An independent girls’ school gives teachers significant autonomy to contribute to original curriculum planning

3 ways to create curriculum with real-life relevance

This school gives its teachers significant autonomy to contribute to original curriculum planning--enabling teachers and students to link learning to real life

When a school is fortunate to have exceptional teachers with diverse backgrounds, those teachers can draw on their experiences and interests to create a strong, engaging, and original curriculum.

Our school, Laurel School, is one such school. Laurel School is a nationally recognized independent K-12 day school for girls, and it includes a co-ed pre-primary as well.

The curriculum is shaped in part by a diverse staff with unique interests and a creative mentality for turning those interests into special opportunities for our learners. The curriculum reflects research on the power of growth mindset, best practices for girls, and proven approaches for introducing girls to the fascinating world of STEM and STEAM professions.

Our educators have the freedom to move beyond the standards and build on those interests as they create unique curricula for their students.

Creative curriculum shaped by a unique campus

The school’s location in historic Shaker Heights, Ohio, affords an interesting backdrop to discovery. Third graders, for example, have created a Shaker Village, staging reenactments by blending history, mathematics, and language arts. They learn how everything fits together, and it becomes a fun and memorable approach to interdisciplinary learning. The Shaker unit is an excellent example of teacher-inspired learning.

Another example of original curriculum design is through our middle school robotics program and award-winning FIRST LEGO League team. This engaging program empowers our girls to apply creative problem-solving skills to meet challenges presented to them. The middle school robotics program was developed by an instructional technologist who saw a need to provide an opportunity to our students in this area.

Representation of girls and women in STEM fields is of perennial concern to those who understand the value and importance of providing students with the chance to experiment in this area. Our robotics program has taken on a life of its own, with dedicated students working in their spare time to hone their skills. Naming their team the “Science Sisters,” these young women have achieved the honors of winning the Core Values Award multiple times in addition to the robot design award. Winning for core values aligns with Laurel’s commitment to preparing girls for an unknown future by fostering well-rounded individuals. FIRST LEGO League’s core values are discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork, and fun–all of which we hope are found throughout our curriculum.

Laurel has two campuses — the original, celebrating its 125th year of academic excellence, and our second campus, located on 150 rustic acres just fifteen minutes away from our primary facility. Its natural setting allows for highly engaged outdoor science, STEM, and STEAM learning programs. We even have a Magic Tree House and a Yurt dedicated to Pre-Primary Outdoor Education, one of five yurts that help maximize our robust outdoor education programs.

Combining creative curriculum with data

Laurel combines teachers’ special interests with cutting-edge research, using data from the Laurel Center for Research on Girls. As an all-girls school, we look at best practices for girls based on topics like “what girls need at developmentally appropriate ages.”

We have developed learning pillars — core values that we believe to be true and important for our school through that research. We then combine the research, standards, and core values using our planning and analytics platform, Chalk, which helps us integrate our curriculum maps with instructional plans and ensure everything is aligned to necessary standards.

Given our faculty’s creativity, another benefit is our ability to capture teacher-designed lessons and work them into the curriculum for the future. In this way, we not only meet the immediate need of ensuring standards coverage, but also enhance the impact of our collaborative curriculum creation process.

A school’s structure reinforcing buy-in

As teachers create content and curriculum, it’s easy for us to save that information in Chalk using a process that documents following a hierarchical structure. Our Director of Teaching and Learning is in charge of curriculum and of the department chairs who manage their own departments. They represent the curricular leaders who oversee and shepherd the process. A department chair would, for instance, be the subject-area expert. Other academic leaders within the school represent division leaders, much like a principal in a non-independent school.

Additionally, there are people like me who oversee the use of technology within the curriculum. There is a great deal of collaboration with many chefs in the kitchen. But at the end of the day, we have buy-in from everyone involved, and the additional oversight ensures an overall better learning product.

For schools like ours that would like to attempt a similar approach, here are three takeaways I’d advise:

1.  Building teacher buy-in on curriculum development in the early stage is key to the success of the initiative. The more academic leaders can show teachers the benefits of the process beyond the administrative need, the better.

2.  Showing teachers the scope of the curriculum writing process is essential to provide a roadmap for success in getting from points A to Z. This makes the process appear less daunting and more attainable, with checkpoints showing project progress. Using a collaborative technology tool for curriculum mapping makes it possible to get all voices involved.

3.  Teachers need to know their expertise as professionals is valued and recognized as they work through curriculum development. No single person in a school is an expert in everything, but teachers are experts in their area.

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