Durham Academy is an independent day school in Durham, North Carolina. We serve about 1200 students in grades PK-12. For the past two years, we’ve been engaged in a curriculum mapping process that promises to transform our school.
At its core, curriculum mapping is a process of embracing change. Change can be demanding for any organization, but it is particularly tough for independent schools, which tend to double down on “tradition and continuity” (read: “change aversion”). Coupled with that is a deeply-rooted predilection for teacher autonomy. Freed from the shackles of end-of-grade testing, national standards, and administrative interference, independent school teachers are largely left alone to design their courses and teach the way they want. Our “independence” is something we fiercely guard.
It can be a lot of fun to teach in this environment, but it can also lead to a wildly incoherent experience for our students and families. Balancing the tension between pedagogical autonomy and curricular cohesion has proved to be a singular challenge for us at Durham Academy, and in the recent past, we haven’t made much headway. Our most recent strategic plan compels us to address this problem directly:
Goal: To create a cohesive, connected and collaborative student learning experience
Durham Academy believes every student’s learning experience should be cohesive, connected and sequential throughout his or her tenure. Our curriculum should also evolve to incorporate more critical thinking and problem solving to meet the demands of today’s world and to vigorously promote innovative teaching and learning as we reinforce core skills.
- Examine and revise, as needed, scope and sequence in all disciplines.
- Ensure core academic curriculum incorporates experiential education; critical and creative thinking; team-based projects; character and service learning; and appropriate, responsible use of technology.
- Maintain curriculum at the vanguard of age-appropriate content and skills.
- Enhance the culture of intellectual curiosity.
- Confirm appropriate consistency across key elements of the student experience:
- Class sections/Grade levels
- Student assessment
- Beyond commonly agreed skill and content goals and instructional frameworks, affirm pedagogical autonomy for faculty.
Out of this mandate came the idea to reboot our curriculum maps. Unfortunately, like many schools that embarked on curriculum mapping in the mid-2000s, our school bore the “scar tissue” of the prior process. Back then, the goal of mapping was to “get down what you’re doing.” Mapping was almost entirely a solo project, and the results were digitally shelved and rarely if ever reviewed again. In fact, if you polled our faculty about the status of their curriculum maps, most would’ve told you that we were no longer “doing that.”
We knew we needed a different approach. First, we needed to reconceive of what mapping could be. We worked to get our teachers to see this as something entirely new, different, and distinct from the last iteration. We pushed back hard against the urge to “cut and paste” what we’re doing now…or what we mapped before. Rubicon Atlas helped tremendously in this area; the software is now much more intuitive and easier to use, and we have a strong partnership with the Rubicon staff.
Second, we decided our process was going to be entirely collaborative. This part was non-negotiable. “No one maps alone!” is our mantra, it has become a serious no-no to skulk off and map by yourself. But collaboration is still not easy for us. Collaboration requires most teachers to engage in unfamiliar behaviors, which can be painful. But as we know, if “the process [does] not result in awkwardness and disequilibrium, it would not affect any significant cultural transformation” (Instructional Rounds in Education, p. 11). For us, mapping time is synonymous with team time. In the end, it’s about normalizing the behavior and ab-normalizing the opposite; we make it hard to not collaborate, and you stick out if you don’t. We also celebrate collaboration by putting money behind it: our summer grant process and a good chunk of our professional development budget is now devoted to mapping teams who want to work on their own time.
Third, our maps are aspirational; they represent the very best version of our classes. In essence, it’s not my version or my class, it’s our version and our class. But the understanding is also that what we’re mapping right now is not currently being taught – at least not in its entirety – though it will be one day soon. Our purpose here, now, is to co-create the ideal and then aim for it with all of our energy.
Finally, we have emphasized that curriculum mapping – at least the way we’re going to do it – puts the student experience first. I suspect that for many independent school teachers, the teacher experience is paramount. My students read the things they read because they are things that I enjoyed reading. They are assessed how they are assessed because that’s how I was assessed as a student. This isn’t good enough anymore…if it ever was.
Here’s an anecdote that I think will illustrate what we’re hoping for:
Recently, I was in my kitchen, preparing to microwave a burrito for my daughter Jane. Between them, my children eat a total of four foods, and three of them are orange, so a burrito feels like a victory.
So I’m heating up the burrito, and my wife Marianne happens to be in the kitchen when I’m doing this, and she looks at me quizzically.
Marianne: Is that the way you do it?
Me: Yes, this is the way I do it.
Marianne: I wrap it in a paper towel. It’s recognized as the best practice.
Me: Well, I don’t wrap it in a paper towel, and Jane still seems to enjoy my burritos.
Marianne: You’re supposed to. It keeps it from getting soggy.
And a series of thoughts ran through my mind – some of which I can actually share here. My first thought was: Seriously? She’s telling me how to microwave a burrito? What’s been wrong with the way I did it the past 12,000 times? With my method, the burrito still gets heated, it gets eaten…what’s the desperate need for a course correction now? My initial reaction, with a mixture of pride, annoyance, and fatigue, was to reject the advice from a fellow burrito warmer. I used to be a cook in college! And I don’t wrap burritos in paper towels. Maybe she does it that way, but I’m not going to. And it won’t be too long before Jane can microwave her own burritos, and I’ll be out of the burrito microwaving business for good.
