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Why curriculum mapping matters and how to pull it off

Jennifer Mitchell
January 16, 2020

A common misconception about curriculum mapping is that teachers and administrators just need to come together once or twice a year to rewrite the curriculum, pick the resources they will use, and then they’re done. The problem with this approach is that the written curriculum will quickly fall into disuse, never to be revisited. By contrast, effective curriculum mapping entails recording what teachers are actually teaching, whether it’s aligned with standards, how it is impacting student achievement, and determining what needs to be updated and improved.

Curriculum mapping across a K-12 district is a major undertaking, but the benefits are indisputable. District and school leaders can step back to see the big picture and answer important questions. Are teachers covering all the required standards? Are teachers of a particular grade level on track to meet the same targets by year’s end? Will all rising ninth graders be ready for the start of high school? 

Importantly, curriculum mapping can also save teachers huge amounts of time. Once they have the curriculum, lessons and resources they need at their fingertips, they can focus on delivering effective, standards-aligned lessons to their students to drive student achievement and ensure students across all subgroups are on track to meet or exceed grade-level expectations.

Getting started

But getting there is no easy process. When I stepped into the role of schoolwide coordinator of curriculum and professional development for Mifflin County School District in 2016, I encountered several right from the start. No one knew exactly where our curriculum documents were -- turns out they were scattered across flash drives, laptops and various folders. There was no clear understanding of what teachers were supposed to be teaching and when. As a building principal in another district, I had used Google Drive to map curriculum within my school, but I knew we needed something more versatile and capable to develop a district-wide map that would actually be useful. We began looking for technology platforms that would allow us to: 

  1. Organize resources, including individual teachers’ lessons, entire grade-level curriculum maps, and assessments in one, easy-to-access location that everyone can access. 

  2. Collaborate among teams and provide visibility across learning trajectories.  

  3. Align instruction and content, at grade level and across grade levels. 

  4. Evaluate data to improve delivery of instruction and identify gaps in the written and taught curriculum.

We considered using our learning management system to accomplish these goals, but it wasn’t user-friendly or designed to meet the specific needs of this project. Our district technology director suggested Chalk, as he had heard about its curriculum mapping tools at an educational conference. 

We soon realized Chalk’s integrated planning and analytics platform would help us achieve all four of our objectives. It lets us curate our curricular resources -- grade-level curricula, resources and teachers’ individual lessons for the entire year -- in a single location. It fosters collaboration. Teachers can work independently or in groups, simultaneously, in the system, and administrators can spot check progress and provide input. Teachers can align lessons with standards (the standards can be pulled directly into a teacher’s lesson plans), and data reports help us ensure consistency across entire -- and between -- grade levels.

Strategies to facilitate effective curriculum mapping

Success begins with rallying support and ensuring widespread participation. Here’s how we did it.

  1. Communicated core beliefs. Determine core beliefs about the process and communicate those to all participants at the outset of the project. I conveyed to principals and teachers the value of curriculum mapping, what the process entailed and the fact that we would need to meet regularly throughout the year to not only look ahead, but also to reflect on previous months and ask, “Are we using the resources we said we would, and if not, why not?” Then, we can make adjustments. 

  2. Set expectations. Everyone needs to understand that getting high-quality results takes time. It often entails stops and starts, and requires a great deal of communication and collaboration. It’s a good idea to establish working norms so teachers and administrators have some guidelines on how to respectfully disagree, compromise and come to consensus. 

  3. Provided targeted professional development. Teachers and administrators will likely need training to understand what a curriculum map is, and adequate time to dig into the various standards and select appropriate resources to support their lessons. Targeted professional development is essential to support this process. Before our teams began writing curriculum, we offered a one-day seminar for each team to define the work, set expectations, review standards and highlight best instructional practices for each content area.  

  4. Engaged building leaders. I work with 15 principals in my district. It is really important for all of them to understand the curriculum mapping work that I’m doing with their staff so they can evaluate the success of instruction that flows from that curriculum. To develop a common understanding of the process and the outcomes, all principals log in to view the entire district’s curriculum. We also conduct regular learning walks using a “look-for sheet” to guide our observations of classroom instruction and help facilitate the ensuing debrief and evaluation. For example, when a recent observation revealed that some teachers were not expliciting stating learning targets for a particular unit to students as designed in the curricular maps, our principals then were able to follow up with targeted coaching.

Future plans

My goal is to ensure all our instructional maps are easily accessible to all staff members, and going forward, we plan to add curriculum map information to the district website to make it transparent for our families. We have also adopted a revolving review cycle by entering our maps in draft form until they receive board approval, and later returning them to draft form to make necessary updates and improvements. This fluid approach to curriculum mapping directly affects student achievement by allowing teachers to make changes based on student needs and performance data in real-time. For example, after meeting recently to discuss student data, a team of eighth grade teachers contacted me after noticing students didn’t perform as expected on non-fiction literacy standards. We were able to work with this team in an expedient fashion to update the curriculum so they could adjust their daily instruction. When we empower teachers to make these types of instructional decisions, students win.

Jennifer Mitchell is schoolwide coordinator of curriculum and professional development in Mifflin County School District in Pennsylvania. She has worked in the field of education for 22 years serving in the role of teacher, instructional coach, building-level principal and now central office administrator. Mrs. Mitchell knows firsthand the challenges schools face in providing high quality instruction for all learners, but embraces finding the solutions through collaboration with others. Connect with her on Twitter @JennMCSD.

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