Collaboratively Articulating a Plan of Study for CLEF Schools

Aug 8th, 2019 | Category: Columns
By Timothy Bouman

For the past two years, Lutheran school teachers in Chicago have participated in an interesting and unique collaboration involving their individual schools, Concordia University Chicago’s Center for Literacy (Center) and the Chicagoland Lutheran Educational Foundation (CLEF). While their overall partnership and collaboration are detailed elsewhere in this journal, this article will focus on one project in particular: the Collaboratively Articulated Plan of Study (CAPS) Project.

This project capitalizes on the strengths of many individual teachers in Chicago’s Lutheran Schools (CLEF Schools) by gathering them to create instructional, curricular and assessment materials to be used by all of the CLEF Schools. It is a collaborative, teacher-driven endeavor that focuses on teachers’ assets, experience, and skills by creating and sharing common resources with all stakeholders. It has been an illuminating study of the impact and challenges of collaboration, as well as the negotiation of power and ownership in which individual schools and their teachers have agreed to implement a collaborative program. This article will explore the process, as well as the role that each stakeholder plays, and will then make some observations about the successes and remaining challenges with the project to date.

In terms of governance, Lutheran schools in Chicago have a high degree of autonomy. While they do receive some support and oversight from entities such as the Evangelical Lutheran Education Association (ELEA), the LCMS Northern Illinois District’s Education Office, and other accrediting agencies, each school is largely independent. Typically, each school is supported and governed by a church and its congregation, which considers the school a part of its ministry. As one might expect, there is a great diversity of practice in the administration of Lutheran schools in Chicago, with curriculum, instructional methodology, administrative structure, and school culture varying from school to school. While this freedom can be liberating and can lead to innovation as well as to the adoption of practices that best fit each individual school, it can also be isolating. While it may be desirable, on the one hand, not to have a central office dictating curriculum, it can also, at times, be challenging to keep up with current research, best practice, and new trends in our collective understanding of teaching and learning. Compounding this difficulty is the fact that many schools do not have full-time principals due to budget limitations, so it is often up to individual teachers to create or search out curricular maps, lesson plans and instructional activities.

Given that Chicago’s CLEF schools and the educators serving in them need to do so much on their own, as well as the fact that in all types of schools across the nation it is common for teachers to feel isolated in their own classrooms, the CAPS Project was conceived. With input from all stakeholders, a plan was formulated by Concordia’s Center for Literacy and CLEF to gather teachers from the cooperating schools and guide them through a process of collaboratively creating a teaching and learning plan that all teachers and schools could use. Much thought went into the name of this project in an effort to strike a balance of allowing schools to maintain their independence and unique characters while at the same time agreeing to adopt common curriculum and instructional elements. Were we to create a curriculum? This was rejected, as it connoted a rigid, top-down mandate: i.e., “you need to teach this.” Hence, “Collaboratively Articulated Plan of Study” was selected, the idea being that teachers would work together in order to outline a “plan” that could be incorporated by schools and integrated with their existing curricula. Yet, the goal was also to make it rich enough that it was more than something like a list of goals or suggestions; CAPS would ideally have enough substance to truly guide teachers and provide them valuable resources for the classroom.

Once this was established, stakeholders were again engaged to determine where to begin. It was decided that writing would be a first area of focus and the initial content for the CAPS project. Writing worked well as a starting point because many other areas of elementary education have a set curriculum and resources that schools have adopted (i.e. a math textbook series, a reading program, etc.). While all schools teach writing, few had a well-developed writing curriculum or program. Additionally, the principal investigators’ surveys and focus-group interviews revealed that there was a desire for more support of writing instruction. Therefore, it was established that the first year of the CAPS Program would focus on writing.

