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Curriculum Built Not to Last

A Curriculum Built Not to Last
School Library Journal, April 1999.

“It is easier to move a cemetery than to change a curriculum.” Woodrow Wilson

About three years ago our district, like many others, started to ask some questions about our library skill and technology curricula. The official learning guides and activities we had been using dated from the mid to late 1980’s. This was before our school libraries were automated, before we had installed electronic reference sources, before anyone had connected to the Internet, and before most educators realized that skills are best taught as part of a process, rather than as discreet tasks. The computer curriculum reflected the stand-alone, low-memory constraints of the computers in our isolated Apple II labs, emphasizing the drill-and-practice applications common at the time. New state standards and graduation requirements which asked for student problem solving, decision-making, and information literacy, all which need to be “authentically” assessed, gave a sense of urgency to our revision project. And both locally and nationally, critics were starting to ask for evidence that the huge investment that education had made in technology was making a difference in how and what students were learning.

Our district had not just been ignoring library and technology instruction, of course. Most librarians and some teachers had been teaching:
  • the traditional library skills of location and access
  • keyboarding, word processing, and computer “literacy” activities
  • some electronic research skills including Internet access and the use of CD-ROM-based reference sources
  • ethical use and responsibilities, especially in regard to copyright and plagiarism
  • a very tradition research process
Besides not reflecting changes in resources and methodologies, what we were teaching was usually undocumented, was often taught in isolation in the library, and was taught inconsistently from teacher to teacher, grade to grade, and building to building throughout our nine elementary schools by our 200 teachers and librarians.

By direction of the district’s media and technology advisory committee, the media specialists and I began to create a new curriculum that would better meet the needs of our students and staff. I nicknamed the curriculum revision project “Agatha” after the popular “information problem solving” author Agatha Christie. At a media specialists’ brainstorming session, we decided that we would start with our K-6 curriculum, and its revision would have the following outcomes:
  • The curriculum would be based on projects that resulted in products using a variety of media and formats.
  • The curriculum would teach meaningful technology skills primarily using productivity software.
  • Information literacy skills, rather than “library skills,” would help student learn not just how to find information, but use it.
  • Student research would ask for original “higher level” thinking, helping teachers and librarians combat both plagiarism and boredom.
  • The projects would be integrated into the classroom’s content areas and be team-taught between the librarian and the classroom teacher.
  • The projects would be authentically assessed, and the tools used to design those assessments would serve as models for other areas of the curriculum.
  • Above all, we wanted what the students were doing to be meaningful, and therefore, motivational.

We also insisted that ALL our students complete the same curriculum. No longer would a teacher or media specialist’s personal enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for technology or research determine whether a student would get to practice using information skills.

A Nine Step Process

This was no small undertaking. We knew it would be a multi-step, multi-year process and we wanted to develop ownership in the final product by teachers, administrators, and parents. All the district’s librarians, our computer coordinator, and I worked on each step of the process. We also included parent, teacher, and administrative representatives from the district’s media advisory committee in steps one through three, and brought representative teachers from each grade level and each building to help us with steps four through nine. Loosely guiding us was a unit design model created by the media staff.



1. Identify current skills.
Our first step was to closely examine our current library and technology curricula and find exemplary models of curricula from other districts. We wanted to be sure that in our attempt to improve how our students were being taught, we did not drop skills that were important. We took a considerable amount of time to write or re-write the skills we felt were important in understandable, observable language. Everyone, teachers, parents and students needed to be able to understand what students needed to be able to know and do.

At this point, we also decided to list the productivity software for each grade level that would available on a district-wide basis. In other words, as teachers and media specialists planned, what tools would they know would be on every machine? We made sure that all titles were cross-platform and that the district could afford the licenses. The list for K-6 was relatively short:
•    ClarisWorks
•    The Writing Center
•    HyperStudio
•    KidPix
•    Cruncher
•    Eudora
•    Netscape
•    the electronic library catalog (Follett)
•    an on-line electronic magazine index, age appropriate (ProQuest)
•    the networked version of the World Book encyclopedia
•    an electronic dictionary
•    a typing tutor program

While I am not endorsing any of these specific products (others I am sure can be successfully substituted), we have been very satisfied with the products our students and teachers have been able to produce with these titles.

