Curriculum Matters Even More in a Crisis

I never thought I’d be explaining how curriculum helped me to navigate a global pandemic – but here we are. 

It’s a story that deserves to be told. In social media, I see many teachers struggling with the challenging transition to distance learning; often, it causes me to reflect on how much harder this transition would have been for me just two years ago.

In Baltimore City Schools, we’re in our second year with a new ELA curriculum, Wit & Wisdom. I was initially hesitant about new curriculum, but it won me over for its excellent texts and intellectually stimulating content. The depth of knowledge that students build is incredible, and lesson planning is enjoyable again because it’s about helping kids to internalize content. Also, representation matters, and I saw myself, my kids, and our community represented in various stories and themes. 

Finally, this curriculum has been a springboard for equity: I can finally see all of my students – lowest and most adept, most shy to most outgoing – participating in a single lesson because the class builds essential knowledge together, giving all students equal footing in class discussions. 

This school year felt full of promise. I knew the ropes of the curriculum. My confidence had surged thanks to professional development and learning communities. Powerful gains in our district scores (in every grade!) inspired our team and our community. Every sign told me that we were doing the right work: students felt they were better readers, the quality of student work kept improving, and families took notice. 

And then the coronavirus news hit.

As we began transitioning to distance learning, I realized early on that having a knowledge-building curriculum was the truest of blessings. 

What does that mean, a knowledge-building curriculum? It’s a curriculum designed to help kids build knowledge about science, history, and the arts during the course of their ELA instruction. Why? Because research shows that background knowledge is critical to reading comprehension. I don’t want to teachersplain anyone, but the ‘Baseball Study’ is worth reviewing to learn this research. It dispelled misconceptions that I had about strong teaching practice. (Here’s a quick listen on the study.)

Understanding this research helped me focus on the most important objectives during my distance learning shift. Pedagogically, I know the curriculum goals: to help students build knowledge and vocabulary and to engage deeply with texts, through writing and expressing themselves in class discussions. This empowered me to make smart substitutions when I couldn’t give kids the texts for the curriculum: I found excerpts of the text, videos, or other online resources to support learning on the topic of study.

For example: my students were in Module 3 studying forensic anthropology, so to remain immersed in that topic, we watched videos featuring excavation experts and  took a virtual tour of Jamestown presented by an excavation team. We took the same approaches with the virtual tour that we took about texts: talk, write, debate, and sketch about it. 

It was magical, as if the toy store of resources was open and I was Kevin McCallister alone in the store all night, exploring new ways to make learning come alive online! But I know I’m still honoring the goals of excellent ELA instruction. This empowered flexibility is freeing. Some refer to curriculum as a ‘script;’ I think a roadmap is a more apt description, and our roadmap has felt like a support, not a constraint. 

I credit the quality of my teaching right now to a focus on knowledge building, because it’s simply easier to deliver lessons that promote history, science, and art study than it is to try to “teach skills” remotely. “Reading skills” teaching lacks flair and flavor. It also has diminishing returns on instructional time! Skill-based teaching feels like the mile wide, inch deep approach that doesn’t serve our kids in classrooms. I can only imagine how flat it falls in distance learning.

At a practical level, Wit and Wisdom made our pivot easier because the authors produced “Knowledge on the Go” videos: actual lesson videos delivered by teachers which I could incorporate as the asynchronous component. This was a godsend for the students who weren’t attending classes. Yet I’m using these Knowledge on the Go videos with all students, to great effect, and I see teachers across the country doing the same.

Honestly, if I was comparing in-class work to on-line work and we did a blindfold-Coke-or-Pepsi type test of student work, I honestly don’t think you could tell the difference. And that’s a curriculum story. 

If this distance learning shift occurred before our curriculum upgrade, I would be fretting about building out lessons. Probably whipping up packets. (Really, it’s such a relief that I wasn’t scrambling to assemble skill packets that “drill and kill the skill.”) 

Instead, I’ve been finding tactics to translate rich instruction. I focused where the curriculum focused – knowledge building – because I’ve learned that if you get that right, other skills present themselves more naturally, from comprehension to writing. 

With a relatively low burden of lesson creation, I focused on helping parents with resources. If kids could join me for lessons, great! When parents informed me that tech might be an issue, I coached parents to make a list of interesting topics, and to research, talk, read, write, argue on that topic. All of a sudden, distance learning didn’t seem so daunting. 

Wit and Wisdom has basic structures that anyone can do at home. Routines like Notice/Wonder, Organize Information, and Closely Analyze transfer to a home easily. It’s low-burden for families to ask basic questions about a topic, such as: what did you wonder about X? What is happening? If we look at this deeper, what do we learn? How did this build your knowledge? Parents can push students toward greater rigor and depth of knowledge without being experts themselves.

One last detail that I appreciate about Wit and Wisdom: its themes are easily relatable for students. Our third Module was ‘Narrating the Unknown’. Our fourth Module explores the theme of courage under fire; reading and talking about how heroes respond to harsh circumstances feels very ‘of the moment’. Students always found these themes engaging, but boy do these substantive topics relate to our world currently. 

Such themes are also natural springboards for Social-Emotional Learning. The texts and topics promote conversations about character wholeness; I go deep with students on social emotional wellness… not as some skill to be mastered or passed but rather a continuing life skill that we cultivate through openness, practice, and feedback. 

Our district CEO Sonja Santelises has been steadfast in her commitment to curriculum that is evidence-based and designed for an inclusive ride. Designed to promote comprehension and participation by all students, which we unlock when we give them equal access to knowledge about a topic. Designed to allow all kids to work with excellent, grade-level texts. I’m deeply grateful for her leadership.

Beyond my good fortune to have a great curriculum, I feel grateful that kids are pretty adaptable. They want to learn, and enjoy delving deeper into compelling topics. 

I want to be back in my classroom for sure, but I’m reveling in this opportunity to challenge myself and my kids. They’re responding with extraordinary results! From the early weeks of distance learning, my kids have produced three-paragraph essays complete with text evidence and proper structure. Given the compromised state of learning right now, their work is downright humbling, and certainly something to celebrate.

To Learn More About My Distance Learning Approach:

You can explore the Wit & Wisdom Knowledge on the Go lessons here.

As far as my own personal distance learning adaptations: recently, I hosted an #ELAchat on my approach to distance learning. (You can get a glimpse of my virtual classroom leading up to that chat here.) We actually modeled breakout rooms for users.

You can watch a recording here.

Kyair Butts was the 2019 Teacher of the Year in Baltimore City Public Schools. You can connect with Kyair on Twitter or Instagram.