May 11, 2023

Advancing Our Curriculum

Erin Nowak
Erin Nowak / Middle School Principal

The following is an edited version of presentations delivered by our school principals at Oakwood’s State of the School event, which took place on May 1, 2023, at Oakwood Secondary Campus.

Narrowly, curriculum refers to “the subjects comprising a course of study in a school.” However, to discuss curriculum with any depth or complexity, and in alignment with Oakwood’s philosophy, we must consider not only what we are teaching, but how we teach and assess understanding, as well as how we are supporting who is teaching and who is learning.

Supporting Faculty

This year, on both campuses, we have expanded our teacher orientation and support programs to improve how Oakwood’s newest teachers integrate into the community and build relationships with students, families, and the curriculum itself. At the elementary campus, our Counselor, Maia Morgan, is working closely with Teaching Assistants; introducing them to school policies and culture, and providing day-to-day support for their work in the classroom.

At the secondary campus, we launched a new faculty-induction program that includes weekly meetings, instructional coaching, and collegial connections outside of one’s department or division. Weekly meetings focus on aspects of teaching at Oakwood including, academic technology, student feedback, DEIB, Social Emotional Learning, and more. Specifically, working with new faculty around these key areas while intentionally fostering relationships within a new faculty cohort, has allowed us to comprehensively support new teachers in their work which directly impacts students’ experiences in the classroom. Next year, we will continue to grow the new teacher induction program as well as the ongoing support for Oakwood’s beloved veteran faculty.

In addition to new faculty, we have facilitated professional development for all faculty on relevant and pressing topics such as how teachers can support the development of executive functioning skills in every classroom, and the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) on teaching and learning.

As an aside, we have understandably fielded questions from parents and guardians in recent months regarding Chat GPT and other AI platforms, asking how Oakwood is navigating its existence and accessibility. We want to take this opportunity to assure you that as an educational institution, we are leaning into understanding how they function and their potential usefulness as new technological tools, and we are also setting explicit guidelines and expectations around them for students to continue to center important educational outcomes. In addition to faculty professional development and setting policies and guidelines around academic use, students are also engaging in broader philosophical questions about the impact of AI on humanity now and in the future.

Another key area of inquiry for our faculty this past year has been reflecting on our assessment and grading practices to bring them more closely in alignment with our educational philosophy and goals. We know that all students need regular, timely, and actionable feedback. We will continue to reflect on best practices, establishing community agreements and policies, and working to ensure that students receive the feedback they need to best support their learning.

In addition to focusing on the support and professional growth of teachers, our teachers themselves have continued their work across both campuses to align what and how students engage in learning. Leveraging a student’s K-12 experience allows us to deliberately and thoughtfully build skills and increase meaningful connections across disciplines and time. Over the past year, faculty and administrators have begun to engage in a different and more structured curricular documentation and review process that enables us (and will continue to enable us) to achieve an even deeper level of coordination, alignment, and organization of the educational experiences students have at Oakwood. This coordination allows us to enhance our strongest programs as well as carefully spiral curriculum and skill development.

Social  Emotional Learning

It is well known that over the past several years, schools have faced remarkable challenges—fostering a sense of community and delivering quality education during a pandemic, reassessing the content and delivery of education in light of the racial reckoning and social unrest of recent years, and how to center and support students’ mental health and well-being with so much uncertainty in the world. Throughout these challenging times, we have remained mindful of the profound impact that emotions have on our students’ decision-making, their health and well-being, their relationships, and their ability to learn. This is why schools need to prioritize developing students’ emotional intelligence.

Since its founding in 1951, Oakwood has centered students’ well-being. However, over the past few years we have taken significant steps to ensure that the social-emotional learning that happens at each grade level and in each division is intentional, aligned, and coordinated. Each step builds on and extends the skills and understanding of the previous one.

One tool that has informed our program and allowed us to expand our support of emotional skill building for students is an approach called RULER from The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. After piloting this approach over the past few years, founder and author, Dr. Marc Brackett, visited Oakwood this fall to work with our K-12 faculty and more comprehensively integrate the approach school-wide. In this video, you will hear from Oakwood faculty and staff who have been integral in implementing the RULER approach and supporting Social Emotional Learning on each campus:

In addition to supporting students’ ability to learn, Social Emotional Learning fosters a sense of belonging by promoting self-awareness, empathy, and positive relationships among students. By building emotional intelligence, students can better understand and connect with others, creating a more inclusive and supportive school community. All of these practices and skills foster students’ ability to connect with others and their sense of self, and so powerfully contribute to feeling a sense of belonging.

The Illustrative Math Approach

In recent years Oakwood has been implementing the Illustrative Math (IM) curriculum in grades K-8, which bridges students’ learning through their transition from the elementary to secondary campus. IM K–12 Math is a problem-based curriculum built on the principle that students learn math by doing math. They are encouraged to use their current understanding, their lived experiences, and the world around them as resources for problem-solving. By starting with what they already know, teachers invite students to contribute to the mathematical learning experience, centering their thinking, and being responsive as conceptual understanding develops.

If you are ever able to observe an Illustrative Math lesson, you might notice students being prompted to describe what they know, articulate questions, and explain their approach to solving a problem. You will also see students working collaboratively to deepen their understanding and explore varied approaches in their work. Also present in an Illustrative Math classroom is the consistent application of mathematical concepts and skills to real-world situations, which allows students to integrate an enduring rationale for why math matters and is meaningful in the world.

This coming year, we will continue to integrate and evolve how the Illustrative Math curriculum shows up in the classroom to enhance and enrich learning. We continue to see the Illustrative Math curriculum support student growth and understanding AND as educators, we know that no one approach or curriculum is a final answer to how students can learn best. Our teachers, department chairs, and curriculum leaders continue to reflect on and collect data regarding the outcomes and goals we have for Oakwood students.

Expanding World Language Instruction

Through the expansion of our World Language Program at the elementary campus over the past two years, we have introduced Spanish speaking, reading, writing, and listening skills to Oakwood’s youngest students. Next year will be the third year of this roll-out, and all students, Kindergarten through 6th grade, will now be engaged in Spanish instruction. In the coming years, we will continue increasing instructional time at each grade level and have begun cross-campus conversations about how to be responsive to the different skill levels that students from the elementary campus will have when they matriculate up to 7th grade. Our Elementary Campus Spanish teacher, Jose Salguero, and our Secondary Campus World Language Department chair, Susan Biales, are conducting cross-campus observations, discussions, and planning to prepare and coordinate.

Teaching WWII & The Holocaust

Another content area where we have done meaningful work over this past year is in Humanities and Social Studies, with a particular focus on World War II and the Holocaust. It is notable that this particular area of curriculum development, and how it came about, speaks to our values as a school around social justice. It also demonstrates our belief that students are active participants in their education, not vessels to be filled.

Oakwood’s Philosophy states: “We believe that teachers and learners should inspire one another… And we believe that young people’s feelings and thoughts should be accorded respect and dignity.” This quote expresses our belief in the reciprocal nature of the most meaningful educational experiences and what we aspire to at Oakwood. We are in partnership with students through their education, and the story of how our Holocaust curriculum has evolved this year is a beautiful demonstration of that.

Although this vitally important content area and period of history has always existed in the Oakwood curriculum, it was two Oakwood students and Jewish Affinity group leaders, Becca ‘24 and Nora ‘24, who spoke up and called us to reflect on where, when, and how this vital period of modern history is addressed in Oakwood’s classrooms. In her role as Dean of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the secondary campus, Karen Nitzkin, first connected with Becca and Nora and then coordinated a series of meetings with teachers and curriculum leads from each of the three divisions. Together, they shared resources, reviewed where and how these essential lessons were framed, and how each level’s approach to content could build upon to deepen students’ understanding over time.

Becca and Nora’s proactive engagement has inspired us, and we are further heartened by the collaborative efforts of our administration and faculty to enhance our curriculum. These efforts bring us closer to our educational mission and philosophy, resulting in an enriched learning experience for our students.

Academic Technology & Research Skills

In today’s world, students need to learn effective ways of navigating the deluge of information and misinformation to discern the truth, identify useful knowledge, and solve real-world problems while deriving meaning in their lives. To this end, on both campuses, we are planning for new ways to support students with academic technology and research skills, through programs and experiences that offer practical strategies and tools.

In the upcoming 2023-2024 school year, at our elementary campus, we will add this curriculum to 5th and 6th grades. At the secondary campus, all seventh graders will take a 10-week course next winter, “Research, Information, and Media Literacy,” designed and taught by our new Secondary Campus Head Librarian, Alejandra Alfaro. This course will lay the foundation for their entry into secondary school academic life. Students will be oriented to 21st-century research practices and library skills. They will also explore strategies for evaluating sources of information to discern relevance and meaning. Students will practice synthesizing research, data, and opinions of others alongside their own critical thinking and deepening understanding of the world. Our expert librarians are also committed to partnering with teachers as they build on these foundational skills, integrating research and academic technology skills into discipline-specific lessons across every grade level.

In today’s world, students need to learn effective ways of navigating the deluge of information and misinformation to discern the truth, identify useful knowledge, and solve real-world problems while deriving meaning in their lives. To this end, on both campuses, we are planning for new ways to support students with academic technology and research skills, through programs and experiences that offer practical strategies and tools.

Continuing Curricular Work

In conclusion, the deliberate and systematic work we have engaged in as a faculty and staff over the past two years, to document and review our K-12 curriculum, has allowed us to make meaningful progress in a vast range of areas—math, world language, research, and academic technology, social studies and humanities, and even Social Emotional Learning.

We are committed to the continuation of this curricular review work and plans for next year involve more focused attention to applying an articulated and aligned social justice lens to disciplines across all divisions, as well as better coordinating the development of reading and writing skills from Kindergarten to 12th grade. Thank you for your ongoing support with this vital work.