Educator working on summer curriculum planning while friends head to the beach

Curriculum Plans Are NOT a Summer Project

If there’s one thing that all educator’s can agree on, it’s how much we LOVE writing curriculum plans.

We all know it’s important. And we all realize our curriculum plans could “use a little work.” But most importantly, we would all love for someone else to do something about it.

After what has been a particularly crazy year, summer break may seem like the perfect time to work on pacing guides and unit plans. Surely, planning can wait until the students have left the building, and we’ve had a week or two at the beach, right? Once August rolls around, we can come back to a nice quiet building, and actually get some work done.

But there are a few problems with this approach. For one, most of the teachers who will be implementing these plans will be gone.

So after our quiet summer of planning, the new school year comes roaring through like a hurricane. And our shiny new curriculum plans end up buried under the chaos of class rules and last-minute schedule changes.

Around March, the dust settles, and we realize we’re behind. With a few weeks left until testing, we try to rush through as much core content as we can.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. With a few tweaks, you can build effective and meaningful curriculum plans. Ones that take the hassle out of weekly lesson planning. Plans that can help your students receive a full year of engaging, coherent instruction.

And most importantly, plans that actually get implemented.

Looking for support building customized curriculum plans for your school or district? Schedule your FREE CONSULTATION today, and learn how our curriculum specialists can help.

The Importance of School-Based Curriculum Planning

But before we wade into the step-by-step process for building effective curriculum plans, it’s important to understand why collaborative, school-based planning is critical to our teachers’ and students’ success.

An effective curriculum planning process connects our big picture goals to our day-to-day teaching practice. It helps us work backwards from our ‘vision of a graduate,’ to the grade level milestones that support that vision; and finally, to the individual units and lessons that support that goal.

School-based curriculum planning also reinforces the fact that your textbook is not your curriculum. Our curriculum is our plan for learning. It’s tailored to your teachers’ strengths, your students’ needs, and the structures in place at your school.

A collaborative planning process can alleviate several causes of teacher stress and burnout. Instead of focusing on covering the curriculum (getting through), teachers can focus on student achievement (getting to).

Involving teachers in creating curriculum plans also improves the overall quality of instruction. A clear roadmap helps teachers and students see how individual lessons fit into a coherent whole. And advanced planning allows us to carve out time for alternative instructional models, like inquiry-based learning and personalized learning.

The benefits of collaborative school-based planning is supported by research. A study published in Curriculum Perspectives (Yuen, 2018) found that school-based planning increased teachers’ ability to implement and differentiate their curriculum. Another in the Australian Journal of Teacher Education found that engaging teachers in the planning process improved the resulting curriculum plans, while also serving as an effective model for professional learning.

Common Curriculum Planning Challenges

In countries like the UK and Australia, collaborative school-based planning has long been embedded in school culture. But despite its proven benefits, few school systems in the US have effective planning processes in place.

When I started teaching, I was told to plan “two weeks out.” And as the school year wore on, I would often find myself just days ahead. A few times, things got so crazy that I had to rely on ‘real-time planning’ (also known as ‘just winging it’).

Textbooks can be a double-edged sword when it comes to planning. They can allow you to forgo planning entirely. Just turn to the next page, and there’s your next day’s lesson plan. But this approach can make the learning feel arbitrary and disconnected for students. Eventually, it takes a serious toll on student engagement and motivation.

Top-down curriculum plans do little to address the issue. Supervisors and administrators can create pacing guides that look good on paper. But many teachers feel that such mandates and scripted curricula take the joy out of teaching. They find there’s no room to plan fun and creative lessons. And when student needs differ from “the script,” there’s no flexibility to adapt.

A Collaborative Approach to Curriculum Planning

This is why success with curriculum planning takes a Goldilocks approach. Planning one week out is too soft. The learning experiences won’t feel meaningful or coherent.

