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Getting Results with Curriculum Mapping

Edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs

Table of Contents

Chapter 2. Use of Curriculum Mapping to Build a Learning Community

by Valerie Truesdale, Claire Thompson and Michael Lucas

Learning communities don't just magically appear. They must be built with a vision for how individual educators can support the achievement of each student through an articulated, seamless curriculum. Schools in District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties, a district close to the capital city of Columbia, South Carolina, are building their learning community using the tools provided in curriculum mapping. The history of the district shows how curriculum mapping was used to build a cohesive learning community. This chapter describes the support beams, processes, professional development, critical elements, obstacles, map development, and ways the process was sustained. The key points of the blueprint, presented as a closing summary, will remind readers of how important mapping tools can be in building a collaborative learning community through the development of a cohesive curriculum.

History of the District

School District Five is composed of nineteen schools that serve almost 16,000 students from child development through adult education. District schools are located in three distinct communities: Irmo, Chapin, and Dutch Fork. Historically, the communities were relatively homogenous in socioeconomic and demographic aspects. Equal resources have been provided for all schools, and excellence was expected and achieved. Schools in District Five led the state on all standardized measures of achievement for many years. More than 90 percent of students have attended college, and rarely did a student fail the state's high school exit exam.

In recent years, however, District Five has seen dramatic demographic shifts. A housing project in nearby urban Columbia closed, and many residents relocated to suburban areas, including the area served by the district. In addition, land development in one of the high school attendance zones pulled upper-middle-class families into another high school's attendance zone. Those population shifts produced more heterogeneous schools and resulted in different challenges. One school moved from 15 percent of the students receiving free and reduced-price lunches to more than 50 percent in a few years. Another school experienced a 35 percent transience rate, when more than one-third of the school's children who participated in state testing in the spring had not been enrolled the previous August.

Such changes challenged district leaders to address new curricular and instructional issues to ensure that high expectations and student achievement remained strong. District leaders searched for solutions and found that curriculum mapping provided useful tools to help build a strong, cohesive learning community. We can compare the tools of curriculum mapping to those on a worker's tool belt (see Figure 2.1)—a useful metaphor that focused the district's work. For instance, curriculum mapping is like a tool belt because it contains or holds information about what a teacher really teaches:

  • The belt is the calendar that organizes the tools.
  • The belt buckle allows for adjustable pacing throughout the school year.
  • The content hammers in the standards—the nails.
  • The mapping tool drills in essential questions for authentic probing and learning.
  • The pliers (skills) hold the content, standards, and assessments together.
  • The screwdriver turns content into knowledge.
  • The measuring tape can be used to assess student buildings (products).

Fig. 2.1. Curriculum Mapping: A Tool Belt for Teachers.

Factors Leading to Curriculum Mapping

In 1994, the community adopted a strategic plan that called for “world-class standards.” In 1995, teachers developed those standards, reaching a districtwide consensus about what students should know and be able to do in each content area. As part of that two-year staff development initiative, instructional leaders noticed some serious disconnects between what was expected of students and what they were taught. When teachers asked questions such as, “Do all students write research papers in high school?” and “When do we ensure that skills in an area are taught?” the answer was, “It depends.” What a student was taught depended completely on the student's teacher. Each teacher decided which standards to address and what experiences to provide. Therefore, the quality of each student's learning depended entirely on what a teacher decided to emphasize. The lack of horizontal consistency across schools and vertical continuity within schools created a major barrier to quality. In addition, once teachers in School District Five developed district standards and aligned them to state standards, the volume of standards was immense. In the 7th and 8th grades alone, more than 1,000 standards existed in the core subject areas! Instructional leaders surmised that with the volume of standards to address, decisions regarding what was taught should not be an “it depends” issue. The district needed a plan for building a strong, cohesive curriculum.

Although School District Five adopted high academic standards and the most rigorous curriculum materials available, some teachers did not embrace the district's curriculum, claiming that students were not able to do the work. As both the volume of standards and the demographic differences grew, a sense of isolation also emerged among teachers and administrators. Educators needed to connect with colleagues as they struggled to change teaching practices so they could meet more comprehensive standards. Teams of teachers were challenged to think through the mind of a child rather than with the child in mind. In other words, they were asked to envision learning opportunities as if they were individual children moving from kindergarten to 12th grade in the district. What experiences would students have? What would connect learning for them? The resulting plan had to include specifics so that educators could examine the total structure and establish a strong community of learning.

Support Beams: The Leadership Roles

Instructional leaders recognized that a process that brings individuals together to reflect and share information must support the learning community across diverse schools within a school district. For many years, a hallmark of School District Five had been instructional leadership provided by teacher and administrator teams. Teachers, working side-by-side with administrators, made decisions that affected student learning. Curriculum mapping had to support this process so that teachers' leadership roles remained intact. One way educators have retained this collaboration is with leadership teams. Teachers and administrators representing all grade levels and all schools meet monthly to make decisions regarding teaching and learning across the entire district. These leadership teams provide instructional leadership by involving stakeholders and moving all schools as a unit toward their goals.

By using a building metaphor, instructional leaders decided the district needed support beams from school to school to build a new sense of community. One of the support beams was consistent expectations undergirded by sufficient resources to meet the needs of schools with more challenges. A second support beam was guidance for teachers in managing an overwhelming curriculum. A third was greater connection among content areas so students could see the relevance of lessons.

To construct the support beams, leaders needed to foster a sense of cohesion among teachers, and teachers needed tools for sharing information quickly with one another. To connect the beams, smoother transitions were needed at critical junctures, such as elementary school to middle school and middle school to high school. To cement skills at benchmark grades and to increase student comprehension, educators believed a deeper commitment to teaching reading in all content areas was critical. The leaders saw curriculum mapping as a tool to address those needs, because it built a renewed sense of community by using instructional reflection and professional collaboration.

Process of Implementing Curriculum Mapping

Continuing the construction metaphor, the leaders realized that a new structure could not be built without plans (a blueprint) and a vision of what the structure (architecture) would look like. The district needed to identify a vision for the community, develop research sites, engage the architects, clear the land, establish a foundation, and use tools to construct the community. When the leaders learned about Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs's research in curriculum mapping, they realized that mapping held promise as a unifier around which to build a renewed sense of community. After considerable research through professional journals, conferences sponsored by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), and telephone interviews with other district leaders, such as in Ankeny, Iowa, the District Five leaders decided to study the feasibility of implementing curriculum mapping. Thus, a vision was created.

In School District Five, involvement of stakeholders is a standard for every initiative. The leaders recruited two highly skilled principals, Michael Lucas (secondary level) and Claire Thompson (elementary level), to mastermind a blueprint for building the learning community. In 1999–2000, the district selected 62 teachers, representing various grades, subject areas, and schools, who would work with Lucas and Thompson in a graduate-level course to study the feasibility of implementing curriculum mapping. Using ASCD tapes and books written by Dr. Jacobs (see Curriculum Mapping Resources and Bibliography, pp. 170–173), course participants learned about and tried curriculum mapping techniques in their classrooms. The teachers studied various designs for District Five maps. They interviewed experts to refine their design. In a workshop with the class in January 2000, Dr. Jacobs provided her strong help with the design.

The graduate course participants became the chief architects of the community-building initiative. They tested the ground to see if it was ready to build on by using mapping in their own classrooms. They sought resources to support an articulated curriculum. Course participants understood clearly that if they determined the ground was not ready, the district would not use curriculum mapping. As architects, they could decide to use different tools. At the end of the graduate course, however, the architects decided to move forward with building the community in all schools using curriculum mapping as the major tool. In fact, they decided to build a community across all schools rather than implement mapping in only a few schools as a pilot project. They recognized that with more than 1,200 teachers, this initiative would be no small undertaking. The architects carefully designed the process, identified the tools needed, and pledged a three-year commitment to the building process. The graduate course participants used the template developed in Mapping the Big Picture: Integrating Curriculum and Assessment K–12. (Jacobs, 1997a) shown in Figure 2.2. More than 1,200 teachers used this to record their initial maps; an example from an actual school is shown in Figure 2.3.

Fig. 2.2. Standard Template for Initial Curriculum Maps









Other/Essential Questions

Source: Jacobs (1997a).

Fig. 2.3. Example of Curriculum Map Using Modified Standard Template

Teacher:Karl Hudson

Grade:8/Social Studies

School:District Five Middle School



Essential Questions

  • How does the geography of SC and the US affect the settlement of the country?
  • Does geography affect industrial development?

  • How were the Native Americans changed by their interaction with the early explorers?
  • How did the Protestant Reformation influence the Exploration Period?


  • Geography (US & SC)
  • State symbols

  • Native Americans
  • Early exploration


  • 8.2.1: Discuss influence of physical geography on SC history.
  • 8.8.1: Make and use maps of SC and US.
  • 8.8.2: Describe and locate physical characteristics.
  • 8.8.3: Explain how people interacted with the physical environment in SC and US.

  • 8.2.2: Discuss life in the Americas before arrival of Europeans and Africans.
  • 8.8.3: Describe how people interacted with their environment—SC and US.
  • 8.8.4: Explain patterns and types of migrations.


  • Maps
  • Quiz
  • Major test on SC and US geography
  • Brochure—Region Project
  • “Journey Through SCIG”

  • Native American stories and myths
  • Explorers Chart
  • Picture from definitions
  • Video notes
  • Essay—Hope for the Flowers
  • Explorer PowerPoint

Activities (Required)

  • “Who Am I?” sheets
  • Ball-Toss Name Game
  • Textbook scavenger hunts (US & SC)
  • US physical and climate maps, SC physical map
  • Pictures from definitions
  • States Game—puzzle pieces on overhead
  • Intro to laptops—“Journey Through SCIG”
  • Brochure—Region Project

  • Internet research site
  • Major test—Native Americans
  • Writing a myth
  • Pictures from definitions
  • Video—“In Search of the First Americans”
  • Teen Newsweek
  • Cards to soldiers in Afghanistan
  • Read Hope for the Flowers
  • Begin research on Explorer PowerPoint

Miscellaneous Notations (Optional)

Technology (Optional)

  • SC video—“Smiling Faces, Beautiful Faces”
  • Laptops—SCIG
  • Brochure—Region Word Document

  • Video—“In Search of Native Americans”
  • Explorer PowerPoint Project

Source: School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties, South Carolina.

Professional Development to Establish a Foundation

As good architects do, the graduate course participants identified the tools needed to teach more than 1,200 teachers about curriculum mapping. To lay the foundation, the course participants served as workshop leaders on staff development days during the 2000–2001 school year. They developed PowerPoint presentations and shared the curriculum maps they developed during the graduate course. All District Five teachers received templates on diskettes, along with notebooks that included essential information on mapping and the K–12 curriculum standards for their area of teaching. Course participants also trained building-level administrators and department leaders in the use of mapping tools and taught peer-coaching skills to instructional leaders. Curriculum mapping (CM) coaches were in every school. These CM coaches participated in a second graduate course during the 2000–2001 school year to develop tools that would further refine the building process. Leaders of this second graduate course were Harriet Wilson, an elementary principal, and Beth Moore, the district's teacher of the year.

Building a cohesive community for a strong district curriculum extended even further. Each school began its own individual building process by choosing content areas to map. In August 2000, each elementary school began mapping one core content area—math or science. All teachers in grades 6–12 mapped at least one of their courses. Teachers of related areas mapped at least one course as well. Guidance counselors and media specialists also developed a map of their classroom teaching activities for the year. Special education, physical education, and other content-area teachers developed specialized maps, some of which covered multiple years to fit the discipline.

On staff development days during the school year, coaches facilitated mixed-group and like-group review sessions to refine maps. In May 2001, each teacher submitted at least one reviewed and revised map for a collective districtwide review during Summer Institute, which is a week-long activity held in June for highly motivated teachers who meet to work on curriculum issues. Between 120 and 200 teachers learn and work together each summer, earning graduate or recertification credit. Summer Institute for 2001 was dedicated to reviewing initial maps to strengthen the foundation of the renewed community of adult learners.

