Today on The Teachers Lounge, we have a treat that’s been a long time coming. Mary Lou Capan of Capan Consultants, a longtime friend of Curriculum Trak, promoter of curriculum mapping through Curriculum Trak, a trainer, one of our first certified users (she probably could written and taught the course herself), joins us to talk about a very important question that surfaces somewhere along the mapping journey: Should teachers see themselves as curriculum designers or facilitators? Mary Lou is a consultant with experience as a classroom teacher, administrator, curriculum leader, and now a trainer and coach. She formerly served on the board for CSI (Christian Schools International), specifically supporting accreditation work and served on the team of people to write and revise the standards around curriculum for CSI. She’s also led institutional reviews for CESA, the Council for Educational Standards and Accountability.
Michael: Because we’re friends, I’ll try not to be too hard on you here as we explore this topic. Tell me a little bit more about your background or your experience. What’s your current work look like and how did you get there?
Mary Lou: I was a teacher early on and an administrator at the same time and a principal and a superintendent and a head of school, at different schools throughout the course of my experience, and I also served as a director of curriculum and design. And I think about 7 years ago (but who’s counting?), I really felt the pull to go into consulting, so I did dive off the deep end. And I never looked back because it has been such a great privilege to work with these quality schools, large and small, that are all making and attempting to make the kingdom visible through what they do. Each school is different, and each place I go to or work with just informs me more as a learner.
So that’s where I am right now. I’m balancing about 3 schools. I’ve been at 5 or 6 schools in my experience, and on again and off again with those schools, and 2 long-term relationships that I have with schools, and it’s always been my great honor and pleasure to be invited into that capacity for the long term.
And again, some schools I work to help teachers rise to that level of the curriculum coordinator and support them. So I’m constantly working myself out of a job, which is kind of a bad business plan, but it works for me.
Michael: But at the same time, I think you’re unique when it comes to consulting because you go in for the long term with the school, for multiple years in a row. It’s not like you go in for a day:Let me teach you something, then I’m out of here. You’re in for years at a time, and that’s really exhaustive work, not exhausting, but exhaustive in its breadth and depth.
Mary Lou: It is. And it’s an honor to do that because you’re serving others that are serving others in that capacity where maybe they don’t have that little piece or a corner or time for that, and they just need that third ear. Sometimes I find I’m in the consulting therapeutic role with different leaders. And often it’s just spending time, quality time, with people over and again, knowing they know you’ll be back. You’re not just dancing on the stage for one professional development day and you’re gone tomorrow, but you’ll be back. So it helps build those relationships over the long term.
Michael: When you’re working with schools, you’re trying to help educators think more deeply about their curriculum and their curriculum practices. And so that’s kind of the overarching question for our conversation today: Do you see teachers as more of a facilitator of curriculum or a designer of curriculum? Maybe it’s a sliding scale. Maybe we need to unpack those terms a little bit. But right off the top, what role do you think teachers play best when it comes to curriculum at their school?
Mary Lou: I think if we look at that scale from the is to the ought, I’m always striving, straining, and stretching schools and teachers toward designership because I believe really that’s the full calling–when you’re teaching, not simply following a script. It’s important to know what the school requires you to do, but to own it creatively and imaginatively and to have a call into that and speak into it is, I think, the highest form of expression in a job.
And it may not be for everybody, but it certainly is for people who want to have that intelligent input and learn as they go along. I love supporting that. It is not quick and easy, but it’s exciting and exhilarating to do that. So I like the idea of moving teachers towards the ought, never fully finally ever reaching it, but I think it’s just worth that time.
So while you would say there’s value in drawing from a canned curriculum, you want to see teachers own it, to make it their own as they gain experience.
And embedded in that, you probably can sense in a good way, the tension that exists on both ends of the rope. And my goal is, when I’m working with schools, not to let the rope get too tight so that it snaps, and not to let it get so slack that we fall off this little tightrope that we walk.