While the process was a teacher-driven, collaborative one, all projects need leadership and guidance. CAPS was no different. A lot of the logistical and all of the financial support came from CLEF. CLEF administrators emailed participants about upcoming meetings and schedule changes. CLEF also provided stipends for all participating teachers, as added incentive for engagement. Finally, CLEF had representatives at all CAPS work sessions who provided support and reported progress back to CLEF. CLEF also collaborated with the Center for Literacy in the ongoing planning of the program. The academic leadership for the project came primarily from the Center for Literacy at Concordia University Chicago. The principal investigators and leaders were CUC professors. They were also instructional coaches who worked alongside teachers in the schools as part of another CLEF/CUC partnership initiative. In addition, they also served as project administrators. This CAPS Administrative Team provided the structure and leadership that enabled the teachers to create CAPS Writing.

With the structure in place, principals each chose one teacher to represent their school and to spend a full year working on the project. Some of the larger schools sent two teachers. This was done in order to have broad representation from all schools in the network, as well as to increase buy-in and to speed implementation by having a “champion” at each school who had been part of the process that created the writing program. Care was also taken to ensure that the teachers chosen represented every grade level since the project encompassed every student at every school, from 3-year-old preschoolers to eighth graders.

The CAPS Writing team of teachers, CLEF representatives and Center faculty met for each session on Concordia’s campus, approximately once every three weeks for a full year. In all, they met twelve times during the 2017-2018 school year, for two hours or more, for a total of 32 hours. It was at these meetings that the collaborative plan of study was written. The CAPS Administrative team met before each meeting to prepare an agenda and establish specific goals for the session. They also debriefed after each meeting to ensure that the project stayed on track. The teachers brought ideas, energy, enthusiasm, and wisdom to the process, ensuring that the materials being created would be appropriate for use in actual Lutheran-school classrooms.

By the end of the 2017-2018 school year the project was mostly complete, with the remaining work, connected to the common assessments, completed during the 2018-2019 school year. The CAPS Writing product includes a mission statement for writing, five overarching goals, essential questions for each goal, articulations for each goal at each grade-level, a performance task for each goal at each grade level, instructional activities for each goal at each grade level, and assessments with rubrics for each grade level. Together, this represents a comprehensive writing program that each Lutheran school can use to plan and implement their writing curriculum. It is flexible enough to be adapted at each school to fit with existing and school-specific academic programs, yet detailed enough to provide a clear map at every grade level, with a suite of assessments to measure progress toward the goals (See Fig 1 for the CAPS Writing overview).

In addition to producing a roadmap for Lutheran schools to follow for writing instruction, the process itself was excellent professional development for all teachers involved. The twenty teachers who met every few weeks to work on the project continually reflected on their own practice. Teachers were taken out of their comfort zones. As the team worked to define goals or plan challenging yet grade-level-appropriate performance tasks, there was not always consensus. Difficult questions were raised. Are some schools more academically “advanced” than others? Can expectations be equal across a large and diverse network of schools, many of which are very different from one another in terms of size, student body, or teacher expertise? Real questions about teachers’ belief systems were tested. For example, is it a realistic goal for Kindergarten students to write a paragraph? Is a five-paragraph essay the best way to assess writing ability at the sixth-grade level? Should typing skills be taught? Should cursive writing be included? Strongly-held opinions clashed in this arena of ideas, but a common document did emerge through a careful process of conversation, collaboration and compromise.

The process the team followed in writing the CAPS Writing plan was based on the Understanding by Design (UbD) work of Wiggins and McTighe (2011). It began by looking at what teachers wanted their students to be able to do by the time they graduated from their schools in terms of writing skills, and worked backwards from there. After much discussion and countless revisions (which continued even after the team had moved on to other tasks), they established the CAPS Writing Mission: “Develop and empower a culture of confident, lifelong writers who use the tools of writing to articulate their thinking and experience.” From here, the group consulted existing state, national, and international  writing plans of study, the Common Core Standards and school-specific goals. They then moved on to the creation of CAPS-specific goals. The teachers chose five overarching ideas:

1.  Learning to Write

2.  Writing to Learn

3.  Critical Analysis

4.  Research and Digital Tools

5. Inspiration

The CAPS Writing team agreed that all the elements that they hoped their students would learn as writers could be found within these five goals.

