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Student ownership sounds like a great idea but what about the standards? How do we teach all of the standards while also empowering students with voice and choice? How do we accomplish this when we have a curriculum map?


Rethinking the Curriculum Map

It was about fourteen years ago when I first began using design thinking with my students. I had just begun my project-based learning journey and I loved the structure and interdependency within design thinking. I wanted our projects to be deeply human and authentic, where students would develop empathy.  And yet, I felt stifled by the curriculum map. It was a rigid document with specific performance objectives (which would later be renamed learning goals and then learning targets and then student learning targets and then student learning goals).

But then I began to think about baseball stadiums and the role of creative constraints. My favorite ballparks were the ones that incorporated the limitation into the design through creative constraint. The Green Monster in Fenway, the warehouse in Camden Yards, the bay in San Francisco – these were all amazing design because the limitations pushed the architects to think divergently.

So, I began to reach out to talk to fellow teachers who were at the same stage in the PBL journey. We realized that the curriculum map told us where we needed to go but it didn’t forbid us using other standards to support the learning. It didn’t prohibit student choice. We realized that the curriculum map could actually inspire new projects.

One of my favorite examples comes from Trevor Muir in his book The Epic ClassroomA quick disclaimer here: I am the co-owner of the company that published Trevor’s book.

An Epic Project (That Also Hit the Standards)

Trevor Muir makes a powerful point about student ownership. If you do nothing else, take three minutes to watch the whole thing:

But it’s not just talk. I’ve seen Trevor teach and the guy knows what it means to empower students. In his upcoming book The Epic ClassroomTrevor tells one of these stories of student ownership:

Ninety-three-year-old hands grasp the palms of fourteen-year-old high school students as a group of seniors make their way off a bus and into a movie theater. Some of these same wrinkled hands held M1 carbine rifles on the day the US invaded Normandy. One set of hands held a poultice on the stomach of a dying best friend at the Battle of the Bulge. And another pair shook with relief as they held a newspaper that read that the war was finally over. Now these World War II veterans are holding the hands of teenagers over seventy years later.

Trevor’s students didn’t have access to a state-of-the-art studio. They didn’t have a massive budget to work with, either. What they had, though, was a sense of ownership. He describes it this way:

These teenagers interviewed the veterans a month earlier and filmed the experience with cell phones and cheap video cameras. They used free online editing software to turn the footage into documentaries that will premiere at this vintage theater and give the veterans and their families a way to preserve their stories forever. This red-carpet event was originally conceived simply as a place for the students to showcase their work at the end of a history project.

But then the launch took on a life of its own and the news found out.

Over 400 community members crowded into the small theater. When the veterans ambled into the auditorium behind walkers and in wheelchairs, the crowd roared so loud that people claimed to have heard the applause from the streets. A man with a bent back leaning over a walker stood a little taller as he walked down that red carpet. For two hours, people laughed, cried, and cheered as they watched 6-minute films bring the stories of these veterans to life. Films made by a group of high school students.

It was epic — not because of high-tech gadgetry or a fancy new maker space — but because of two teachers who empowered their students with voice and choice.

Empowering Students While Teaching the Standards

This story sounds amazing but what about the standards? What about the curriculum map? How were they able to pull off this project and still get students to learn all of the World War II topics? When did they find the time to add a student-centered project when World War II is already the most jam-packed unit in high school history classes?

Let’s actually deconstruct those questions for a moment:

What about the curriculum map and the standards? Trevor had to follow the same curriculum map as everyone else. However, while the curriculum map tells you what you must teach, it doesn’t tell you how to teach it. Nobody said they had to use textbooks or give lectures or pass out tests. So, they didn’t. Fortunately for them, they had a supportive administration that encouraged them to innovate.

How were they able to pull off this project and still get students to learn all of the World War II topics? Instead of teaching the topics in isolation, students discovered the ideas through a research phase and then through one-on-one conversations with former World War II soldiers. They discovered nuance and perspective in a way that wouldn’t have happened with a textbook. There were still some moments when they had to fill in the gaps but those moments were rare.

When did they find the time to add a student-centered project when World War II is already the most jam-packed unit in high school history classes? The key idea here is that they didn’t add anything. They restructured and reorganized their entire approach to teaching. Trevor used a design-oriented, project-based learning framework to have students learn through doing the project rather than before the project.

The key idea here is that students owned the creative process and through that ownership, they mastered both the concept and skill standards at a far deeper level than they would have if their teachers had given lectures or passed out packets. In other words, it’s not a matter of putting something new on a teacher’s plate. Nor is it even an issue of reorganizing the plate. In fact, it’s not about the plate at all. It’s about empowering students to be the chefs.

Five Strategies for Connecting Standards to Student Ownership

Student ownership can sound idealistic in a world of curriculum maps and specific standards. However, it’s possible if we are willing to think differently about how we approach the standards.

#1: Work Backwards

Yesterday, I met with my friend Luke Neff. He’s one of the smartest guys, most humble, and most dedicated educators I know. At one point in the conversation, I said something that felt almost like a confession.

“You know how we’re told to start with the standards and then break it down into objectives and then find activities afterward?”

