Many schools and districts provide pacing guides to save teachers the trouble of making their own and to keep everyone on the same schedule. I strongly discourage this practice. While I do see some benefit of keeping everyone on the same pace, I have rarely seen the same pace work for everyone. I have greatly benefited from creating my own pacing guide for my own class (or with the other math teachers at my school).
When a pacing guide is created with a specific group of students in mind, decisions can be made to help those students succeed and make gains on end-of-year tests.
The first step in creating your own pacing guide is to know your standards. Knowing your standards may sound obvious. However, we sometimes think we know the standards well enough, so we do not spend time looking deeper at them. Other times, we may be teaching a new grade or subject and decide we will study the standards as we get to them during the year. Whatever the reason, not knowing the standards extremely well at the start of the year is a huge mistake.
What does it mean to know your standards? If you were to see a random test question, would you be able to tell if it fits a standard you teach and know if it should be on the final test? If your textbook has a chapter that has always been taught at your school, do you have the confidence to skip it if it does not align to a standard? “Yes!” should be the answer to both.
Knowing your standards well will give you the assurance you are doing the right things throughout the year. To be most effective, you need to know what you are teaching now, what you are teaching next, how long you can spend on each topic, how deep the students need to understand each topic, and how important that topic is on the final test.
I will guide you through the process I use to gain a deeper understanding of the standards and how I use that understanding to build a custom pacing guide.
I use two colors of paper when digging into my standards. One color is for major standards and one for supporting standards. Color-coding helps keep track of what is most important. (You might even choose three colors if your standards are divided into three levels of importance.)
I rewrite each standard in very plain words on the correct color paper so that I end up with a list of standards in my own words. I label each one with the standard code so I can reference it later. Here is an example from 8th grade math standards.
The standard: CCSS.Math.Content.8.NS.A.1
Know that numbers that are not rational are called irrational. Understand informally that every number has a decimal expansion; for rational numbers show that the decimal expansion repeats eventually, and convert a decimal expansion which repeats eventually into a rational number.
What I write: NS.A.1 Rational vs irrational numbers, decimal expansions and conversions
The point of this list is to be able to glance at a standard and immediately know what it is about. There are no rules to how long your descriptions should be. Some will be short, and others may need to be lengthy.
Standards can be written in interesting ways. Lookout for footnotes. Look for sample questions if your state provides them. Not only do you want to be sure you are teaching everything a standard addresses, but you also do not want to spend time teaching more than needed. Standards can be quite confusing at times, so do not be afraid to ask for clarification from experienced teachers or even state test-makers.
As you make your list, think about pre-requisite skills. On a separate sheet on paper, note any pre-requisite skills that your students typically lack but will need. For example, on the standard above, I would write fractions. My students always need brushing up on fractions before we learn rational and irrational numbers. The list of pre-requisite skills should be custom to your students based on your experience in past years. If you are new to teaching, new to a school, or new to a grade level, seek an experienced teacher to help you with this process.
When you have finished this process, you should have a list of simply-worded major standards, a list of simply-worded minor standards, and a list of pre-requisite skills that you know your students will need to review.
Making Your Custom Pacing Guide
Making your own pacing guide will allow you to take ownership of how your class runs throughout the year. If you are an administrator, please allow your teachers time to complete this process before the school year begins. County pacing guides or online pacing guides are fine for ideas, but they were not created with your students in mind. If you are forced to use one of those, talk with your administrators and see what options you have.
You will need the lists you created in the previous section for this exercise. Cut apart each standard so you have strips of paper (color-coded) with one standard per piece. Then begin to group and arrange them into units. A unit does not have to be a specific length or number of standards. It could be one standard or several. Group them as it makes sense to you!
Do not worry about what you have done previously or the order the textbook goes. You know your students best and what will work for your classroom.
Some questions to consider as you group and arrange:
- Do you want to cover a whole topic at once? Or would introducing it early in the year and going deeper later work for your students?
- Do some standards involve multiple topics? (If so, make an additional strip of paper for that standard and put one in each group it applies.)
Once you have a rough draft of your units (basically piles of paper strips at this point), look over your list of pre-requisite skills. Now is the time to decide if you need to spend a bug chunk of time early in the year teaching these skills or if you can review them as needed throughout the year.
When teaching students who are several years behind based on achievement tests, I have heard many teachers say, “With so many standards to cover, I do not have time to review old material.” However, I like to consider the following situation. What if you were tutoring a struggling student for a whole year? Would you begin with grade level material? I would not. A student cannot retain difficult math lessons without a solid foundation of the basics.
In my own experience, I have had years where I began with review, and I have had years where I reviewed as needed. Both can work. When teaching 8th grade math to students who predominately had scored less than proficient on state math tests, my team decided to devote about five weeks to pre-requisite skills. We knew it was the right thing to do for those students. The topics we covered included multiplication, fractions, integer operations, order of operations, and graphing basics. Issues we had the previous year helped us determine what to cover. Those students made huge gains that year and were better prepared to understand 8th grade math when we got there.
When I began teaching high school geometry, I knew students would have some skill deficits. However, because I was not sure where those issues would lie, I chose to review throughout the year instead of in the beginning. This method allowed me to take note as I saw misconceptions and plan to work on them between units or as bell ringers.
Look over your pre-requisite skills and think about your students. What will benefit your class the most: a review unit or review scaffolded throughout the year? I have had success with both. The only mistake you can make here is not planning to review at all.
Now arrange your groups into the order that makes sense to you. Some questions to consider:
- What topic is approachable, engaging, and would work great at the beginning of the year?
- If a unit is heavily tested, should it be at the end of the year? Or should it be at the beginning, so you have time to reteach as needed?
If your school has given you a pacing guide, see if you can arrange your units into roughly the same order as the guide. If you disagree with the school’s pacing guide, discuss it with your administrators.
Now decide a rough timeline for each unit. Count how many weeks you have from the start of school until your state test takes place. Also subtract a couple weeks (or more) if you know you will lose time due to things like weather, field trips, testing, etc. Then assign each unit a number of days or weeks. Pay attention to your color-coded standards. Be sure you are allotting more time to major standards. Tweak your numbers until they fit in your school year.
What if they do not fit? I always feel like I could use double the time I am given. You may consider eliminating a few minor standards from your pacing guide. When teaching Geometry to students who averaged around the 30th-40th percentile, I chose to skip a couple very difficult minor standards. In this case, I knew we would need a lot of time to learn those standards that would only appear in one or two questions on the test. Do not cut out anything that the next grade level depends on you teaching.
Now you have your units made up of standards arranged in order and given a specific amount of time. Title a piece of paper with each unit title, write the length of time, and attach your standards for that unit. (You can type these up and make them nice and neat, or do like I did and just tape those strips of paper down.) These individual papers will be used for notes as you continue planning your year. As you reach each unit, reread the full-length standards to make sure you plan lessons to align.
This is the process I have used to help me plan for successful years. I wish every school provided teachers with the time to create a pacing guide before school started. Teams of teachers collaborating to create pacing guides for their own students is a great way to start the year. Every teacher should be involved. The process does take time and effort, but you will create a guide for your year that works best for your students. I truly believe this is one of the best ways to take ownership of your classroom and start the year right.
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