Our podcast, The Teacher’s Lounge, recently featured an interview with Dr. Renee Mungons, curriculum director at Emmanuel Christian School in Sylvania, Ohio. She shared helpful details from her school’s process of curriculum review. Below is a shortened transcript of the interview, but you can listen to the full interview here.
Michael Arnold: So, you have put together steps for reviewing curriculum. Tell us what drove you to put together a document outlining your process?
Renee Mungons: I was really compelled to put it down on paper this year because this last school year we just finished the biggest review I’ve ever done. I felt like it went well, but it’s a little quick at this point in the school year to say that it was successful.
Step One – Establish a Team
M.A.: So, step one is establish a team. Who do you look for? What qualifications are you looking for when you put a team of people together to start reviewing curriculum?
R.M.: I like to go with the volunteer method before the “voluntold” method. First, I let all the teachers know that this is the topic we are reviewing this year. If they would like to be on the task force, they can let me know in an email. You want a sampling of people across the grades in your school because, obviously, you’re going to be wanting to look at different grade levels, so you need somebody who either teaches that grade or knows quite a lot about it. If I don’t get a good sampling of people from my volunteer plea, then I actually start reaching out to teachers.
We don’t have a huge upper school where we have multiple people teaching the same content area. Really everybody in our upper school who teaches in that content area is expected to be on the committee the year that their area is being reviewed. In elementary, I really just need every other grade or every two or three grades. You might have to skip a few grade levels, but get a variety of people together. I think really if you have six or eight people, that is plenty. Then you’re ready to agree together on the best time to meet.
M.A.: Do you find that teachers are generally positive and excited to be a part of this, or is there more “voluntolding” going on than volunteering?
R.M.: You know, actually, at our school it really has been pretty much a volunteer group. I had people volunteer this year immediately. I did have to remind the upper school teachers that they kind of were obligated to be on it. And the thing is, if you are one of the teachers of the curriculum that will be reviewed, you do want to give input.
So there’s a natural feeling of, Okay, this is another meeting for me every month, but most would like to have an opportunity to have some input in what the school is choosing and what they will be going to be teaching in the future. It’s usually not a hard sell.
M.A.: I was going to say it’s probably one of the few areas that teachers can actually speak into the decisions that will affect their daily life in a very tangible way.
Step Two – Set Regular Meeting Times
So then step two, as you alluded to, is to set regular meeting times. What does that look like?
R.M.: We find that once a month, up until maybe the very end when we’re getting near to decision-making time, is adequate and reasonable. We already have some built-in monthly meetings our teachers are expected to attend. So, I don’t want to overburden them with meetings.
We have chosen to meet once a month after school for one hour. This kind of comes up in one of the other steps, but one of the reasons why this works out well is because once we start looking at curriculums, I like to plan to actually have some Zoom interaction with the publishing companies.
Now, I will say, though, there is side work, although not in abundance. If you’re on the task force, you’re going to be asked to take two or three example copies of books and look through them and then offer your observations at the next meeting. We also ask people that are not necessarily on the committee to look at the books and give us input.
Step Three – Send Out a Review Form
M.A.: And that’s step three, right? You send out a review form and ask the teachers or the people of the committee to look through that. What’s that review form like? Are you giving them a series of questions to answer?
R.M.: Yes, actually, the initial review form is not anything that’s specifically connected to the books that we’re going to be examining for use. It asks what’s going well and isn’t going well with what we presently use. Curriculum review does not automatically mean we’re getting rid of everything we have and going with all fresh books. We usually go into it checking to see if this is an area where we need to make radical changes or if this is an area where we’re okay with a lot of what we’re doing and might not even end up changing books, but we’re still going to review it to see if we can find things that need to be changed. So we ask questions like:
- What are we doing well?
- In what areas do you see gaps in coverage of standards or content from grade to grade?
- Where do the students seem not fully prepared when they come to your class? (Maybe that’s a teaching issue, but maybe that really is the fault of a particular textbook that doesn’t cover something sufficiently.)
- What do you like about your current textbook? What do you dislike or consider to be ineffective?
So we try to get teachers in every single grade level, whether they’re on the committee or not, to fill out one of these forms. We collect some data on what we’re currently using to evaluate the merits of continuing to use it, and also to use that as a starting point when we’re looking at new books.
Step Four – Request Samples
M.A.: And then you get samples. Do you find that most publishers are happy to provide samples? Do you have to purchase samples?
