Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Curriculum Writing: What's Important?

The World Language department in the district where I teach has been going through the curriculum process the past two years.  I can't even explain what a huge difference this process has made on not only what I teach, but how I teach and how I assess it.

If you have ever written curriculum before, you know what a daunting task it is.  How do you choose what to teach? How do you properly assess it?  How do you still make it fun and enjoyable for your students?  How do you make it meaningful?

1. Start at the end
We were fortunate enough to have two retired language teachers who now do curriculum coaching to come and give us a workshop and then come help us get started.  They asked us a question right at the beginning of day one that was super helpful:

This question really helped guide our process.  It really encouraged an end to start approach.  It's much easier to figure out how to get to the destination when you know what the destination is.

Since I started in this district, the curriculum for French was just lists.  By the end of a certain unit, students knew topic A, topic B, topic C and topic D.  Nothing about putting them together, nothing about how they would be assessed.  Being a new teacher, I just followed it.  Unfortunately, it made it easy for me to fall into a slump of teaching vocabulary lists, conjugations, and culture...all separate from the other.  All of my assessments were on paper.  Going back to the original question... what do I want my students to take away from my class?  Certainly not writing out conjugations and giving me English to French definitions.

In this process, we were introduced to the concept of thematic units.  Rather than teaching them a list of topics, we would wrap said topics into a thematic unit where it could all be used together.   When creating a unit, it's important to ask, "What should my students be able to do at the end of this unit?"  From there, that should guide not only what you should teach (or review!) but also what you should assess.  A prime example of change of pace in my teaching is with the partitive.  In the old curriculum, I taught the partitive with the food unit and it was an entire section on the test so we spent literally hours upon hours practicing.  But when I made the food unit, "students will be able to correctly use the partitive" really didn't pop up on my list of students being able to do something.  There were other more important things for students to be able to do.  Yes, the partitive is introduced.  But it's not my primary focus. Going back to the main question: What do I want my students to get out of my class? When I think about that, I don't certainly think about something as measly as the partitive in the grand scheme of Frenchness.

3. Create AUTHENTIC assessments
Like I mentioned above, when I first started teaching, I found myself teaching to the lists.  Because of this, I was assessing based on the lists too.  I had exams where there was literally a vocab section, a verb section, and a grammar concept section.  There was nothing bringing them together.  There's nothing wrong with "teaching to the test" per-se, but when you have the wrong kind of test, then you're going to teach the wrong things.  In that method, I realized how rarely my students were actually listening and speaking in my class.  It was mostly reading and writing.  The writing wasn't even very good because they weren't pulling the concepts together because I taught them all separately in their own "bubble".  I was also assessing things that really didn't matter.  

Once again it goes back to the main question: What do I want my students to get out of this class?  What should my students be able to do at the end of this unit specifically?  In asking myself that, it was simple.  I wanted my students to leave my class able to function in a French speaking city on the level of language and culture.  If I were to plop a group of my students in Paris, they should be able to "function".  That's the ideal assessment.  Could they function?  Each unit should bring them closer and closer to that goal.

In a Francophone country, will they hear simple language that the textbook made?  No.  Will they read things geared towards a French 1 or 2 learning level?  Likely not.  So why would I create assessments like that?

When I took my methods course in college, I learned all about Integrated Performance Assessments (IPAs). Because of  everything I was learning, I didn't really take much out of it.  It just seemed like another thing.  But over the years, and especially as I was working on this new curriculum, I realized how amazing they truly are.

For those who don't know what an IPA is, it's a group of assessments with three modes. 
            -The first is presentational where the student will "present" their knowledge either via writing and/or speaking.  I always do this assessment first with the ability to use notes and other things.  As it can be prepared ahead of time, it's definitely the easiest. 
            -The second mode is interpretive where students have to "interpret" something they read and/or see/hear.  Generally for this assessment I find an authentic video (or as close to authentic as I can find) and/or article about the topic they are studying, sometimes taking it even a little further.  I write up questions in English to assess what they got out of it.  I know assessing in English seems counterproductive, but in doing so, you are truly assessing what they get out of the video/article.  If they get a question wrong that was French, you sometimes have no way to know if it was the video/article that they didn't understand or just the question they didn't understand. 
             -The final mode is interpersonal.  This is the most difficult assessment so I save this one for the end of the unit.  Students are given a topic that they will be discussing with a partner or group and they must ask questions, discuss, etc for a certain length of time.  Depending on the unit, the topic will be different or require different things.

I started using IPAs this year as a form of assessment and as such, have started "teaching to the test".  Because IPAs are about as authentic as it gets, in teaching to said assessments, my students are improving in ways I didn't even imagine possible.  They are speaking with confidence, reading articles way above their reading level while picking out the pieces they understand, and I'm also using more French in the classroom in the process.  I could not say more about how much I like them.  If you're curious to check one out, click here for the IPAs I made for a unit on future career aspirations (free).  I also have plenty of other IPAs in my Teachers Pay Teachers Store if you'd like to check them out.  With every IPA purchase, I also include the link to my google drive of that unit so you can have access to all of my resources.

4. Be Flexible 
It's great to put a lot of time and effort into curriculum and unit plans.  But just know that nothing will be "set" until you teach it.  You may go through things and realize it's not the best way to go about it.  You may stumble across an even better idea or resource for something and tweak it as such.  You'll always be improving on things, so be open to that.

If you've read any of my previous posts, you know I am extremely organized (I have to be or I'd lose everything).  It's so easy to forget to do something or forget you have something.  I highly recommend making a digital filing system that is easy to follow.  I even have my "home" folder connected to Google Drive so it automatically backs up and I can access it from any computer at any time.

The photo below shows my folder structure.  The "home" folder opens to the one on the left.  The folder called "French" holds all of my resources.  Inside that folder is the middle-left photo.  In there I have all three levels of French that I teach.  If I click on the French 1 folder (middle-right), I then see all of the units.  In opening a specific unit (far right), I can see all of the resources I have that go along with that unit and also the IPA folder.  I also have a specific document called "useful links and resources" where I save any links I stumble across and want to remember later.  Pinterest also works well for that


Curriculum writing can be a daunting task.  But a good curriculum and corresponding assessments can really make the difference in a successful program and an unsuccessful one.  Just know that Rome wasn't built in a day.  Your curriculum takes time to mature and grow.  I started this process last year and don't anticipate being completely "set" with it until I go through it in its entirety next year.

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