Many hours later, I realized that this exchange was a great analogy for our collaborative, aspirational mapping process. Essentially, there wasn’t anything wrong with the way I was heating up the burrito. My microwaving skills have been honed over many years, and my primary goal – give child warm burrito — was achieved each time. But I had to admit I had been ignoring the instructions – clearly marked on the package – to wrap the burrito in a paper towel. So, Marianne’s feedback about my process wasn’t undue. In fact, I didn’t factor in much at all. Marianne’s (child-centered) goal for Jane was the same as mine: to get her the most delicious burrito possible. What I needed to do, though, was remove myself (and my ego) from the process. Opening myself to the possibility of change through authentic collaboration would yield a better outcome.
So now we don’t microwave anything in the house without first coming together and saying, “If we were going to microwave this food in the best way possible, what would that look like?” and proceed from there.
There is an actual lesson here, and it is this: As we graft, prune, add and subtract from our courses, we must try to remove ourselves as much as we can from the process – from the initial sting that feels like judgment — and focus on the outcome we have in mind – the best possible learning experience for the students. We’re making good progress and learning a lot as we go.
Victories and Lessons Learned
Rubicon Atlas works! This process is forcing us to work together, and we’re having more conversations about teaching than we have ever had before. Collaboration is becoming normal, and our classrooms are becoming more transparent. Faculty curricular leaders have emerged, and we’ve leveraged their talents and experience. Our curriculum and our teaching practice are slowly but inexorably coming together and becoming more coherent and cohesive, and a map of what we do and how we do it is emerging.
What’s UbD, again? If I were to start the process over again, I would spend a year training our faculty on Understanding by Design before starting the mapping process. Literally overnight, we became a “design-thinking” school, and we were caught flat-footed by that. We’ll need ongoing PD – but a very targeted, specific kind – in addition to continuing to review the fundamental parts of UbD.
Ease up on the oversight (at least initially). We have resisted instituting review measures. Right now, we’re in sandbox mode. The refrain has been “Engage! Work together! Challenge each other!” I think if we shifted into “And now we’re looking over your shoulder,” it would have a chilling effect on the work and also make most of what I’ve been saying for 18 months sound disingenuous.
Time (Clock of the Heart). One fundamental message we heard from our faculty is, “We are serious about engaging with this work, but you have to give us time to do it.” You cannot steal meaningful time from other areas; it has to be carefully planned in advance. Next year we will have a series of six two-hour late starts that will be reserved for mapping and faculty collaboration.
You need support from the top. Now that we’re two years into the process, the language in the strategic plan seems almost jejune. It belies the incredible complexity of this process. But still, that institutional support for the process – and imbedding it in the school’s strategic thinking – is helping make our mapping process successful. In addition, our head of school is completely invested in this, and he reinforces our philosophy and the significance of the work every chance he gets. That has been instrumental.
Whatever your timeline is…it will change. My initial goals for progress were far too ambitious. Insisting on collaborative work slows down the process significantly. In the end, we have rejected the concept of timelines entirely. I now subscribe to what I call the Buckaroo Bonzai Philosophy: “No matter where you go, there you are.” I’ve found our faculty need constant reassurance – to hear that wherever they are in the process is exactly where they ought to be.
One of the toughest messages for our faculty to hear was that they will never “be done” with mapping. Curriculum Mapping is now part of every teacher’s job description. And for us, the more important aspect of this process – that it provides a framework for conversation and collaboration – is met every time two or more teachers gather to discuss their maps. I challenge my colleagues to see curriculum mapping not as additional work, though it is, but as something that can help us do everything we do – how it can complement every initiative and task already underway.
It’s not about one person. For the past few years, I have been the “Cheerleader in Chief” of Curriculum Mapping. Someone who has time, energy, and passion for the work is key, but to be successful (and lasting), the process needs everyone’s investment. It’s the faculty who will put the flesh on these bones. And it’s hard, hard work. The weight of it is palpable. But it is also incredibly inspiring to watch it happen.
Not everything needs to change. It’s important to remember that what’s best for students is going to include a lot of what we’ve been doing for years. Recently, a colleague wisely reminded me of the danger of sending the message that if you don’t align to standards, if you don’t already have essential questions and enduring understandings written for all your units, if you’re unwilling to sacrifice your lesson on arthropods — if you refuse to wrap a burrito in a paper towel! – then you are clinging to the past and unwilling to embrace this future…and you don’t care about the students.
Obviously, this just isn’t true. We all care about the students and want them to learn, grow, and thrive. And this work – learning the Understanding by Design framework and the various components of the Rubicon portal and then mapping…and re-mapping…and re-mapping – is going to come more easily to some than others, and it’s going to energize us all in different ways and at different levels. Instead of focusing on that, we focus on best practice. That’s who we are as a school. We ask, in every case, with everything we do, what’s the best practice that yields the best outcomes for our students? Some of that best practice will mean new content and new ways of thinking about our teaching – and some letting go of old lessons and traditions – but it will also mean embracing some of tried and true, too.