He nodded.

“Some of the best projects were the ones where we started with a project idea and then attached the standards afterward. Whether it’s a maker project or a design thinking concept or a project scenario, it always felt like we attached the standards almost after the fact.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” Luke said. “When I taught English, I would start with student interests or we might begin with a meaningful scenario. I would keep a checklist of which standards we hit along the way.”

This is the opposite of how our professors taught us to design lessons. We were told to start with the standards, move to the objectives, and then think about the activities afterward. Perhaps it’s because we have teachers who simply don’t teach the standards and go with topics they enjoy. But there is value in sometimes taking this backward approach of letting the project drive the standards rather than the standards drive the project.

Trevor used this approach with the World War II documentary. Instead of approaching the curriculum map as a sequential set of instructions, they approached it as a checklist and allowed students to master various standards independently. And it makes sense. If learning is truly interconnected, we shouldn’t be surprised when standards cluster together.

Which brings us to the next approach . . .

#2: Connect the Standards

When a student reads, he or she is typically practicing four or five standards at the same time. You can’t make inferences without comprehending text. Nor can you cite evidence without knowing fact versus opinion. Because knowledge is inherently connective, our standards are less like a list of bullet points and more like a web of skills and concepts.

However, when we write lessons, we will typically include one standard. Often, we will have curriculum maps that move through a few “power standards” for a week or two at a time.

But, while the curriculum map tells us that the entire class must practice one specific standard, it never says that students cannot practice additional standards. So, when we think about student ownership and personalization, it’s feasible for students to work on different standards at the same time while still sticking to the common curriculum map.

Think of it this way: some students might take four weeks to practice and master making inferences but only one week on cause and effect. Another student might experience the opposite. But when students self-select standards that they need to work on, they are actually more efficient with their time. Here, they own the enrichment and intervention process.

This connective element is also why students can do a design thinking project for four weeks without it feeling crowded. The project isn’t covering one standard. It’s connected to six standards that are all interconnected with one another. So, the research, ideation, creation, and editing phases might all connect to separate standards — and that’s okay.

This isn’t always easy to coordinate. It requires student-teacher conferences and a fair amount of metacognition from students.

#3: Find Content-Neutral Standards

Whenever I mention Geek Out Projects or Genius Hour, people ask, “How do you get away with teaching whatever topics you want?”

The simple answer is, I’m not teaching whatever topics I want. The students are choosing the topics. But they’re doing so because the standards are content-neutral. For example, in our Geek Out Blogs, my middle school students had to make sure that their blogs included persuasive and explanatory texts. Here are the two main standards we used. Note that both standards also included an A-E section of sub-standards.

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.

Students also engaged in research:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.7: Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

They moved through the entire writing process:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1-3 above.)
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.5: With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed. (Editing for conventions should demonstrate command of Language standards 1-3 up to and including grade 8 here.)

They also published their work to the world, both in writing shorter and longer posts:

  •  CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas efficiently as well as to interact and collaborate with others.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

This project included nearly every single Common Core Writing Standard in the first few weeks of school. Notice, also, how none of those standards mention specific topics. Students could choose skateboarding or fashion or history or video games and they’re still learning the same standards.

#4: Do a Choice Audit of Standards

While some standards are content-neutral, others require you to teach very specific concepts, topics, and ideas. What happens, for example, when you have to teach about force and acceleration or linear equations or World War II?

In these moments, it helps to do a choice audit of your standards. Ask the following questions:

  • Is it possible for students to choose the topics or the content?
  • What choices could students have around the strategies they use?
  • Are students able to choose their own formats (multimedia, for example)?
  • Is this something that they can practice throughout the year or does it have to be confined to one particular unit?
  • Where outside of school might a student actually practice this standard?

While ownership is critical for students, all standards have certain constraints built into them. Some require students to practice certain skills while others are skill-neutral but require that students master a concept. However, these constraints can work as the creative constraints that force you, as a teacher, to find creative opportunities.

It’s the idea of thinking inside the box:

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#5: Let Students Track Mastery

When I first shifted toward student ownership, I became overwhelmed by tracking student mastery in each standard. It was easier when we focused on single standards and common assessments. However, as we shifted toward self-assessment, peer assessment, and student-teacher conferences, students started tracking their own progress toward the standards.

In our case, we used an assessment grid that had the standard transformed into a student-friendly learning goal and then the student tracked the mastery level for each goal. Once a week, students would meet with me during their projects and they would review their progress toward mastery and then discuss which goal they wanted to pursue the next week (for example, it might be a particular research goal or it might involve using facts to back up opinions in writing).

Instead of devaluing the standards, this approach actually helped students see that the subject standards weren’t arbitrary.

The Power of Imagination

We all have standards and curriculum maps. However, the curriculum map doesn’t have to feel like a rigid rule book. After all, it’s a map and maps are all about opportunities. It’s a starting point, not a destination. Where you take it is ultimately a question of imagination. Will you take your students off-road? Will you empower them to be the heroes of their own learning journey?

Want to get started with student ownership? Check out this page with free articles, videos, and resources. Also, check out the Empower Blueprint and Toolkit below.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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