Michael: So let’s talk about what are some of the pitfalls? I’ve had school administrators, and I’m sure you have as well, who would flat out tell me, I don’t want my teachers to be designers. I would rather they be facilitators.
What might drive that kind of a mindset? I think it’s understandable, but what are some of the ingredients that feed into that mindset?
Mary Lou: There could be a few things. I’m not quite sure what everyone says about that. It could be a sense of control, but I don’t believe that’s probably true. I think most administrators are protective of their faculty, and they want to make certain that they’re cared for. And in most schools, teachers are doing duties, sometimes double duties, and they know that there’s only so much capacity a person can have in their life and margins.
So I think probably one of the pitfalls would be limited time because it does take time to do quality work. And another pitfall could be a gap in experience that some of the teachers have. You have people coming along the continuum. There’s been folks in these schools who are legacy teachers and have been there for 30-40 years, and yet you help also have new people and anywhere in between that. So how do you manage that experience gap?
You could work on curriculum, and if those personnel that are working in that field don’t have the experience or the knowledge of good curriculum theory, and research based strategies and understanding of standards, the components that take up good curriculum design, your result is a rather poor plan. I’m sure educators are concerned about that.
Also, I think there’s just that resistance to change that if any administrator tried to do anything different in the day, there’s always going to be a little bit of resistance to change. There’s that to manage and also really the collective enduringness of the curriculum that you eventually create. If it’s a school with multiple teachers, there’s going to be a consistency challenge if you’re writing it.
So now after I’ve said that, I hope I haven’t dissuaded anybody listening from doing it. But it’s important to know up front that those are some small to large problems that rear their head from time to time.
Michael: I’ve talked with administrators. I think I could reference Renee Mungons–she’s been on the podcast a time or two. Administrators like Renee adopt a curriculum, especially skills based curriculum, a math or a science. We adopt the curriculum for very important reasons. We can’t have teachers going off and doing their own thing. And so when you present the idea of a teacher as a designer, that’s probably one of the concerns. Is the teacher going to do the things that we want them to do or go off and do other things? And so I think you mentioned accountability and consistency as a concern.
And investing in those textbooks–sometimes it’s a lot of money. So why would we want to step away from them if we just bought them, right? What is, would you say, the opposite extreme now? What are the benefits of curriculum design or embracing more of a design mindset, with teachers owning the curriculum, as you said, and investing in it. Maybe even stories of how you’ve seen things improve or change because of that mindset.
Mary Lou: In a broad way, I think the reason why I would advocate for educators to be part of that curriculum design, even if there is some central oversight to it, which could cure some of the questions that we raised in the beginning, is that they have practical insight. They’re the reality check to everything.
You could put me in a corner, and I could write curriculum all day. I don’t know that it would be very good, but I could write it all day long and go on and on. And, when I hand it to a teacher, they would take one look at it and say this isn’t practical. The teachers have practical experience and that’s good experience, and they understand the diversity of the students that they have today.
Their availability and adaptability in the classroom is important too because once the curriculum has been designed by the teachers, they can adapt it as they go along. They’re implementing it, building it as they go along. And so there’s a sense in which they can adapt it and revise it, and feel that they can do that, and document it.
And there’s also buy-in, which is so important. When you create it or you’ve had a hand in creating it, there’s buy-in. You’re an advocate for it in the school. We all know that the teacher shortage isn’t only in private schools or Christian schools, but it’s across the nation in all schools. So the benefit, I think, of involving teachers’ curriculum design is that it attracts those good people and makes them stay because maybe your compensation slides all over the place from left to right, but good people love to be invested in what they’re doing and have a say in it. .
Michael: But let’s back up just a little bit and maybe now is a good time to just define what curriculum design is so that no one’s assuming things or reading more into this than it is. So how would you explain this to a group of teachers for the first time? How do you explain that in a way that kind of gets everyone on board versus suggesting a lot of fearful things in the minds of these teachers.
