What We Learned From a Year of Remote Teaching — 5 Questions That Will Help You Streamline Your Curriculum

Catherine Dorian
former English Teacher

Like many teachers, I dove in last fall with ambition and zeal. Determined to implement all the ideas I developed in quarantine, I wrote a robust curriculum map for my English I students and a syllabus chock full of texts and project options.

But I soon came face-to-face with the reality that volume of instruction does not necessarily equate to quality of instruction. Halfway through the semester, we'd completed just one out of the five units I had planned for the course, and some students were struggling to keep up while others were starving for a challenge.

I had a decision to make. Considering my students' varying needs and degrees of readiness, I had to reassess the units, activities, and projects that were planned for the rest of the semester and ask myself: what's worth keeping, and what should I be cutting?

This is a question that remains at the forefront of my mind when it comes to what I teach and how I lay out lesson plans.

Now, as we approach another year of teaching during COVID, we have a unique opportunity to reassess what and how we choose to teach our students.

As many of us prepare to return to in-person learning next fall, we recognize that while the pandemic required us to streamline curriculum, the gradual return to something that resembles pre-pandemic schooling does not erase the need to prioritize student engagement and address lingering challenges.

Here are five questions to use as guideposts as you evaluate the texts, activities, assessments, and units you plan to teach next year.

1. Does it maximize student choice (and therefore, student engagement)?

Students don't have to read the same texts to gather the same concepts. Moreover, if learning is the key objective, students shouldn't be expected to complete assignments at the exact same pace.

Teachers have known these truths for years now, but working under the timeline-heavy system that is schooling (quarter grading periods, academic eligibility, and district-mandated curriculum maps) has not provided the space for this level of personalization.

And while many of these confines still exist, distance learning tends to better support what's being referred to as the "flipped model," in which instructional materials are made available online for students to access and explore freely, while time in class is used to make sure they are up to speed on proficiencies.

To allow for a little more freedom and flexibility in the content, I've reconfigured projects and assignments around meeting standards, rather than insisting students drill through specific readings, activities, or writing prompts. Then, I use remote learning days to hold individual conferences with students. They tell me how they plan to meet the standards, and set deadlines for themselves based on their unique challenges and experiences. This way, students take more ownership of their assignments and their learning.

Teaching during the pandemic, whether asynchronously or synchronously online, in-person (masked and distanced, of course), or a hybrid of the two, warrants differentiated instruction at all levels.

If the nature of a project does not allow for this kind of personalization and self-direction, I modify the requirements or swap it out for something that will.

2. Does it cover multiple skills and standards in one project?

If prioritizing and condensing curriculum has taught me anything about student activities, it's that we can and should teach multiple skills and standards at one time.

In one unit, I split students into groups and taught them how to formulate research questions, gather data, evaluate their data, and discuss implications.

The assessment? An infographic that contained a thesis statement, supporting claims, and the data that they collected. Students learned research, argument writing, presenting, and close-reading, all in a way that was a lot more fun and engaging than writing a standard argumentative essay without the benefit of being able to test their ideas with other students before presenting them.

The standards-based approach to grading doesn't require that students demonstrate proficiency in multiple standards at one time. However, if a project or assessment can be designed to teach students how to grapple with multiple standards of proficiency - which is more akin to the situations that they will one day encounter in a professional environment - why not embrace all opportunities for learning that a project can offer?

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3. Can it integrate digital media literacy?

In the age of information and misinformation, one of the most important skills we can impart to our students is the ability to think critically, ask questions, conduct their own research, and make informed decisions.

In the past, I have consolidated my teaching of media literacy into one unit; we practice and I model researching topics using digital media, we compile and analyze our findings, and we create some kind of product that shares said findings.

This year, I've chosen to integrate aspects of digital media literacy into each unit.

A unit on literature and science, for example, compares Dr. Frankenstein's obsession with discovery to the invention of Facebook's feedback loop algorithm. Podcasts are a go-to for analyzing the writing techniques of style and voice, and social media pages provide the avenue for exploring rhetorical devices.

Not only are students connecting the content to applicable issues and skills, but we are using the content to bridge the gap between our academic lives and online presences, not just in one unit, but across the entire curriculum.

The bottom line: consider your paramount reason for teaching what you teach. For me, teaching high school English means teaching students how to be thoughtful consumers of all forms of media. If a unit doesn't hold the potential for teaching that skill, it doesn't deserve a seat at the table.

4. Will students walk away with a memorable product and set of skills?

For years, we've known that to get students to be more engaged in their learning, they must feel challenged to create meaningful content.

Digital portfolios that foster self-evaluation, projects that examine student-chosen questions and texts, and units that challenge by way of inquiry are the best ways to foster the acquisition of transferable skills.

The digital portfolio could consist of a brochure, infographic, collection of stories, social media page, or video. If a unit or activity can send students off with a marketable product they can showcase or refer back to later, they are more likely to engage in the content and apply the skills they've learned to future endeavors.

5. Does it provide an opportunity for parents to engage too?

Now more than ever, families are involved in student learning. And while emailing the parent of a struggling senior can feel elementary, we should feel good about bringing parents into the conversation and embrace them for what they can bring to the table when it comes to educating their children.

When assessing whether or not a text, a project, an activity, or an entire unit is worth squeezing in, I ask whether or not students will be able to engage parents and guardians in discussions about it at home.

What questions does the text provoke? What connections to current events in the news? How timely are the concepts of a unit, and how conducive are they to intergenerational discourse?

When kids spend so much time in isolation, the home and the school become their primary places of interaction. As educators, we can choose to teach content that merges rather than separates those settings-and that provides students with a greater sense of connection in the process.

From the way we greet students at the door to the questions on the exit ticket, teachers are constantly observing, assessing, and pivoting our practice.

Streamlining curriculum prompts educators to reassess what we teach and how we teach it. Moreover, such reflection reconnects us to the work we do. This gives us a chance for some real contemplation as we prepare to forge through another year of teaching during a pandemic.

That thoughtful approach to teaching helps us reaffirm our commitment to the profession and helps us stay in touch with why we teach what we teach.

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Catherine Dorian