English teacher Kelly Clifford has found the curriculum monitoring binders helpful for planning at Owen County High School. “These binders not only saved my first year teaching and made it a successful experience for me, but also helped me develop rigor in the curriculum.” Photo by Amy Wallot, May 23, 2011

English teacher Kelly Clifford has found the curriculum monitoring binders helpful for planning at Owen County High School. “These binders not only saved my first year teaching and made it a successful experience for me, but also helped me develop rigor in the curriculum.” Photo by Amy Wallot, May 23, 2011

By Matthew Tungate

Leslie Robertson had a problem when she became curriculum specialist at Anne Mason Elementary School (Scott County) in 2007. Several teachers had left the high-performing school the previous year and taken all of their teaching materials.

“Here we had these high scores, and pretty much nobody in the building had ever taught that grade level,” Robertson said. “We didn’t have any kind of uniform curriculum system, so here we are hiring people for that grade level and there’s this panic of, ‘Oh my God, we had over 100 (index score on state accountability tests) in that particular grade level in certain areas, and how are we going to duplicate that? We don’t know what it was that we did.’”

As she began pulling the curriculum together for new teachers, “I thought, ‘This is not going to happen to us again,’” Robertson said.

She wanted a system to give to new teachers so they know what they were supposed to teach on each day while allowing them to decide how to teach it. The curriculum-monitoring system Robertson developed at Anne Mason Elementary is now being used districtwide in Owen County schools, where she now supervises instruction and curriculum, among other things.

Teachers have binders for every subject for each nine-week period, Robertson said. Inside the binders are:

  1. unit assessments that include 24 multiple-choice and two open-response questions, though less is required in grades K-1
  2. daily curriculum maps that include activities, resources, key vocabulary and learner outcomes, though they are not comprehensive lesson plans
  3. a plan for addressing weekly content vocabulary
  4. writing journals/plans to teach writing strategies each week by incorporating it in all content areas
  5. worksheets, labs and activities that correspond to each of the daily learner outcomes
  6. daily formative review assessments – called flashbacks – to quickly assess whether students are retaining old information and to fill in any gaps as evidenced on previous unit assessments
  7. daily formative assessments– called exit slips – assessing the current day’s learner outcomes
  8. a pacing guide for the year

“These are the same for every teacher in that grade level or course – the expectations are the same,” Robertson said. “Only the activity needs to change according to the individual teacher. Tests are given the same day in most cases, and they stay within three days of the map, one way or the other.”

She said all items are scanned and digitally put on a CD or server so that the central office has a master copy.

“This is helpful at the school and district level, as we invest a lot of time in these plans. Should we have a new teacher in a grade level, (the plans) are simply priceless to maintain continuity and intentionality,” Robertson said. “They also can be shared with gifted, ELL, homebound and special education teachers (each) nine weeks ahead of time so that differentiation and accommodations/modifications can take place.”

Kelly Clifford, who teaches 9th- and 10th-grade English at Owen County High School, has used the curriculum-monitoring binders both of her years in the classroom. She said they were helpful her first year teaching freshman English and a lifesaver last year when she added sophomore English.

“I have a binder for each class for each nine weeks,” she said. “I can just carry a binder for that nine weeks and I have everything I need. … The curriculum map is the backbone in my planning and implementing instruction, and I would continue to do it this way even if I was not asked to do so.”

Binders about establishing consistency

When Robertson started in Owen County, district leadership wanted her to focus on curriculum and instruction. Because there was no consistency of lesson design and unit development, it was hard to make recommendations, she said.

“We were still at a place where people sort of followed their own plans. It’s hard to plug holes when everyone is doing something different,” Robertson said. “My philosophy is, it doesn’t matter how great of a teacher you are if you are teaching the wrong stuff.”

Curriculum maps were inconsistent, lacked vertical alignment and in some cases were non-existent, she said.

“I couldn’t help them address curricular concerns that may have been evident in their statewide data because I couldn’t put my hands on anything that was used uniformly across any particular grade level,” Robertson said. “So what I was trying to do was build a structure for which we could develop and refine, and not redo, every single year.”

The issue really came down to defining what should be taught and how, she said.

“The ‘what’ is non-negotiable, because that’s our standards. The ‘how’ is absolutely negotiable,” Robertson said. While teachers have creative control on the delivery method, “the expectation is that all kids will know that content.”