2. Identify and learn an information-processing model.
Our second step was to examine and choose an information-processing model to use district-wide. We studied the models published by the American Association of School Librarians, the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Colorado, and the “Big Six” written by Mike Eisenberg and Bob Berkowitz. The models, we found contained many of the same elements only grouped and worded somewhat differently.

The sub-committee chose the Big Six model. It was simple to understand but still comprehensive enough to be meaningful to all learners. There were good support materials for it, including an electronic mailing list, web site, and (now) a newsletter. And permission to use the process is freely given by its authors provided credit is given. Again, this has proven to be a happy choice. The popularity and support for the Big Six continues to grow.
3. Group skills with in the process.
Our final task as a group of “information professionals” was to group the laundry list of library and technology skills we had identified in Step One within the Big Six process. This proved to be surprisingly easy. Most skills feel naturally into one or more of the steps in the process, including technology skills.

We did discover that we taught students little about Steps One and Six of the information literacy process: how to determine one’s information needs and how to evaluate the project’s process and product. We took an especially careful look at how we could design research topics that asked students real questions of genuine interest. It helped to review Bloom’s Taxonomy of Higher Level Thinking Skills.

A copy of our efforts can be found at <http://www.isd77.org/se3bin/clientgenie.cgi>. Mike Eisenberg and I also developed a similar curriculum that specifically and more comprehensively grouped only technology skills with in the Big Six. The ERIC document of that effort can be found at <http://www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/computer-skills-for-information-problem-solving.html>.

We accomplished this much in Year One.

4. Identify areas in the curriculum for integration.
We had done as much as we could without major collaboration with classroom teachers. Since we wanted a uniform curriculum and set of projects across the district, we need to involve at least one teacher from each of our nine elementary buildings from each grade level: sixty-three teachers in all. We met, however, one grade level at a time with all the elementary media specialists for two mornings during Year Two.

Our first morning was devoted to familiarizing these teachers with the concepts of information literacy and the Big Six process by asking them to complete a series of information literacy activities including choosing a movie to see, planning a vacation, organizing a Thanksgiving dinner for a visiting family of Buddhists, and helping a son or daughter decide whether to buy a business. Each of these activities allowed teachers to experience designing a good research question, identify needed information, determine sources of that information, and how to evaluate the outcome.

The second task involved creating a curriculum map for that grade. A common complaint among elementary teachers is that there is too much curriculum to successfully teach in any one grade. So as we looked at units of study in which to integrate information literacy skills, we wanted to be sure we were teaching information literacy units within already taught units, not adding new units. A simple curriculum map created in less than an hour gave us what was actually, rather than officially, being taught.

We were careful to select units for information literacy units that were considered by the classroom teachers to be weak due to poor activities or little support materials currently available. This was important because we did not want to take the chance of possibly making successful units weaker, only poorer units better. Information literacy projects need to be viewed as helpful to the classroom teacher, not just more work.

5. Brainstorm projects.
During the first planning morning we also began to brainstorm other kinds of projects other than the standard written report. It didn’t take long before we able to generate a list similar to this one:

crossword puzzle, short story, game, videotape,  model, drawing, audio-tape, slide show, bulletin board, lesson, transparency,  booklet, pamphlet, poem, newspaper, mobile, advertisement,  multi-media show,  puppet show, comic book, letter to the editor, photograph album, play, collage, mural, travel brochure, guide, manual, survey, chart or graph,  animation, experiment, interview, map, book review, debates

6. Identify needed resources.
Now that we had an idea of what units and what projects we wanted our students to work with, we needed to closely look at the resources we would need to put this in place. Was it realistic to ask all sixth grade students to do a multi-media project, for example, if there were only ten computers and no multi-media software available? But once we had the topics and project types we wanted to implement, the computer coordinator and I could start focusing our technology and software purchases toward these units. The amount of resources available also determined the phase-in period of the projects. The less resource intensive, the earlier it could be implemented.

Another important, but often overlooked “resource” is the skill level of the teaching staff. As we looked at the projects that we hoped to teach, we recognized there were definite areas where we needed to focus staff training efforts. While most teachers could help students with word processing, e-mail, and graphics use, only a few individuals felt comfortable enough with hypermedia, databases, and spreadsheets to use those applications as part of a project. This is where the media specialists stepped in to offer their support by team-teaching newer, more complex technology skills. As the media specialists taught, the teachers could learn with the students.

