Curriculum Triage: How Do We Manage the Instructional Challenge Right Now?

By Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Allison Zmuda

NOTE: This post has also been curated on a new website that we launched the week of April 20 devoted to facing the challenge of COVID19 in your school community. Visit to explore.

Right now as we write, there is a ten year old in Seattle who has been at home for two weeks and the charm is wearing off. There is a 15 year old in New York who cannot join his buddies on the neighborhood basketball court outside for after school hoops because it is closed.

In many households around the world, there is a quiet rumbling that can be framed by several questions …

Where is school? When will it return? Will it be the same? Am I behind?

From an educator’s point of view, there is an elementary first grade teacher who was right at the beautiful tipping point of bringing her class to sound out that consonant blend and begin reading. She worries. How are my kids doing? There is an AP teacher who is trying to keep up with the latest testing policy shifts from The College Board, while providing relevant materials to get students ready for the exam. If it comes. Around a virtual conference call, a team of 6th grade math teachers are discussing the “fall” as they eye next year’s plans. The group is nervous about making up all of the topics that were supposed to have been taught in 5th grade.

At this extraordinary moment in our history, there is a striking and urgent need to frame and to create solutions on two levels. One level is the big picture perspective, that is the long game. Once the pandemic has released its grip (and not knowing precisely when that will be), the challenge is not to return to school as we know it but move forward to school settings that are responsive to our learners. Given the disparities and jarring experiences that they are experiencing, we cannot pretend that school will be business as usual. We hope to consider this perspective in future posts. There is another perspective, the immediate need in front of us as this crisis unfolds. What do we do now that is purposeful and manageable to keep our children and young people engaged?

Curriculum Triage

On a phone call together this past week, as we discussed challenges schools we work with are facing, Heidi artfully summarized this as the need for “curriculum triage.” In medical terms, triage is a sorting issue that requires a scan of wounds or illnesses and then a determination of what order to do based on degrees of urgency. Let’s apply this definition to a curriculum where educators can make informed choices for students in the last 8-12 weeks of the school year.

Looking Backward to Previously Covered Material

  • What are key skills and concepts that we spent significant time on in class prior to the disruption that are essential to “keep” for the following year?
  • How might we reinforce / highlight this learning by having students do something with their previous work in fresh ways?

Looking Ahead to New Material

  • As you examine your pacing guides and related curricular materials, what are the essential skills and concepts that are supposed to be covered in the remaining weeks of school?
  • Based on what you identified as essential, how might we design a plan that “hook” students to explore those topics after they have finished their daily or weekly assignment?

Looking to Design Short-Term Curriculum Triage Strategies that Can Provide Immediate Relief

  • Design in manageable chunks.
    • Organizing your activities and presentations in short and clear formats makes it more likely you will succeed in connecting with your learners and their parents. We highly recommend The Week at a Glance model.
    • Example from Hong Kong
    • Example from Mason, OH
  • Keep it simple with icons. Using Icons to signify the TYPE of learning action provides quick cues for the learner, but it also can expand the teacher’s creative thinking in designing more engaging experiences.

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    • Provide clear and easy communication. Develop language that focuses students and their families about what is important to pay attention to for a manageable chunk.
      • Our focus together. This is a thumbnail description of the learning experiences planned for your planning. Whether it is a “Week-At- a- Glance” plan or a short term project. Summarizing the topics to be addressed, the engaging activities, and key demonstration is important in launching the week for students and families.
      • Learning targets framed by state standards. It is critical that we target standards in a manageable bundle given the short term nature of our planning. Key will be that they are directly aligned to demonstrations of learning. Less is more.
      • Essential Questions/ Compelling Questions. Whether your school utilizes EQ’s or CQ’s to frame and to encourage inquiry in your curriculum planning, there is a need for the North Star quality of these overarching interrogatives.
      • Guiding questions. A second tier of questions, guiding questions, are important to direct our learners to specific areas for investigation.

In our next blog post, we will begin to raise larger questions about post-pandemic schools as we return to a new normal.

How will schools adapt? What might teaching and learning look like in the upcoming year? How will we address the gaps of a lost semester? What insights did we discover as to what is important and worth keeping? What new practices and resources did we find value in?

We would love to hear your questions about curriculum triage or the longer term issues we are all confronting for teaching and learning next year. Comment down below or send to us via email or Twitter.

Heidi: Twitter: @HeidiHayesJacob
Allison: Twitter: @allison_zmuda

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Madeleine Maceda Heide
Madeleine Maceda Heide
4 years ago

Thank you for this. As the head of an international school, I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is for us to use this opportunity tu o rethink schools. Your leadership and guidance about concrete steps we can take is very much needed. How about opening an online discussion for international schools to see where we are and how you can help?

liz Hargreaves
liz Hargreaves
4 years ago
Reply to  Allison Zmuda

Thank you – great article and I agree with Madeleine that an online discussion would be very helpful for us going forward..

4 years ago
Reply to  liz Hargreaves

Liz, we are on it as are so many others. It might be helpful if we can begin a list of upcoming virtual events and groups focused on these efforts.

Madeleine Maceda Heide
Madeleine Maceda Heide
4 years ago
Reply to  Allison Zmuda

Allison, I met you a couple years ago at a NEASC summer training. Love your work. I believe that you, Bena, Heidi and Marie have an amazing gift as thought leaders with concrete ideas to help us shape the future of education. We need your guidance and I for one, am ready and eager! There are a number of organizations serving international schools; let me know how I can support your work!

4 years ago

Madeline, how wonderful to hear from you. I just saw your post and it is great to connect again. We are actively working on getting an online forum going as well as additional virtual meet ups and think tanks. Be safe. Are you still in Quito?

Greg D’Ambrosio
Greg D’Ambrosio
4 years ago

How would you suggest we tackle a curriculum that is almost 60% performance based. We are a Career and Technical High School and are struggling with how to teach the students the practical work.

Heidi Hayes Jacobs
4 years ago

Greg, developing sets of video demonstrations of discrete technical skills based on the nature of the field and task. Given the career area, sets and sequences of video demos could be compiled for student viewing. If these do not exist, you and your colleagues might create some if you have access to the necessary equipment. Another option would be to do voice-overs with accompanying photos of specific tasks. Simulation websites or apps could assist. What your important emails does point to, is that as we move through the immediate Triage phase of the epidemic, there will be the need and the opportunity to address your question into the future with simulated and interactive tools and website.

Greg D’Ambrosio
Greg D’Ambrosio
4 years ago

Thank you, these are great suggestions that I will bring forward to my faculty. We know that we are going to have to get creative and be flexible. For most of our programs, students will not have the resources to demonstrate their knowledge (ie.operating a backhoe). We were struggling with how to deal with that portion of what we do as a Career and Tech High School.