R.M.: At the risk of stereotyping the secular versus the Christian publishers, the truth is the secular companies are these giant machines and they’ve got a lot of money and they will send you entire tote bags full of materials and never care to see them again. Literally behind me right now in my office, I have like six tote bags and they will never want them back. It’s a full set of curriculum for science for a whole grade. However, the Christian companies (and I understand this) cannot afford to do that. So you have to save the boxes and the packing slip, store those somewhere in your crowded building, and (later) pack it all back up. Some companies will ask you to pay for return shipping. Some will ask you to just call them and they will send you some UPS mailing labels. But it’s all got to go back.
The sad thing is if somebody loses the book, and they don’t get it back to you, you have to pay for it and it might be a book you’re not even going to use. So you do have to be really careful with your samples.
M.A.: You want to look at those physical copies, although you mentioned that there’s a lot more online these days.
R.M.: Because I’m old school, I don’t really care to have a situation where the company says, Well, I’m going to send you a little flip book and you can just review our curriculum online. That’s an okay secondary source, but I want the physical textbook, so I’ll do whatever it takes to get the physical books into the school. I also like to spread all three versions out and look at the same chapter to see how each company covers it.
If you set up a Zoom with the publishing company in which they’re going to demo their curriculum for you, explain their philosophy, explain the components, then you’re going to get real exposure to what they offer online as well as in addition to the textbook. They love to have a chance to sell their stuff in person, and we find that some in-person interaction with them really helps us to get to know their curriculum better.
Step Five – Review
M.A.: So step five is to do more review. You distribute samples to the corresponding members and talk through that. You provide a comparison form. To what extent do you evaluate textbooks for mission alignment and biblical integration opportunities? Is that part of the review process?
R.M.: I think it’s important to kind of identify what those real key areas are going to be. It’s a good thing to do in your first team meeting of the year, because at that point you won’t have gotten your sample copies yet anyway. Figure out how you’re going to work together for the year, and it’s great to have a discussion on what your priorities are. And of course, the mission of your school and expected student outcomes are going to be number one in a sense. But then what else are you as a committee going to be looking for from a curriculum? Maybe just list a few things that can become your major checkpoints as you look through books.
M.A.: How deeply do you go in your review towards the philosophical side of teaching? Do you evaluate a textbook based on the recommended teaching strategies, the opportunities for critical thinking, Bloom’s taxonomy, death of knowledge, that kind of stuff? Or is that more of a teacher’s responsibility in how they use the textbook?
R.M.: I would say that’s not our overriding concern. By the way, as the teachers on your committee flip through a book, they’re going to get a general feel for some of those kinds of things and the book’s overall usability and style. And they’re going to give you great feedback just off the cuff. I take a lot of notes in these meetings. And when a teacher is flipping through a book for the very first time, and they say, Oh, I really like this, I write that down.
As far as content is concerned, where it gets super scary is in some of the philosophical things that we would not be endorsing in our school because they would not align with the biblical worldview. It is a risky business in textbooks today. How are you going to be able to pick up a math book and guarantee that your eyes are going to perhaps fall upon that hot button thing that you would not want students to take home from your school?
I think I might be jumping ahead here on our list, but at our school, we have been burnt by that. We purchased rather hastily some curriculum for summer school usage a couple years ago. It included some instructional videos to start the lesson with each day, and the speaker in the video was somebody who was very blatant about his personal views on sexual identity. It was not something we wanted to use for our students.
Thank heavens the summer school teacher was previewing these videos at home, and it never got to the student level. But of course we had paid for the curriculum not realizing that this might come up. And really, I’ll be honest, in this case, it came up in a very unexpected way that you would not even have been looking for. So that really has taught us a valuable lesson, to be extra vigilant in some of these areas that are really becoming actually very controversial in the whole world of education.
M.A.: That was a really good overview of just some of the landmines that you could find in curriculum. I enjoy visual arts, so it would be easy for me to chase after the shiny things. This is a beautiful textbook. It has beautiful pictures, it has great video resources. How do you not let the shiny things have too much influence in the process?
R.M.: I’m a pretty big fan of shiny things, too. We’ll give that an official name that makes it sound better: Readability. If the book has no appeal to the students, then the battle is half lost. You want a book that’s going to be appealing and engaging, and pretty much everybody’s really running after that these days, secular and religious publishers.
And so a book that’s got the pictures, the use of color, the font size, and little sidebar things–you know, added little tidbits–I’m kind of a fan of those types of books because I think that’s going to have a wider appeal. And if a book is not appealing to the student, then they’re not going to want to use it.
Step Six – Publisher Presentation
M.A.: Absolutely. So then step six is the publisher presentation. What are some of the questions that you typically ask a publisher or how do you maximize the use of that time during the presentation period?
R.M.: Build a relationship with your representatives because they are your frontline for information. And if you end up choosing a curriculum, you’re going to have an ongoing relationship with them, not just because you’re going to them to purchase your materials, but also when a question comes up after you get your materials, that’s going to be your go-to person.
Another thing you’re going to be talking to that publisher about is price. For example, if you do decide to go all in and make a major change and you’re going to buy hundreds of new textbooks, what is the price point going to be and what might they be willing to throw in for free, so to speak? One of the things I have discovered is that some of these larger publishing companies might be the most expensive because they’re giving you so many different things with the curriculum, but they might also be quicker to give you quite a significant discount on your final product. So yes, it’s a little bit more money, but not as much as you thought it was going to be.
When we’re zooming with the publisher representative, we try to all have the textbooks open in front of us. The teachers on the team are looking through the books as the person is presenting, and then whatever comes up, they can just call out a question like, What standards do you align with? or Is there somewhere we can see your scope and sequence? That’s another time when I’m taking a lot of notes, primarily on what my team is saying to that person and what kind of responses they’re getting back because that’s drilling down to the main things that we’re looking for.
Step Seven – Narrow Down Choices in April
M.A.: And then at some point it comes time to make your final decisions, narrow down the choices, decide what textbook you’re going to use. How much fear and trepidation goes along with that? It is at least a one-year commitment, maybe even a five-year commitment in some cases.
R.M.: It was scary because when we made our final decision about our math curriculum in April, I had never myself made a decision of that magnitude before. And, I might add, our Head of School never got involved in this decision. Now, when I say that, I don’t mean he wasn’t checking up on me. But he never got involved. Never questioned it. When I discovered what it was going to cost, I kind of ran some figures by him because I was thinking I didn’t want to be picking something we could not afford.
But, yeah, that moment was big. In the end, I took the wimpy approach and I decided I would not have a vote. But the committee did vote. It came down to two companies. After some final discussion, there was a unanimous feeling. There were some that liked one over another for certain things, but there was a real unanimous decision in the group as to what to do.
Step Eight – Order Curriculum
We went all in and purchased something brand new for grades K through nine, so it was an extremely significant and costly decision for us. So much so by the way, we are able to use state funding in the math area for this, and we also discovered from the publisher that we could split the payment. They were willing to send us everything for all grade levels, all classes, with a promissory note and a payment of 50% upfront. It made it more affordable for us because we’ve bought in on a three year plan with this math curriculum. The cost covers three years’ worth of textbooks and three years of digital licenses for the whole school.
So, yes, we split the payment across two years, but it’s not like we’re going to somehow have these overlapping payments because now we’re paid up for three years. Like you said, you’re making a big decision for your school and you’re making it for a number of years and it will need to be closely monitored to know whether or not in the end it turned out to be a good decision for us.
M.A.: Is it common to have that level of consensus among the task force, the review committee, or do you often have a hung jury or a split vote?
R.M.: We pretty much can come to a consensus. This was the biggest decision we’ve ever made as a school, but some years you’re going to review a curriculum and you’re not going to change every grade level.
M.A.: So you go through the whole process, you make your decision, you order the books, the books arrive, and that’s where the real work begins, isn’t it?
Step Nine – Monitor Individual Teacher Implementation
R.M.: This is the part I didn’t see coming in my blissful ignorance. I thought, I am going to equip these teachers with this amazing product. They are going to rise up and call me blessed and embrace it fully. And I might as well just have an extra coffee break in my office because my worries are over.
So the first challenge to that is a whole bus-full of new teachers, and what school isn’t experiencing that right now? So you’ve got all these folks and some of them have never taught beyond student teaching. They had to get into the routine of learning a curriculum for the very first time. But in my blissful ignorance, I thought everyone was going to grab this thing and run with it. And that didn’t happen because there was still the strange temptation for some to avoid the work of digging in and learning the new curriculum. They just wanted to grab something quick from the internet.
And that was so horrifying to me. I have to sing the praises of a couple teachers at our school. One happens to teach high school math and is brand new. He has never taught a day in his life, but he has always wanted to be a teacher. He’s teaching our middle school math. I said to him, “Hey, Jason, you can be the guy who learns this and then shows everybody else.” And he took that seriously. He had his classes set up in the online portion before anybody even said how to do it. And he fully embraced everything.
Meanwhile, down the hall, unbeknownst to me, people were not using some of the components of the curriculum. They were doing a little picking and choosing. Well, I’ll do the right page, but in my own way, so to speak.
There are a couple reasons why I don’t feel that we should just go ahead and let teachers do whatever they want once they have the new curriculum in hand. First of all, what in the world did you spend all that time reviewing curriculums for to get them the best product possible only to have them half use it? Second of all, how will you ever evaluate the effectiveness of the curriculum if they’re not fully using it and all of the available components? There were many scholarly people who came together to write these things. We need to trust them. If we buy their product, that means we trust them to know the best way to educate our students in this content area, and we need to use the product as it was intended.
So I’m in the process right now of scheduling little observations. I’m not a hiring and firing person, but I am your implementation enforcer. So I am coming around to check on implementation of the new curriculum, and sometimes after school, I’ll just go down the hall and pop into a teacher’s classroom and have a quick chat with him or her on how it’s going with the new curriculum. What are you hearing from parents about this new math curriculum?
M.A.: I don’t want to make this unique to your setting, but if you were to predict which teachers are going to embrace the new textbooks and try to use it with fidelity versus those who are like, Well, I’ll draw from it and I’ll just do my own thing, what kind of teacher is more likely to be that second teacher that does their own thing?
R.M.: A couple of different kinds. I think you have to work closely with your teachers that have taught for a long time and may already be very comfortable with all the notes and projects and assignments they’ve developed over the years for use in their classroom. If they’ve been teaching the same thing for a long time and you’re giving them a new book, you will want to make sure they’re actually using that and not still just teaching what they did for a long time.
I believe a teacher who has gone back to school, who has taken some additional classes, possibly at the graduate level, either out of a desire to stay current in their field or to pursue another credential– people that are circling back to a college or university are going to be more wired to embrace new things than the person who just got hired in August and the person who’s been there for 20 years.
The other people that I’m concerned about are the brand new teachers who are overwhelmed. Part of their feeling of being overwhelmed is the fact that they had the terrible misfortune of growing up in this current generation. They might be tempted to be thinking about their quality of life outside of the workplace to the extent that they’re not really putting in enough time with those teachers’ manuals. We are really fighting that fight at our school right now. Teaching is a huge job. The boundaries of it could gobble up your whole life. And I am not saying we should let that happen, but when you go into a teaching career, you need to go into it with your eyes wide open to the fact that it’s not like a factory job. There will always be work to take home.
Step Ten – Reconvene the Task Force
M.A.: Why do you think it would be valuable to reconvene the task force, the curriculum committee, to reevaluate the decision? What would that look like?
R.M.: Maybe mid-year or more likely even end of year for a first-year evaluation, go back to the very people who made the decision and ask some questions like, Has this change met your expectations? Do you think it’s working well? What do we still need to work on?
If my boss were standing right behind me, he would say that the teacher is a curriculum. That’s a big philosophy with him and I get that. So, it’s not just that we equipped the teachers with materials, but we also need to evaluate the teachers’ use of those materials across the grade levels and consider making some changes in presentation.
M.A.: It could also be an opportunity to talk about what they’ve discovered that they like, and share tips and tricks that they’ve picked up from their colleagues or their own use.
R.M.: Absolutely. And teachers that have maybe been stronger implementers could encourage those that use the curriculum but could do a better job to maybe expand their skills the next year, too.
M.A.: What a valuable process! Thank you so much for sharing your insights.
R.M.: I don’t think I’m the be all, end all. And probably compared to some people, I would still be considered relatively new to this field. It does happen to be what I studied in graduate school and I’ve got a solid five years under me now. So, I’ve gained some experience, but I’m just really passionate about helping others because I have been in education for a long time. I don’t think I know it all. I’m always open to new ideas from other people, but I’m also really passionate about the idea that if I could help somebody, I would love to do so.
M.A.: Yeah, and that’s why we like to have you on The Teacher’s Lounge. Dr. Mungons, thanks for sharing your thoughts and your experience and your passion and your opinions.