By Atlas International featuring Dr. Raina Kor, Irvington Union Free School District
While working with schools in New York, we often have the chance to discuss the unique challenges they encounter while implementing and sustaining their curriculum mapping efforts. Atlas consultant Brian Erickson recently had an opportunity to catch up with Dr. Raina Kor, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction at Irvington Union Free School District, to talk with her about her team’s process. With several years under their belt, Dr. Kor and her team provide a great example of a district that has built a strong foundation and momentum yet still see a long journey ahead. Here, Dr. Kor talks candidly about their on-going curriculum work and teacher development and reflects on their success as well as the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
• Establish a teacher development team to steer the direction, provide feedback, and serve as a test group
• Shift away from the tool and focus on intrinsic value for teacher development
• Teachers need support in backwards design and unit planning
• It takes time; timelines and deadlines have caveats
• Departments may have different ways of mapping
Brian Erickson: There are so many schools that are wondering how to make this work, they’re looking for good examples, especially from New York State and other districts like them. I’m excited to be talking with you and hearing more about what you’re doing.
Can you give us a bit of background and context? How and why did this mapping effort start?
Raina Kor: We were teaching, clearly, but we didn’t have much in writing. In addition, it was hard to communicate to the community what we were teaching. It was about putting it into writing and also developing a common approach. The whole effort was linked to our interest in supporting instructional design.
At first the focus was on understanding Atlas, but teachers didn’t get Understanding by Design (UbD). We realized we would need to provide more support surrounding the UbD framework and not so much around Atlas.
We started with a PD team of teachers. They were initially trained in Atlas and will eventually get advanced training. But right now the focus is on documenting and getting our units of study done. The PD team really helped develop the plan in that first year, determined how they would make it work and what PD people needed. Now they are the go to people, but really once everyone started mapping, the focus was less on Atlas help and more on instruction.
Now, it feels like expanding our use of Atlas is on the backburner and our focus is on the need to ensure everyone understands the unit planner. By the beginning of March, I will have trained 100+ teachers in UbD.
BE: When did you realize folks needed extra PD?
RK: Right from the start, when we rolled out our teachers asked what Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions were. They had been doing UbD in small pockets in the district for last 15+ years, but we hadn’t committed to it as a district. Before rolling out Atlas, a group of administrators went to a 3-day UbD workshop with Grant Wiggins. There we built the capacity of our admin team so they could all support teachers.
BE: How long have you been working on this at this point?
RK: It’s 2016 now, and we started September 2013 by introducing Atlas and curriculum mapping. This year people were told that they had to be done by June, and that’s when everyone woke up. I think they thought it would go away, just like so many other things in education.
BE: It’s so true, so many initiatives come and go…. Had you set a different timeline, do you think it would have been any different?
RK: I don’t think so, really. It is a process.
BE: Time is a big question…people wonder, how much time will it take?
RK: It depends on where you are at… if you’re a district that’s just refining your existing curriculum, or you are already putting it on paper and are simply transitioning to an online version it won’t take as long. We were building the plane while flying, as I like to say. We were truly building the foundation in curriculum writing while we went. The reality is that it takes time.
BE: How much time do you spend throughout the year ?
RK: We were limited by how much time we had to devote to it. In the past we used a Superintendent’s day, some individuals asked for release time, and some teachers we paid to work over the summer. This year we set a deadline to be finished by June. We dedicate all Superintendent’s days to mapping, we have early dismissals that are dedicated. This year, everyone started with a self-assessment. It asked:
- Where are you in the process?
- What will it take to finish?
We have a deadline of June, but probably not everything will be “complete” by then. For example, we haven’t done science units yet. There are a lot of caveats. Basically, we have the foundations for Math and ELA, but things will vary for Science, Social Studies, especially for teachers with multiple preps. If you teach 4 different classes it is unrealistic to think you’ll have all of those finished by June.
BE: I know you started with consensus maps and now you are working on diary maps. How did you set it up? Was collaborative mapping something teachers were already doing?
RK: Originally I thought I would roll out teacher mapping and that everyone would sing and celebrate. It wasn’t the case. I unveiled the idea to the PD team, and they decided, let’s just get our consensus maps done first, and then decide what the next step is. So that’s where we are right now.