Whenever our faculty gathers to do this work, I see groups of colleagues all over our campuses working together, wrestling with this process, and following our two basic rules: engage, and don’t work alone. I believe in my heart that what this work has the potential to totally transform our school. I am proud of our faculty – proud of their willingness to put behind negative prior experiences, to collaborate with one another, to be open to change, to commit to learning something new, to put our students first. We’re already a better school because of it.
One morning in the spring of 1992, Brad Gioia called me to ask if I’d be interested in applying for a teaching internship at Darlington School, my alma mater. Mere months from graduating from Chapel Hill, I had been accepted into law schools but had little interest in going (my father’s dream, not mine; cue the “I don’t want your life!” scene from Varsity Blues), and teaching English sounded like a fun way to while away the time while I figured out “my next move.” I didn’t have an idea in my head that hadn’t been put there by someone else, and I knew even less about the subject of English (to say nothing of teaching it), but after an interview that could only be described as desultory, Brad nevertheless saw fit to offer me the job. Given my limited role as an intern, I suspect he thought the damage I’d inflict would be minimal – a dangerous assumption with one as earnest as I.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, over my first few years, I gave various administrators plenty of reasons to fire me (impersonating the headmaster in a play lampooning a young teacher’s life at the school? Check.), and it was common for me to stand in front of my class and feel like a complete charlatan. But if I knew less than nothing, I cared deeply – for the school, for my students, and for my colleagues – and fortunately I was given the time and enough mulligans to cobble together something resembling a pedagogy and an educational philosophy. I wouldn’t have lasted long as a new teacher at my current school today.
I paint that brief portrait not to kill all future job prospects (I’ve grown, I promise!), but rather to underscore what all teachers instinctively know: that we are human beings, and by nature as flawed as we are virtuous. I suspect that many of my independent school compatriots would, in a paroxysm of honesty, admit to an origin story similar to mine: we didn’t intend to be teachers, and we have screwed up mightily on occasion, but nonetheless here we stand, empodiumed – and at times, still making it up as we go along.
The Secret Lives of Teachers doesn’t explore such conflicted histories or motivations, but they are the basis on which it deconstructs the myth of the selfless and sacrificial teacher (held largely by those outside the profession), an impossibly high standard to which one might hold a human being (and ones as poorly compensated as we). In its place the book paints a far more human portrait of the modern prep school teacher.
This is one of the best books (or, in the author’s estimation, a “series of interlocking essays”) about being a teacher (about actually being one, with all its humiliations and petty jealousies, as well as its joys and triumphs) that I have ever read — about a life lived in service to others and, at times, in mere servitude. It’s not a call to arms about the state of teaching in America or the national obsession with uniform academic standards. In fact, it’s a very specific window into a particular kind of life in education – that of the prep school teacher. It’s about how hard this job can be, even when you’re holding a pretty favorable hand, as most of us who work in independent education are.
It’s worth exploring why the author felt he needed to hide behind “Anonymous,” the ultimate pseudonym. First, doing so hints at a truth so brutal that our aging history-teacher-cum-author must be protected from its searing heat; it implies, to quote the immortal Sisqo, that something “so scandalous” lies within — equal parts Primary Colors and Kitchen Confidential. And scandal sells, even if here it’s unreasonable parents or moldering coffee cake in the staffroom or the monthly fear of not being able to making the car payment – the quotidian indignities each teacher faces – rather than something more salacious (though we all know stories of teachers who manage to do those things, too. But that’s a different book.)
Anonymous has his limits as a writer, especially when it comes to rendering classroom dialogue in a convincing way, and most often his attempts to recreate it fall flat. Even while he decries “Mr. Chipsian” self-aggrandizement, he can’t escape it entirely (he names his narrator Horace Dewey, after all.) And the parents, students, colleagues, and administrators who populate the book — no doubt amalgams of real people in Anonymous’ professional sphere – come across as ciphers rather than flesh-and-blood examples. The rough frame of the book, which is a year in the life of the school, allows him an excuse to cover the ground he wants to, but it too feels constraining and forced at times.
The book really sings when Anonymous skips the anecdotes and speaks from his personal perspective; in these instances, the book is smart, trenchant, and very funny. The best chapter, entitled “Compensations” (which was excerpted on Salon.com), highlights the compromises all teachers must make once they have committed to this profession. His take on the financial plight of teachers is clear-eyed and unapologetic. [Long story short, we all eventually pay the bill for deferred maintenance.] Whether you agree with him or not, his honesty is refreshing – and, truth be told, quite novel. Teachers don’t like “telling tales out of school,” especially when it comes to the gory details of their real lives. Credit Anonymous for keeping it real, and for (mostly) not succumbing to the platitudes that plague most writing about our profession.
As always, my bottom line with any book is, “Why read it?” Is it just to be reminded that teachers are imperfect, as human as everyone else? That hardly seems worth the purchase price or the time. Instead, the real value here is the book’s ability to force us to contend with our imperfections. When it works, the book asks us to reconsider assumptions about our work, our students, our goals, our limits, and our teaching lives. It is possible you will view yourself – and your profession – differently after you’ve read it.