What to Look for in a New Curriculum

This upcoming school year, our school will be looking at adopting a new high school ELA curriculum.  I have a very limited background when it comes to school districts and their adoption or development of curriculums.  I have seen many documents online as I have done my own research for my own, which was based solely on the incorporation of the state standards, researched-based strategies, and strong texts.

I have been through several textbook series and curriculum support presentations in my career, and this summer would be no different.  Before the presentations began, I sat down and made a list of all the features I would want the ideal ELA curriculum to have:

  • Standard-based lessons and activities
  • Reading, Speaking, Listening activities
  • Close Reading
  • A strong writing program
    • Synthesizing information presented into a product
    • “Beyond-the-text” assignments
    • MLA/APA/Citations/Plagiarism support
    • How to do research – online and in libraries
  • Rubrics
  • The text selection would be both rigor-appropriate, but also high interest
  • Technology & multimedia must be incorporated
  • Digital copies of the texts for the students and teachers
  • Differentiated options
  • Support for ELL/ESL students
  • A user-friendly interface
  • Support for teachers (professional development, customer service support)
  • Options for teachers to customize the content/assessments/assignments

Educator Question of the Day: What other features do you look for in a new curriculum?

Spaghetti and Shifts

Transitioning to a new set of standards, with as many stakes that are placed on the assessments that they are based upon, can be a scary thing.  As an educator, many questions pop into your mind:

  1. What changes will there be to the standards?
  2. How will those changes affect my teaching?
  3. How will the changes to my teaching impact my students?
  4. What is the assessment going to look like?

These are all legitimate concerns and ones that myself have had.  Thankfully, a wonderful consultant, Dr. Matthew Ohlson, came to our school and provided us with several professional development opportunities to clarify some of the gray areas around our new standards and what our teaching will look like.

His analogy for any adjustments our teaching will go through because of the new Florida Standards (think Common Core here) is like a classic, family recipe.  You would never throw out Great Grandma Ferrari’s spaghetti and meatballs recipe because you want to update it!  No, instead you would perhaps add a bit more pepper, sauté the garlic in roasted red peppers instead of tomatoes, or you would add hot sauce.  Changing everything about your teaching because of the new standards would be like going to McDonalds and expecting their menu to be all sushi and no burgers.  Small changes to the instructional practices that you’re already making in four areas is the key.

The four areas to consider when creating lesson plans and instructional strategies:

1.  Rigor

2.  Student Engagement

3.  Collaboration and Culture

4.  Deeper Knowledge

The way that Dr. Ohlson presented these four areas to us was through a tower building challenge.  Four tables were setup with a pile of uncooked spaghetti, one marshmallow, and masking tape.  Each table was identified with one of the four new standards themes: rigor, student engagement, collaboration & culture, and deeper knowledge.  The task was for each group to use the tools they were given to build the tallest tower that would support the marshmallow at the peak for a minimum of 30 seconds.  Here is my team’s final product:

We didn’t win; we came in around 2nd/3rd place.  It was a fun and creative, hands-on activity.  After we were done talking trash and “congratulating” the winners, we sat back in our seats and talked about how this activity related to the four areas, and how we could use an activity like this in our classrooms.


Have students measure the angles or write a justification as to why they chose to build the tower the way that they did

Student Engagement

All students would fully participate, even if they were not the ones that were doing the building.

Collaboration and Culture

There’s a reason why these sorts of activities are used for team-building.  All members had to work together to collectively create this tower.  Ideas were shared, trial and error, and of course the trash talk.

Deeper Knowledge

Students would understand why their towers would be able to support more weight, utilizing elements of physics and geometrical shapes. (As you can see, my English background leaves me in the dust when it come to Sciency things)

When we were all done, Dr. Ohlson showed us this TED Talk video:

How could you use an activity like this in your classroom?

What shifts have you made to your own teaching to address increased rigor, student engagement, collaboration & culture, and deeper knowledge?

Midterm Projects and Genius Hour

Monday marked the first day of Midterm Week for us at school.  I chose to have all of my midterms be project-based, and I am mostly pleased with the outcomes.

For my AP Language & Composition course, I chose to have my students complete a Nonfiction Novel Project that was shared with my College Board Summer Institute class last summer.  A novel is chosen by each student and they are required to read it, write a synopsis, define key vocabulary terms, identify and explain five to ten rhetorical devices per chapter/section, and give the novel a proper review in terms of the author’s writing style and content.

The Creative Writing class had been working on 500 word stories and essays throughout the quarter, and their midterm was to turn one of them into a five-to-seven page story.  I asked them to really work on developing their characters, as this was the focus of their previous assignments.

English III was really a lot of fun because it was the group of students whom I chose to work on Genius Hour.  Most of the projects were really well done and the students shared how much they enjoyed the process and opportunity to research something that they wanted to.  I had two class periods participate in Genius Hour, and while it was difficult for some students to get started, I would say that overall the project was a success.


I had students prepare presentations that addressed the following questions:

  • What was your project objective when you first began the project?
  • Your project objective might have changed at some point.  If it did, how and why?
  • How did you bring your resources together to support your project objective?  What resources did you use?
  • Why did you choose your topic?  What connections do you have to it?
  • What did you learn as a participant in this process?  What did it reveal that you can use in the future?
  • Now that the project is “completed,” what follow up questions do you have?
  • If we began Genius Hour – Round Two, would you stick with this topic or would you begin a new one?

Presentations came in many different formats.


If I were to put a description on how successful I felt my first attempt at implementing Genius Hour went, I would say that it was effective, but much room was left for improvement.

What Went Well:

  • Student Enjoyment – the majority of students said that they were glad that we did Genius Hour, and the few that were apathetic have that general attitude about school and responsibility in general.
  • Time in the Media Center – I was worried about not having adequate time, but as it turned out I was able to book the Media Center as often as I felt it was necessary.
  • Creativity – This particular class of students has a high level of creativity and zest for the dramatic, so I was not let down when I had high hopes that the Genius Hour projects would be creative and vivid.
  • The Initial Use of Blogging – I had my students maintain blogs about their Genius Hour projects, documenting the information that they uncovered, how their project formation was developing, and their thoughts about it in general as the process unfolded.
  • Using Feedly – This was the single most efficient tool that I have found to assist me during a project.  Feedly allowed me to subscribe to all of the student blogs and only log into one account to see their postings.

What Needs to be Improved Upon:

  • Increased Diligence on Blogging – If I gave students time during class to complete their weekly blogs then they were completed.  Sadly, I soon discovered that left up to their own devices, the students would not post, even after being shown the ease in which creating a blog entry was on their smartphones with the use of the WordPress application.
  • More Student Conferencing – I spent an adequate amount of time checking in with students, but I realize at the end of the journey that I left too much of my feedback on their blog entries as opposed to a face-to-face discussion.  I think that this would help the students in their understanding of the project requirements.
  • Stronger Parameters – Now that I have had the first round of Genius Hour completed, I realize that I need to increase the specifications of the project in general.  I now see that the requirements that I gave were good, but should have been increased to help support the students’ understanding and perhaps even their devotion to the project.  Examples might be a more specific rubric, example projects (which I now have), specific blog topics, a formal project proposal, a formal project update log, etc.