What follows is an interview with Christina Sasso, a teacher and curriculum developer and a long-time friend of Curriculum Trak. She shares her thoughts and some practical tips for designing and planning curriculum, especially in the Language Arts classroom. To listen to the full interview, visit The Teacher’s Lounge here.
Michael Arnold: It’s great to have Christina Sasso join us today in the Teacher’s Lounge. She’s the middle school English teacher at Grace Lutheran School in Huntsville, Alabama. Her undergrad work was in English and Education at Concordia University in Nebraska. She started teaching at Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she discovered she’s a curriculum nerd, so she went on to study curriculum and instruction at Concordia University in Portland with a focus in Bible Literacy.
Today, we hope to pick her brain and hear her experiences related to English, curriculum mapping, and anything else that we can dredge up during the course of our conversation. Thanks for joining us today, Christina.
Christina Sasso: It’s good to be here.
What Draws You to Curriculum Design?
M.A.: Well, I think something that you and I have in common is that we both are self-proclaimed curriculum nerds. That’s a badge I wear with honor. I think you wear it with distinction. What draws you to curriculum design? What makes that attractive to you?
C.S.: When I first started teaching, even back in student teaching, my cooperating teacher gave me a lot of freedom in my very first classroom. She didn’t just say to me, Here’s what I do, teach this. Instead, it was, Here’s the book we’re studying. Whatever you want to do, you can do.
It was terrifying but it was also really cool because I got to make a lot of decisions as long as I could follow those standards. And then when I got to my first school, they handed me the standards that the school follows and said, Whatever you can do to make the kids understand these steps and skills is fair game.
I was able to pull from wherever, design my own activities, and from there it just grew into this really fun experience of seeing the light bulbs turn on for kids and knowing, Okay, I did that and I helped that happen. I just fell in love with the design process and learning what the kids liked, but then what also worked for them and how I could incorporate all those different things into single lessons or units.
M.A.: I would say that’s not the typical experience. Most teachers are handed a textbook with, Here is what we teach. Go do it. Do you think that the experience you had, or maybe even the idea of curriculum design, is something that everyone should be engaged in, or is it just for the nerds out there who want to take that on?
C.S.: No, it’s totally for everybody. I think that it’s for every teacher because I think that when you are considering those design choices, you’re also considering your students, you’re considering their interests and you’re considering their needs.
It really strengthens what you’re doing in your classroom and it strengthens your knowledge as a teacher. I think that everyone should dabble in it a little bit, even if that’s pulling things from textbooks and from different resources. You’re still curating your curriculum, I guess you could say.
M.A.: Curated curriculum as opposed to a canned curriculum. It seems to me that curriculum design is related to teacher efficacy. That’s an old term that came out in the 1990s, that teachers need to see themselves as efficacious in their instruction. Tell us a little bit about teacher efficacy and the connection that you think it plays to curriculum design.
C.S.: I think in my personal experience, because I did not feel super confident in my teaching when I first was given this design opportunity, it really boosted my confidence as an educator because I knew that I had to really evaluate what I was doing, even if that meant I would take a risk and I would fail. If I messed it up, I would have to reevaluate those things.
But I was given that gift of, It’s okay if you mess up because we trust you and we know that your training is good. And so it gave me that boost. I think that sometimes we feel like maybe the subject isn’t for us because, Oh, I wasn’t trained in that. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.
I think we can all learn everything and if we talk about it with our students, giving them the opportunity to be the teachers helps them to even learn better. We’re not just reading a script out of a textbook.We’re actually pushing ourselves to learn more, know more, do more, and as a result, we’re increasing our confidence. And then as our confidence builds, we’re more willing to take risks, we’re more willing to try new things. So, it’s like a really good cycle of growth.
M.A.: Tell us a little bit more about curriculum design. How would you define it and then connect it more to that teacher efficacy concept?
C.S.: Curriculum design is more than just pulling from resources. It’s really figuring out why you’re doing what you’re doing and really looking at what your end goal is and then evaluating the parts and pieces. We could put the parts and pieces together and then say, Oh, look at the end we came to, and that’s great.
But if I look at the end first and say, I’m going to write my final exam before I write anything else, and I know exactly what I want my students to be able to accomplish, then I can pull from different stories. Especially as a Christian educator in a Christian school, I think that’s essential because you’re not going to go out and find curriculum that is using Bible stories necessarily. And if I know I want to discuss types of conflict, I pull the story of Jonah because there’s tons of conflict in that story, and it gives my kids a biblical avenue for the same thing that I could have pulled another Ed Garland Post short story for. As a designer of curriculum, I get to make those choices and see where I want to add, where I want to take out, where I want to evaluate those essential questions that we’re looking at to pull in that biblical worldview. Whereas as a facilitator or as just someone who’s using that script from the textbook, I would miss out on those opportunities to adjust for where my students are or what my students are understanding.
