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Less is More: Mastering Curriculum Helps a Small Korean School Deliver a Big Education

By Wendy Won

As an educator in a small, independent international school in South Korea, I’ve experienced how our size and the lack of an outside authority or school board create curriculum continuity challenges. The transient nature of our faculty, a common challenge in international schools, adds to these difficulties. That said, a curriculum mapping tool that allows for the easy sharing of information helps teachers fill in the gaps between grade levels and enables us to do more with fewer teachers―something that can be equally powerful for different reasons in schools large or small.

Sometimes we feel like we’re on an island, but I think it stems from the fact that we’re standalone. Perhaps that’s what brings the teachers and the staff closer. We rely on each other and try to keep each other accountable, which is something I appreciate from our teachers.

The importance of curriculum mapping

Our curriculum mapping tool, Chalk, came about because we needed a uniform digital platform for curriculum and unit planning. We decided that we’re going to have an organization where teachers are actually planning units and sections. It has been very beneficial. According to our Head Teacher Henry Kim, “Organizationally, we can all see a common purpose and in which direction the whole school is going. Each department can see what everybody is trying to accomplish, what standards are being covered, and those not being covered on a day-to-day basis. As a department, I think it’s good because we can all sit down and talk with a concrete plan together.”

From an administrator’s perspective, I look at the curriculum mapping and look at the vertical alignment between the primary and upper elementary grades, using Chalk’s “compare map” function. In departmental meetings, we gather around and compare our maps and see which we were missing and which ones we can add. The trick comes when we’re looking at the jump from upper elementary to grade 5 or 6 to middle school, and then from middle school to high school. Successful grade-to-grade integration is essential.

Closing the gaps

A challenge of being an international school is our staff’s transient nature, so we are looking at gaps and looking at achievement, both short term and long term. For example, we have three new elementary teachers this year, and the teachers that preceded them left templates. They’re able to recognize, ‘okay, the teacher in the previous year covered this much,  I can do the same.’ They’re so thankful that there was something there; it keeps them from having to reinvent the wheel. They can focus more on honing the weekly and daily lesson plans. They have their overview of the whole year ready for them. With this information, they can improve the specific units, the assessment, and the day to day, focusing on what students need. 

I think the idea of having a digital centerpiece like Chalk helps our teachers reflect on their practices –  are they doing something that they could improve on, or should they continue because it is a successful lesson? What else do they need to change? I think the idea that something is there truly does help.

Standards are just the beginning

We cover the Next Generation Science Standards and the American Common Core State Standards, but still, we allow some room for teachers to be more creative in terms of their local surroundings and their native countries. For example, if they’re teaching history, they’ll always have at least one unit on Korean history, identifying the relevance and connecting that to the rest of the world.

Even though the main subject might be US history when you get to the 1950s, the teacher might slot in a unit on Korean history and how it is relevant to our students because the main population is Korean nationals or Korean heritage. They may have parents or grandparents who survived the Korean war, so they rely on feedback or do interviews with the grandparents. It’s woven into the unit’s creativity, and that’s something I give leeway for teachers to do. If they feel like they have to deviate a little bit from the standards, they can look at their unit plans and say, ‘Okay, I need to take a step away from US history but let’s also include what’s going on in the rest of the world.’ And then that gets entered into our curriculum tool. 

Continuity for the big picture

Our small size and the nature of our tight-knit group tends to make us self-reliant, and the fact that we’ve committed to maximizing Chalk to “power up” our curriculum mapping gives us the flexibility to allow for creativity on the part of our teachers. We can maintain a level of continuity despite our teachers often staying less than three years. Without it, we would be starting from scratch with every new teacher, and keeping up with curricular progress between grades would be extremely problematic. Even interruptions such as those caused by the pandemic are minimized. In sum, having a better grasp of our curriculum allows our small staff to focus on the big picture and provide the best possible education for our students.

The ease with our curriculum mapping software has truly been an immensely helpful tool for us in aligning not only what learning students need at every grade, but also what they need to prepare for the next grade. Chalk and their support team have enabled our school to meet the curricular needs, all with the flexibility and simplicity of use that is extremely teacher-friendly.

About the Author

Wendy Won is the Principal at an independent international school in South Korea

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