Working within a standardized curriculum doesn't mean you have to turn into a teacher-tron. After all, the curriculum specifies the what, not the how.
When I was a new teacher, I had a general idea about the curriculum—but first and foremost, I wanted to have fun with my students. I wanted them to like me. I wanted my class to be the high point of their day. I wanted them to love my creative lesson plans and my challenging, innovative projects. I wanted them to be able to dress up as their favorite characters from the books we read, decorate a holiday "chemis-tree" with the periodic table, or construct the Eiffel Tower out of dried pasta.
I was successful in my ambitions until January, when I realized I had covered only about a third of the required curriculum topics I was supposed to during the first semester.
Knowing Where You're Going
If your school has adopted standardized curricula for all grades, it doesn't mean you have to abandon all hope of having fun with creative lesson plans. It does mean, however, that you have to figure out exactly where you're going and how long it takes to get there. Starting the new year, I pulled out the five-pound standardized curriculum book from the bottom drawer of my desk just to see how I was doing. And having discovered I had two-thirds to go, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't freaking out a little bit.
Luckily, across the hall was Mrs. Parsons, a respected veteran teacher who had given me great classroom management tips. She listened to my panicked story, nodded wisely, and said, "Here's an idea that might help. Think of the school year as an extended road trip. The curriculum is your map; it identifies your students' final destination in terms of the knowledge and skills they should be able to demonstrate at the end of the trip."
Using a road map doesn't mean that the only way to get to your destination is the direct route on a four-lane interstate, she said. Creative lesson plans are like taking the more interesting, scenic route. "But," she said, "you only have a certain amount of time to complete the trip."
"There are lots of ways to teach the material," Mrs. Parsons told me, "and we all want learning to be fun. But you have to keep in mind what you want your kids to know at the end."
I managed to finish that first year by planning more carefully and not wasting a minute of class time. We still did a few creative projects, but I made sure the curriculum goals were clear. The second semester wasn't quite as much fun as the first, but Mrs. Parsons had given me some sound advice for the following year.
Planning Your Time
Before school started the next year, I opened that same curriculum book—which I now kept on the corner of my desk—and used the map to plan a route for the whole year. First, I divided the total number of instructional days into four quarters, excluding holidays, vacations, or standardized testing days. Next, I figured out what topics, competencies, and skills I could reasonably expect my students to handle during each quarter.
To my thinking, a standardized curriculum doesn't prohibit students from learning more than the bare minimum. They can master the basics of sentence structure and grammar, for example, but they'll actually develop the real-world skill of writing good prose if they can even use digital publishing tools to compile a book of their own essays.
So, once I was comfortable with the time allotted to the learning goals, I started developing my lesson plans. Students could still debate, put on a play, develop an online newspaper, or make an original video. Once I had identified and integrated their learning goals into my creative lesson plans, I was confident my students could master the skills in the time allotted and still have fun.
Starting with the End in Mind
Besides knowing what you want your students to learn, you need to decide how to assess their progress. Share the learning goals with students at the beginning of the unit, and let them know how they'll be tested at the end. Even very young children can understand a basic rubric that measures their progress toward mastering a skill.
At the end of your long road trip, it's likely that your students will be tested on the standardized curriculum. In many states, for better or for worse, student success on tests is considered a reflection of the teacher's effectiveness, and it may figure into a teacher's yearly evaluation. There are plenty of ways to have fun and be creative while still working within the confines of a standardized curriculum; your curriculum map will help you do that while giving your students—and yourself—the best chance to succeed.
If you plan your trip carefully, when your students reach their destination, they'll not only have the skills they need, they'll have enjoyed the ride, too.