timed)

4.  How will you demonstrate progress?  (Action Oriented)

5.  How will you know it will be achieved?  (Measurable)

STEP 4:  Put it all together

Example including all elements in a professional practice goal:
As part of our school’s mission to improve college and career readiness for all 
students and close the achievement gap, (WHY)  I will work with school staff (WHO) to raise the 
enrollment of African American and Latino males in honors, AP and enrichment 
courses (RESULTS)by 10 percent each year over a 2-year period(WHEN) through targeted outreach 
to teachers and students, increased learning about and exposure to enrichment 
opportunities by students in 9th grade, and individualized support (HOW) to better align 
student interests and abilities to appropriate, rigorous courses (STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT).

Example including all elements in a student learning goal:
In recognizing the importance of effectively communicating mathematical thinking, (WHY) the grade 4 team (WHO) will create open-ended performance tasks (at least one task in each of the five domains outlined in the Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for Mathematics) (HOW) to assist students with developing higher order thinking skills in mathematics (WHY).  By June, (WHEN) all grade 4 students (WHO) will demonstrate mastery of 80 percent of the processes that effectively communicate thinking on open-ended higher order thinking tasks (TARGET), as measured by a teacher-created common rubric (MEASUREMENT).

STEP 5:  Once you have a goal, the next steps includes creating the action steps, benchmarks and timelines that will help you get there.
The best exemplars for what this looks like can be found within your district and school improvement plans.

Check out the Mendon-Upton Regional School District Strategic Plan as an example.
SMART Goals – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

Essential Questions-Introduction

Looking for an introduction to creating essential questions?

 Check out this webinar I created based on the book “Essential Questions” by McTighe and Wiggins. The focus of this webinar is on the first three chapters of the book and should provide a first step at identifying essential questions.

To view previous posts on Essential Questions click HERE

How authentic is the audience for your students?

Liz Wernig from Miscoe Hill Middle School recently shared the following video entry (posted below) by one of her students:
  • “I had my 8th graders in my multimedia technology class enter the inaugural White House Student Film Festival, a video contest for kindergarten through 12th-grade students. Finalists have their short films shown at the White House with the President in attendance. Submission criteria was to highlight the power of technology in schools, addressing themes of how schools use technology and/or the role technology will play in education in the future. Even though Tim’s  (8th grade student) film did not win, it is an excellent submission. “

While this is an excellent example of the power and potential of learning in a 1:1 environment, it also really emphasized to me the concept of having a true “authentic audience.”  As educators, take some of your typical classroom tasks and pause to ask yourself the following question….

How could we share  and adapt this performance task for a more authentic audience?

The articles below provide some examples of how an authentic audience can be created both within a school structure, but also beyond the school walls.

Educational Leadership:  Give Students Ownership of Their Learning:  The Power of Audience

Creative Educator:  Authentic Audiences.  Overcoming the Myth of “When I Grow Up”

Essential Questions

As we work on curriculum mapping using the backwards design model, I often hear from teachers that they need assistance in crafting essential questions for the first time.  My quick answer is that essential questions are the types of questions that lead us to ponder the big ideas and enduring understandings. With my history background, I immediately go to the following examples of “What causes civil wars?” or “What is a revolution?”  Then I try to explain how the essential questions fit into the content and standards we teach such as the industrial revolution, French revolution, or the current communications/electronic changes going on today.

It wasn’t until this last week, that essential questions and enduring understandings really took hold for me, as a result of 1:1 conversations with my 5 year old son Liam.  Have you ever spent extended time with an inquisitive kindergartener?  Everything he sees and processes leads to more and more questions and he is not afraid to ask them.  That is when I realized that essential questions are questions that begin at his age and remain with us in some form throughout our lifetime.

  • We were leaving a museum and he heard people speaking in another language and asked “Why are they speaking another language.  Why aren’t they speaking English?”  
  • In a discussion about how much an item costs, Liam asks, “Where does money come from?  How do you get it?  Why does everything cost something?”  
  • Liam has a great fascination with age.  “How old do people usually live?  Why do some people live to be 100 and others don’t?”
  • “If somebody is in another universe, do they know we are here in this universe?”
  • “What were the first animals that lived on Earth? You know, before there were dinosaurs?”
  • “How do spies learn how to be spies?  Do they go to school for that?  What would I have to do to be a spy?” (Ok…so maybe not an essential question, but an interesting question for sure.)
When I hear these questions, I often take a deep breath and ponder how I’m going to answer them with enough detail that it makes sense, but not too much that it is confusing.  I also think about the enduring understandings each question offers: the importance of celebration of diversity and culture, the purpose of currency, the role of genetics and wellness, the laws of the universe, and the history of espionage.

And the answer I gave to how to become a spy? “Yes, they go to school.  Lots and lots of school.  They study languages and cultures, math and science.  They are really smart, so if you want to be a spy, you need to learn as much as you can in school and then go to college.”  🙂

For a more scholarly look at essential questions please check out this resource:  Essential Questions
Otherwise, just spend some time with a kindergartener!

Creating makers by bringing in the extracurricular into the curricular

This past week was national engineering week and part of many of the celebrations included the concept of being a maker.  So what does it mean to be a maker?

Wikipedia defines the maker culture as follows:  

“The maker culture is a contemporary culture or subculture representing a technology-based extension of DIY culture. Typical interests enjoyed by the maker culture include engineering-oriented pursuits such aselectronicsrobotics3-D printing, and the use of CNC tools, as well as more traditional activities such asmetalworkingwoodworking, and traditional arts and crafts. The subculture stresses new and unique applications of technologies, and encourages invention and prototyping. There is a strong focus on using and learning practical skills and applying them creatively.”

Scott McLeod wrote an interesting blog about his son called My son is 8.  He’s a Maker.

As he blogs about his son, it reminds us that all of our students are makers.  The question we may have to ask ourselves is whether we are encouraging this in the classroom as often as we do outside of the classroom.  My own son is 8 and I can say he is also a maker.  He loves playing Minecraft because he is able to create new worlds, tree houses, and buildings.  My 5 year old is also a maker.  He dresses up in costume and creates imaginary battles, crafts forts with our furniture, and writes and sings songs about how he is defeating orcs from the Hobbit or battling creepers from Minecraft.  

Scott McLeod in the above Ted Talk asks…

“How do we take the extracurricular and turn it into the curricular?”

The Big Idea from Scott McLeod:
“So this is the big idea I’d like to leave you with.  If we want our in-school learning environments to be robust, technology-infused places, which they should be, then we have to give them something meaningful to work on, give them powerful devices and access.  Get out of their way and let them be amazing.”

So how do we create and foster our students to be makers and follow their passion?  One way is to integrate technology into our curriculum to provide meaning to their learning.  It is one thing to write an essay about a topic you are passionate about within a classroom;  it is entirely another experience to blog about it and have people from around the world contribute as well.

Sylvia’s Mini-Maker Show

Empowering our own writers

I’ve spent the last few weeks diving into our new writing program Empowering Writers.  I’m excited about the systematic ways it will align our district instruction of writing and provide the necessary framework to expand our student’s skills in narrative, expository, and argumentative writing.  Implementing a new educational resource or program can feel overwhelming at first, but there are so many ways to incorporate these skills across many subjects, moments, and everyday life.  As educators, we are always looking to make connections for our students and to embed skills.  
I don’t typically write about my family, but this is a brief window into a pretty typical dinner in my household, where the opportunities for learning naturally appeared.
Isn’t every experience a potential opportunity to teach writing skills, without writing?
“Wow!  That is a giant cheeseball!”
At dinner the other night my five year old son Liam was begging me to get the giant cheeseball out of the grated Parmesan cheese container.  “Please can I have it?  Can I have it?”  His obsession with cheese began early and is staying strong.  I would have to say cheese is his main food group.
“LIAM!  You are SUCH a Cheese Monster.  All you want is to eat cheese.” says Connor, rolling his eyes.  Now that Connor is 8 and 1/2 way through second-grade, he is starting to become too cool for most everything we do in our house.  Yesterday, he told me “Mommy, you just do NOT understand what it is like to be a kid nowadays.”

Liam retorts “I’m a Cheese Monster and you are Connor the Carnivore…..(a well established family name since Connor was 4 and only eats meat off the bone)…. What would daddy be called?”
Connor jumps in eagerly….”The hot sauce monster! Yes!  Daddy LOVES hot sauce!”
Suddenly, Liam bolts out of his seat at the table and goes to the fridge.  “That reminds me, I’ll get you your favorite hot sauce daddy,”  Liam says with a giant grin and giggle.  This is a family tradition that takes place at least once a week, usually on taco night, but is appearing the night of our spaghetti dinner.  Brian responds  “No, I’m all set, I don’t need hot sauce tonight.”  Liam takes out a jar of jelly (which Brian despises), pretends to pour it over Brian’s spaghetti, and bellows “DO YOU WANT SOME HOT SAUCE!”  Brian pretends to jump back and say “oh no!” and all of us giggle.  
Liam returns to his seat and ponders…”Imagine if the whole world was a giant cheeseball?”
I respond, noticing a great opportunity to teach a skill, “What a great start to a story?  What do you think it would be like if the whole world was actually made of cheese?  We should write a story about that.”
Liam—“What if the whole UNIVERSE was made of cheese?”
Me—“That would be a whole lot of cheese!”
Liam–“Yeah, everyone would be made of cheese, even people, and dogs, like JoJo”
Me—“What would happen if the sun was there, wouldn’t we melt?”  (Trying to bring in some science now.)
Connor–“Mommy, if the whole universe would be of cheese, we couldn’t see the sun.”
Me—“Do you know what happens if you leave cheese out too long?”(Another attempt at problem-based learning)
Liam—“It smells”
Me–“How would it look?” (Got to use all our senses for describing.)
Connor—“I don’t know.”
Brian–“Think about it Connor, what happened in the story Diary of a Wimpy Kid when they left the cheese out?” (Nice job Daddy with the connection to a book).
Connor–“Oh!  It got moldy….. It would be a moldy universe.”
Liam pauses…
Liam—“What if the giant cheeseball universe just blew up?”
Connor–“A big explosion.  Yeah, then the cheese would go everywhere!”
Me—“Kind of like a supernova we saw in the show last week” (again….science, integration)
Connor–“Hmm…. Then, if the sun was actually a supernova and it blew up there would be a black hole”
Me—“What would happen to the cheese?”  (Cause and effect)
Connor—“It would be sucked into the black hole and show up in another universe.”
Me–“Then people would think we were cheese aliens showing up in their universe.”
Liam–“Cheese Aliens!”  Giggle, giggle…..
Laughter ensues.  Dinner ends.
Liam “Hey Connor, let’s do a hug battle!”
Connor “Okay!”
Mom and Dad in unison “No more hug battles!”
Think about what learning opportunities abound when one of your students asks a question….”What if the world was made of cheese?”
For more information on Empowering Writers, please check out the following link.

Close Reading

We hear a lot about close reading as we talk about the Common Core Standards, but what does close reading really look like in the classroom?  How do we as educators instruct students to read closely?

My first recommendation is to start with your own reading skills.  Pause and think about what you do when you are in a situation of reading a complex informational text.  Ponder the steps you take to ensure that you walk away with the most important information and concepts from that text.

Recently I read through a scholarly article and I did the following:

  • Grabbed a pen or pencil and a highlighter.  
  • Underlined key words and phrases.  
  • Starred important concepts and wrote VIP if I thought it is a very important point I might want to go back to.  
  • Numbered steps in a process or a list.  
  • Highlighted key topic sentences or headings.  
  • Put question marks if I didn’t understand something.  
  • Summarized key ideas of paragraphs and sections on the sides.  
  • Drew a light bulb picture if it gave me a new idea
  • Looked up words I was unfamiliar with (by the way, the word was “redolent”).

I think back and wonder when I started doing this successfully?  Who taught me this?
Honestly, I learned these skills on my own when I was in college and exposed to dense and complex texts that it took many re-reads to understand.  That first year in college, I had to go through many trials and tribulations to figure out how to be “college ready.”

So how should we better prepare our students to understand and synthesize the complex texts they will be faced with in college and in the workplace?  The key is to provide them with a wide array of skills and techniques to apply as needed when reading difficult texts.  Please check out the following presentation on close reading, which provides a number of examples of how to implement the strategies in class.

Close reading from Maureen Cohen

Discussion Question: What techniques do you use to read closely that you could share with your students today!