Lay of the land…

Somewhere West of Here lies East of Awesome…


Update 7/21/15: Edutopia put together a comprehensive guide, too.

Over they years multiple “big projects” have been my honor to lead, collaborate, and work on: novel units, curriculum maps, and curriculum adoption to name a few. In an effort to help clarify the sometimes subtle differences between the terms, I’ve endeavored to set sail and navigate some of these stormy seas. This may be one pivotal reason why I continue to appreciate the culture of my district, because by and large it appreciates and, outwardly at least, respects qualified teachers to make flexible instructional decisions without being in a lock-step or canned curriculum. This flexibility and agency to steer instruction as needed is not without some peril, and requires a great deal of preparation and reflection. It’s work I love to do, and is my passion, and whether I’m the ‘captain’ or a dinghy rower, it’s all part of a greater armada.

Okay, enough with the sea metaphor. Onward!


So to help clarify some terms, and get us out of the rock and hard place discussion, here is the best guidance I can offer:

Curriculum Maps

They’re not called maps by mistake. Think of any great map: it doesn’t necessarily tell you where or why to go, but how to get there, and what you may encounter along the way. Consider the range or scope of maps, too: universal, global, to the smallest micro-view of any terrain. Maps have keys, legends, scales of time and distance, too. So do strong curriculum maps. My district is in the process of creating a new curriculum map/units of study guide. I conflate the two because they are using the term ‘units’ to contain a set of related standards and suggested texts.

If you are working in a group, here is a guideline of steps/phases.

Most curriculum maps are ‘larger views’ of units of study: create a curriculum map with the goal of taking each unit and then, like Russian nesting dolls, creating sub-maps of each unit. Curriculum maps that include: Title, Suggested Time, Big Idea, Essential Questions, Assessment/Performance Task, and Suggest Texts serve us well.

Note: I might include place for related media, too: short films, photographs or paintings, etc. This would carry these standards:

Analyze the extent to which a filmed or live production of a story or drama stays faithful to or departs from the text or script, evaluating the choices made by the director or actors.

Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and information into broader categories; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation.

When using your curriculum cartographical skills, my advice includes a hefty dose of flexibility and assessment strategies, and an intentional place/space for data collection. Strong curriculum maps include a variety of CCSS, hitting the big targets.


Novel Units

Novel Units may focus on one novel, but that one novel may be part of a larger text comparison unit, or an even larger Unit of Study (Journey of the Hero with leveled/varying interests texts, etc.) The novel unit may focus on one thematic enduring understanding, or again, take part in a larger scope. There is really only one unbreakable rule when teaching a novel unit, and that is to read the novel first. Creating anticipatory guides, pre and post assessments, create a space for literature response groups (small group instruction, Socratic seminars, book projects, individual and group work, potential vocabulary lessons, character development, literary terms, etc. all play a crucial role in novel unit creation. But most importantly: what are students going to walk away with from their time spent on this novel?


Caution: when you read novels with the purpose of teaching novels, it’s hard to put those wings back on the butterfly:

Professors also read, and think, symbolically. Everything is a symbol of something, it seems, until proven otherwise. We ask, Is this a metaphor? Is that an analogy? What does the thing over there signify? The kind of mind that works its way through undergraduate and then graduate classes in literature and criticism has a predisposition to see things as existing in themselves while simultaneously also representing something else. Grendel, the monster in the medieval epic Beowulf (eighth century a.d.), is an actual monster, but he can also symbolize (a) the hostility of the universe to human existence (a hostility that medieval Anglo-Saxons would have felt acutely) and (b) a darkness in human nature that only some higher aspect of ourselves (as symbolized by the title hero) can conquer. This predisposition to understand the world in symbolic terms is reinforced, of course, by years of training that encourages and rewards the symbolic imagination.

Foster, Thomas C. (2014-02-25). How to Read Literature Like a Professor Revised: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Units of Study

Though I am certain there are a legion of approaches to Units of Study design, please first consider McTighe and Wiggins’ Understanding by Design approach. They are to curriculum planning what Franklin, Watson and Crick are to our understanding of DNA. Units of Study can be defined in a few ways, but there are key characteristics: several dove-tailed lesson plans that serve the greater or essential question/enduring understanding, authentic and meaningful assessments, and resources. Whereas a novel unit is based on a lens of literature, and curriculum maps serve all content areas, units of study also can be modified for all content areas. The difference may be units of study do not necessarily constrict to a time frame. 

Problem Based Learning and Project Based Learning

There are multiple sources for PBL and PBL, and Maker-Space Learning. Project-Based Learning can include Problem based, but Problem-based is specifically a ‘real world’ issue with an applicable outcome. Maker-spaces allow us all to find flexibility and creativity within a physical dimension.

Project Based Learning Links:

NAE Grand Challenges

Problem Based Learning


89cf89a06f760f1ca7f2aa1fcfc4361aAn expert inthis conversation is John Spencer. I admit I was doing ‘maker spaces’ long before this term was coined, but I just called it blending art and literacy. (Learning how to make Japanese folded books is one of my favorites.) If you have a principal who is not fond of messes, this can be problematic, but I am grateful that the term “maker space” is in place now so those who don’t like to see chaos and mess can now be told it’s ‘research based.’ (Nothing like getting validation for the best practices you were doing anyway!)


Constructive and Deconstructive Approaches

Now underlying all of this is a soup of making meaning, engagement, and critical thinking skills.  I encourage during the process of creating any unit or map to consider constructivism, and deconstructivsim. During the assessment data analysis, if you see students are in the ‘I don’t get it’ spot still, have them pull the lesson apart. That’s when it is clearly time for the ‘teacher talk’ to cease, and approach the learning from a different view point.


Any other thoughts about the essential pieces of curriculum planning? Oh yes – my mentor’s superlative pearl of wisdom: ask how can things go wrong: try to anticipate those scenarios, and it should be relatively smooth sailing. And then be prepared for those teachable moments!