What's a Curricular Framework and How Is That Different from a Curriculum?

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How is Stepping Stones different from a curriculum? Stepping Stones is a revolutionary way to organize the World Language curriculum. It is a “curricular framework,” and not a fixed curriculum. That means that instead of providing both the content and the structure, it provides only the structure, into which you can insert an almost-unlimited variety of content. (But, if you want some ready-to-go content to use within the curricular framework, we got you there, too. And, good news -- it’s free! We have produced a “Free Year of Materials” in English, Spanish, French, and German (and part of the year in Italian and Latin) that you can use to implement Stepping Stones, if you just want to use that specific content while you get your bearings with the curricular framework. But the “Free Year of Materials” is only ONE possible way to implement the framework. Therein lies the power of a “curricular framework” and it’s what makes Stepping Stones unique among options for how to conceptualize the World Language program.)

Structure, not Specifics A “curricular framework” provides the structure, into which you can insert an almost-unlimited variety of content. A curriculum provides the structure and the content. We will explore why that - providing structure that is tied to specific content - leads to so many challenges for departments and districts later in this document. First, let’s look at some concrete examples of “curriculum,” which provides structure and content tied together. A quick search on Teachers Pay Teachers for “French unit” returned these results (click the image below to play video):


Here are some examples of curriculum materials that you can find on Teachers Pay Teachers.

👉🏽 La Nourriture Un Camion Restaurant French Food Unit 👉🏽 La famille - A French "family" unit with AVOIR 👉🏽 French Revolution Unit - PPTs, Worksheets, Plans, Test 👉🏽 Les Vêtements - French Clothing unit 👉🏽 Beginner French Animals Unit 👉🏽 Je me presente - French "All About Me" Unit

These units are examples of “curriculum.” This means that they provide both the content (Restaurants, Animals, Family) and the structure. For example, one of the above units gives you (among other things):

So, you have here the content (food vocabulary, adjectives to describe the food truck, readings on food trucks) as well as the process or strategies -- making a food truck and conducting a survey, etc. Note to the reader: I’m not trying to bash this unit. It’s actually really cute and fun and creative. And most curriculum is designed to provide structure and content. So, it’s just expected, and it’s how most of us conceptualize “what goes on in class.” And I


would never have known any different myself, if it weren’t for Lucy Calkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP). So I’m one to talk, right?

Any of these Resources Could Fit within Stepping Stones These curriculum units could all actually be used within the Stepping Stones curricular framework, because that’s what a curricular framework does: it provides the structure for organizing, sequencing, and implementing any content using almost any of the many instructional strategies that one can find for delivering communicative language instruction. Further, a curricular framework provides the tools and systems to assess and evaluate/monitor student progress across these units. So, not only am I not out to bash any of the curriculum materials, texts, resources, or strategies that other dedicated, hard-working educators are offering, I want to be clear that I am also not suggesting that Stepping Stones replace them. Because Stepping Stones is a curricular framework, not a curriculum, it can serve as a “container” or “bookshelf” to contain and organize any of the other resources out there. We have produced the “Free Year of Materials” as one example of content that you can use within this framework. Click the image below to read a graphic representation of what this looks like.

Once you understand the nuts and bolts of the Stepping Stones curricular framework, you can incorporate any content and/or strategies within this strong structure for instruction and assessment. The structure will guide your selection, sequencing, and implementation of any of the creative, engaging, and high-quality content that you might already be using, or that you might find or develop yourself.


You can incorporate any specific themes, topics, or language structures from your state, district, or building-level requirements, or AP/IB themes and topics, within this framework. It has been designed to be fully compatible with the national standards, most states’ standards, and the Common Core, while also being completely customizable for your own requirements or preferences. You will read more about this later in this document.

