HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Creativity, Curriculum and the Common Core

by Angela Marzilli and Jamie Cluchey Issue: Rising Ed Trends
TOPICS : Pedagogy

The authors demonstrate how the Common Core standards can be an ally to day schools, providing benchmarks against which they can be evaluated by prospective parents, and offering a framework for faculty collaboration and professional growth.

Jamie: When I came on board at Levey Day School in Portland, Maine, last August, I felt like Alice falling through the rabbit hole. The world of day schools, as we all know, is unique. One of my first steps was to look at the curriculum. Coming from a public school background, I was accustomed to using the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as a benchmark in all of my planning, instruction and assessment. I did not find these standards to limit my freedom to teach creatively or through experience-based models, although I know that in many states the mandated curriculum can be stifling. Using the structure of a set of clear standards was different but not opposed to the culture of developing thematic units based on student and teacher interest that I encountered at Levey.

The Common Core State Standards are controversial in educational settings across the country, to say the least. They can provide great benefits, however, in the independent day school setting. With the freedom of developing a more flexible curriculum, CCSS can offer day schools benchmarks as we establish a scope and sequence of what will be taught and learned throughout a student’s time in our schools. No matter what opinion one has about CCSS, these standards are the norm in the majority of states, and provide each of us with a grounding point: a document to use and gauge the rigor and scope of content being taught at our schools, and a strong picture of the content children in other settings are learning.

When I began as head at Levey, an important goal of the board was to develop a guaranteed curriculum to share with families and the community. What follows is the story of walking the line between rigorous standardized learning and the creativity and student-driven learning that happens in day school communities.

The Vision

Jamie: As educators, we know that curriculum is a cornerstone in every school. Curriculum guides instructional decisions, the purchase of educational materials and professional training. Both formative and summative assessments are tied to curriculum, as are the reporting systems we use to share progress with our boards, parents and community. In any type of intervention, it is crucial to have standards based on curriculum to discuss; we look for gaps in learner understanding, develop plans to fill those gaps, and then assess to measure growth and plan next steps. Without curriculum, teachers are hampered in their ability to best serve students, and heads of school are equally hampered in our ability to best serve teachers and our community.

My vision for the year of professional development was twofold. First, I hoped to develop, with my teachers, a mutually agreed upon math curriculum for our school. This math curriculum would be based on what was being taught in the school as well as the Common Core math standards. While using the CCSS in professional development might at first receive pushback in a day school setting where use of the CCSS is not mandated, I wanted to ensure that there were no content gaps in our curriculum and that our students would graduate Levey meeting or exceeding the same standards as their peers at other schools. This is particularly important for us as a PK-5 school, where most students move into public or independent schools for 6th grade. The math curriculum would guide our instruction, assessment and reporting. We would also develop a process for review and revision of the curriculum.

Grade 3: Algebraic Thinking


  • Numbers can be represented in different ways
  • Numbers create patterns. These patterns can be used to solve mathematical problems.


  • Can solve two-step word problems using 4 operations
  • Can represent problems using equations that include variables to represent unknown quantities
  • Can identify and explain patterns

Second, I planned to cultivate a reflective mindset in my teachers regarding curriculum and to develop a collaborative process for revising curriculum. As a former teacher, I know all too well how the demands of the day can impede the process of reflection on our work, no matter how critical it is or how much we want to find the time. Knowing that professional development at Levey had been inconsistent in the past, I wanted to set a tone of professional collaboration early on as well as establish some protocols and procedures for how we work together as colleagues.

The Process

Jamie: A goal in my entry plan was to enhance collaboration and reflective practices among faculty. While I have a passion for curriculum design, I decided that bringing in an outside consultant would allow me to be a collaborative member of the team rather than the facilitator of the work. Using Title II funds to support our work, I hired Angela, a consulting STEM specialist. During the month of August, Angela and I read Small Steps, Big Changes: Eight Essential Practices for Transforming Schools Through Mathematics by Chris Confer and Marco Ramirez. We agreed to use the model set forth in this book to create the scope and sequence for our curriculum. Our goal was to provide the faculty with a consistent structure for their work. Angela and I continued to meet monthly in order to reflect collaboratively on past professional development meetings and plan for future work sessions.

Angela: The model Jamie and I decided to use separates math into topics, then develops lists of concepts, skills, representations, strategies and mathematical language for each topic. Jamie and I focused on completing the concepts and skills for each topic (see fig. 1) during professional work sessions over the course of the school year. This way, teachers would have curriculum to guide their instructional planning, and Jamie and I would have clear next steps (representations, strategies, and mathematical language) for our continued work in math.