As the work went on, the question arose of why we were establishing goals and carefully planning what each goal would look like at each grade level. This has been done before so why are we re-inventing the wheel? Could we not just adopt Common Core? These were valid questions. The consensus emerged that it was a much richer experience to have this group of talented, creative teachers take a fresh look at writing instruction, and form their own experiential points of view using the backwards-design framework. At the end of the process, the team compiled an alignment chart showing that CAPS Writing did, in fact, align with Common Core and it also went beyond in some ways that were very important. CAPS Writing wove Christian faith and values into the plan through tailored activities, assessments and inspiration. Research-based academic best practice was the foundation and there were spaces to highlight our Christian identity. For example, when middle schoolers worked on Critical Analysis writing skills, one instructional activity was finding Christian allegory in a text such as C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. In a writing common assessment students were prompted to write a narrative essay re-telling a favorite Bible story. While the skills look familiar to anyone with experience in writing instruction, the Lutheran identity is woven into the fabric of CAPS Writing.

Another way in which CAPS Writing breaks new ground is in the explicit inclusion of “Inspiration” as a goal. Teachers felt strongly that their students should be well-read and should leave school with the practice of taking inspiration from writers and texts of all types, and that the inspiring works of others should guide their students’ writing. Teachers told stories of their own inspiration drawn from other writers, and decided that they need to teach students to read and write for reasons that go beyond learning the format of a five-paragraph essay or the proper placement of a comma in a compound-complex sentence. The team wanted students to savor the beauty of language and to strive to produce writing that will, in turn, inspire others.

CAPS Writing produced a clear guide for schools to use as a roadmap for writing, including all elements of curriculum, instruction and assessment. The teachers who participated saw the benefits and began to use the materials in their own classrooms. However, the question now became how to be sure that the plan was implemented in all the schools. So many well-written resources and well-intentioned initiatives gather dust in bookrooms or on office shelves in schools everywhere. . The team knew that to keep this from happening to CAPS Writing, teachers would need support and guidance. Fortunately, there was a structure in place to provide not only an overview but ongoing professional development throughout the year. Another element of the CLEF/CUC partnership is the Innovative Teacher Institute (ITI), in which every teacher from every Chicagoland Lutheran school attends five two-hour professional development workshops each school year. These workshops, held on the CUC campus from 5-7 pm, were the venue for introducing CAPS Writing to all the teachers. For over a year, teachers had multiple sessions introducing them to the framework, training them how to implement it, giving them model lessons at their grade level, and allowing them to learn through hands-on exercises followed by guided group discussions. Rather than just being told about the initiative, teachers were being shown how to use it and own it. Finally, because it is a collaborative project, teachers’ feedback and comments at these sessions were used to update and further edit the CAPS Writing materials, giving every teacher ownership while simultaneously improving the product, based on the feedback of invested, working teachers.

During the 2017-2018 school year, CAPS Writing was created, and in January 2018, teachers were given professional development in using the work-in-progress at the ITI sessions. With their feedback, the plan was finalized in time for formal implementation in the 2018-2019 school year. Throughout this year, more workshops were conducted to make sure that every teacher felt comfortable implementing CAPS Writing. This support was further reinforced by the Instructional Coaches at each school providing in-classroom support and guidance. By winter, the CAPS Writing Common Assessments were ready, and all the network schools participated in the experience of administering them. Through this process—as well as through the ITI workshops where sample student papers were graded collaboratively and the rubrics were refined—teachers could really see the connection between the writing goals and activities and what the students were able to produce. Moving forward, all students will be assessed three times each year with the same Common Assessments being used across the CLEF network. The results will enable teachers to better inform instruction and to look more deeply into the resources. On a final and very exciting note, all CAPS materials were recently uploaded onto a platform called Chalk, which all schools can access. Plans are now in place for the grass-roots sharing of additional resources through Chalk to become a routine part of collaboration at CLEF schools.

