Supporting Novice Teachers to Make Sense of Curriculum Materials

The slogan of TeachingWorks, an organization based at the University of Michigan focused on the improvement of teacher preparation, is “Great teachers aren’t born. They’re taught.” As the director of the Alder Teacher Residency at Aspire Los Angeles, nothing speaks more to my heart. It takes a lot to teach an aspiring teacher. It takes instruction, coaching, and follow-up around lesson preparation, community engagement, classroom management, collegiality, instruction, professionalism … the list goes on.

To support my own growth in the teaching of novices, I attended a three-day professional development opportunity for teacher educators this summer at the University of Michigan led by TeachingWorks Director Dr. Deborah Ball. The gathering was facilitated by Learning to Teach and TeachingWorks and was attended by faculty and leaders of graduate schools of education from across the country. Groups represented included Teach for America (TFA), Relay Graduate School of Education, UnboundEd, Urban Teachers, Student Achievement Partners, National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR), New Visions for New Schools, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

The work of the gathering in Ann Arbor focused solely on how to teach aspiring teachers to effectively plan for instruction. In many places, long gone are the days of novice teachers creating a curriculum, lesson, or unit from scratch. Instead, increasing numbers of districts and charter management organizations have shifted toward the use of published Common Core State Standards–aligned curriculum materials. With the curricula in hand, novice teachers are expected to study, internalize, and prepare to teach using the given materials. One idea is that a great curriculum can teach novice teachers content, interrupt the educational inequities in American schools, and improve novice teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge (PCK).

Thus, the ongoing working group created from this summer’s gathering is charged with developing modules for teacher educators to use with teacher candidates so that they are able to capably appraise published curriculum materials (e.g., Eureka/Great Minds Math, the Big History Project, E. L. Achieve). These modules will include instructional activities that push novice teachers to both “learn to use, modify, and adapt curriculum materials” and “learn to teach from curriculum materials.”

The aim of this work is for teacher educators to create and implement these modules so that teacher candidates can enact high-leverage planning and teaching skills, including determining the goals of all parts of a lesson, learning content knowledge for teaching, deciding on tasks that need to be added due to learner needs, and scaling learning tasks up and down in difficulty. Deborah Ball refers to these in her white paper “Making Curriculum Materials a High-Leverage Resource in Learning to Teach.”

Just this last week, I had the opportunity to pilot a potential module that members of the working group are in the process of developing. A fellow working group member and I had the opportunity to “try on” our protocol for critically appraising the parts of a lesson. We did this with two first-year teachers—one of my former teaching residents from Aspire Los Angeles and a teacher trained in a different program.

My teammate and I arrived at two big takeaways from the use of the protocol. First, we noted that the teachers naturally wanted to change and modify the curriculum to make it more “inventive.” This was the case even with a fabulous, well-researched, Common Core–aligned, anti-bias curriculum. Second, the teachers seemed to lack awareness in appraising themselves and their own level of content knowledge for teaching, leading to gaps in their PCK and therefore potentially leading to incomplete learning for students.

I’m excited to continue this avenue of work in order to learn more about how to best help novice teachers critique and adapt curriculum materials. It’s a skill set and habit of mind for novice teachers that is timely, worthwhile, and vitally important to interrupt injustices and inequities in education.

Our working group will be meeting again in spring 2018 to revise, reflect, and continue to develop modules for teacher educators. To learn more about TeachingWorks and the high-leverage practices, visit