Dana Nathanson, Navigating a Successful Curriculum Adoption

Mike Wallus, Vice President for Educator Support


Adopting a new curriculum can be challenging. Beyond the materials themselves, a curriculum adoption may represent changes to long-standing practices, beliefs and classroom culture. On today’s podcast, Dana Nathanson, an elementary math coordinator in Leander, TX, talks about how leaders can effectively design, manage and sustain a successful curriculum adoption.

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Mike Wallus: Adopting a new curriculum is not for the faint of heart. What makes this challenging? Well, beyond the materials themselves, a curriculum adoption may represent many things: changes to long-standing practices, beliefs and classroom culture. On today's podcast, we'll talk with Dana Nathanson, the elementary math coordinator in Leander, TX, about how leaders can effectively design, manage and sustain a successful curriculum adoption. Welcome to the podcast, Dana. I'm thrilled to have you and be able to talk with you a little bit about the work that goes into adopting and supporting the implementation of a new curriculum. 

Dana Nathanson: I'm excited to be here. Thank you for the opportunity. 

Mike: Absolutely. So, in your case, we're talking about the work that you did in Leander, TX, when you supported the adoption of Bridges in Mathematics. I'd love to start by talking about something that feels really critical when a school or a district adopts a new curriculum: the idea of buy-in. How did you think about building buy-in for teachers when you adopted Bridges in Mathematics in your district? 

Dana: I think that's an interesting question, because we do hear a lot about, “How do you get people to buy in?” And in our district when we think about buy-in, I think about, “That's my idea. And so how am I going to get people on board with my idea?” And so, really, we want to kind of flip the script on that and think about ownership. And so, when we think about, “How do I get people to kind of own this idea with me?” Then that is really where we see true empowerment. And so, we really approach this with that kind of lens to be thinking about, “How do I get people to own this, um, process and own what good math instruction looks like with me?” So that when we do adopt that we are adopting something that aligns with our vision for mathematics and what we want to see students participating in and being a part of in the classroom. 

Mike: That really feels different even just to hear you talk about it. Ownership kind of conveys this idea that there's a shared responsibility as opposed to buy-in, which is, can I convince you to do a thing? 

Dana: Right, right. And so, to get that ownership, we were at a time in the state of Texas where we were adopting new standards. And so, it was kind of, like, the perfect timing to think about, “How are we going to really get a clear picture of what we want math instruction to look like?” So, we did a lot of work with our teachers up front prior to adoption on what are those standards going to look like and how are we…or what do we feel like is the best way to teach math, really, in the younger grades? And so, we did a lot of learning together, a lot of reading. We really grounded ourselves with some of the work of Cathy Seeley, who is a former NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) president. She wrote a book, called Faster Isn't Smarter. And so, we kind of looked at that as a good starting point for, “We want all students to have opportunities to make sense of math, do the math and use the math.” And that kind of became our foundation. It's not just about procedural fluency, but conceptual understanding and then ultimately, transfer. And so, we grounded our work in that and tried to bring people along as far as owning that vision. And then from there, we really looked at what teachers wanted from a resource. And thinking about the use of continuous improvement tools, we used feedback loops, consent-o-grams to—all along the way—so that we could really feel like everybody was owning. They wanted a parent component. They wanted more technology. They wanted practice opportunities through, through games. And so, when we established a rubric together with teachers and administrators, then that really helped us when we came to adoption because we were looking for something that checked all of these boxes. 

Mike: Yeah. The story that I make up as I hear you talk about that, is that you had a level of consensus around what you were looking for, which made it a lot easier to make a decision that you felt good about, that you felt like people could own. 

Dana: Right. Exactly. 

Mike: So, I think anyone listening to this podcast knows that schools and districts have limited resources. So, the thing that I'm wondering about is, what were some of the supports that you prioritized during the first year of your implementation of Bridges? 

Dana: So, I'm fortunate to work in a team of—there's three of us at the district level, to support all of our campuses. We have over, well, we have 28 elementaries, and we're about to open 29, and so over a thousand elementary teachers that we support. But we knew that the three of us could not do it alone. And so, we are also fortunate that we have an instructional coach at each campus. Now this instructional coach is not specific to math. They support all content areas, but we had to bring them along. We had to get them to own it, and we had to have them feeling comfortable. And then we also created a teacher-leader system where we had a lead teacher from each campus. And we really focused on the instructional coach and the lead teacher as our early adopters or our campus champions to really help us rally—rally everyone around, um, owning this vision for mathematics and also the implementation of a new resource. And what a great opportunity along with the implementation of our new standards. And so, we did pay our teacher leads a stipend for that year. And having the instructional coaches in place was critical because it's those two groups that we would be able to lead and then they would take back to their campuses. Another thing that was also critical in that first year was administrator support. And I know that we're going to talk a little bit more about that, but I just want to highlight the fact that our campus principals were really great about giving teachers time in that first year of implementation to work as a professional learning community together, to have half days to plan and support the new adoption that we had. 

Mike: There's a lot that you shared there… 

Dana: (chuckles) 

Mike: (chuckles) …that I'd love to dig into a little bit. I think what strikes me about what you said though, particularly at the last part first, is the way that you worked with and supported administrators in really designing a year one where teachers had space and time to actually really devote mental space to thinking about a new curriculum: how it's designed, giving space to plan. That feels like it was an intentional priority that you worked with your administrative team to create. 

Dana: Yes, that was very intentional. And it was evident when we began our first Getting Started trainings that summer. And we also trained our ICS (In-Class Support) and our lead teachers first, so that they could kind of get the buzz going for summer professional learning. And I thought it was also great that we were able to have the resources available. If you attended the training, you left with your resources. And teachers were so excited to get all of the great resources that are provided with Bridges. So, that was kind of a draw for them. But then once they had their resources and you start to dig through everything, there's another level of support that is needed. And so, we actually had what we called open houses prior to school starting so that teachers could go around to different teachers' classrooms in the district to see, “How did you set up your Number Corner? How did you provide space or how are you structuring space in your classroom for Work Places?” And so, we had a lot of teachers [who] would go around to other teachers' classrooms at other campuses and kind of explore to see and get ideas from each other, which was really powerful. And we created the space up front for that prior to the school year so that they would have that opportunity. And I also want to say at this time, seven years ago, we had a pretty good Twitter presence during this, so that we could also have people online. And I know Twitter's kind of blown up since then, but we were on Twitter a lot, and just being able to share that way, as well. 

Mike: So, I love this idea of giving teachers space and time to get their materials and get set up. And the open house idea feels really supportive. One of the things that I sometimes think about is an adoption and an implementation might be a pedagogical shift. There might be a different understanding of the mathematics. But the truth is for a lot of people, the very first thing is, “How am I going to find a home for all of these things? What will my classroom look like?” You're kind of attending to that really important need that people have to have met even before they're trying to grapple with the curriculum itself. 

Dana: Right. And so, to give that time for them up front to kind of get settled in—with what's this going to look like and how do I make it work—I think was key. And I talked a little bit earlier about the principals being able to provide some half-day plannings for teams throughout the year. But we also offered what we would term “power hours” after school. And we would host these in teachers’ classrooms. And so, this month we're going to talk about the Work Places because we thought it was so critical that the teachers played all the Work Places so that they would know. And that's how you kind of get their ownership of that, too, as well. And so, we would have these power hours after school, where they would come and play the Work Places, or maybe the next month we're going to do a Math Forum together. That's coming up. And then the next month we're going to go through all of the Number Corner. Now you guys have all these great videos, but this was before you had those for Number Corner. And so, we were just really trying to get teachers in each other's classrooms sharing and making it easier. And we would all make the charts together so that they would have them ready for the next month. And we would see a lot of people on Twitter posting: “Here I am at my son's baseball game with my binder, learning.” (laughs) But I mean, that's just part of the process, too, right? 

Mike: Well, you've really started to address the next thing that I wanted to bring up, which is, when I think about having been an elementary teacher for 17 years, what strikes me is that in education, we sometimes give ourselves really short windows of time to do a complete “implementation” quote unquote. I can't tell you how many times I've heard, “This year is literacy. Next year is math.” 

Dana: Right. 

Mike: I think what you're starting to address, but that I wanted to ask you directly is, as an instructional leader, how have you really tried to maintain the integrity of your implementation over time? Maybe just talk a little bit about how you've thought about that process of maintaining and sustaining. 

