Outside the box

Balancing the Box

Last month, sitting in a workshop discussing the power of writer’s workshop, the inevitable question arose: “How can I find time for this when I have a mandated curriculum to follow?”

One seasoned educator responded, “I just do it. What are they going to do, fire me?”

I chuckled, along with the rest of the room, but it really got me thinking about this common dilemma so many educators face: trying to follow along with a boxed curriculum, while still trying to bring in activities and lessons that help and engage every student. We know our students and so often the “one size fits all” curriculum doesn’t fit the missing puzzle pieces. It is in these moments that we need to trust ourselves as professionals and do what is right for students.

On the social media/message app Voxer, I am a part of an amazing community of middle school English teachers from across the country where we discuss this dilemma often. The pressure to keep pace with our PLCs, complete the required assessments on time, while still having time to reteach, accommodate for those with special needs and engage students with topical, relatable activities that bring fun to the classroom can be overwhelming. It can leave teachers feeling inadequate and as if they are failing. This common scenario is definitely not good for students.

The key is balancing the box with what you think is right for your students. I often think the best thing that ever happened to education was the adoption of Common Core standards without having any approved curriculum. It forced teachers to not only truly understand the standards, but also trust ourselves to create lessons to meet those high benchmarks. Sure, it was brutal, and if you’re like me, most of those units were far from smooth, but personally, I learned so much. About the standards. About curriculum development. About my own teaching gaps. There was no box to protect me.

This is my second year with purchased curriculum, (third if you include piloting). The greatest gift my district gave our teachers was not mandating that we teach every single activity. We do have common unit assessments (three times a year) and common writing pieces (3-4 a year). Don’t get me wrong; I think having these common assessments are incredibly important. District wide we can make decisions on areas of growth for our students and teachers based on results. Even in our PLCs it is important to have shorter-term common assessments, as well. It drives instruction and monitors student growth.

What does not need to be common and identical is the way we teach the standards. I am a huge fan of UDL (Universal Lesson Design) and one of the cardinal rules is that not every student learns the same way, so if we give students options for learning, we can essentially get more bang for our buck, creating a more successful learning environment.

For those of you struggling with being trapped inside the box, I thought I would share a few things my PLC has done with our box curriculum. Hopefully you can share some of your ideas with me, as well.

  • The first time, try it all. You really do not know if an activity is any good, unless you try it. Last year my partner and I taught a chunk of our curriculum to fidelity. This year, we were able to pick what we thought was the best for students and meeting the standards. We have done a lot of taking the “essence” of the lessons and using more topical pieces to hit the same standards.
  • Give CHOICES…
    • for whole class novels or other long term projects. The only whole class novel I teach is The Outsiders. I start this right away and use it as a tool to teach independent reading strategies and review writing. I’ve never met an 8th grader who doesn’t like the classic story, so it’s a safe choice. But that’s it. When our box curriculum includes teaching a novel, we give the students choices. As my Voxer friend Joy Kirr put it, if you teach a novel for 4-6 weeks, it’s likely only a certain portion of your students are engaged with it, so you’ve lost the rest of your class for all that time. I hate to tell you, English teachers, not every student enjoys Of Mice and Men. Let it go.
    • in writing and other assessments. In my class we start the day with daily writing in journals. I give prompts, but students can always write about whatever they want. This is just about building stamina and learning to love writing. We also publish our choice writing in blogs most weeks. As far as our academic writing, the only writing that will ever be the same for every student is short formative pieces, where I need to give quick feedback. Essays? I would shoot myself if I had to read 100+ 8th grade essays on the same topic. Why would I have them write the same argumentative piece? I would much rather have students write about something that matters to them. Fortnight? By all means, write me a well-written, researched essay about the pros and cons of a Battle Royale game.
  • DON’T FORGET INDEPENDENT CHOICE READING. (I’m yelling that, btw.) I had a high schooler in the back of my car the other day who said, “Ah, I miss choice reading.” Students NEED to read books, but not the ones YOU choose. And not just in English class. This should be a school-wide culture adoption. Independent reading improves student academics in so many aspects, plus the research on how reading creates empathy is worth checking out.

Check out this video from Penny Kittle as a reminder of the importance of choice reading.

Having common language, goals and assessments district-wide, but especially in your PLCs is incredibly important. Looking at data, at each level should help drive instruction, but don’t get trapped by the box curriculum. It is there to help frame your lessons not determine the needs of your students. So, don’t feel guilty when you veer. You might need to. As long as you are heading in the right direction and doing what is right for your students, you are not failing anyone. In fact, celebrate the fact that you are the kind of educator who does whatever it takes to make sure his or her students succeed. I celebrate and commend you. You are my people. Cheers!

One thought on “Balancing the Box

  1. Kristina, we’re definitely on the same wavelength! I love your suggestions, and especially how you start with trying it all. These curriculums are written by knowledgeable people – they just don’t happen to know the kids’ needs in our own classrooms. We’ve tried pilots “high fidelity” and then tweaked the next year and the next year… and I love the YELLING, too. SOOOOOO important! Thank you for sharing – this is a solid post you should share every year around this time! ;D

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