My Own Journey with Curricular Frameworks The Teachers College’s amazing trainings and materials taught me a curricular framework for teaching reading and writing in English Language Arts class, and this combination of structure plus freedom allowed me to grow exponentially as a teacher in my first three years of my career. I basically applied those same principles of instructional design to Stepping Stones. And, as far as I know, it’s the only curricular framework for World Language teaching out there. I’ve never seen anything like it for language teachers. That’s why I’m so incredibly passionate and committed to it. It’s also why it can solve so many problems that tend to plague World Language departments looking to adopt new materials or curriculum. Many of these problems require a solution that few teachers have had the opportunity to experience, and that’s why the problems seem so resistant to solving. It’s because so few teachers in general, and so very few language teachers, have had the opportunity to learn and use a curricular framework. So districts and departments use what most people are familiar with: curriculum. However, curriculum presents many limitations that lead to many of the common issues that we face when we are working to build an articulated, meaningful, well-sequenced program of study for our students. I want to do for you and your colleagues what Lucy and the TCRWP did for me and my Language Arts teaching team. The curricular framework I learned from Lucy took away ALL the overwhelming feeling of not really knowing where I was going or what I was doing or how it aligned to the rest of my students’ careers as learners. And, let me tell you. In my first year of teaching English Language Arts, I was SO very overwhelmed. My poor students didn’t know from day to day what the heck we were doing, because I, as their teacher, didn’t even know where we were actually going.


Then, I went to Lucy after that first wild year. Her approach took away literally ALL of the overwhelm, and they replaced it with structure and certainty and safety and calm. But, amazingly, my teaching didn’t feel “lockstep” or “rigid” or “mechanical.” The amazing thing was that all this structure still managed to leave me with plenty of freedom. But not too much freedom! (Because that would just lead right back to overwhelm, right?) It was this perfect balance of finding my own voice and uncovering my own stories, and safely following their structure and example lessons. In fact, in my first two years of using their frameworks, I basically taught right out of their books. Like literally word for word (even down to cribbing stories off of other teachers and telling them as if they had actually happened to me!) Yeah, the first year and a half, I just followed, because that was all I could handle. But those years taught me how to use the structure, and then I was able to start switching out content, and I became so confident, and so free and it felt so safe and yet fresh and new...well, that’s what I want for you.

How a Curricular Framework Can Help Your Department I planned Stepping Stones for you to have that same very structured and planned and supportive framework that leads you and your students through a meaningful trajectory over the course of the term, year, or series of courses in your language program. But, I also planned it so that it is, for all practical purposes, infinitely adaptable as well. That’s great news for teachers who share the program with other colleagues who might not want to teach the exact same content but still want to have a seamless, articulated program as students move from classroom to classroom year over year. (Spoiler alert: that’s every teacher. I am 99% confident that you don’t actually want to teach the exact same things as even your Teacher Bestie Across the Hall Who Attended the Same Grad Program You Did and Goes to Happy Hour with You Every Friday After School Since 2008.)


It’s good news for teachers who have multiple levels, too, since all their classes can “cover” the same instructional cycles and use very similar assessment materials and methods, but still explore different content, to keep each level fresh and interesting as students grow through the years. It’s good news for departments who want to develop common assessments, but do not want to micro-manage their teachers or encourage “teaching to the test.” Because the assessments in Stepping Stones are the same as the instructional framework – they provide strong, deep, standards-aligned structure, and not specific content to assess. It probably helps to have a concrete example of how this works. First you need to know that the organizing principle, the structure, that Stepping Stones provides is aligned with literacy and communication. This is entirely consistent with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages and Can-Do Statements. In fact, if one really sits down with a nice hot cup of something and the standards and Can-Dos, and approaches the reading of these guiding documents with a “beginner’s mind,” meaning that one sets aside all the things they “think they know” about “what language class is supposed to cover,” then something very interesting emerges. ACTFL (and, by extension, most of our states’ standards, which - in many states - are based wholly or in large part upon ACTFL) does not specify many curricular or learning goals besides literacy and communication! This realization, which hit me about eight years ago, can lead to a brand-new lens with which to evaluate all the World Language curricula and programs out there. One begins to see that they are full of all kinds of elements that are not present in the standards. Things like “clothing vocabulary” or “past tense verbs” or “holidays in Japan.” There’s nothing wrong with clothing, as a topic, of course. I mean, we are pretty much legally required to wear clothes. And I myself am an avowed clothing fanatic. But most of our standards don’t actually specify “clothing” (or sports, or chores, or weather, or family…or any of the other topics that form the organizational backbone of most curriculum). Some standards have “suggested topics,” but these are only suggestions for things to talk about and read about and listen to, while working on what is actually in the standards - communication and literacy.