Dana: So again, we leaned heavily, and we still continue to lean heavily, on our instructional coaches at campuses. So, each nine weeks, especially in the first three years of implementation—but even now—we'll dive into what does that curriculum look like for the upcoming nine weeks? And we'll give them ideas and point out specific things that are coming up so that they know how to share or how to kind of pull these things out when they're planning with the different grade levels. And so, we would continue to meet with them, but we always start with that unit introduction. 

Mike: Hmm. 

Dana: And if teachers can just take the time to read this, and this was another big sell from our department for Bridges, was the built-in PD (professional development). If you read those introductions, just, like, how much learning that the teachers can have. So, those first years we really wrapped ourselves around those introductions and the learning together as teams. But we also took, at the time you guys had an Implementation Guide… 

Mike: We still do. 

Dana: Then I will plug the Implementation Guide. Now it's expanded a lot more. But we took that and we had teachers really pick what's a strength for you on here so that other teachers could come see that modeled for them. And then, what's your area of growth for this nine weeks or for this year? Are you going to focus just on Number Corner, but what parts of Number Corner? Or you want to work on the Work Places, but you're not really implementing the sentence frames correctly. So, whatever that goal is for you, and then the instructional coach and the campus administrator would know what that is, and they're able to support you or come give you feedback on that. And that has really helped us because that gave also administrators, kind of the look-fors that they should see when they walk into classrooms. And our department is fortunate to be able to walk with administrators and our instructional coaches so that we could all kind of participate in this coaching together around what we want it to look like, and then where it's going well. And we bring teachers across campuses and classrooms to see where it's going well, and really having them focus on some goals that they want to set to improve. 

Mike: So, I suspect unless Leander is a magical school district that's different from everywhere else, you don't have exactly the same staff that you did… 

Dana: (chuckles) 

Mike: …seven years ago when you started your process. So, you probably know where I'm going, which is… 

Dana: Yes. 

Mike: …how do you account for the fact that teachers, like everyone else, have lives? And sometimes they move on from the grade level that they're teaching or their families move somewhere else. You have new administrators and educators coming in. How do you account for, kind of, that turnover that's just natural in education? 

Dana: Right. So, we have the natural turnover. But also we are one of the fastest-growing school districts in Texas. And we continue to open about one school at least, sometimes two a year. So, we know that training and learning together is so important. And so, we have sent our curriculum specialists—have participated in many of the Bridges trainers of trainers, trainers of leaders, and for Getting Started. And so, we still offer a two-day for that every summer and also in the fall. And we offer that special session for our new administrators, and we even have turnover in our cabinet. So, we offer that training, and I sit down with superintendents and our area superintendents, because we all have to own, own this. And so that is just a yearly thing that we do. But then also continuing to use our campus champions. We have continued that teacher-leader program. They support our new-to-district teachers as well, and then our instructional coaches. So, it is an ongoing cycle. And I will tell you, at first we kind of say, like, “If you can get Number Corner, your Problems & Investigations, and your Work Places down,” then we kind of introduced then the assessment piece the next year and then the intervention piece. So, we have layered it in that way so that it's not so overwhelming for our teachers. And then it just becomes part of your practice. 

Mike: Thank you so much for that, Dana. The next piece that I wanted to go to, and you've alluded to it throughout this, is the role that instructional leaders—be they administrators or instructional coaches—play… I was reading a bit from The Wallace Foundation about how critically important principals are. Anthony Mohammad talks about how administrators are the ceiling on where a building can go. Can you talk in a little bit more detail about the kind of work that you did to bring your instructional leaders, particularly your principals, into the process of owning the adoption and the implementation? 

