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Shifting the Mindset. Changing the Culture. Failing Forward

3 minute read

Last Updated: January 21, 2022

In 2018, Monmouth County Vocational School District (MCVSD) set out to change the culture, entirely overhaul our curriculum, and change the way we approached curriculum work. During that time, I collaborated with the administrative team, to provide our district with a realistic process, an action plan for curriculum reform, and a way to guide our teachers as they plodded up the steep hill that led to developing and deepening our students’ understanding. Even though most teachers agreed that rote learning did not prepare students for transfer, the dusty curriculum binders, recycled lesson plans and classroom observations told a different story: There was a significant disconnect between teachers’ short term plans and our district’s mission. The more I reflected, the more I realized that it wasn’t just our students who were masters at being compliant and complacent; but some of our teachers and principals were as well.

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That was the "why" and still is the "why" for initiating and rolling out such a major curriculum initiative. We asked teachers to think purposefully about curricular planning and school reform to trust in the Understanding by Design process and know that this framework wasn’t a "prescriptive method" that would fade with time. It wasn’t a plan or a thing to lose or throw away. It wasn’t a fad or a quick fix. It had to be a mindset and a way of operating on a daily basis.

We began by inviting cohorts of teachers to join our curriculum academy to learn about the 3 stages of the UbD framework. Our goal was to get all teachers speaking the same language, planning with a purpose, thinking like an assessor and taking risks in the classroom. After the admin team led the initial training, each cohort was invited to delve deeper into UbD with MCVSD’s consultant, Dr. Hite. Teachers would then begin to collaborate with their colleagues and coach to apply the framework to redesign their curriculum.

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Once teachers understood the importance of preparing students to transfer their learning, once they realized that the textbook didn’t dictate what they taught and that they could focus on the essential skills and content necessary for their students to move onto the next level, they were empowered. Teachers were getting creative, collaborating with their peers to design interdisciplinary tasks. They were posting essential questions on the board to frame learning. They were using standards-based single point rubrics to assess students. They were providing students with the learning intentions for the course and then collaborating with students to identify the success criteria.

And as we continued to be very deliberate about changing the conversation and the culture, our hope was that teachers would truly THINK about what their students already know, need to know and should know for long term success. We hoped that teachers would focus on the STUDENTS and their learning rather than unpacking every standard and speaking faster to "cover" it all. We wanted teachers to have the "ah-ha" moment and realize that teaching is coaching and that it’s strategic. It’s helping students come to an understanding of important ideas and then supporting them as they transfer their learning to new situations. It’s formally assessing them after the game, not during practice.

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Now, almost four years later, as we navigate the COVID chaos, we continue our mission to move from good to great, focusing on the three prongs of learning: curriculum, instruction and assessment. We have trained over 300 teachers on the Understanding by Design framework, guiding teachers as they design essential questions, create enduring understandings, prioritize standards and create performance tasks. Teachers are reminded to move away from being activity designers. They are encouraged to give up control, allow students to "figure it out" and make meaning of the content while learning to transfer their learning to a unique real world scenario. Teachers are invited to attend feedback sessions to receive targeted feedback on their curricular units and tweak along the way. Teachers are reminded that common assessments are not a dirty word but a way for teachers to gather data and have data driven discussions that focus on student growth.

Overall, my hope for 2022 is that ALL of us UNDERSTAND that we must get comfortable being uncomfortable. We must demand that our DESIGNS and methods foster ongoing inquiry. This is going to take an environment that allows for reflecting and for failing forward. It’s going to take administrators who encourage their teachers to take risks. It’s going to take patience. It’s going to take courage. It’s going to take a lot of sweat, tears and heart.

But, isn’t it worth it? Aren’t our students worth it?

Kelly Harmon, Director of Curriculum, MCVSD

Please feel free to connect with me via Twitter @mskharmon or check out my curriculum resources at! I am also an email away if you’d like to discuss curriculum, instruction, and assessment: