Getting All Kids Working With Grade Level Texts: Distance Learning Edition

In Baltimore City, all students work with rich, grade level texts in English Language Arts. Evidence shows that this approach fosters the most growth for learners, so we carefully selected a curriculum designed around grade level work for every student. 

The alternative – reading instruction that revolves around leveled reading groups, in which some students get s steady diet of low-level texts – is simply inequitable. Our CEO Sonja Santelises explains it beautifully:

“We know that schools are some of the most powerful places to address the unfinished work around racial justice that we are seeing. There is power in what is taught along with the how it is taught and the context in which it is taught. We’ve seen this with our own materials.  With the new curriculum it has become harder to water down content for certain groups. So the discussions shifted from ‘These kids aren’t ready for this level’ to ‘This is the content – how can we make it more accessible?’”

This approach is key to our equity mission, and our students have been thriving in classrooms where instruction revolves around common texts and tasks. You hear this from our teachers, and you can see it in our outcomes. In fact, we believe that getting all students working with grade level texts was a key reason we saw gains in all grades in Maryland assessments in our first year using our new ELA curriculum, Wit and Wisdom.

The answer to Dr. Santelises’s question, “How can we make it more accessible” for students that are below-benchmark, is scaffolding. Wit and Wisdom includes multiple components to support scaffolding: instructional routines and protocols, as well as practices like questioning, annotating, summarizing, and gathering evidence. Such tasks do double-duty, keeping students engaged with the texts while also integrating formative assessment into lessons, so that teachers can make the best decisions on how to support each student.

In the 2019-20 school year, scaffolding was an area of ongoing professional learning for our team: the area with the most room for additional innovation, teacher reflection, and study. We were asking ourselves questions like, “How do we offer scaffolds only-as-needed, so that we don’t water down instruction unnecessarily, since students often rise to challenges in ways that surprise us?” These conversations were happening before COVID came along.

Now, as we start a school year remotely, we talk constantly about how we keep work with excellent texts at the heart of instruction, even in a distance learning scenario. Which means we need to talk a lot about scaffolding, to prevent “Zooming in and zoning out” by students who’d be unable to access the texts without an assist.

Scaffolding in a Distance Learning Era

Our teachers are accustomed to scaffolding texts in-person. Many of the strategies involve kneeling next to a student’s desk! So, we need to be thoughtful about translating them to remote environments.

Here are the strategies that seem like they’ll work best in a remote scenario:

  • Having students collaborate as learning partners in breakout rooms, to process and plan before completing independent work. 
  • Using digital annotation tools in whiteboards to draw attention to language or text structure.
  • Screen sharing student work exemplars or other models.
  • Providing multiple access points to writing, such as graphic organizers, word banks, or glossaries. Or journaling so students can track thinking for reference or response.
  • To foster checks for understanding: In asynchronous lessons, providing students the option of pausing lesson videos at key points to take notes or jot down questions. Then, during live check-ins, review those notes and questions with students. When teaching live sessions, stopping at key points and allowing students to use the hand raise feature to ask questions. 
  • Model thinking by strategically pausing to share reflections with students, who can gauge their answer against the teacher’s and to add evidence-based thinking to their responses.

It can help to look at an exemplar; one of our strong teachers, Katie Scotti, created these scaffolding resources for a fourth grade writing task, then added reflections on how she will modify the approach in distance learning. They are used only as-needed; Katie looks for evidence that students need a scaffold before automatically providing one. We invite others to use Katie’s scaffolding resources, and/or to suggest refinements.

Leveraging the Collective Wisdom of This PLN

One of our favorite aspects of working with high-quality curriculum is the national community around this work. We have collaborated with districts across the country using our exact curricula, via Zoom meetups and school walkthroughs. Each year we add more educators to our network, which has become an invaluable source of professional learning.

It’s easiest to collaborate when using the same materials, but the high-quality curricula share common DNA, so we can collaborate across curricula on matters of practice, such as scaffolding.

To that end, we’d like to create a collective learning opportunity for this community. Please join Katie and me for a Zoom Chat on Scaffolding Strategies for Distance Learning on Wednesday, September 9th at 9pm. Katie and I will talk through our approaches – and we hope others will be willing to share their experiences and approaches! (You can indicate your interest in contributing via the Zoom registration.)

Teachers who’ve gone back already, what strategies are working? We want to learn from the leaders in our PLN. Surely Katie isn’t the only one developing resources and strategies that deserve sharing; let’s surface others!

Join us for a Zoom chat; We hope to see you and learn with you.

UPDATE: You can now watch a recording of Janise and Katie’s open conversation about this topic, recorded on 9/10:

Janise Lane is the Executive Director or Teaching and Learning at Baltimore City Schools in Maryland. You can read more about her work here.

Good Reading on Scaffolding Strategies

To support teachers with scaffolding practice, here are a few touchstone resources that do an excellent job of unpacking scaffolding:

Curriculum Notes

Janise would be glad to connect about these high-quality curricula which are used in Baltimore City Schools:

K–8 ELA:Wit & Wisdom (all-green on EdReportsin grades 3-8, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believesin grades K–8)

Math, Kindergarten through Pre-Calc:Eureka Math (all-green on EdReportsin grades K–5, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes)