A curriculum is what you make of it.
Unfortunately, no one really tells teachers in most districts what to make of curriculum. Few schools tell you how much or how often to use it, and even fewer tell you exactly how. When you adopt a new curriculum, there is often some support from the publishing company that you’ll be required to attend, but this isn’t really informative other than where to find various pages and parts of the curriculum’s resources.
As the people who use the curriculum, we should have an opinion, but the selection and usage are often such vague and arbitrary topics that it’s hard to make an informed decision. Who can help us decide what we need in a curriculum? Curriculum selection isn’t a topic often heard about in professional development meetings. How do successful educators who know how to make these decisions do it?
If you’re a new teacher, depending on your teacher training program, your experience with curriculum may be anything from nonexistent to learned and immediate dependency (there is no wrong way to begin). Experience in years serves to widen those possible levels of usage rather than narrowing them.
It can take years to find your happiest balance between using district adopted curriculum and supplementation. As you search for that balance, here are a few things to consider.
Accuracy of the Curriculum
There are four major educational publishers - Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Scholastic. There are at least 16 more major publishers of education material, but these four are the biggest.
Schools and districts adopt curriculum about every six years on average. It takes a couple of years to write, edit, format, and print these textbooks before they are out for districts to look at, so research in both content and teaching practice for curriculum may feasibly be up to about a decade old before a new adoption is finalized.
That may not seem like a lot, but it isn’t unreasonable to assume the curriculum you are currently using is not up-to-date with cutting edge research about how humans learn, best practices for teaching them, or the most accurate information.
In addition, the writers of the curriculum are people. They aren’t all-knowing, and they come to the job with the same biases and well-intended misinformation many of us enter our jobs with. There is nothing magical or special about their abilities to teach, and as much as we all try to do our best with our jobs, it is not only likely that there will be some mistakes in the curriculum: it’s probable.
With that being said, many who work for curriculum publishers are former educators who understand what being in the classroom is like. They do their research, and they seek to create lessons that can be used in a variety of ways and that can be adapted to fit a number of different kinds of classrooms.
The good thing about curriculum is that it is a compilation of all the resources you could need - or even imagine needing - in one place. No curriculum is perfect, but very few curricula would be completely without merit.
And using a curriculum can save a teacher a lot of time and creative “juice”. That’s important when you’re writing lesson plans on Wednesday (ok, let’s be realistic - Friday afternoon at 4… or Sunday afternoon at 6 pm …) for the next week and you are dog-tired from another day (or week) in the classroom. When you’re worn out, it’s very difficult to be creative. Having something already planned and prepared for those times is really helpful.
Before you sit down to plan next, though, flip to the front of the book and see what the printing date was. Keep in mind that much of the content was written before that date. If it’s been a few years, check to be sure the data, content, and teaching methods are up to date. If they aren’t, you may need to tweak your planning a little.
Another good point here is that in order to know what isn’t current, you’ve got to stay up to speed with what IS. That means that you’re not only attending required professional development training, but you’re reading and keeping up to date with current research and trends in your area.
Teaching is not the kind of career where you can learn your content and never approach it again. You need to constantly be on the lookout for current trends and information to keep yourself informed about your vocation.
Quality of “Fit”
Curriculum may be accurate without being the right curriculum for a particular school, teacher, or classroom. That’s really the most important point (after accuracy) that should determine how much you use your curriculum and how much you supplement using outside resources.
There will likely be portions of the curriculum that you can use as-is, and others you will have to adapt or supplement with other resources. Sometimes teachers use other resources because they love the other material. It may emphasize an area that a particular class needs more instruction on or focus on something in a different way that will appeal to students more.
Be sure you use your voice when you are asked about it. Plan to have an opinion about what you want and what you have.
Every year, millions of dollars are wasted on curriculum that sits in boxes, not even opened by educators.
Although these publication companies are large, they want to have the best products. If you find that none of it fits well for you, and you find yourself constantly supplementing, let your voice be heard. Email the publishing companies with your opinions. Tell them what isn’t working for you. You will find them surprised and eager for your opinions, on the whole.
Many times, publishing companies operate at a disconnect. Teachers don’t feel they have an opinion, so they keep quiet and just work with what they have or supplement on their own. That leaves them in the “bubble”. They won’t know what we want from them unless we tell them.
Selecting a Curriculum
When it’s time to select a new curriculum, teachers form committees, decide who will represent their team, and go to meetings where they have the opportunity to look at the different materials. Companies will send materials to the schools for teachers to try out and see if it works for them.
Part of the problem with this method is that teachers often have no idea what to look for in a curriculum. We sometimes don’t feel like we’re qualified to make these decisions because whatever the district chooses is usually not used by our teams anyway.
Or the reverse may be true - whatever your team gets, you will find things that you can work with and you’ll fill in any holes you have, so you figure it’s no use wasting time in offering your opinion. In the end, you don’t really do the choosing anyway.
Aside from the building itself, the curriculum may be one of the most expensive things schools and districts purchase. Although you may not feel that you have a lot to say, or that anyone is really listening, you should offer your opinions, and be able to do so in some detail.
In order to think more critically about this situation, start documenting as soon as possible with the curriculum you are currently using. As you plan, as you teach, and as you reflect upon your lessons, record what is working well and what needs improvement.
Keep a notebook or binder specifically for notes about your curriculum. If a particular section is lacking adequate material, or you’ve given up even using the curriculum because it’s incorrect or inadequate, note that frustration. What do you need? What would make it better? What are you using instead, and how is it an improvement?
It’s really difficult to think of all these things in the moment when it’s time to adopt new materials. Keeping track of this information as you go will really help you and your team make more specific requests and offer more insight if you get the opportunity to express what you prefer in the curriculum.
Keep in mind that attractiveness and ease of use are important, but they aren’t the only important things. Many teachers make the mistake of just choosing what is most visually appealing and hate the curriculum they’ve helped to choose a year or two after they begin working with it.
The topic of the curriculum isn’t usually anyone’s favorite. It may feel like a bother, an afterthought, a waste of your time, an annoyance, or just a load of frustration. The truth is that you probably have more say about curriculum choice than you think you do.
Keeping track of your thoughts as you go through the year(s) teaching with a particular curriculum can be beneficial. It causes you to think more critically about what you want and need, and it gives you a cumulative opinion on what you’d like to see selected next.
You don’t have to do it alone, either. Involve your teammates and colleagues in keeping notes on the effectiveness and usefulness as well so you can be informed as a group.
When the group starts to voice well-formed, deep opinions that you’ve been working on for years, that can cause change. People are far more likely to listen when you’ve been contributing to a collective opinion for a while.