I felt as if the afternoon had been a success. Then on my way out of the room, heading to the parking lot, I ran into two women who asked me a few last questions. One was a retired teacher and the other her guest at the event.
The retired teacher asked me about vertical alignment – literally. She asked, “What is vertical alignment?” I realized at that moment I hadn’t been clear about what this is exactly, especially if someone retired from my own profession isn’t clear what I’m talking about. I mention this concept in my platform, at all speaking opportunities, when talking about the race with friends, throughout my blogs, and during conversations when I get worked up about curriculum. But I’m a teacher, and I have a tendency to speak in educational acronyms and jargon. The time has come for me to present the basics of this topic and give everyone a chance to understand its power … and know why we need to start talking about it in Los Alamitos Unified.
When I first started teaching twenty years ago, I walked into my ninth grade classroom on day one, sat at my desk, and set about planning the year. I worked in isolation on curriculum and standards. I decided what to teach and when to teach it, and did just that. I thought back to my own education, pulled from memory those activities and assignments I found valuable and fun as a kid, and incorporated them into my classroom. I used the CA State Standards as a driving force, but was free to do as I pleased day in and day out.
When I started at Oxford Academy eight years ago, I walked onto a campus whose English department taught philosophically different from my early teaching experiences, using a different approach – an approach called vertical alignment.
And it changed everything about how and what I teach.
In a nutshell, vertical alignment is simply:
- building students’ content knowledge and skills year-over-year,
- avoiding redundancy in sequential courses,
- holding kids accountable for their learning from one year to the next,
- building collaborative curricular teams of teachers focused on a common goal, and
- increasing access to advanced and AP courses for all students.
I’m going to use the English department at Oxford as an example to explain how this works.
At Oxford, we align our 7th – 12th grade classrooms with an eye on preparing all students to feed into AP Composition and Literature in twelfth grade – that’s our only English track. But we only have six years to get 11- and 12-year-old kids ready to perform at a college level for this exam, so it requires that as teachers we focus on the end goal.
Instead of teaching the same concept every year, we teach the concept in an introductory year and build on that concept every year thereafter. Here’s one simple example of how we teach the thesis and argument claim:
- 7th – Introduce a 3-point thesis, including subject and position
- 8th – Continue to master the basic thesis and introduce the counter-argument
- 9th - Experiment with phrasing of the thesis and work on clarity of relationships between elements of the thesis
- 10th – Work on mastery of the thesis, adding elements of style
- 11th – Introduce concept of sophisticated, complex and relevant logical sequence of knowledgeable claims; rhetoric focused and mode differentiated
- 12th – Work on mastery of sophisticated and complex claim statement with expectations of complex ideas, complex argument and clear qualifiers
Again, I know this example is full of teacher jargon, but I’m hoping you see how the sophistication of the instruction and expectations grows year after year. And we include this level of alignment in all aspects of the English curriculum – reading, writing, speaking and listening. We plan from the top, but build vertically from the bottom to be sure all kids are ready when they take that capstone course in twelfth grade. You can walk into any English teacher’s classroom on my campus and hear him or her say something along the lines of: “I know you learned this last year.” There is power in these words … our students know we will hold them accountable for their learning and expect them to be able to apply that knowledge long after it’s been mastered. I believe vertical alignment is the cornerstone of our school's success.
I will agree that not all students are destined for AP capstone courses, but I will argue there is no harm in preparing all kids for the choice, closing the learning gap, holding kids accountable, taking advantage of the precious little time we have to teach and reach each child, and engaging children in their own education. I get more than a little frustrated when my own children come home with activities covering the same material that's been covered multiple previous years. I want to see more rigor, higher expectations, and increased complexity.
The power in the vertical alignment model of curriculum development lies in its focus, and Los Alamitos has the advantage of being both small enough to be able to tackle vertical alignment with precision and count on our students to step up.
Let’s finally capitalize on our Los Al advantages - and watch our students soar.