Good curriculum plans follow a Goldilocks approach. Collaborative advanced planning is the middle path between "one week out" planning and top-down scripted curriculum.

But curriculum plans handed down from on-high tend to be too rigid. They can lead to learning experiences that feel mechanical and uninspired.

An effective approach provides guidance, but engages teachers in the process. Our guided curriculum planning initiatives involve four phases:

    • Vision-Setting: Clarify desired outcomes and timeline
    • Vertical Alignment: Unpack standards and create grade-level milestones
    • Pacing: Allocate class time to match instructional priorities
    • Unit Planning: Detailed summary of daily objectives, activities, and resources

It’s probably not realistic to finish all four phases before school lets out. But you should make it a priority to complete the first two during the school year. 

By clarifying their vision for the engagement, the leadership team can communicate it to staff in advance.

Vertical alignment should be completed during the school year, so all faculty can take part. This process develops teachers’ understanding of their standards, and gives them a voice in defining the milestones for their grade level. When they return in the fall, they’ll see how their input shaped the resulting plans. This helps to cultivate a feeling of ownership, along with an understanding of the purpose behind the plans.

A collaborative curriculum planning process in four phases: vision-setting, vertical alignment, pacing, and unit planning.

The good news is that the ‘during school’ phases don’t require a great deal of time. When I work on a curriculum initiative, I usually spend 2-4 hours with the leadership team to complete the vision-setting phase.

The vertical alignment piece usually involves 1-2 hours for your full team, and another 1-2 hours per subject with each grade level team. 

Phase 1: Vision-Setting (Leadership Team)

The first step of your initiative is to clarify your goals and establish a timeline. This involves a small group of school and district leaders who determine the “non-negotiables,” and create the schedule that will be followed by the larger group.

In short, anyone who has the ability to ‘veto’ a curriculum plan should participate. Having this group sign off at the beginning is critical. Once teachers begin their collaborative planning, they need to be confident that the plans they produce will be approved and implemented. 

If supervisors change direction throughout the initiative, the plans will never get done. And if teachers go through the trouble of creating plans that don’t end up being implemented, morale will suffer.

Phase 2: Vertical Alignment (All Faculty)

Once the vision has been established, teachers need to develop the ‘1,000 foot view’ of student outcomes. 

This starts with the ‘picture of a graduate.’ This is the description of the ideal student who has completed your program. You’ll need to develop one such description for each content area that your planning for (math, language arts, etc).

This description should be based on the standards for your highest grade level. But you can include other outcomes, such as social-emotional skills. Just make sure your milestones aren’t too “fuzzy.” We will eventually measure each outcome, to clearly identify which students have, or have not met, the target. 

Next, break down this larger goal by grade level. This involves unpacking the standards and summarizing (in 10 or so bullet points) the expectations for each grade’s incoming and outgoing students. 

Then, compare across grade levels. The outgoing 5th grade expectations should match the incoming 6th grade expectations, and so on. If you find gaps or overlaps, you’ll want to tweak your milestones until they match.

Phase 3: Pacing (Participants Vary)

Pacing will often be completed over the summer, but there are benefits to letting teachers collaborate in the development of their pacing guides. Simply participating in the discussions can help teachers with time-management. 

Many teachers feel that there just isn’t enough time in the school year. As a result, they may skip critical grade-level standards, or rush to cover everything. And it can be incredibly difficult to find time for collaborative and inquiry-based learning, personalized learning, differentiation, and other innovative instructional practices.

If you have double blocks (often for math or language arts), that equates to 250-300 instructional hours per course. In many cases, most of that time to be used for teacher-centered direct instruction. It’s hard to look at that time and imagine yourself spending hundreds of hours explaining content to your students.

Creating our own pacing guides not only gives teachers a voice, it forces us to “get real” about how we invest our instructional time. Start by finding your total instructional hours. If your class meets 1 hour per day, 180 days per year, that’s 180 hours. Then subtract away any time that won’t be used for direct instruction. 

