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"Just right" mapping

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There are many compelling arguments in support of curriculum mapping. The process itself enables teachers to articulate what they teach and how they assess inside a chronology. Completed maps can show the relationship among desired standards, skills, lessons, assessments and resources. They can offer teachers from within a subject or grade level opportunities to compare instructional strategies, identify resources to differentiate student learning, make adjustments in units to build

understandings, or compact the curriculum by consolidating or merging two units. When reviewed by teachers across grade levels, curriculum maps can lead to the identification of gaps and redundancies in the curriculum, reveal redundancies and unnecessary repetition of lessons and topics, or uncover gaps in standards and skills that need to be addressed. Individuals and groups of teachers can use them to share, reflect, collaborate, evaluate, adjust, and plan.

Few could argue about the value of explicitly articulating the operational curriculum that teachers use either before they teach it, while they are teaching it, or after they have taught it, and there is ample empirical evidence to support its value (Jacobs , 1997, 2004, 2010). The benefits of mapping are evident in the dramatic increase in schools engaged in this process and in companies generating technology-related products to support it (Atlas, Techpaths, CurricuPlan, Curriculum Mapper). Curriculum mapping provides a powerful and dynamic pre-requisite to the kinds of curriculum and assessment design work that are needed in response to the current adoption of Common Core Standards by most states in the US.

Ideally, curriculum mapping is a means to a shared end and an ongoing collegial and rigorous process. In many schools, however, mapping is an exercise of compliance, understood and done by few, and shared in ways that preclude revision or improvement. Among the reasons for an ineffective use of mapping are that schools jump into the mapping processes without devoting sufficient time to discussing the role of mapping in their school improvement agenda; do not include key stakeholders in the exploration and determination of the value and purposes of mapping, or in the completion of the maps themselves; do not allocate sufficient time for teachers to actually work with the maps; and launch competing initiatives that dilute the work on mapping. As a result, mapping is construed and experienced as a self- contained event which culminates in a fairly static product. Much of its inherent value is lost in terms of providing teachers with an opportunity to capture, analyze and reflect on their practices.

What follows is the portrait of two schools which have recently begun their work with curriculum mapping and have been both strategic and thoughtful in their ability to use mapping to engage in deep and school-wide curriculum and assessment work.

PS 204 Morris Heights

This pre-K to 5 elementary school in the Bronx, NY began their work with curriculum alignment and design around the Common Core Standards by having all teachers from each grade level review the Common Core Standards over several one-hour meetings and ponder the following questions for each one:

  • What will students do?
  • What will the teachers do to support students? 
  • What is the timeframe? and
  • What other standards does this connect to?

Their responses to these questions were compiled using a Google document and were revised periodically over a two month period as teachers reviewed different standards. Once they completed this work, they used this document to begin the curriculum development process. Over the course of a four-hour staff development experience, teachers from each grade level reviewed their responses to the question “What will students do” and worked across standards to organize their answers to these questions into clusters of activities that were naturally linked or supported each other.

For example, in fourth grade they clustered the following expectations that spanned four different Common Core Standards:

  • write an opinion piece
  • support their opinion with reasons
  • write a report of information based on a non-fiction topic
  • write a concluding statement that is related to the facts and topics, including their own insight
  • write to a specific audience
  • apply their knowledge of the writing process 
  • use research to investigate a topic
  • provide a list of sources
  • organize relevant information gathered from personal experiences and digital sources
  • identify the main idea of a text
  • explain the main idea through the use of key details 
  • support explanations through text evidence

Once they clustered different expectations, they coded the clusters that naturally fit together. The code could be a letter, number, or a word or phrase (i.e. informed opinion). While teachers from different grade levels had a different number of clusters that subsumed all expectations, they all had fewer clusters than there were standards for that grade, which provided them with a framework for organizing their curriculum into a small set of units of study. After they had all of their clusters, they examined a variety of organizing centers for their units.

An organizing center is the overarching idea that guides teachers in designing, revising or implementing a unit. It is the hub in that all of its learning opportunities and assessments should relate to it and support it. The center embodies the unit’s intended learning focus. Organizing centers can be themes or topic, concepts, issues and concepts, global problems, processes or skills, or essential questions.

Teachers selected the organizing center that best supported the expectations they had clustered and then used a concept map to sketch the content of their units. Following is an example of a third grade unit sketch, using Natural Disasters as the organizing center.

Having identified a center and summarized activities representing the different standards clustered, teachers began to incorporate essential questions (if these were appropriate) and guiding questions. They also identified diagnostic, formative and summative assessments, and generated differentiated and scaffolded learning opportunities. During each step in the process, they reviewed the alignment between the standards they had selected and the components they were drafting to make sure there was congruence between the two. This review included monitoring the degree to which the essential and guiding questions enabled students to access the standard, and ensuring that the standards were evident in the learning opportunities and assessments they included.

As teachers considered these design elements and crafted their units, they asked a number of questions of themselves, each other, and the school. Their questions included:

  • How might we best select organizing centers for all our units?
  • What do we need to consider in our selection of centers that lie outside of our grade level?
  • How do we build and develop students’ learning and understanding from one grade to another?
  • Should we have units that have the same organizing center or essential question in more than one grade level? If we do, how do we ensure that they build on each other?
  • How do we ensure that we are addressing all the standards we need to teach and assess?
  • How do we create assessment tools that recognize developmental differences?

As they pondered these questions, teachers realized that for them to be able to strategically design units that naturally build developmentally from each other and that made effective use of organizing centers across grades, they would need some means of sharing their work as they were doing it as well as periodic opportunities to discuss their progress. These questions led the teachers and their principal, Marcy Glattstein, to the conclusion that curriculum mapping would be a critical component of their design experiences. The principal, AP, literacy coach and selected teachers from each grade are now exploring the features of different mapping software companies to determine which software to purchase and use. There is a shared commitment and understanding from all staff members as to the role that mapping will play in supporting teachers’ design work, this being to become the means to foster discussion around the questions teachers raised. “Just right” mapping in this context refers to the shared understanding and appreciation of curriculum mapping as a means to inform school-wide curriculum design activities.

PS 29

In this K-5 school in Queens, NY, the principal Jennifer Jones began its work in curriculum alignment and development by convening a conversation among a consultant, the administrative team, and teacher leaders from each grade level. The discussion revolved around comparing two different completed unit templates, one for a social studies unit and another one for a mathematics unit. These two templates were very different in terms of specificity and scope. The social studies unit was captured on one page whereas the mathematics one was five pages long. As teacher leaders compared the information from each one, they pondered the question, “What information is needed in all curriculum units?” The ensuing discussion led to a staff retreat for all teachers, during which they brainstormed the role of different curriculum components in order to ultimately identify those that they considered critical in their own design and in their ability to understand, learn from, and use others’ curriculum work. The curriculum template (see page 7) that resulted from that conversation was used as the basis for an expanded leadership team which included grade level team leaders to determine which curriculum software company could best address the needs of the school. The school ultimately selected Atlas, and a few teachers received an orientation on how to access and use the software.

On a separate staff development day, all teachers worked in grade level teams to map a unit of study they would subsequently teach. Since many teachers had not used it beforehand, the initial process of getting settled and familiar with the mapping program and the template took some time and required individual attention. However, within an hour of beginning, teachers were fully immersed in the mapping process.