While the production and implementation of CAPS Writing was a success in that many teachers improved their writing instruction and students, consequently, are still improving their writing, this is not the end of the CAPS story. Following a similar process in the summer and fall of 2018 a group of teachers gathered to prepare CAPS Reading, a process structured similarly to CAPS Writing. There is a danger in education of having too many new initiatives at once, so while the plan is ready to go, it will not be implemented until next year, when teachers are all comfortable with CAPS Writing and have the bandwidth to take on a new project. Fortunately, part of the CAPS Reading design was to integrate with CAPS Writing so that it could smoothly complement work already being done. Finally, there is a group that worked during the 2018-2019 school year to write a third CAPS Plan: CAPS Innovative Framework for Learning (IFfL), which builds on elements from Project-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Individualized Learning and 21st Century Skills Learning, and articulates a unique approach to learning in the CLEF network schools.

In summary, CAPS projects engaged teachers by putting them at the center of the creative process, using their expertise and their knowledge of their students and their schools to produce valuable instructional materials that will be relevant and applicable to their classrooms. It sets high expectations for student learning and further articulates the values and aspirations of CLEF schools. It is the hope that both the materials that were produced, as well as the process by which they were created could one day become resources that are shared widely beyond our CLEF schools. LEJ


Figure 1:


Collaboratively Articulated Plan of Study (CAPS Writing)

CAPS Writing Mission: Develop and empower a culture of confident, lifelong writers who use the tools of writing to articulate their thinking and experience.
Established Goal #1 Learning to Write: Understand and learn to use the writing process with the goal of publishing and/or presenting for a variety of purposes and audiences.
Essential Questions: • How do I define the writing process? • Why and when do I use the writing process? • How do I know my writing is ready for my audience? • Why am I writing? For whom?
Established Goal #2 Writing to Learn: Use writing to clarify thinking, present knowledge and demonstrate learning through varied time frames and across a range of tasks, purposes and audiences.
Essential Questions: • How does writing help me understand and reflect on the world around me? • How can writing help me learn academic content across the curriculum? • What does it mean to have stamina?
Established Goal #3 Critical Analysis: Develop an ability to respond, support, and critique across content areas and genres.
Essential Questions: • What is the difference between a thoughtful and thoughtless critique? • How do I know I have enough information to respond to a
   prompt thoroughly?
Established Goal #4 Research and Digital Tools: Incorporate digital tools to research, collaborate, produce and publish multiple forms of text.
Essential Questions: • How can digital tools support my writing? • How can digital tools support collaboration? • How can digital tools change how we think and write?
Established Goal #5 Inspiration: Incorporate inspiration and learn from peers’ work, available print, digital texts and cross-curricular reading opportunities to support writing efforts.
Essential Questions: • What do other writers do? • What does it mean to be inspired by others’ writing? • How can others’ writing make me a better writer?


Au, K. & Raphael, T. (2011). The staircase curriculum: Whole school collaboration to improve literacy    achievement. The New England Reading Association Journal. 46 (2), 1

Denny, G. (2012). What school and early childhood education models are working? Who’s sturggling? Who’s not? Goodyear, AZ: Goodyear Publishing

Wiggins, G. (2007). What is an essential question? Retrieved from

Wiggins, G., Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)

Wiggins G. & McTighe, J. (2004). Understanding by design: Professional development workbook. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Timothy Bouman is an Instructional Leadership Coach working in Chicago’s Lutheran Schools. He earned his B.A. in English and History from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in T.E.S.O.L. (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from Teachers College, Columbia University, and an MA in School Leadership from Concordia University Chicago. He has taught English and ESL in New York, Ukraine, Tanzania, and Chicago, where he also served as a high school principal. He enjoys discussing grammar and running marathons.