8 lessons learned from program piloting: How to bridge the gap between curriculum and programs

A little over three years ago, I volunteered to be a part of a group of French teachers in my school district (Surrey, BC) who would try new programs with their classes in order to determine what the best fit would be for French learners in our district. We had been using Communi-Quête (link here from Oxford University Press) in our French 8, 9 and 10 classes, and Voyages 1 and 2 (from Pearson Publishing) with our French 11 and 12 classes. We had reached the point where the teacher’s guides for Voyages were no longer in print, and so we had to find a solution for our senior grades. During the time we had been using Communi-Quête, we had identified several areas, listening in particular, where it was either not meeting the needs of our students or it was not offering enough of a challenge.

As piloting got underway, we knew that a new curriculum was being drafted for BC. The timeline was adjusted a couple of times while we were piloting new programs, and several aspects of the curriculum were rewritten as a result of feedback received from educators and the public. Trying to find something to fit the new curriculum was at times an exercise in trying to hit a moving target, but that was only one half of the puzzle. The other piece was finding a program that would meet the needs of our students.

Over the course of three years, I used 6 different programs. I was one of about six teachers who participated, meeting with the group a few times a year to attend presentations from publishers, preview materials, divide ourselves into teams based on the grades in our various teaching assignments, and to provide feedback once we had tried a given program in our classrooms. We had to follow each program we tried as written, without making changes, and to provide feedback based on that experience. Once the piloting unit was complete, we were free to change, adjust, supplement, etc. as necessary to support the needs of our students.

This year (technically year four of piloting) I am supporting the French teachers in my department as we do a wider scale pilot of programs that were selected as the most likely to succeed. In our French 8-10 classes, we are using units from C’est parti! 2, C’est parti! 3, and Odyssée 1 and Odyssée 2, all from Éditions CEC in Québec. For French 11-12, we are using a combination of Saison 1 & 2 from Éditions Didier in France, as well as Adosphère 2-4 from Hachette (the major competitor of Didier).

As I transition from being a member of a district team to leading a school based team, my role has changed, and the things I need to be aware of to support my team are also different. For starters, they are used to using one program that they are familiar with, and don’t necessarily have the experience of switching from one to another as quickly as I have, and looking for the commonalities. It’s overwhelming at first to look at something completely new and to try to figure out how to work with it. The teachers who were also on the district piloting committee were mostly the same people over the three year period that we worked on this project, and as we went through the various options we considered, we all grew more skilled at dealing with new information. The teachers in my department have not had that experience, and need a different introduction to this new program. As I have spent some time listening to feedback, thinking about my new role and how best to support our teachers, there are 8 key lessons I have learned that I need to share with them.

  1. Curriculum and program are not the same.

    The programs we are using are a better fit with the revised curriculum we now have in BC, but they are not a perfect fit. This may seem like an obvious statement, but these programs were not written expressly for this curriculum. This means that teachers need to be very familiar with the curriculum document, and be able to recognize where the program meets it, and where they may need to supplement in order to deliver the curriculum.

  2. Know how to supplement to support students and meet curriculum goals.

    Knowing when to supplement a program to meet curriculum (as mentioned above) is key, but knowing how is just as important. In doing this, it helps to know the philosophy and pedagogical approach behind the program you are using. For instance, the programs we are using are based in the CEFR, or the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. This means that they use content as a vehicle to teach skill. They also recognize that students need practice in all four of their language competencies (speaking, listening, reading and writing) in order to learn.Our curriculum is also skill based, which makes these various components a potentially good fit, as long as the needed adjustments can be made. For example, in the unit I am going to begin with in French 10, students need to use a range of questioning skills. The grammar associated with questioning isn’t explicitly taught in the program, but I know my students will need some of the background. I will need to give them some explicit instruction, and then integrate supplementary materials or adapt program materials to ensure that they get an opportunity to practice their questioning skills in each competency area.