To support the foundation, district leaders identified policies and practices that could be streamlined to validate the use of the tools of curriculum mapping. Administrators revised the teacher evaluation system to accommodate curriculum maps. The requirement for first-year teachers to submit long-range plans was changed; instead, they were to develop projected curriculum maps. The district provided maps developed by exemplary teachers to guide new teachers as they planned their year. District-level content coordinators were expected to ask for maps when they observed in classrooms and were to provide targeted feedback to teachers about how their teaching and assessments aligned with state and district standards. Curriculum maps from regular education teachers were shared with special education teachers to forge new connections. Resource teachers added their curriculum to the maps of the regular education teachers to help students make connections between learning in the resource room and learning in the regular classroom.

At some schools, the foundation was built easily, because the soil had been tilled and the pilings were put in place without much resistance. Leaders in those buildings were deeply committed to the process and were well aware of how to use the tools in their toolbox. Their tools included the skills of teachers and leaders to adapt to change and the decision-making processes already in place.

Teachers in those schools were accustomed to working in collegial teams and had been empowered to make curriculum revisions in a climate of acceptance for their professionalism. The leader was willing to pick up a hammer and to work alongside the teachers in developing, reviewing, and revising the structures. Both leaders and teachers valued process and dialogue as tools to improve instruction. Mapping was seen as a way to shape a dialogue, rather than as a new or different approach to teaching. The tools already in place in those schools were augmented by curriculum mapping tools that teachers used to model the building process on the new site—a different way of planning for improvement of instruction. Leaders used the information gained from working side-by-side with teachers to design staff development sessions that were then based on opportunities identified in the curriculum maps.

At some schools, the curriculum mapping process was met with initial resistance. The tools, however, brought teachers together in both mixed- and like-group reviews, resulting in some surprises in content. As coaching became more sophisticated, instructional leaders in the schools became more diligent in asking questions centered on the maps, and the building tools began to be used more and more. Coaches and content coordinators met monthly to share building challenges and to suggest approaches for making the building process more successful. Meetings of CM coaches also provided feedback on progress within each school and guided the work and direction of the entire district.

Blueprint for the Foundation: Identifying Critical Elements

Instructional leaders found that the following factors contributed to a successful foundation:

  • Size of the site (school): Fewer teachers equaled greater opportunities for sharing in mixed- and like-group reviews. Thus, in larger schools, breaking dialogues into smaller groups proved helpful.
  • Size of the community: Three distinct communities exist in the district, each consisting of a high school with its feeder schools. In the smallest of the three communities, with only four schools, collaboration of K–12 curriculum was easier for planning reviews across grade levels. In the larger feeder systems, breaking the K–12 dialogues into smaller groups was helpful. For example, when four elementary schools, one middle school, and one large high school met for mixed- and like-group reviews of K–12, scheduling dialogues at three locations worked better than organizing hundred of teachers in one place.
  • Depth of the soil: The degree to which there was deep commitment to enhancing teaching and learning practices among instructional leaders within a building was factored into the use of curriculum mapping as a tool for collegial dialogue. When the leaders lacked such commitment, leadership from the district was needed to build school-level capacity for change.
  • Skill of the builders: Once the architects (participants in the first graduate course) outlined a process for building an overall plan for a community, the skill of the site leaders to take the overall plan and to articulate it into a site plan by putting in structures to support the foundation made a difference in acceptance. A weak building process meant either building leaders had a lukewarm commitment to the process or leaders lacked knowledge in how to build a foundation for change. Leaders held staff development sessions on managing change and channeling resistance in productive ways.

System to Uncover the Rocks: Addressing Obstacles

In building a community, architects must identify obstacles so that a firm foundation can be built. However, when rocks are just below the surface, construction can be delayed. The same is true in the process of curriculum mapping. Some schools already had a firm foundation of sharing teaching and learning strategies, and, therefore, the building process was systematic and challenging, but not overwhelming. In some schools, however, rocks of resistance were just below the surface. The process of curriculum mapping and sharing across schools highlighted teachers who either were not following the adopted district curriculum or were not teaching to state and district standards. In some schools, leaders had not addressed the resistance of a few teachers to believe that all children can learn at high levels.