Mary Lou: I’ve been thinking about that ever since I knew we’d have this conversation, and it fit for me with all the experience that I’ve had and certainly the mistakes that I’ve made. But I think the one thing that leadership cannot do enough of is stressing the why.
And you may think that you’ve told everybody why enough and you haven’t. I can guarantee you have not or it hasn’t been heard or it was interpreted in a different way or you said it a different way, but the reason why you do this needs to be stressed, needs to be embraced by everybody because teachers are practical people and they’re also conscientious people. So they’re not going to do anything that’s going to take away from the value of the time in the classroom or their time in giving feedback. Those are the most important things. You have to stress the why.
So, why? Alright. A lot of the schools that I’ve worked with have been in existence for a number of years, for decades, with the exception of one that I helped launch a few years ago. That was fun because we got to work with a lump of clay and mold it in the image of ourselves. That was great. But most often, what you have is not a blank page, but you have a school with a history. And usually, those schools, so they would have not been accredited, if they didn’t have something that resembled mastery objectives and curriculum guides. They already have them. And if it was in the eighties or the nineties, the curriculum would be a traditional model. It’s scaled down to some degree and would have a philosophy, but that curriculum would also have the components of student objectives or learning objectives. It would have some listed themes or topics that would be covered, a list of suggested activities, a list of required materials, resources like textbooks or reading books or manuals, probably a list of frequency of assessments, just ideas for that, and that would constitute, large or small, the curriculum guide. It would have a scope and sequence for that course and also maybe a pacing calendar.
And what I’m suggesting as we move toward more of a progressive understanding of what curriculum design is in today’s world, is that we do not get rid of any of that. That’s the framework, but we build clarity into that curriculum design. So that’s not fearful when you know that you already have the pillars pretty much in place. We might shave off a little here or add another pillar there, but they’re not to be thrown out. That’s very helpful. But what you need to do is blend that along with the new understanding of what’s required of our students for the future. There’s a lot of other elements that you would be moving from with a traditional model to blending that to getting to what we call a comprehensive curriculum design.
Michael: So what are the ingredients that you would add to that to move forward? I know, for example, curriculum mapping is something that you like to incorporate into all of the schools that you work with. It’s a must for you. Explain why, but then also what are some of the other ingredients that you’d pull into that.
Mary Lou: Let me practically explain why, and then let me dive into those ingredients that are, I would say, for the most part, either assumed or missing or misunderstood in the traditional model.
This could be a multi-year process. The way to embed this is in what would be maybe a normal curriculum review cycle if the school has one. But it would be seen as part of the components that are missing from that traditional model that I explained to you. So we keep all of those elements, but now we’re going to get more specific about student outcomes and what the success criteria looks like from the pre-k up to the twelfth grade. And that becomes a way of prioritizing some non-negotiable standards, non-negotiable outcomes, by taking a closer look at those and maybe adapting the language so it is more specific for teachers.
And then really work toward a vertical representation grade by grade and subject by subject to what that looks like. And that’s very possible within Curriculum Trak because of all the variety of reports that we have accessible to us. I’m looking at an emphasis on standards. Typically, when those older traditional models were developed, there wasn’t a keen eye to standards, if they even existed.
So go back and emphasize standards and those that are priority standards as part of that component of adding that to your comprehensive model. Add things like new academic vocabulary that are essential ingredients for student learning. Link the college and career readiness assessments like ACT to the learning. Go back and make certain that what we’re teaching, we’re not teaching in a vacuum because the end result is that students go to the guidance office and they’re off to college. Are the students truly ready for college-level work– for reading complex text, for instance, and understanding complex text? The frequency and ongoing nature of assessment, the types of assessments that you use, differentiation and learning styles, and any of those research based teaching strategies that have come out you know, in the past decade or two– these are all important components that were likely missing in that traditional model and we need to make certain that they are part of our new comprehensive curriculum.
