I recently had the immense privilege of working with my department (high school social studies) to plan vertical alignment and engage in standards prioritization. I’m fortunate to work in a very functional, productive department with a reflective and visionary department chair, which is not the case for everyone. However, anyone can be a teacher leader and change maker when it comes to zooming out and collaborating thoughtfully with your colleagues for the benefit of students.
Vertical alignment is the process of planning curriculum and strategies across grade levels in the same subject so that students have a skills “toolkit” and knowledge base they take with them from year to year (this differs from horizontal alignment, which involves interdisciplinary planning). This process is much easier (sometimes done for you!) with a packaged curriculum, but there will always be instructional strategies that work well for students in YOUR school that can be used across grade levels and content areas (see my post on the “T4” strategy for an example that works well in my building).
- For educators, vertical alignment might look like meeting with other teachers who teach the same content you do, identifying common strategies and content, and diagramming where one class leaves off and the next picks up. Teachers can then use this information to create a kind of path that students will follow through their education that is consistently and continuously reinforcing their skills and content knowledge. For my department, this looked like collaborating on a picture of the ideal student, then articulating the “must know” concepts, vocabulary, and literacy strategies in each class. We then used sticky notes and colored dots (our own system, use what works for you!) to identify common threads from 9th – 12th grade. Once we identified common themes, we created a master list of concepts, vocabulary, and literacy strategies. Finally, we created and filled in a table that we could all work on at once (in Office 365 Online, but this could also be done on Google Docs) with how we teach each major theme in our class, including our favorite instructional moves. We want to create an experience that flows and avoid repeating major moves.
Standards prioritization is the process of looking at all of the standards that are used by your department and prioritizing those are the most rigorous and meaningful for your students at the present time (as priorities shift and change). The purpose of this practice is to take the (sometimes overwhelmingly large) list of standards and identify those that are and SHOULD be assessed regularly. This doesn’t mean other standards are neglected or ignored – they become supporting standards. Some standards lend themselves readily to be supporting standards. This process is easier if your building already uses standards-based grading, but still useful either way.
- For educators, standards prioritization might look like meeting with other teachers who teach the same subject you do (like your department), compiling a master list of all the standards you address (for us, this included content standards and CCSS for History), then attaching those standards to the vertical alignment diagram you created earlier. In my department, we then went to our vertical alignment posters and identified “repeaters.” Tally up the standards that show up the most, then talk through them in order (highest rank to lowest). Your rankings may change as your discuss the standards, but priority standards will emerge. These standards can now be used as the foundation of your department-based reflection – for example, multiple teachers teaching the same standards can bring student work mid-year for a productive discussion about strategies, teacher moves, scoring, and providing meaningful feedback.
Here’s a snapshot of our process (including the dots used to mark which concepts or standards are taught in more than one class):
Are you doing similar work in your building? Share your experiences in the comments!