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Curriculum Design 101 – How I do it

Curriculum design 101

When you decided you wanted to be a teacher, you probably had all sorts of ideas for how you would change students’ lives and the exciting content that you would share with them. You most likely knew and were excited about curriculum design being a part of the job. Who DOESN’T enjoy creating engaging instructional resources for your students?

But if you are like me, you probably weren’t aware of the 20394820394823 other parts of your job that would suck a lot of your time up – roles like lab cleaner, continual meeting attender, morning tutor, after school detention monitor, student council supervisor, (fillintheblankwithwhateversport) coach, and prom chaperone.

And I didn’t even mention anything about grading or classroom management!

With all of this on my plate, I didn’t realize what a toll it would take on my energy, time, and capacity to do what I really love – creating resources for my students. I anticipated curriculum design being a big part of my job but I was definitely naive about how much went into it.

What I learned over the years was that I was NOT good at a lot of parts of teaching – like enforcing dress code. I am sorry, I just don’t care 😬 I am usually just happy the students are at school (even if they are wearing crop tops and distressed jeans.)

But what I AM good at is curriculum design. I love EVERY aspect of it – planning the entire scope and sequence of the course, analyzing the standards, coming up with all of the labs and projects to connect students to the content, and even writing the tests and other assessments I use to determine their understanding. I truly love it ALL. This is one of the main reasons I started creating resources to share with other teachers in my TpT store and resource shop.

What I am here to share with you now is an overview of HOW I do what it is I do. I know that my approach won’t fit with everyone’s style and personal teaching style – and I think that’s totally fine! You ALWAYS must take everything I write here with a grain of salt and do what is best for YOU and YOUR students. But for those of you who have asked me to share the method behind my madness for curriculum design, so to speak, I am here to share the 4 basic steps I take when designing curriculum for any of the subjects I teach:

1. Analyze your standards and translate them into practical objectives.

First and foremost, I always begin tackling curriculum design for a new subject by going through the standards. If you have moved to a new state, or switched to a private school and aren’t sure, ASK! Find out if your state uses NGSS, has their own standards, or uses some combination of the two. If you are teaching an elective science course and are pretty confident you have complete autonomy, STILL ASK. Even if you don’t have formal guidelines, it will be helpful to know what the expectations are from your school or district for the course.

There also may be a specific textbook or district provided “curriculum” you need to follow. Find out and see how strictly they expect you to follow it. Is this a “strong suggestion” or just an available resource, if you need it? My first teaching job had districted provided curriculum, but it was a terribly outdated hodgepodge of resources and wasn’t clearly thought out at all. I found out I didn’t have to use it, but did have to follow my state’s standards and was able to move forward from there. I am SO GLAD I asked!

Next, do a thorough reading/review of whatever you are expected to use (I’ll use the word “standards” from here for simplicity’s sake). Take notes as you read the standards*. Specifically, translate what you are reading into practical objectives. This is something I REALLY find critical in my curriculum design process. Oftentimes the standards we get are written in a fluffy/fancy way that isn’t actually usable, as is. Keep it simple, and translate each standard into objectives that are clear, easy to understand, and actionable. I write all of my assessments from these objectives AND I have students create study guides from them, so I consider that perspective as I write them.

For example the standard may say: HS-LS1-5: Use a model to illustrate how photosynthesis transforms light energy into stored chemical energy. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on illustrating inputs and outputs of matter and the transfer and transformation of energy in photosynthesis by plants and other photosynthesizing organisms. Examples of models could include diagrams, chemical equations, and conceptual models.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include specific biochemical steps.]

The objectives I write from that may be:

  • Summarize where all energy on Earth comes from and the overall processes it goes through to be in a usable form of ATP for consumers like us.
  • Write and interpret the chemical formula for photosynthesis. Label the reactants and products.
  • List the significant events of the light-dependent reaction (ETC). Include which reactants and products are involved. Highlight what will be released as a product and what will move on to the second stage. Be sure to include where the process occurs in the chloroplast.
  • List the significant events of the light-independent reaction (Calvin Cycle). Include which reactants and products are involved. Highlight what will be released as a product. Be sure to include where the process occurs in the chloroplast.

These objectives are much more clear and specific for me AND my students, allowing me to work with them a little more easily as I continue in my curriculum design process.

Another note: when I come up with content, I am always referring back to the SEPs and CCCs from NGSS, but if you don’t use NGSS, it may help to highlight to the side any key words for instructional strategies, too. For example with this standard, I would note that I need to be using models (which I do my ENTIRE time teaching photosynthesis, because they are so helpful!)

*If using NGSS, read the standard, DCI, SEP, and CCC and use ALL of it to come up with objectives.

2. Find engaging phenomena, investigations and labs to anchor and guide your units.

As I am reading through the standards, I often start coming up with ideas for phenomena, investigations, labs, and other hands-on activities for my students. Jot those down!! I keep a running list of different ideas that are inspired by different standards and the objectives that come from them.

