Tag Archive for curriculum

Academic Leaders Retreat


Curriculum is the main dish in a school, the substance of what students are attempting to learn. Why, then, do most professional development programs focus on pedagogy, assessment, and classroom climate? Without addressing course content, attempts to improve engagement and learning will fall flat. Students are highly attuned to the objectives of their learning activities.

SMALLICGLOGONOV14The Independent Curriculum Group is one of the only organizations through which independent schools directly address school curriculum focus. Originally founded to support schools seeking to drop Advanced Placement tests, ICG now attracts schools that are thinking creatively about the content and learning objectives of the instructional program. At this event, we met a school that has formed an academic department for topics in human development, another that offers eight world languages (see p. 36), a third that schedules athletics in the morning, and a fourth that provides students with “20% time” for independent projects. Nothing provides confidence in program change better than meeting the schools that have already done it!

The Academic Leaders Retreat West was the second of two personalized, interactive conferences. The location, Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú, New Mexico, encouraged participants to engage with each other, reflect about what’s important in schools, and imagine innovative potential school programs.


Peter Gow and Jonathan Martin facilitated the group sessions. Among the highlights: Martin guided us through a systems approach to school change, elegantly blending theory with practice. In one activity, we used fishbone diagrams to identify the key institutional factors underlying the student outcomes we wish to change. For example, our group looked at student reluctance to take risks and identified factors such as teacher-defined learning objectives, grading practices, program fragmentation, and high student workload as key systems factors that inhibit student risk-taking.


ICG knows how to empower conference participants to personalize and maximize their experience. The retreat included three “unconference” sessions, in which we all proposed topics and led discussions. This allowed us to hone in on questions that were particularly on our minds and learn more about practices in other schools.

UnConference Board

The evening events were just as significant as those in the daytime. The first evening, we watched Beyond Measure, the follow-up to Race to Nowhere. The film profiles a handful of schools, and specific students within them, who have succeeded in creating instructional program with meaning and purpose. I was struck by the stories of students who were dutifully attempting to meet their school’s expectations, but without passion. Their learning really took off when their schools launched new learning environments that featured student-defined learning objectives and authentic purpose. The second evening, Gow led a storytelling conversation about schools that have succeeded in shifting faculty culture toward program innovation.

Team professional development typically leads to program change much more than individual experiences. Three U Prep department heads joined me at this retreat, allowing us all directly feel inspired by the conference, meet all of the other participants, and then huddle with each other to discuss implications for our school. The momentum continued after the retreat, as we plugged lessons learned from the retreat directly into our ongoing strategic planning work on next generation learning.


Read the #ALRWest15 Twitter feed for more detail about the work of our three days.

Course of Study Communications

In place of the customary evening parent meetings, I have produced two videos to orient U Prep families to the process of course of study planning. I hope to ultimately reach more families by producing a talk that parents can view at any time. I’ll also leave these videos on our online Course of Study pages for prospective families to view in the future.

Summer Curriculum Development

Our teachers are hard at work this summer revising and developing curriculum for next year’s courses. Themes include interdisciplinary coordination, uses of technology, and team teaching. Here is a project list. Let no one imagine that teachers rest quietly during summer vacation!

Develop grades 6-7 English scope and sequence
Coordinate 7th grade course projects
Coordinate English 8/History 8 units
Coordinate US Musical and Stagecraft
Align French curriculum, develop French 6 curriculum, develop new uses of tech
Coordinate U.S. History Topics and Survey courses
Revise Art & Social Change course
Coordinate MS and US Chinese
Coordinate Calculus I instruction
Coordinate music theory instruction among music courses
Overhaul Algebra I
Revise Early World History curriculum
Set up Mastering Physics online activities
Share flipped classroom techniques
Develop new Intro to Statistics course
Coordinate grades 7-8 Integrated Science courses
Coordinate Physics and Quantitative Physics courses
Transfer knowledge of 6th grade math
Develop integrated 6th-7th math sequence
Revise Modern to Contemporary World History course
Develop tech methods for data collection, lab notebook, assignment submission, differentiated instruction
Revise MS and US Spanish curricula with new electronic texts
Coordinate 6th and 7th grades ecology and river systems instruction

Design Thinking in a U Prep Study Group

This is the third article in a series (1, 2) about using design thinking in practice in our school. This year, I convened a study group to examine what computer science course offerings we might include in our course of study. In the past, the school offered an elective programming class when student enrollment demanded it, and a part-time faculty member could be found to teach the single section course. The study group included teachers, parents, students, and administrators.

I decided to use the design thinking process to organize our study group’s work. Design thinking matched our question well, because previous approaches to teaching programming did not stick in the curriculum. A user-centric approach might reveal some of the system conditions that prevented success in the past. Student feelings about computer science would feature strongly in our process. The ideation phase would facilitate consideration of new approaches to teaching computer science.

Facilitating design thinking activities with a school committee has been very different from working with participants at a summer workshop! People who attend summer workshops are chiefly there to learn something new. People who join a committee, while open to learning something new, are primarily there to help make a school decision. Starting with active inquiry activities helped build support for the use of design thinking methods. We were quickly able to see productive results emerge from our early work. Also, while some participants came ready to propose solutions right from the beginning, I expressly acknowledged that we would need to exercise patience and wait to share ideas until after we had distilled user interviews into themes.

Design thinking workshops focus on a hypothetical scenario such as designing a better chair, wallet, or playground. Designing a computer science course focused on a real scenario that is also more abstract in nature. Interview questions were pretty similar. “Tell me about your experiences with programming?” The process for identifying themes in user interviews was also fairly similar. Ideation was very different, relying more on existing models in use at other schools than on original inventions and new ideas. Prototyping was also very different, since we crafted statements about educational themes rather than building models out of paper and blue tape. Testing our prototypes would have felt similar, as we assigned study group members to play the roles of fictitious user characters, embodying the top themes from user interviews.

External input had great value during the ideation phase. Not only did our study group members bring in their own experiences from beyond our school, but we also tapped into the power of independent school electronic networks. Coincidentally, the topic of teaching computer science was actively discussed on the ISED listserv, and we benefitted from a summary of the input of 70 schools that Chris Bigenho compiled. This document was invaluable in broadening our view and providing perspective on the range of conceptual approaches available to us.

As it so happened, we departed from the design thinking script during the prototyping and testing phases. However, the spirit of design thinking remained fully embedded in our work, even though we fell into whole-group discussion of a single proposal. Throughout, we kept a user-centric focus, considered idealistic possibilities, and tinkered with our proposal on the fly. The result was a clear consensus for a well-defined, innovative proposal for course changes to reintroduce computer science in the school curriculum.


Empathy map

Our empathy map after we practiced interviews on each other. We added three times as many stickies after conducting user interviews, and then arranged the stickies by similar content to identify themes.

I found the d.school mixtapes very helpful to use for talking points and slides when describing the design process to study group members.

UNDERSTAND mixtape: Discovering insights via human engagement
EXPERIMENT mixtape: Advancing your solution via prototyping
IDEATE mixtape: Generating unexpected ideas via reframing your challenge

(links from d.school website)

Teach Organic Chemistry!

"Phenylalanine," by widdowquinn

More U.S. schools should include organic chemistry in introductory science courses. Most U.S. high schools offer first-year physics, chemistry, and biology plus some number of advanced electives. Schools have tinkered over the years with the sequence of first-year classes, for example starting with biology because the subjects of study are large and comparatively easy to handle, or starting with physics to build understanding from the smallest to the largest systems. More recently, some schools have launched integrated courses of science study, coordinating biology, chemistry, and physics topics to emphasize their mutual dependencies.

Organic chemistry is typically left out of introductory science courses. If included at all, the subject typically appears in advanced elective classes. Why? Perhaps organic has the reputation for being difficult or only being required in university study. Maybe it represents too drastic a departure from the quantitative focus of inorganic chemistry.

Why include organic chemistry?

  • A major branch of the study of chemistry
  • The basis for how biological molecules function
  • Foundational concepts for industrial processes
  • A great match for visual learners
  • Explains the importance of key elements to life (e.g., oxygen)
  • Another application of orbitals, bonding, and molecular geometry
  • Suits students who like to classify and order systems

Whether college prep, comprehensive, or progressive, schools would serve students well by including organic chemistry in introductory science studies.

Mapping Fourth and Fifth Grade Technology

I have updated our fourth and fifth grade technology curriculum maps. Please leave a comment if you have questions or good project ideas from your courses.

Fourth Grade Technology

Fifth Grade Technology

Catlin Gabel Computer Science

Student project: a robot that will self-navigate across campus

Andrew Merrill describes the high school’s computer science offerings. Project work and experiential learning are emphasized, Advanced Placement examinations deemphasized.

1) A yearlong introduction to computer programming.  I’m currently using Python as the language.  The projects cover a wide range of topics, including a recommendation engine for movies, 2D and 3D graphics, the iterated prisoners dilemma, etc.

2) A yearlong advanced computer science course, which used to be comparable to the AB level AP class.  I’m currently using Java, left over from AP days, but the focus of the class is on algorithms and data structures.  Most of my students in the class used to take the AB level AP exam, but now that that isn’t offered any more, I’m not sure what they’ll do.  I don’t see much point in the A level AP exam, other than as a college admission item (as distinct from a college preparation or placement item).  That is, the exam might help students get into college, but I doubt it will be of much value when they get there.

3) A yearlong post-AP level class that varies in content and approach depending on student interest.  Some years it is an advanced topics course, where student students explore and write programs in a series of more advanced comp sci topics (such as artificial intelligence, cryptography, 3D rendering, digital logic circuits, socket-based networking, threading, etc.).  Other years it turns into an independent research class, where each student designs and carries out an independent project (such as writing a physics engine, writing a compiler, writing an operating system, writing a iOS apps, autonomous robot navigation, automatic music transcription, automatic parallelization, CUDA programming, etc.)  The topics courses are intended as a sampler of the kind of work done in upper level college computer science courses, while the research class often results in science fair projects and occasionally publishable papers.

Curriculum Mapping

Where are we with curriculum mapping, seven years on? Teachers have documented 269 courses. The map is publicly available on our website. Curriculum map pages receive approximately 100 page views per day.

What value does the curriculum map have to the school? Most importantly, it demonstrates to families and teachers that we are intentional and thoughtful about our curriculum. It also allows prospective families to see what their child would study in specific grades, teachers from other institutions to learn from our work, and teachers within our school to assess program coherence across subjects and grade levels. The map suggests high accountability to our constituents and accrediting body. The curriculum does not live  behind closed doors. It is visible for all to study and critique.

Launching the curriculum map required a ton of work from teachers seven years ago. It was a new, schoolwide initiative linked to the school’s PNAIS accreditation. Absent the new initiative, it is difficult to keep the map up-to-date each year. It can be difficult for a division head to set aside time for teachers to update their courses when common meeting time is scarce, and so many other pressing discussion topics exits. Without dedicated meeting time, teachers may not consistently update their maps. Keeping course entries up-to-date is part of the annual teacher review rubric, but that, too has more parts than one can address in a single evaluation.

Another way to encourage completion is to lower the workload. Our old system required a site administrator to create new accounts with unique login information. Our new system is integrated into our regular website and network directory service. Editing permissions are as simple as possible — all teachers can edit all courses. The old system required three units (fall, winter, and spring). The new system allows any number of units.

Our current map has eight categories per unit:

  • Essential questions
  • Habits of mind
  • Content
  • Skills and processes
  • Assessment
  • Resources
  • Multicultural dimension
  • Integrated learning

We could lower the workload by reducing the number of categories. Habits of mind is only used by our preschool and kindergarten teachers. As much as I would like to document habits of mind for all courses, we’re trying to reduce, not increase, the workload! Multicultural dimension and integrated learning do not really match the other categories. While important, they should be evident through the content in the other fields. Perhaps we don’t need to call them out separately. What about other schoolwide themes, such as global education, sustainability, and urban education?

We could produce a style guide for teachers, some of whom write tremendous amounts of content. This is time-consuming to create and subsequently edit. Creating a common style guide with examples could help teachers keep their entries succinct and manageable.

A word about the tool: we use built-in Drupal functionality to store and edit our curriculum map. We use two content types (course and unit) linked through a node reference field. We then set up views to display course lists and to display the units in a single course.

We are also considering connections between curriculum map entries and classroom pages. The latter present so much more than the curriculum. Classroom pages document the life of the school, present teachers’ pedagogical ideas, and show student work. However, wouldn’t it be great if we automatically embedded a link to the essential questions for the current unit of each course?

Does your school use a structured curriculum mapping tool? What lessons have you learned, and what would you most like to change about your system?

Arts Classes Publishing With Flickr

Arts teachers have embedded two Flickr slideshows (1 | 2)  on our public-facing website. I like how students and teachers may contribute to the photo sets, constantly changing what appears on the site. Does a way exist to add a group pool to one’s Flickr favorites without actually joining it?

Extending the learning community

Publication of student work on the website extends the learning community beyond the classroom to the entire school community. Key to this effort is a school website that includes a community publishing platform. Students and teachers choose whether to make the work viewable to the school community only (students, staff, parents, alumni) or the public, depending on the pedagogical goal of the work. Learning becomes a community endeavor rather than only a classroom pursuit, increasing authenticity and mutual understanding of the work that happens at school.

Click on each title to view the content at Catlin Gabel.

Urban Studies blog

Students tackle topics of sustainable development in Portland, “The City That Works.” During the school year, we offer a semester elective. The summer brings an intensive program with students from different schools.

Science Projects blog

Students report on their independent research plans, progress, and results. The teacher provides feedback in the form of comments. Only one of the students has made her blog public, so you won’t see the work of the others on this page.

The Catlin Coverslip

The science department invites all Catlin Gabel community members to contribute items of interest to this blog.

Nepal 2010 blog

Blogging about global trips increases the sense of community experience. The 15 lucky students who go on the trip become ambassadors for the rest of the school, no longer the sole beneficiaries of the experience.

Spanish V Honors blog

Students get out into the community to research the hispanic presence in Oregon. Through the blog, they report their findings back to the community and help educate us all. This project includes a lot of primary audio and video footage from Portland.

Honors Arts Projects portfolios

Students attach photo galleries to their blog posts to create a portfolio, in this case to support their  college applications.

Fifth grade Fractured Fairytales

Students create “alternate” versions of classic fairytales, then we publish them so that parents and others students may read them as well.

Sixth grade Language Arts Poetry Box

Students write poetry, but then the teacher publishes both the text and an audio version for parents and the rest of the community to enjoy.

Senior Project blogs

We have now collected two years’ worth of blog posts from seniors reporting and reflecting on their spring projects. Up until now, all of the posts have been for the Catlin Gabel community only. This year, students will make the public/community-only decision for each post. Watch this page in May 2010 to follow their progress.