We divided the mathematics curriculum into topics. Some, like multiplication, we knew would be developed in second through fifth grade. Others, like numbers in base ten, would have concepts and skills in all grade levels. We grouped topics that had fewer grade-specific concepts into grade bands; for instance, teachers wrote concepts and skills for data analysis in PK-2 and 3-5. Finally, when working on mathematical reasoning, we worked as a PK-5 group, looking for concepts and skills in which all fifth grade students would be proficient before graduating from Levey.

Professional work time occurred during half-days Jamie built into the Levey calendar. This was the first time the Levey community had half-days for professional development, so both Jamie and I were dedicated to ensuring the time was well spent. We began each session by doing some math together, either a number talk (see fig. 2) or another puzzle to warm up our mathematical thinking. Then teachers worked in pairs to outline a set of concepts and skills in a mathematical topic, writing their work on large pieces of chart paper. Once all the grade levels and/or grade bands were completed within a topic, we hung the chart paper up in ascending order and all looked for coherence across the concepts and skills.

Through this non-threatening process of design and organization, teachers were able to share their own mathematical thinking and take risks among their peers. This resulted in identifying curricular areas that were more of a challenge for them as well as honing in on gaps in instruction throughout grade levels that left students inexperienced by sixth grade. They also discovered concepts that were being taught annually that didn’t require reteaching.

The Product

Angela: By the end of the school year, we had created a set of concepts and skills, either by grade level or grade band, for all the mathematical topics covered in the CCSS. In most cases, the concepts and skills closely mirrored those in the standards but were written in a more useful way for teachers to use in planning instruction. Jamie typed the lists we had developed, and she and I created a large poster with the entire curriculum arranged in throughlines for teachers to review (fig. 3). Our final work session was a chance for teachers to make last-minute revisions to the entire curriculum, emphasizing that this curriculum would be used for a year before reflecting and revising again next summer. It was also a chance for teachers to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in all the hard work we had completed together that year.

The final scope and sequence provided the teachers a chance to look at curriculum from a “big picture” perspective. By looking at math instruction from the eyes and experience of students as they travel K-5, they were able to gain compassion for students in their journeys toward mathematical proficiency as well as a true appreciation for the importance of grade level curriculum. Teachers took great ownership over their roles in the development of the curriculum, and began to view one another as resources for differentiation.

Jamie: By having an outside consultant facilitate conversation and curriculum development, I found that conversation was open, honest and productive and agendas were completed. A part of my professional vision is to create a faculty culture where teachers think as critically about my ideas as they do their own; as educators we are on equal footing when sharing ideas and reflecting. As a participating member of the group, I was able to be seen as a non-threatening entity, something that I think can often be a challenge for new administrators.

Next Steps

Angela: In my work next year at Levey, I plan to focus on the representations, strategies and mathematical language portions of the math curriculum we are developing. Jamie and I envision teachers with toolboxes of games, lessons and strategies to use with students as they develop the concepts and skills we have identified as the Levey math curriculum. While teachers will still participate in professional development meetings I facilitate focused on developing these toolboxes, Jamie and I hope that a large part of our work together will focus on me either teaching or observing in classrooms and reflecting with teachers afterward. This will give teachers a chance to try strategies and reflect on the experience as well as the opportunity to watch their students participate in math lessons led by another teacher. Both will help teachers refine their practice while always connecting the work to the concepts, skills and now strategies, representations and mathematical language we have included in the math curriculum.

Jamie: Our new math curriculum is a work in progress, and I look forward to refining it throughout the next school year with Angela and the teachers. It is also a well organized structure that provides teachers with confidence and foundation for their instruction and provides families with the knowledge and understanding of what is being taught to their children. While complex in the big picture, grade-level snapshots are simple and not overwhelming.

Next year, as we continue to work with Angela on refining the math curriculum and developing strategies, we will also embark on a new road: literacy. I will be facilitating this process and it is my hope that the professional culture that has been established will transfer to our work in each content area. While the teachers at Levey at first questioned both the need for a curriculum review and our use of the CCSS to guide that review, once the process had begun they realized the value of each. Using our experience as a model can help guide any day school through similar curriculum work.

Even schools with curricula in place should consider reviewing it in light of the new standards—particularly schools like ours whose students graduate to continue their education in other area schools. A common set of standards gives us, as educators, the opportunity to calibrate our expectations and look critically at curriculum. The Common Core State Standards may appear daunting at first, but we have found that when combining rigor, high expectations and creativity in schools, we as adults thrive along with our students.

Angela Marzilli is the STEM/Project Based Learning Specialist at Educational Consulting, LLC. info@consultingeducators.com

Jamie Cluchey is head of school at Levey Day School in Portland, Maine. jcluchey@leveydayschool.org

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