When construction crews hit rock, the rock has to be extracted. Removing rock (extracting old attitudes) and bringing in new dirt (introducing new information about teaching and learning) were necessary before some schools could begin to lay the foundation for curriculum mapping. The district provided school leaders with the tools needed to manage the resistance and support teachers as they stretched themselves and their students. In some cases, individuals were given intensive training so they could acquire the necessary skills to accomplish the task.

Framework: Developing Maps

Using the tools that had been developed required diligent attention to detail. CM coaches and the instructional team (principals, assistant principals, and department or grade-level leaders) served as site chiefs to lead the building project in each school. Administrators provided assistance to teachers to help make the process align with the focus of the district or school. Teachers used forms like the one shown in Figure 2.4 to help them align their work with the focus of the school district and their individual schools.

Fig. 2.4. Sample Expectations for Departments or Grade Levels

Department or Grade:



In Process


1. Participate in initial training session.

2. Conduct department session to discuss curriculum mapping terminology and to develop some consistency in definitions: (a) content, (b) skill, (c) assessment, (d) technology, and (e) essential questions.

3. Ensure that a departmental list of maps will be developed in the department or grade so that all preparations are represented in the interdisciplinary reviews.

4. Have department members participate in follow-up training session.

5. Collect copies of first draft, and submit a copy to assistant principal for instruction.

6. Collect revised first draft and skeleton maps, and submit a copy.

7. Collect assessment items for each grading period (for use in looking at assessment component of map).

8. Ensure that departments or grade levels periodically review maps during monthly meetings to make sure that (a) essential questions focus instruction, (b) content is appropriate, (c) skills are aligned with content, and (d) assessments are appropriate and aligned with skills. (Assessments may include tests but should also include alternative assessment such as projects and performance tasks.)

9. Have department members work together to identify any gaps and repetitions in the curriculum and to resolve gaps or repetitions.

10. Have department members participate in schoolwide interdisciplinary teams to examine or resolve gaps and repetitions in the curriculum.

11. Make final copies of all maps when they are completed, and turn them in to the principal.

Educators with extensive knowledge of process crafted certain specialized aspects within each school. For example, in one high school, a CM coach focused on forging a dialogue between the English and social studies teachers as they examined their maps for humanities courses. The coach used her knowledge of process and curriculum to craft mixed- and like-group reviews, yielding greater understanding of the content, skills, and assessments needed to improve learning for the students. In another situation, district content coordinators provided specialized expertise to coach teachers in strengthening their maps to appropriately align skills and assessments. Other examples include CM coaches and instructional leaders helping teachers identify gaps and overlaps in their K–12 curriculums and proposing ways to improve experiences for students, plus coaches encouraging educators to think of nontraditional ways to teach and assess students. In each case, coaches and leaders identified risk takers, supported them, and recognized their willingness to share their ideas. Without the risk takers, every building in the mapping community would be the same, more like cookie-cutter houses than homes with individual personalities. Maps began to naturally evolve and to reflect similarities within schools; however, throughout the process, mapping coaches emphasized the importance of creativity and individuality.

A Look at Finishing Touches: Sustaining the Process

To sustain the sense of building a community, the mapping process needed strong buttresses, which were provided through various means, to identify areas needing attention within individual schools and throughout the school system. In District Five, leadership teams of content teachers have been meeting monthly to set the direction for curriculum and instructional issues. One buttress provided mapping support as leadership teams opened each meeting by updating development of curriculum maps. Another buttress provided mixed- and like-group reviews that focus on obvious overlaps that the schools could address: for example, in one elementary school, two different grades were teaching the metamorphosis of the butterfly; school-level negotiations yielded a revised insect unit for 4th grade. Leaders learned to trust the process to bring the “a-ha” to teachers (perhaps serving as electricians who turn on lighting in the community). Individual school teams worked through initial refinements. Decisions then were fortified by the buttresses that gave specific data about the need for improvement through the curriculum maps.