  3. Be an interpreter of your curriculum to see what you need from a program.

    Curriculum documents are not always written in a way that fits easily with the end user’s understanding of how to implement the document. As I noted above, our curriculum is skill based and doesn’t go into detail regarding the content that can be used to teach the skill. From time to time it’s not as explicit as I would like it to be about the grammar that’s required for students to perform a given skill in their second language. The basic formatting of the curriculum document can make it inconvenient to navigate. The basic ideas are included, and many parts of the text are underlined, indicating that there is an elaboration for that piece. When you read the elaboration, more information is given to support the basic idea. As you look at the differences between grade levels, the progression begins to become clear. For example, the French 8 curriculum says:  “Students should know that sentences change according to when events occur (i.e., a change in timeframe requires a change in wording). Students should be able to understand and attempt to express past, present, and future timeframes for very common verbs in context; for example, Je suis fatigué aujourd’hui; J’ai mangé une pizza hier; Je vais jouer au soccer demain.”

    By the time students reach French 9, they are expected to use the past, present and future tenses “for common verbs in context”, and by the time they reach French 10, the curriculum says they should “be able to understand and express past, present, and future tenses of regular and irregular verbs in context; differentiate between le passé composé and l’imparfait.”

    For a teacher planning instruction for their classes, this means that in French 8 you introduce the passé composé in basic forms, in French 9 you make sure students have an understanding of the passé composé using avoir and être, and in French 10 you make sure they are able to distinguish between when to use le passé composé and when to use l’imparfait (two past tenses used for different purposes in French). As a skilled language specialist who is familiar with what their students have or have not learned previously, the teacher has to be able to interpret the curriculum document to know what content he or she needs to teach their students.

  4. Don’t let the program dictate pacing.

    Having read many different programs now from both North American and European publishers, I know that the pacing they suggest is often unsuitable for my class. As the classroom teacher who is in touch with my students, I have to keep myself in the driver’s seat of the program. Just because the program wants me to spend an hour clarifying goals to my students in French doesn’t mean I need to actually follow that instruction. Understanding program goals expressed in a target language is not a key component of the BC curriculum, and so I can make the executive decision to move on to content they actually need to know. One of the most flexible programs I have worked with so far is Saison. The teacher’s guide gives instructions for basic elements of the lesson and then offers three choices, depending on the needs of the students and the goals of the teacher. Each option will take a different length of time, and so depending on the instructional choices the teacher makes, it may take more or less time to get through a given lesson.

  5. Make assessment fit the needs of the students.

    This is similar to the above points, but often a program package will have assessment resources built into it. As a teacher, I still need to decide whether that assessment is appropriate for my students, whether it fits how they have learned, and whether it will give them feedback that will help contribute to the growth mindset I want to establish in my classroom. If it doesn’t, I can find alternate or supplementary assessments that will help reach that goal.

  6. Develop some core assessment routines.

    When making changes to so many aspects of classroom instruction, it’s helpful to the teacher and the students to have core aspects of assessment that they can depend on and return to. This helps anchor the new material and connect it to what has been used previously, and also helps remove some of the stress that might otherwise be a part of assessment during a time of change. Some examples of this in my classes include the creation of digital portfolios on FreshGrade (a familiar tool for most students in our district now), the use of learning maps as an anchor piece as we move between various aspects of content, and the use of a limited number of rubrics that remain consistent throughout the year so that students can set goals and track improvement.

  7. Develop some core instructional routines.

    Similar to #6 (above), core instructional routines help make certain aspects of classroom instruction dependable and familiar. Both teachers and students will appreciate the familiarity of a routine as they approach new content or go through a skill in a different way. An example of a core routine I use in my classroom is the vocabulary knowledge worksheet, Travaillons le vocabulaire.  I use this for listening or viewing activities, reading comprehension, as the basis for conversations, and more. Although I have learned a variety of ways to adapt it to fit various situations, I only have to teach students how to use it once. Every time I hand it out after that, they know what to do and we can focus on either a new skill or new content. They can track various versions of the worksheet over time in order to see growth in their vocabulary, and can add it to their portfolio as evidence of their learning in this area.

  8. Be patient – change takes time.

    Change is hard and often uncomfortable. We make mistakes along the way, we learn, and we celebrate our successes. Building a range of experience takes time and patience. Students are often nervous at the idea of change as it raises the stakes for them – they want to know how to succeed, and when they are in a state of change it feels risky to them. The same is true for teachers. We will not get all of this figured out in one year, but we will figure out the basics, and build our capacity together.

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