If there are certain topics that I don’t immediately have ideas for, I start looking! See what other teachers are doing – whether in your building, in your district, or on Google! I love following other teachers on Instagram for ideas. Keep a running list on your phone notes section with these ideas.

And don’t feel too committed to anything just yet. Remember, alllllll curriculum design is a work in progress! This is just how I get started and I CONSTANTLY go back, reflect, and change what I do! But at this point in the process, you want to have:

  1. A really clear list of objectives for WHAT to teach, and
  2. A list of fun and engaging ideas for potentially HOW you will teach them.

3. Organize objectives, phenomena, and content into units. Further break those units down into concepts.

Now comes the most fun part for me – ORGANIZING!!! Yes, yes, I know I am strange, but man, do I really love organizing!

Begin looking for patterns in your lists and start clumping objectives and phenomena that go together. I usually end up having 7-10 units per course. The more units, the shorter they are, so keep that in mind if you have a preference towards longer vs. shorter units. Come up with one unifying idea, theme, or phenomena to tie the entire unit together, and name the unit based on that. For example, I teach food webs, trophic pyramids, ATP, photosynthesis, and cellular respiration all in one unit, and thus I call this unit my Energy Flow unit. Students learn all about how energy flows on a micro and macro level in this unit. I LOVE TEACHING IT THIS WAY and have a lot of thoughts about why I love it that you can read about here, if interested.

At this time it is also important to see if you have a specific sequence you have to follow. Again, don’t just assume! ASK if a given scope and sequence is required or just suggested. If they REALLY don’t care, take some liberties!! I did a lot of trial and error before coming up with my sequences that I think make the most sense. You can read mine for biology, physical science, and anatomy here!

I do all of this organizing digitally, but if you prefer to work by hand, I recommend summarizing the objectives into topics, and then writing each topic and/or phenomena on a sticky note. Stick them to a wall and then start manually moving them around and clumping them together as you see fit!

Once I have 7-10 units determined for the year, I go into each unit and further subdivide the unit into concepts. My units all have 3-6 concepts. If more than 4, I break the unit into two larger chunks with two separate tests. Chunking it up this way makes lesson planning and curriculum design less overwhelming for YOU, and knowledge and skill acquisition less overwhelming for students.

I also really like to divide my tests by concept. This means I chunk all of the questions for concept 1 together, then all of the questions for concept 2, etc. This is INCREDIBLY HELPFUL if a student makes a poor score to go back and see what content they struggled the most with. Oftentimes they will do great with 1-2 concepts, but really bomb one entirely. I can easily identify the weaknesses and we can remediate, where necessary!

4. Fill in with content and refer back to the beginning.

Last but not list, fill in! For every concept I make sure to have:

  • A set of lecture notes + corresponding lecture video
  • AT LEAST ONE engaging instructional resource
  • AT LEAST ONE resource for practicing and reinforcing the content

This is all VERY SIMPLIFIED, and I do a LOT of different things to switch up my strategies and organization each unit, but this is the bare minimum I make sure to include for each concept. My lecture notes also look different for different concepts (some are shorter, and some are longer!) Some concepts have a lot of instructional resources (I could truly do 139821 labs for every concept in my ecology unit), while others have a lot of reinforcing practice (looking at you, physics calculations!) That variety is a GOOD THING! I just like to have some sort of baseline so that students know what to expect and I stay organized, too.

Now, for every WHOLE UNIT I make sure to include:

  • At least one lab or hands-on experience
  • At least one inquiry-based activity (even if it is a simple one!!)
  • At least one opportunity for research or extension
  • A test
  • An option for an alternative summative assessment

Again, take this all with a grain of salt!! You may have way more resources, or only 1-2 preps and way more energy to do more labs than I do. That’s great!! I’m writing this from a background of balancing 5 preps and no science budget, so these are just realistic goals I set for myself. Yours can look different!

Once I have a rough rough rough draft, I circle back to the beginning and make sure that EVERY objective is being explored and covered in detail. If not, I walk through the process again. Then I do this again, and again, and again each time I teach a unit. I learn what works and doesn’t work, and I make changes. You will have activities you think will rock, and they will be terrible. But you will also have spontaneous discussions that turn into amazing instructional moments with your students that you never expected or planned for. It’s all part of the fun!

And this is why I love systems, like this one for curriculum design. I love having a baseline structure and process for everything I do so that then I can walk into each day with open hands, ready to adjust and shift out of my baseline, as needed. Basically my philosophy on teaching is like when we explain dynamic equilibrium to our students when introducing homeostasis – ha!

I hope this peek into my curriculum design process is helpful for you! Is this process similar to what you do? Anything different? I’d love to hear from you! DM me on Instagram or shoot me an email here!

Looking for more support for lesson planning? My course, Secondary Science Simplified™️, might be a good fit for you! You can learn more about it here.

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