Another buttress for the mapping process was provided in the summer during professional development institutes, when educators reviewed thousands of maps and discovered a need to make systemwide changes in curriculum. Although gaps and overlaps in content and assessments were easier to identify than skill gaps, once teachers became familiar with the systemic review process, areas needing attention became apparent. Teachers were familiar with the process of mixed- and like-group reviews at the school level and, therefore, found district-level reviews manageable. Teams of trainers addressed the districtwide and building-level professional development offerings for the next year that had been designed around the systemic gaps and overlaps identified in the Summer Institute.

Another buttress provided the development of curriculum materials and instructional processes. It provided teacher support materials that had been based on needs identified from maps. A review of math maps indicated the need for support in math skills in the upper elementary grades. As a result, teams of teachers developed curriculum materials during the summer months to share with their colleagues in the fall. In addition, a review of social studies maps across K–12 revealed that students were being taught about the Holocaust four different times but rarely learned about the Gulf War. Teachers then adjusted the curriculum maps. Teachers also determined that the five-paragraph essay was overused as an assessment, so they circulated examples of other assessment tools among teachers and instructional leaders.

The maps revealed as a weakness the lack of articulated study skills across grades. High school teachers expected students to outline and take notes, but K–8 maps showed no evidence of explicit teaching of study skills. A task force developed standards for study skills for grades 3–12 and shared them with teachers on staff development days.

Reviewing maps indicated a need to differentiate instruction for students at varying levels of ability; thus, a team of trainers was sent to learn strategies for differentiating instruction. Reading maps across K–12 indicated that teachers expect a high level of reading comprehension for success in high school courses, yet there was little evidence that explicit reading strategies had been taught past 3rd grade. As a result, leaders launched a major initiative in building active literacy methods in all content areas.

Curriculum mapping is a work in progress in District Five. The structure is not complete, but the cornerstone of commitment in building collegial dialogue that focuses on teaching and learning has resulted in a districtwide community that honors reflection on instructional practice. The focus is leading to individual teachers' improvement of curriculum and instruction for all students.

Blueprint for Building a Community of Learners

Using our curriculum mapping work in District Five, we developed the following blue-print that we hope will be helpful to you in your work:

  1. Explore ideas. Bring to the surface any needs for change.
  2. Identify chief architects who will design improved ways of building student learning and of fostering collegiality among teachers across grade levels and schools.
  3. Lay a firm foundation for change so that the architects' plans will be implemented on solid ground.
  4. Identify rocks (obstacles) in the process of collegial growth, and take action to address challenges and resistance. Strength in instructional leadership is necessary to provide feedback to teachers and to stretch their creativity in designing ways to enhance dialogues among K–12 teachers.
  5. Train craftspeople to support specialized needs, and provide time for them to work with school-level teams. Skilled coaches at each school and at the district level are key for modeling and supporting the collegial dialogues that are necessary for addressing gaps and overlaps.
  6. Develop explicit plans. Staff development should be relevant, timely, and sustained. Equip your staff development leaders at both the school and the district levels with extensive tools for supporting school teams.
  7. Follow through on details. Taking time to identify systemwide policies and practices that can be streamlined is important. For teachers to spend time developing curriculum maps, you need a corresponding reduction in other aspects of planning.
  8. Update the community of learners constantly about the building process. Many initiatives are not successful in education because they are not sustained. Frequent updates in all meetings and constantly seeking ways to use maps as the hub of all discussions about teaching and learning will help institutionalize mapping as a daily tool.
  9. Recognize that building a community of enhanced learning takes years. The progress will be slow but rewarding. Old habits of teaching in isolation must be replaced with shared ideas and with negotiated content and assessment. Sustained support is vital to successfully implement curriculum mapping as a tool for improving teaching of and learning by children.

Curriculum mapping has been a useful tool to bring about a synergy of professional expertise focused on instructional improvement in District Five. It has provided the tools to build a cohesive learning community with teachers as the chief architects and builders. Over several years, maps have become the hub for highlighting continual changes and refinements needed in the instructional program. Mapping has provided a process for collegial dialogue as it focuses on alignment of content, skills, assessments, and activities across 19 schools, with its ultimate goal of improving student achievement.


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