Dana: This is still a journey. And so, I want to make sure that I plug that, that even though we are seven years into this adoption, we're still on a journey. Everybody's on a journey. We're not at the end of the race when we think about best practices and instruction in mathematics. But to bring our administrators along, we are fortunate to have instructional leadership meetings every month. And so, we really focus on curriculum with them. We focus on best practices and really, we bring learning to them. And we use a lot of the resources that The Math Learning Center provides. We will learn through some of the blog posts together, reading those together. But really what we wanted up front before adoption and through the adoption process was for our principals to really own the fact that all students, each and every student, can learn math, and making that accessible to all of our learners. And so that is a mindset. We did a lot of work around the mindset work with Jo Boaler and Carol Dweck. And so, thinking about how then, we wanted—we're not a district that just throws out the direct instruction piece either. We still value that direct instruction. But we want to see that blended with investigating and exploration for our students. And then also having that small group time where they're able to reinforce through Work Places. And so, we really wanted our principals to be firm in the components so that they would know what to see in the classroom, but also firm in the fact that we want to see visual models. What do our standards say? What are the best practices for mathematics say? And the use of manipulatives. And that our Number Corner is meant to be a routine and why we value that for practice for pre-teaching and reinforcing. And what's the value of playing the games in Work Places? So that they would understand these components and really own that they want to see these in the classroom because that's what we know is best practices in mathematics. 

Mike: When you think about Bridges, in particular, as a curriculum that you've adopted, were there features of the way Bridges is structured or organized that you really felt like it was important to help people understand going into it? And what I mean by that is, in some ways, Bridges is a departure from a traditional curriculum. And I'm wondering what were the things that you identified that's like, gosh, I've just got to make sure people understand this about how it's designed to work? 

Dana: Again, it's kind of the three components that I already alluded to, but really that Number Corner piece. Really thinking about Number Corner as an opportunity for the whole class. And we even kind of connect it to a read-aloud. This is an opportunity for the whole class to come together and to, either it's going to pre-teach some things or it's going to reteach some things. And so how are you making sure that those routines are in place and making sure that we have secured small group time for the Work Places to happen? And that's what we call our small group time, is Work Place time. Because we're talking about how the teacher is floating about the Work Places and observing how they're communicating and playing the game and how they are talking about the math with each other. So, I would say, the Work Places and the Number Corner are really, kind of, the areas that were a little bit harder to bring people along. 

Mike: What strikes me about what you said is that you describe the function of those two pieces of the curriculum, Number Corner as a tool to have consistent, long-term opportunities to either reengage with big ideas or pre-engage with big ideas that are coming up. And then the idea that Work Places are an opportunity to practice. But they’re so much richer of an opportunity to practice than the worksheets that I remember as a kid, where there were 25 naked number problems and two story problems at the bottom (chuckles). They function in the same way in the sense that they're the opportunity for long-term practice. 

Dana: Right. 

Mike: And the added bonuses, as you said, when the teacher's moving about the classroom, they can formatively assess and listen to what kids are saying. But they can also jump in and do some mini conferring with children in the moment. 

Dana: Right. 

Mike: To help guide them or move them or advance their thinking. 

Dana: Exactly. And just thinking about that Work Place time and when teachers are thinking about, “Oh, I have to plan something different for this small group.” Well, bring that group together to engage in the Work Place with them so that you are right there observing and having, like you said, that conferring time or that mini-lesson over the Work Place. 

Mike: Well, before we close, one of the default questions that I ask anyone who's a guest is, if someone was listening to this podcast and they were charged with leading an adoption or an implementation of a curriculum, what are some of the resources you would recommend for someone who is looking for guidance on how to do this work? 

Dana: Well, now I would definitely use the blue (laughs) Principles to Actions NCTM book, because I think this sets the great stage for, what are those teaching practices that we want? But also it talks about the elements. One of the essential elements is specific to curriculum. I didn't mention this earlier, but we also had parents give us feedback along the way. And I think that that is also critical, as well as students. Let your students have some hands-on experiences with the resources so that they're able to even advocate and say, “This is how we want to learn math.” There's no denying when you see that students are feeling successful, but also when they are loving what they're doing in the math classroom. 

Mike: Well, I was just going to say, everything that you talked about today, I think that the word that comes to mind in addition to ownership is investment. As I've listened to you, I keep thinking, you invested time and energy to make the things that you were looking for come to fruition… 

Dana: Uh-hm.

Mike: …to continue the journey, as you said. And without investing in those really important things, the outcome might look really different at this point in time. 

Dana: Right. 

Mike: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Dana. I've learned a lot from the conversation. It's been a pleasure talking to you. 

Dana: Thanks, Mike. I appreciate it. Mike: This podcast is brought to you by The Math Learning Center and the Maier Math Foundation, dedicated to inspiring and enabling individuals to discover and develop their mathematical confidence and ability.