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Refining Curriculum Overview (1:43)

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When working with schools in District 4, we found that schools sometimes purchased curricular programs that seemed great on paper, but when teachers began implementing the curriculum, it didn’t quite meet the needs of students in the class or align with the school’s mission or philosophy. When this happened, we worked with teachers to use the materials in the curriculum as resources, not as scripts, and then extended or enriched students’ experiences with additional materials. Making these modifications and additions served to better align the curriculum with student needs and the school’s mission. We re-imagined social studies curricula and refined different ELA curricula with teachers.

As part of the District’s focus on Advanced Literacy, we began working with K-2 teachers on infusing explicit and intentional literacy instruction into their practice and on creating opportunities for students to use literacy in social studies. Equity was a second focus for the District, so we also worked to infuse culturally sustaining pedagogical practices. We wanted to get away from teaching isolated facts and lean into creating an environment where students were active participants in their learning who, at the end of the unit, could apply their learning in an authentic way.

With these two foci in mind, we did a few things. We:

  • looked at the school’s curriculum and mapped out the units for the year.
  • worked together to come up with overarching big ideas for each unit, including big ideas for content, equity, and literacy.
  • thought about the teaching methodologies teachers wanted to employ during social studies. Including:
    • How can we best capture students’ questions?
    • How can we best organize for student discussion? (See Talk page)

Re-imagining Social Studies Teaching and Learning

As mentioned above, we worked with teachers to re-imagine what social studies teaching and learning looked like. Together, we thought about how social studies instruction could be enhanced by and infused with literacy. Integrating literacy and social studies has many potential benefits:

  1. Reading and researching are some of the primary ways we learn about new topics, so teaching social studies content through purposefully selected texts provides an authentic opportunity for students to experience the power of reading and researching to learn new information.
  2. With the increasing focus on nonfiction literacy, integrating literacy and social studies provides opportunities for students to learn about disciplinary literacy. That is, students can learn about different ways that historians, for example, approach texts and tasks, such as reading primary sources. These experiences support student learning about both content and processes involved in reading for different purposes and in different contexts. 
  3. The tendency to emphasize literacy and math in elementary classrooms often leads to social studies (and science) not being taught thoroughly - or at all. By ensuring that social studies is another time for literacy learning, students have additional literacy practice and exposure while not abandoning important social studies content.
  4. Social studies— learning about the world, its people, its history, and so on - is often inherently interesting to many kids; it’s fun to teach! Given all of these reasons, among others, integrating literacy and social studies seemed to be a worthwhile endeavor.

Before we collaboratively re-designed social studies teaching and learning, most teachers’ social studies instruction followed a similar pattern:

  • The teacher would teach something or ask students to complete an activity. For example, during the New York City Then and Now unit, teachers might have told students what a timeline was, showed a few examples, and then asked students to make a timeline of their life. The teacher would collect the material and the next day the teacher would teach something else and/or the students would complete another short activity and so on throughout the unit.

In order to disrupt that pattern of teacher driven instruction and learning that included the teaching and learning of superficial and isolated facts, we worked with teachers to reorganize their instruction and visualize how the classroom might change. We nudged teachers to think more long-term and holistically, using the big ideas as guideposts and connective tissue so students’ learning was more meaningful. We challenged teachers to think in weekly or longer term chunks. They might introduce an idea and then provide time for students to work with and understand the information from different access points.

For example, when studying New York City Then and Now, teachers began the unit by talking about change and how things change over time. Then they engaged students in learning about New York City over time through a variety of experiences. Students read books about NYC, reviewed and analyzed photographs in small groups, took field trips, and viewed videos of NYC at different time periods. After students had an idea of the different ways NYC changed and the different ways information might be explained (based on the materials students used to access the information like photo galleries with captions, timelines, or narrative descriptions of children from different time periods, etc.), they worked in small groups and dove deeper into specific aspects of how the city changed. For example, students researched how neighborhoods evolved as immigration increased, how transportation changed, and how the landscape of Manhattan changed.

Instead of the teacher just assigning a short-term task, teachers were able to talk with students, observe students, and re-teach or guide students as they co-constructed meaning while accessing the material in different ways. At the end of the unit, students shared their growing understanding of how NYC changed over time in a variety of ways based on all the different ways they’d been exposed to the material (through timelines, Then and Now posters, photo galleries, narratives, and maps). In addition, students reflected on the concept of change and had discussions about whether change was good or bad.

Before thinking about how they wanted to organize their instruction, teachers asked themselves the following questions:

  • What’s the big idea or enduring understanding for the content? 
  • What’s the big idea or enduring understanding for equity?
  • What opportunities do students have to talk, read, and write about the big idea/content? 
  • How might students apply their learning? What’s the project?

Possible Teaching Structure/Methodology

We would never suggest that there is only one way for teachers to structure classroom time, even if the goals and outcomes are the same. Therefore, we discussed different instructional structures and methodologies with teachers and they chose which they thought worked best for them. Here are some of the possibilities we supported teachers to utilize:

  • Read Aloud (or Text-Based Mini-Lesson)
  • Shared Reading (Close Reading)
  • Mini-Lesson or Vocabulary
  • Independent/Group Work
  • Share
  • Read Aloud (or Text-Based Mini-lesson)
  • Shared Reading (Vocabulary Focus)
  • Stations (that incorporate reading, writing, listening, speaking, synthesizing, analyzing, creating)
    • Stations could be based on SS practices like
      • Gathering
      • Using and Interpreting Evidence
      • Chronological Reasoning and Causation
      • Comparison and Contextualization
      • Geographic Reasoning

Second-grade teachers at PS 7 used centers/stations as a way to support students’ engagement and literacy development.

Building Literacy in the Content Areas


Building Literacy in the Content Areas Handout

  • Choose a concept and study it from all content areas. For example - “Change”
  • Introduce students to the topic through immersion.
  • Brainstorm ideas for projects that students can collaboratively create that will require them to understand and apply their learning.
  • Provide students with experiences through various texts and activities and then have them apply the new knowledge to building the project.

Take a look at some examples from PS 72’s Project Based literacy infused social studies units.

Take a Stand: Second Grade Recycling Unit Initiative

Second-grade teachers at PS 72 decided to structure a unit on Rights and Responsibilities using a Project Based Model. Here’s a snapshot of some of their planning and the unit.



First Grade Community Mural ( 2:52 seconds)

On the left is a slideshow with images from a mural first graders at PS 72 put together to demonstrate what they learned about their community. We just love the layers and complexity of this mural because it represents the complexity within their community. On the right is a presentation Audy Zelma facilitated about the mural project at NCTE 2019 explaining how she and her colleagues adapted curricula, in part by using diverse texts.


Second Grade Urban, Suburban, and Rural Communities Project

( :45 seconds)

Structure for Planning

  1. Identify potential enduring understandings or big ideas for the unit.
  2. Find texts (can be books, videos, poems, articles, images) for the unit
    • Mentor texts
    • Shared/Close reading texts
      • Read over the mentor texts and put post-its in places we want to “teach.”
      • Choose 5-10 vocabulary words based on usefulness for unit concepts and real world (Content Vocabulary and Academic Vocabulary)
  3. Look at social studies practices.
  4. Generate a list of literacy skills you want students to learn/practice
  5. What’s the end game? Is there a project? A celebration? How will students apply their knowledge?

Sample Planning Documents

  • Thinking About Existing Curricula DOC
  • Year Long Unit/Lesson Plan Overview Template EXCEL
  • Unit Overview Template DOC
  • Unit Overview Template PDF
  • Opportunities for Literacy DOC
  • Vertical Alignment Tool DOC
  • Unit Reflection DOC

Vertical Alignment

It’s important to look across the grades to ensure that the big ideas build on each other. Here’s a sample from PS 72.





Big Idea

Communities have diverse people and places that contribute to and support each other.

Communities consist of diverse people who have responsibilities that are connected in various ways.

Communities can be made up of people from more than one culture.

It’s important to learn about and celebrate the different cultures that make up our community and find similarities.


Puzzle mural through their eyes.

Mural demonstrating the interconnectedness of the different parts of the community.

Students will develop a group project (that includes a model, written description and oral presentation) of a community they studied. Students will demonstrate their understanding of similarities and differences within the NYC community using a visual diagram.



Language Diversity including register and power.

Cultural Awareness (Asian is not one thing). The importance of our language and how we “name” things. The nuances and differences within a descriptor/label.


● Describing 

● Retelling

● Labeling

● Recounting events

● Speaking in full sentences.

● Retelling

● Comparing and Contrasting

● Writing about what we see/learn using descriptive words

● Oral discussions about how people are connected.

● Writing and speaking in complex sentences.

● Oral discussions of similarities and differences

● I notice, I think, I wonder, I agree, I disagree

● Writing about observations

● Reading about Asian cultures

Refining Scripted/Mandated Curriculum

As noted above, we worked with teachers to re-imagine their ELA curricula. In one school, the curriculum consisted of excerpts from various texts, included a laundry list of vocabulary words, and provided limited opportunities to engage with text in a variety of ways. Teachers articulated various challenges they faced when implementing the curriculum, including:

  • Language needs of students
  • Restrictions of the curriculum
  • Limitations of the daily schedule

Working from the challenges, we worked with teachers to explicitly state the ways in which the curriculum was holding them and the students back. Once those were identified, teachers were able to figure out how to use the curriculum as a resource and add in additional texts and contexts in which students engaged in reading. As a result, teachers’ practices changed and students’ experiences and success changed as well.

Changes in Practice

  • Incorporation of trade books with equity and inclusion in mind.
  • Using Core Knowledge Language Arts Curriuclar program (CKLA) as a resource, not a curriculum
  • Use of shared reading
  • Use of dialogic reading
  • Strategic vocabulary instruction (Robust Vocabulary)
  • Time for writing instruction (Writing Workshop)
  • Greater teacher ownership

As a way to assess how the re-imagined CKLA (Core Knowledge Language Arts) program supported students' development, focal students were identified at the beginning of the year and subsequently participated in the following assessments:

  • Adapted Burke Reading Interview
  • Vocabulary assessment of Tier 2 words
  • COCA

These assessments were conducted in addition to the classroom assessments. All focal students’ scores on the additional assessments improved, as did their scores on the classroom assessments. Finally, teachers observed students’ increased engagement with reading.

Re-imaging Mandated Curriculum to Align with Balanced Literacy Practices

(Being A “Bridge Builder”: A Literacy Teacher Educator Negotiates the Divide between University-promoted Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and District-mandated Curriculum by Kathryn Struthers Ahmed, Ph.D.)

Though not conducted in one of our partner schools, the article above provides another example of how it’s possible to merge mandated, scripted curriculum with balanced literacy. The article discusses how Jessica, a literacy teacher educator, supported preservice teachers (PSTs) to engage in sociocultural, culturally responsive literacy pedagogy while still adhering to district mandated scripted curriculum. The mandated curriculum tended to push up against many of the literacy pedagogical practices Jessica endorsed in her methods course, such as small-group work, student choice, teacher selection of culturally responsive texts, and so on. However, Jessica also recognized that it would not be feasible for PSTs to not enact the mandated curriculum, both when they were student teaching in a cooperating teacher’s classroom and also as new teachers.

As such, Jessica felt compelled to support PSTs to adhere to many aspects of the mandated curriculum while making some modifications and including additional literacy instruction throughout the day that was grounded in socioculturalism and cultural responsiveness. She knew that students were assessed on the curricular program’s anthology textbook weekly story and accompanying vocabulary words, so PSTs could not ignore this content. Here, she suggested some minor changes, such as finding the actual book that was often excerpted in the anthology and reading aloud from the picture book as opposed to the textbook. The curricular focus for the week she adapted included summarizing, so she kept the original focus but made the lessons more interactive, such as having students summarize using the “five finger strategy” (one story element per finger) with a partner and using a “somebody-wanted-but-so” graphic organizer to summarize on another day of the week.

Other plans Jessica made involved incorporating literacy into other parts of the school day, such as conducting an author study through post-lunch read alouds and engaging students in singing during their in-classroom breakfast time to promote phonemic awareness. Jessica laid out her plans in weekly and daily schedules, which PSTs reported finding very helpful due to its tangible, practical nature. Ideally, Jessica hoped that she helped lay the foundation of PSTs thinking it was possible to teach outside the mandated curriculum while still abiding by the rules imposed by their schools and district.

Refining Curriculum Schedules