Billie Smith, kindergarten teacher at Owen County Primary School, said she was “thrilled” that all teachers would teach the same content at the same time of year and commonly assess the students on the content delivered.

“Prior to the curriculum monitoring folders, teachers chose when and for how long a duration the units would be taught,” the seven-year veteran teacher said. “After the implementation, teachers would plan the units of study together and make decisions regarding the content together. There was some valid concern that this practice would make teaching ‘cookie cutter,’ but this was not the case. Teachers would design the expectations and assessment for each unit together. We shared ideas and activities, but how each teacher chose to instruct was unique.”

Binders developed nine weeks at a time

Robertson was hired July 1, 2009, so she was in a time crunch to get the new curriculum-monitoring binders implemented her first year in Owen County. She worked with the core subject teachers at the high school and middle schools plus teachers at each elementary grade that first summer. They laid out the yearly pacing guide, broke the year into nine-week blocks, then focused on the first nine weeks.

“We want this time to be specific to what that grade levels’ expectations and content are and their unique situation,” Robertson said.

Robertson continues to work with the teachers to create the content of the folders nine weeks at a time throughout the school year.

“By taking it nine weeks at a time, we could really refine and focus on really what’s happening in this nine weeks – instructionally, curriculumwise and assessmentwise,” she said.

Robertson has consulted with districts that spend one week planning their whole year. By the end of the week, the teachers are worn down, and the ideas usually aren’t as good, she said.

Preparing nine weeks at a time forces the teacher to reflect on the previous nine weeks, Clifford said.

“It’s hard enough to plan for supper a week at a time, let alone an entire year all at once,” she said. “Chunking the year into its equal parts helps in creating a better curriculum because I can change if something is not working, I can ‘start over’ fresh at each nine weeks and do a better job.”

In Owen County, teachers get a day in the summer, October, December and February, respectively, about two weeks before the start of a nine-week period to update their folders, Robertson said.

“That’s critical because it allows for you to do some adjustment,” she said. “Because it’s frustrating to do an entire year, and then you end up three weeks behind here, two weeks behind here, and here you are at the end of the year and you can’t get it all in. So it allows for that constant readjusting throughout the year.”

When teachers come together every nine weeks, they discuss not only what needs to be adjusted in the coming nine weeks but also what worked and what didn’t the previous nine weeks, according to Brandy Lusby Neal, a 1st-grade teacher at Owen County Primary School.

“Doing this every nine weeks helps us remember what we taught, how it went and what changes need to take place, she said. “If you waited until the end of the year, we would not remember as many details as we do when coming together every nine weeks.”

All 100 Owen County teachers submit their binders each nine weeks for Robertson to review and, when needed, give suggestions for improvement. Robertson copies each of the binders digitally and stores them. She monitors every nine weeks and gets updates.

“If they change it or add things to it, I have those updates,” Robertson said. “That way, if they lose something or if they leave, we’re able to maintain a level of consistency within our curriculum by me having those as well.”

Binders aid in implementing new standards

The curriculum-monitoring binders are flexible to incorporate new content standards this year and in coming years, Robertson said.

Teachers readjust pacing documents to identify “new” units of study; analyze what information students may not have gotten in a previous grade and figure out how to incorporate it; and decide which materials and resources they will pass on to other grade levels – including units of study so that the other folks have a working document to start from, she said.

Owen County uses a colored stars system to address whether new standards have been added to units.

“During the curriculum days they simply pull out any lessons/activities, assessments and other items that no longer ‘fit’ and put them in a basket to move to a new grade level,” Robertson said. “They scratch through learner targets that are no longer in their curriculum and readjust the daily curriculum map adding in new targets.”

Teachers then revise assessments to meet the new standards for each unit and add congruent lessons, she said, “and voila – we are able to realign with new standards, basically one nine weeks at a time.

“This will cut down on frustration and increase the quality of the work teachers are doing, as it breaks it down into segments and doesn’t just go in and try to do a whole year at once. It lets us focus on the quality of each standard, work sample and assessment/activity.”

Robertson said many schools and districts can relate to Owen County, which has no other curriculum staff in the district.

“It’s about creating a system of continuous monitoring that can be logistically and practically handled by one person,” she said.

Leslie Robertson, leslie.robertson@owen.kyschools.us, (502) 484-4008