M.A.: So you’re not thinking of curriculum design as writing textbooks or creating worksheets to put on Teachers Pay Teachers. You’re describing it more as the teacher is playing the central role in making the decisions about what will happen in terms of learning experiences in the classroom.
C.S.: Yeah, we’re not just trying to create a product that someone else can use. We’re creating a product for our school, for our classroom, based on what works for us as teachers and what works for our kids as students.
Designer Versus Facilitator
M.A.: That’s great. So, designer versus facilitator. What would a curriculum facilitator look like in your mind? Let’s unpack that a little bit more.
C.S.: I guess in my head, a facilitator is still someone who’s using the resources that they have, but they’re really just getting them in the hands of the students and they’re not necessarily considering all of those different factors I just mentioned. You were given this textbook, it has the resources that you need, and now you’re using them. You’re facilitating that function with the students, you’re doing the activities it says to do, and you’re following it in a prescribed manner.
M.A.: Would it be safe to say that a facilitator is very textbook focused versus the designer is very student focused?
Mapping in Language Arts
M.A.: The reason I wanted to explore that with you first is because we want to talk about language arts, especially curriculum mapping in language arts. That’s an area of expertise for you. When it comes to teaching language arts, paint a picture for us of what it might look like to teach language arts in a facilitator mode versus designer mode?
C.S.: Oh, that’s a hefty question. It’s difficult because if you’re just facilitating, you run the risk of missing out on certain skills because there are so many different avenues to cover in language arts, and it’s something I’ve always been annoyed with. I get textbook samples all the time because I’m always like, maybe someday they’ll come up with one that I really love, and I always find that it falls short in one area or another. I’m not going to single out specific curriculums, but there are some that do grammar really well and then they fail at writing, or they do spelling really well and then fail at word knowledge and vocabulary with tier two words or tier three words, or the reading curriculum’s great, but then there’s no grammar at all.
It’s tough because if you’re a facilitator and you’re just following that prescribed scope and sequence from your textbook, you might not realize how many other things are out there, even if you’re looking at your standards. Because in a textbook, they’ll list every standard possible at the beginning of your unit, not what you’re actually diving into.
So you may have fifty standards listed for unit one, but are you really actually assessing mastery on all of those things? If we’re not designing our curriculum and being intentional about what we’re doing for our students, then sometimes we’re missing certain skills that we don’t realize we’re missing until the next year when their teacher is thinking, Why didn’t they learn this?
M.A.: So how would you address that to a teacher who may be thinking, I need some freedom from these textbooks, but I don’t want to miss anything.
C.S.: I think that it’s important to not necessarily just stick to your textbook in the sense that you have to get from here to there without a doubt, because I think that learning is fluid. There are certain things that we could take fifteen minutes on and the kids get it and they don’t need six worksheets about it.Or we don’t have to cover everything in our book. We can adjust for whatever group of kids that we have, because every group is totally different.
Driving Force of Language Arts
M.A.: What would be the driving force if you had to pick one? Language, literature, writing, what would be the priority?
C.S.: I think the longer I teach and the more I watch the world change around me, the more I’m realizing that writing might be the more important focus. I love literature. I love teaching stories. We just finished an Edgar Allen Poe unit, so I keep bringing him up.
But my kids don’t need to know the story of “The Telltale Heart” when they’re 40. It’s a cool story. I want them to know it in their hearts because it’s awesome. That’s not something that necessarily lends itself to being remembered forever. There are skills like critical thinking, inferencing, and those kinds of things that we cover when we’re doing literature, but it’s those skills that I think are more important in the long run.
When I’m designing curriculum, I tend to focus more on skills than on stories. It’s one of the things that pulls me away from literature textbooks. They always focus on a theme of bravery or something, and that’s great, but it’s not necessarily the skills-focus that my standards are saying I need to focus on.
When I’m curating curriculum, I’m thinking about something like symbolism. I recognize that we’re going to cover this so we can understand how to dissect a story, and then we’re going to build from there and write an essay about a symbol. Then we’re tying in that literary analysis writing.
M.A.: That’s a tough call and I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong answer there. I’m certainly not going to disagree with your answer, but I could see how reading great literature can conform to character in the way that we think.
C.S.: In literature, that’s really where it’s easy to tie in that biblical worldview, and so it’s not unimportant. It’s such a tough question to answer because I see so many different facets of each side. I don’t know if I can really separate them necessarily.
M.A.: I recognize this is an opinion thing. It’s not a best practice thing, for sure, but it’s interesting to hear your thoughts. Let’s think about how to map this curriculum then. So we’ve just created a scenario where we’re saying a teacher should have a lot of freedom to design the instructional experiences based on standards, based on outcomes for the good of the student.That may not look exactly like any of the purchased textbooks in the classroom by the time it’s all said and done. Now when you compare that with mapping a math or a science course that’s very cut and dried, very straightforward, and three out of five textbooks are going to approach it all the same way, curriculum mapping is pretty easy when it comes to that. So how do you go about mapping your curriculum in a process like the one that I’m sure you follow in designing your curriculum? Do you have any tips or tricks?
C.S.: So I think that the first thing I try to do is break down the skills by grade level. I start thinking, Okay, if I want to cover satire and irony, where am I going to put that? Well, that’s obviously an eighth grade skill that takes a lot of higher order thinking.
It takes a lot of analysis that we’ve already broken down. Whereas I might put inferencing practice itself down in sixth grade. And so I’m really not necessarily breaking it down by story or by a specific type of writing. I’m breaking it down by what the essential skill is that I need my students to have to be able to make it to the next unit.
The second tip I have is to have a multitude of things you might be able to cover. While that looks really funky in a map, you might have a section where you have notes that just explain that advanced learners will be covering this instead because it’s not necessarily something you’re going to cover with your average student. I think differentiation is important as a language arts teacher, especially when you’re focusing on what the kids need and what they’re already able to do. I try to really hound the skill focus. My units are named after skills, not after novels, and I might put my novels as my resources instead.
M.A.: Now, what are the pitfalls to this kind of mapping? If you focus on skills in your language arts map, what are you missing?
C.S.: This is one of the things that I struggle with even in my own curriculum, because I can really integrate the writing and the reading. But sometimes I really struggle to get the grammar in there because talking about verbals is a horrible topic anyway: it’s the parts of speech that want to be other parts of speech, and my kids don’t understand it. Sometimes I think you just have to decide that this is going to be something that’s not integrated. One of the ways I do this is I incorporate bell ringers in my class, and so it’s a separate activity that my kids are working on, but it gets their mind ELA ready, I guess I like to say. Not necessarily our core skills that we’re working on, but it is ELA and it is a skill they need.
Tips and Tricks for Curriculum Mapping
M.A.: I’m hearing you say that you don’t force integration when it doesn’t happen naturally. What does that look like, though, on a map? A lot of schools have a separate map for grammar and literature and spelling, maybe even penmanship. Others have one map that’s just very long, trying to pull all these pieces together. What’s your preferred method for mapping?
C.S.: So I have just one map. Our school has decided to map by semester, which I think really helps with the idea of curriculum design because by using longer time frames (instead of doing it by quarters), you have a little bit more fluidity of where you put things. So if I realize my kids are not ready for this activity, I might push it to November instead of doing it right away in August.
M.A.: What process would you recommend for curriculum mapping if I’m a first year teacher trying to go from facilitator mindset to a more designer mindset.
C.S.: I think if I were to give advice to a first year teacher, it would depend on what your admin is expecting of you, because there are these external factors that we want to consider. I think the thing that I would say is really assess each unit before you start it.
Don’t just jump into your book. Take the time to look at your end assessment. What are the questions it’s asking? Know those really well before you dive into the unit with the students because that’ll give you the ability to adjust as you go along. Whereas if you’re just going along with the students, even if you’ve read the stories in full, you might miss those moments where you realize that they weren’t understanding that one skill that’s going to be asked three times on the test.
M.A.: I like that. That’s great advice. And I think that really is at the heart of teacher efficacy. If I can understand the outcomes that I want for my students, then I am capable of getting them there.
I think that what you’ve described as far as knowing the outcomes and making decisions around them, is probably one of the most succinct descriptions of how to think about language arts that I’ve heard in a long time. So thank you for that. Anything else to add?
C.S.: If you’re in the process of curriculum mapping, don’t be afraid for it to look ugly at first. If you’re kind of switching the way you’re thinking about your curriculum, it might look ugly. I think at the heart of a curriculum map, it’s not for someone else to look at for accreditation. It’s not for your admin to hire someone new in your place. It’s for you. And if that means it looks wonky for a quarter or a semester, then it looks wonky. You can sort out those wrinkles as you go because that’s what teaching is. That’s how I want my students to learn. They learn from mistakes. They learn from things going wrong, and so we need to learn the same way.
M.A.: That’s great advice. Thanks so much, Christina, for joining us today, for being part of the Teacher’s Lounge. It’s been great to have you.