7. Develop assessment tools.
As we worked on designing these units, we used a form created in a database. (See figure 2) One critical element of the planning form was blanks for assessments. We want to move beyond paper and pencil tests and ask that students demonstrate a working knowledge of the skills they had been taught. These units then demanded new assessment tools: checklists and rubrics. A second morning was devoted to helping both teachers and media specialist begin to understand how to create these tools.


Being able to describe in concrete, exact, observable language what students must be able to do has been one of the most challenging parts of the curriculum re-design. But the work has proven to be helpful to both the teachers and the students. Even our youngest students have begun to use checklists to self-evaluate their progress on projects and activities. (See figure 3) Our Agatha teachers and media specialists have been real leaders in the district as they devise and use powerful assessment techniques and share their experiences with others in this area.
8. Develop a record-keeping and reporting system.
We realized we needed to share the results of our assessments with students and their parents. As a result we added new fields to the computerized elementary progress report for media/technology skills (see figure 5). Media specialists now report whether students have achieved mastery of skills for each student in their school. Initially we planned to assess and report on ten separate skills. This proved to be too demanding for media specialists who teach and serve up to 600 students.


This year we will be grouping skills into four main areas for which grade level benchmarks have been written. <http://www.isd77.org/school305/FCK/File/benchmarks.pdf>. The benchmarks are important, especially for letting parents know what skills their children have or are expected to master. Note that the benchmark skills reflect the information literacy curriculum and are tied to the project unit and their assessments.

Our next step will be to aggregate the data on a building and district-wide basis for reporting the school board and community. We need to be able to both clearly describe the skill and be able to report the percentage of our students mastering it.

9. Review and revise.
As time and funds permit, the media specialists and teachers will review and improve the Agatha units. Since our information literacy skills are taught within subject areas, we will be forced to change as other grade level curricula change.

One major factor that has shaped Agatha’s design this last year has been our efforts to make our projects meet the requirements of our state’s new graduation standards. Minnesota has developed what are called “High Standards” in both Inquiry and Resource Management. We will be increasing the rigor of our units so that they teach the state required skills.

Our approach while time-consuming and sometimes confusing has been as successful as any I have heard about. The decision to implement district-wide has had many desirable results including:

  • Media specialists and teachers have been able to focus on one or two projects which are then shared among all media specialists and teachers, rather than having to develop all projects at each school
  • By standardizing adopted software, we have been able to more effectively develop good training activities, standardize student guides and activities, and ease parental concerns about our choice of operating platforms.
  • I think we can now assure our community that all its students are receiving basic information literacy and technology skills regardless of building or teacher. We have by no means “teacher-proofed” the curriculum. Individual approaches to completing the projects are expected. But every child should be taught the same skills to the same level of proficiency of use.

We found that is was also critical to involve others, especially teachers, as we developed the curriculum:

  • The impetus for the curricular change came from a group representing a wide segment of both the school and the community. The advisory group did just that: advised us to develop ways to meaningfully use technology and our libraries.
  • It almost goes without saying that media specialist and teacher collaboration and dialog were critical to integration of information literacy in the curriculum. Our approach that this curriculum was not an add-on to the current content areas, but a different and more effective method of teaching them was very important. It also became clear that neither the classroom nor the media center could do the job alone. Skills taught in the media center needed to be reinforced in the classroom, and vice-versa.
  • Our approach helped teachers understand that students are more motivated when skills are applied in meaningful ways, and this especially true with technology. The “why” of learning, not just the “how,” is keeping our schools and classrooms relevant in children’s lives.

Our media specialists and teachers have worked hard on this change project, but are recognized now as district leaders. The process has been difficult, challenging, time consuming, confusing at times, and the product will always be a state of flux. But in the end, out students and our community will be the better for our efforts.

And that’s the bottom line.

Posted on Saturday, July 7, 2007 at 04:50PM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | Comments1 Comment

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Reader Comments (1)

This is exactly what Olaf, Anne, Pat and I are doing at this very moment. Your nine steps have to be done in 15 hours...no 13.5..we've been here since 9EST

July 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSara

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