BE: Were there any challenges or surprises that you and your team have encountered, and in what ways did you overcome them?
RK: There were very few with Atlas, actually. Really, the challenges were that a lot of teachers didn’t have the background and experience in designing curriculum. I know it sounds crazy, but they don’t. They have lesson writing experience, but unit development is completely different, especially if you are using a framework, like UbD.
The timing of our efforts was perfect. Education is undergoing a shift in its thinking. You can’t teach everything, so how will we know what to teach? The idea of building abilities, strengths, habits of mind, applying thinking skills, teachers developing instruction for 21st century skills, these things are all going on at the same time we are doing our curriculum work. These shifts in education have supported the demand for mapping.
It is interesting, there’s been a shift in our practice. I now describe Atlas as a tool that is helping us facilitate this process, a tool for refining your teaching strategies. I should probably peruse other districts, one of the things that has surfaced, especially in heavy content areas, is that if you are writing a unit planner for a 10-week unit, you never have a level of specificity that allows you to design instruction differently. It is too much information; you end up just dumping in the content. For example, with Science and Social Studies, even if your unit feels like it is ten weeks long, you can’t get everything written in a way to make sense and plan for deeper understanding. Instead, I work with those teachers to break those larger units into subunits, so that they can really improve instruction and get the details needed.
Also, an idea I’m committed to is that not every subject area maps the same way. Our music program, for example, builds toward two concerts a year. Mapping as units wasn’t working. So, now they build it differently. For each area what makes the most sense? There is not one way to make a unit plan. A unit is an artificial construct. In the end, we want to avoid putting a square peg in a round hole.
BE: We often hear departments that want to map their own way, but we also want to avoid creating too many variations, because it becomes hard to ensure you’ll be able to do the comparison you’re aiming for down the line? Or is it that having a common format, UBD, allows for that?
RK: That’s exactly what I was going to say. UBD gives structure, we want you to provide the clarity for what you teach.
BE: Is there anything you wish you had known going in? Specific advice or recommendations we haven’t covered?
RK: Sometimes people say, wouldn’t been easier to know Atlas or the UBD planner better first? There’s not one way to do it. We’ve setup a good process. Learning takes time. If there were a miracle drug to make learning happen, it wouldn’t take as long, but we also wouldn’t need schools. This isn’t the case. You just need to commit the time to learning.
BE: Do your teachers feel they are getting something out of it, or do they see it more as an administrative task?
RK: The ones who have been doing it for longer and more deeply, they are starting to see how it is helping to design deeper instruction. An indicator of this shift is that I no longer hear, “oh I’m filling in the boxes.” Also, the difference between referring to the template vs the unit planner; it is a subtle difference, but it matters. It would be unrealistic to think teachers would be fully on board, get it, and understand it from the start. The power is when your work is in, when you are using the maps…
One of the big differences is that I’ve started to talk about and call Atlas a repository for all your work. If you are creating a unit, attach files. You can have all of your materials in one place and have access to it from anywhere. If you are at home, you can access your work. I am calling it a “portal”, a place they can put all their stuff and have it easily accessible. I am shifting how I talks about Atlas. I spend less time on the mapping piece and talk more about how valuable it can be for teachers. I want to make it valuable for them, get their stuff in it. We are excited for our upcoming shift where they can have their own diary maps and really start to place their own resources inside. With all of my resources in Atlas, if my room got changed, it’s okay. No matter where I am, it is where I am. That’s a big shift in how I’m marketing it, not that I’m selling it, but that there is value in it for them, the teachers. Years ago when people were mapping, this teacher value wasn’t part of it. It was just about getting things in writing. I am trying to show the value in both now.
BE: Right, we have felt a similar shift on our end. During some of our summer workshops we spend 2+ hours in a session that we title “Teacher-centric Atlas”, and we focus on how to have it work for you as a resource. Most of our tips focus on building in resources and supports to deepen and simplify all the tasks teachers have to do in a day. Finding that value for teachers and administrators seems key.
Is there anything else we missed?
RK: I think we captured where we are in our process.
We’d like to extend a sincere thank you to Dr. Kor for taking the time to share her experience and insights. Interested in learning more? Check out Articulating the Why and How Behind Curriculum Mapping or be inspired by educators as they share their Curriculum Process Tips.