And then go back, I think, and check overarching curriculum philosophy and make certain that that agrees with the school’s mission. Just go back and look at that and perhaps tweak it, rewrite it. But my observation is that we just go down the list of things that you work through: research-based strategies, student-centered work, non-negotiables in the curriculum, vertical alignment. Anytime you stop to think about those things, you’re becoming a better instructor. You’re becoming more aware of, What point am I trying to get my students to?
If I’m a facilitator just trying to cover the material, I’m probably not as mindful of what we are doing today and why this part is here, and how this builds critical thinking. What are the non-negotiables out of this whole page of stuff that we’re trying to cover? One critical thing I left out was creating units. Most often traditional models don’t include unit study, whether it’s thematic, topical, or skill. So the old concept of unit design is the framework of Curriculum Trak, and so understanding even about units is important. You can get lost very quickly if you don’t have those fundamental understandings.
If you are just going through a script and your class takes a little longer to get through it, you’re going to get to the eighth chapter instead of the thirteenth chapter and it is May. So you really need to know where you’re going and you have to map it out and it’s very important, I think, for teachers to become part of that process.
Michael: You said earlier that this approach to designing can help teachers grow professionally. And that’s exactly what you’re describing. It is time consuming, but there’s a lot of professional growth that happens through this process.
Mary Lou: You can’t make someone do this work. But you can kindle that perspective back to the why, and that is very helpful, and you can give them small baby steps where they have input into it. It’s really important for teachers to take ownership of it. Some will not. They would prefer to be on the periphery, but there’s a role for them too.
Michael: And maybe that’s a good place for us to pivot towards training that you think is necessary to support this kind of a process. What are some of the training topics that you think are important in this design process?
Mary Lou: Right. I come from the approach of a subversive leadership model where no one really knows what I’m up to, I’m just doing these things, but it ends where I want it to be. It’s not very Machiavellian of me. I just trust that you start to kindle these ideas, and if it is important to people, they’ll latch onto it. It will broaden and deepen in ways you hadn’t even expected it to occur. I like to begin with things that have the end in mind. So train teachers in the vocabulary and the glossary, in curriculum design through some really practical approaches. They won’t even know what’s happening to them when they do this.
So as we begin to talk about understanding by design or backwards design, which complement Curriculum Trak, we think of those categories called essential questions and enduring understandings. Those two terms are really partners. I begin with the enduring understanding so that I’m clear about what it is that the unit of study is attempting to help students gain over not just my class, but the classes to come and their life to come too. So there are enduring understandings that are portable.
Then you begin to think about the questions that you compose or propose to your class that will get them to that final understanding, that deep enduring understanding. It’s like a good joke. You don’t tell the punchline first. So you lead them toward that, and writing the essential questions are just partners of drawing your classroom, whether it’s an adult classroom, teens, all the way down to elementary, toward that enduring understanding. So I like to think that that’s a really supportive piece of professional development that is useful across the board,
And the second one is really where you end, which is assessments. When we look at the horizontal categories that we have in Curriculum Trak’s model, we kind of say just put tests and quizzes in there for now. But it’s a category that’s so deep. It has so much potential to explore. And so training teachers and educators in what it really means to have authentic assessments, ones that are engaging and ones that connect to students’ learning preferences and engagement and rotating through that will be really helpful when they look at their map so they have enduring understandings, essential questions and then assessments that really give students that time with the material, grappling with the material and producing really good student work. That could be mastery, understanding, self expressive or interpersonal.
In terms of designer versus facilitator, I think ownership is the big word there. And, most educators would say they really need some support, some help. They need to think more about how they’re asking questions, and how their questioning can lead to deeper learning. And that’s a great area to focus on.
But then with authentic assessment: Am I really getting into the heads, maybe even the hearts, of my students? How do I do that more effectively as a teacher? Just because they can spit back an answer doesn’t mean they’ve really learned it to the degree that they need to.
Michael: Most teachers, I think, especially in faith-based education, want to make a difference. They want to have an influence. If they don’t, they’re probably in the wrong profession. There’s a lot to teaching that if you’re not in it for the students, then you’re going to have a hard life. But it is rewarding as you think about the power, the influence for good that teachers can have on the students that they’ve been entrusted with.
So, good news. We just happen to have some training opportunities for people along these lines. And so let’s unpack those a little bit. Mary Lou will be hosting some training for Curriculum Trak around essential questions and also assessments. Tell us a little bit about what to expect with the essential questions training in March. You’ve offered a version of this before, but this time we’re opening this up to any educator, whether they’re a Curriculum Trak user or not, to take this training March 25-28.You can find some information on our website, curriculumtrak.com. But tell us what you might expect in this essential questions training.
Mary Lou: It’s very hands-on. We work with a cohort of teachers that join us. Then we talk about the theory of understanding by design and the particular piece of essential questions and understandings. And then it’s all about what you can take back to your classroom.
So come ready with a unit of study, and let’s work together. We’ll use some critical friend protocols so that we can look at each other’s work. It’s not scary at all. We always have just a little bit of an assignment to work on, but it’s all practical.
Michael: And that really ties into the cohort model. We’re calling these instructional practices cohorts. So about 8 hours over the course of the week with Mary Lou and other educators and you’ll walk away with some practical experience and content that would apply directly to your classroom.
And then in April and May, we’re offering two opportunities to take another training around assessments. Same model, same idea–2 hours a day over 4 days, April 8-11 and May 13-16. But tell us, Mary Lou, about what we can expect in that training.
Mary Lou: I’m so excited about this one. I find this to be personally satisfying for a lot of educators because the first step is that we understand what type of learners we happen to be. Taking them through their own learning preferences is really eye opening, and especially our blind spots, and in the end understanding that we don’t want to be constantly working in an assessment world where it’s only one type of assessment that is anti our way of learning.
Now we all have to learn how to be assessed in a variety of ways, but we all have ways that we prefer to learn and be assessed. And I hinted at those early on, but some of us are mastery learners. Some of us gravitate toward, being understanding learners. Others of us are self expressive, and some of us are interpersonal. And as long as the teacher is rotating through those types of learning, not every day and not with every assessment, but if a student has an opportunity to have interaction with that type of learning style, they will be more engaged if they know one’s coming up for them.
So we’re going to learn about those learning styles, and we’re going to learn some practical ways to rotate through those, and what they might look like depending upon whether it’s English Language Arts or Math. You can talk about it in Bible and Social Studies and Science as well. The key of all this is that you engage your students. So if you’re engaged with that, you can get a lot of mileage out of it.
Michael: We’re really excited to offer those many opportunities over the next several months. You can register for those either through your Curriculum Trak account if you are an admin. You can also register other people to attend or through our website curriculumtrak.com. Also we’re offering ACSI CEUs for the training. And so that’ll be another benefit for attending that. There is a fee to register. The fee is partially covered for Curriculum Trak schools if you register through your account. Contact support if you have additional questions or concerns.
Let’s bring this all back around. Teacher as a designer–it can feel overwhelming. It can feel daunting. If you had the opportunity to address teachers, as you often do, but those that are listening to us talk today, what would you share with them in closing? Just kind of step past me, talk to them directly.
Mary Lou: I want to ask the essential question: What will it take to make your hope happen? It will take something from a school wide level, but it’ll take something from your heart as well. So ask yourself what it will take. It might take courage, and you may not feel like you have a large dose of it. But something my dad said to me years ago was that courage is just doing it scared.
And maybe that’s what it is. You don’t have to be Samson in order to do it. But you’re called into a school that is making the kingdom visible in daily moves that you make in the classroom from the moment students enter your classroom. Every opportunity you have, you’re able to unpack that mission of your school, making the kingdom of God visible to the students that you have before you. It requires the teacher to be reflective, I think of everything, as we grow and learn.
So always be thinking, looking for those opportunities in things that you read or watch or see.
Michael: Thank you so much, Mary Lou, for being here. We’ll have to do it again sometime soon, perhaps.It’s great to have you with us today.
Mary Lou: Thank you, Michael.