I start by assuming 20% will be lost to testing, assemblies, teacher absences, and so on. Then, I set aside time for student-centered learning. This includes things that we often ‘don’t have time for,’ like personalized learning, project-based learning, and collaborative problem-solving. By setting time aside from the beginning, we elevate these innovative models to a consistent part of our weekly routine.

Finally, we divide the remaining instructional time based on the priorities we identified in phase 3. These ‘chunks’ of direct instruction time will become our units.

Phase 4: Unit Planning (Select Cohort of Teachers)

In the final phase, we create our detailed, day-by-day plan for each unit. 

Whether it’s a novel, a project, or a 6th grade Ratio and Proportions unit from the textbook, chunking our year in this way makes it easier to align instruction with our goals.

I find that unit planning is a much more efficient use of time than creating daily lesson plans. I used to spend hours each week writing my lesson plans. But I can plan an entire 20-day unit in a few hours. Then during the year, lesson planning just means matching each day of the unit with a day on the calendar. (Eg, Oct. 15th = Unit 2, Day 5).

Creating unit plans also makes my coverage feel less rushed. Instead of wondering how I’ll get through the entire textbook or reading list, I select the lessons and materials that I need to meet my instructional objectives. Typically this includes some lessons from the text. But it also includes supplemental resources and activities that build engagement or meet my students’ particular needs.

So while unit planning is more efficient and effective than lesson planning, it’s still the longest of the phases (around 10-15 hours per course). As a result, this step will usually be completed by a smaller group of teachers, during summer break.

A Note About ‘Fidelity’ to the Curriculum

Having supported several schools and districts through developing curriculum plans, I’ve seen how powerfully it can support both student learning and professional learning.

But despite numerous studies showing the limited impact of textbooks on learning outcomes (including one by Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research and another by The RAND Corporation), some education leaders are concerned about ‘fidelity to the curriculum.’ 

They interpret ‘fidelity’ to mean that teachers should present whatever’s in the textbook. When teachers fall behind on pacing, it means “they’re deviating from the script,” and should “follow the text more closely.”  

But this understanding of ‘fidelity’ is problematic. A textbook is designed to fill every day of a school year. Some schools have more instructional time than others. Some students need more review, or more enrichment. Simply ‘following along’ will ensure that you fall behind on pacing. (Besides eliminating the possibility for meaningful differentiation and deep learning).

So while textbook publishers claim their book is the cure for whatever ails you, independent studies consistently identify one school-based factor that impacts student performance more than any other: teacher quality

What’s more, for great teachers to have an impact, they need to make instructional decisions. This all makes sense when we understand that ‘fidelity’ to the textbook does not mean teachers should simply turn the pages and read what’s written. It means they need a deep understanding of the math they teach, the ability to see the big picture, and how individual lessons tie in to that picture.

By engaging teachers in a structured planning process, they develop these skills. Which allows them to make informed decisions about which lessons to skip, and how to modify their instruction to meet the needs of their students.

Get Help Building Your Curriculum Plans

If you’re ready to break the cycle of one curriculum after the next, you’ll need a systematic approach to curriculum planning.

The four phase process described above can help your school or district develop curriculum plans that increase teacher expertise and ownership, student engagement, and student achievement.

For additional support on using this process in your school, schedule your free consultation with our curriculum team. We’ll guide you through our offerings and help you choose the one that is right for your school or district.

  • Private Workshops: Our curriculum planning workshops walk your team, step-by-step, through implementing the 4-phase planning model in your school or district. Enrollment includes all the planning templates and other resources that will help you engage your team in the process.
  • Curriculum Partnerships: Our curriculum consultants work side-by-side with your team throughout the planning process, to ensure your plans are aligned with standards and your goals for your district. We partner with a limited number of schools and districts each year, so schedule your consultation today to ensure your curriculum maps are done right and on-time.


About the Author

Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff