A series of seven posts on major turning points in my teaching career. A study of where I was, where I am, and where I'm headed.


Curriculum has fast become my favorite focus in recent years. It started with an observation as I taught Algebra II, that the way I did things was inefficient, uninteresting, and lacked depth. Students were doing surface level material and never getting very far in a particular topic. There was a lack of cohesion in the school year. It felt that we were just studying things at random, hopping around on a whim. I want curriculum that's interesting to teach and that spends 9 months telling a story with identifiable payoffs.

This is different from a discussion of individual lessons. I'm talking about big picture. How do you create the tool that drives the school year?

Where It Was

I followed the textbook, roughly in order. My first year I spent a lot of time relearning the material, just trying to make sure I didn't make any major mistakes the next day. Even then I still screwed up, a natural process when teaching something for the first time. I wasn't worried about what message I was trying to send over 9 months, I was just worried about making in through to the next Friday. As I was transitioning into standards based grading, I noticed that the curriculum just wasn't satisfying. Planning this way is also just terrible. I have sat in on one two many conversations that go "well, we have 2 days for 1.1, and 1 day for 1.2, but we HAVE to finish 1.3 by Tuesday..." Ugh. Just, ugh. What generally happens 9 months later when you plan like this usually includes the phrase "...we just ran out of time." This shows a lack of vision. In August, you should have some idea of where you want to be in May, with a working knowledge of how to get there.

The week to week stuff just stopped cutting it for me.

At the same time, I also realized that students do NOT care what chapter you're in, or what the section number is, or any of that textbook organization type stuff. They are, however, slightly more interested when you talk in topic names.

The use of SBG and topic names had an effect on the way I discussed curriculum. I stopped caring about chapter numbers and section numbers and instead focused on the material itself. It wasn't Chapter 5, Section 2 anymore, it was Motivating the Quadratic Formula. That was an important step I think. When you view a course as a collection of topics, you're more inclined to organize them into something that makes better sense to the student.

Algebra II, a course I will always defend, offers a great case study. Is it necessary to deal with the start up cost of solving equations 5 disparate times through the school year? Could you cover all the mechanics up front?

Where It Is

It was those Algebra II questions that lead me to a very intense project, my Pivot Algebra Two idea from 2013. Rather than think about the course as a list of functions where you work on the same skills weeks apart, what if you focused on the skills and iterated through their applications for various function types?

This skeleton lead me to rewrite the entirety of Algebra II around the major skills I wanted students to develop. I wanted the basic operations we learned in August to help us with more challenging situations in May. Along the way we could take a minute to summarize what we had applied to a subset of functions.

The end result was the most fun I've had teaching. We went really deep into topics that were unthinkable before. We had time for awesome projects. It was a great group of kids. All of it driven by a cohesive narrative. The project paid great dividends down the road.

My initial run at Calculus was challenging. I spent the following summer grinding away at the curriculum, looking for inefficiencies. I was searching for my narrative. After a lot of work I found it: the integral and the derivative need each other, let's explore the many contexts of their relationship. The result was a road map that gives students a basic idea of the course in about 5 weeks.

No saving things until later because they "weren't ready" or something. The more a student knows about a course up front, the more you can with the material later, the more you can communicate the story of Pre-Cal, or Geometry, or whatever.

Where It Is Going

Thinking about the story I want to tell with a course has been a huge breakthrough. Textbooks are of little concern to me. I use them as reference to get an idea of a course's topics and building a model document from there. For example, next year I will be teaching Calculus BC for the first time. I will consult a textbook but the actual rhythm of the course will find its way into some document like the one I use for AB. There's a possibility I'll be doing College Algebra as well, meaning a return to the idea I started in Algebra II. As an instructor, manipulating curriculum in this way has made me incredibly familiar with a course. I could write pages and pages about a logical progression of Pre-Cal from memory. I've been thinking about the interconnection of its topics for years.

Every year I find it easier and easier to fine tune a curriculum. Delete some wasted days here, find a new connection here, and carve out room to go deeper.

One of these days I'll figure out a way to take these personal notes and develop them into real guides for people who want to do the same thing. It's been several years, but that was the concluding step for my Algebra II project.


Many of you are probably in the same position. I know lots of teachers who have little regard for the order preferred by a textbook publisher.

When you sit down this summer to think about your courses, consider the story you want to tell. What connections do you want to establish? How can you spiral back to information as much as possible? How do you want August to influence May?

AuthorJonathan Claydon