And of course there is nothing wrong with past-tense verbs. In fact, according to the widely-accepted notion of “language universals,” “past-ness” is pretty much part of human language, for all the human languages we know of. So, past-tense verbs are important, and they will of course be used copiously in any language course. And, of course, ACTFL and our standards do expect that students will develop the ability to interpret and produce discourse in the past tense. It’s only natural, after all! However - and this is of the utmost importance if you are going to understand Stepping Stones and the concept of a “curricular framework” - ACTFL does not specify which verbs, and which aspects of the past tense, and when to use/teach/assess them. So, ACTFL specifies Stepping Stones is NOT aligned to other elements that are not Let’s take Cycle One, “Description”, Phase One, “Describing Settings” as an example. “Cycle One” is like the first “unit.” “Description” is the first cycle in Stepping Stones. The six cycles are each organized around a communicative goal, as follows: (1) Description (2) Narration (3) Going Deeper with Narration (4) Information (5) Opinion (6) Argument “Cycle One Phase One” is like the first “chapter” of the first “unit.” “Describing Settings” is the first phase in Stepping Stones. Each cycle contains four phases. The four phases in Cycle One (Description) are: (1) Describing Setting (2) Describing Preferences (3) Describing People Inside & Out (4) Describing in the Past & Present. Within the “Describing Setting” phase, there are many settings you could describe (as you saw in this PDF). And since even adult, professional writers could always get better at writing descriptions, there is plenty of room for students to grow over the course of their language career, as teachers return to “Describing Settings” at the beginning of each subsequent year, going deeper and reinforcing prior work with Description, and also building and expanding on students’ growing skill and language ability.


Let’s look at an example of how a multi-year sequence might go within this first phase. If you had three first-year French classes, two second-year French classes, and two third-year classes, you might do this: First year: Describing the weather using the calendar (that’s like the MOST BASIC setting description, but you got to start somewhere) Second year: Describing the weather using the calendar (reviewing is good, right?) and comparing/contrasting it to the weather in various parts of the world Third year: Describing the weather using the calendar (reviewing is good, even for those third-years) and comparing/contrasting it to the weather in various parts of the world, AND reading/discussing historical weather data and texts about climate, weather, the current climate crisis and its impact on communities of color throughout the world, and historical climate fluctuations. A curricular framework can be used to teach any content, so you could choose not to use weather and instead focus on school buildings and classrooms, as shown here. First year: Describing various pictures of classrooms around the school building and some pictures of classrooms around the world Second year: Describing various pictures of classrooms around the school building and some pictures and/or short video clips of classrooms around the world, and leading the class to make inferences about the cultural perspectives that might be derived from the products/practices depicted in the images/videos. Third year: Describing various pictures of classrooms around the school building and some pictures and/or short video clips of classrooms around the world, as well as images/videos of “separate but equal” classrooms under various systems of apartheid both in the US and abroad, and leading the class to make inferences about the cultural perspectives that might be derived from the products/practices depicted in the images/videos, and how the current situation compares to the historical situation(s) depicted. In these examples, all three years are working with the same content. That’ one way to differentiate and deepen this work year over year.


You might want or need to use totally different content each year (to prep for AP/IB or to cover specific topics or themes in the different years of the program, for example.) So, your “Cycle One Phase One, Describing Settings” could look like this, too:

First year: Describing various pictures of places around your town (e.g. train station, restaurant) and some pictures of the same kinds of locations around the world Second year: Describing various pictures of classrooms around the school building and some pictures and/or short video clips of classrooms around the world, and leading the class to make inferences about the cultural perspectives that might be derived from the products/practices depicted in the images/videos. Third year: Describing various pictures of endangered ecosystems near to the school and around the world and some pictures and/or short video clips of habitats/ecosystems, as well as images/videos in your language, and leading the class to make inferences about the cultural perspectives and cross-curricular connections that might be derived from the products/practices depicted in the images/videos, and how the local/community situation compares to the worldwide situation(s) depicted.

The Rest of the Document Is a Work in Progress I know this represents a big old mind shift. But it’s my sincere hope that these concrete examples help to get your mind a-shifting. And my very sincere hope is that you and your district or department will get aligned to Stepping Stones so that you can get your instruction and assessment under control, in a way that many of us cannot even begin to imagine is possible without actually experiencing the power of a curricular framework.


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