This is the first blog in a new series in which we share the curriculum journey for each of our Squad Members.
Q: In your district, what problem or data prompted you to adopt a new literacy curriculum? How did you hope the curriculum you chose would help you address it?
Our state testing data showed that some kids were not performing well. When we went into classrooms, we saw that one class was doing one thing and the next class was doing something else and the next class something else again. We wanted to equalize what was going on in our schools and to support every teacher and every student to be successful by exposing kids to high quality texts and making sure that instruction was consistent across the board. We started with Ed Reports and only brought curricula to the table that showed all-green.
Then right from the beginning, we started using the Instruction Partners Curriculum Support Guide, which really helped us to have an intentional process for bringing everyone on board. We used their Instructional Practices Guide when their coaches did virtual walkthroughs. We dialogued a lot with them about what we saw and our administrator who led a particular PLC would follow up with a coaching conversation designed specifically for individual teachers. So we were all learning together and leaning on Instruction Partners to help us build capacity where we needed it and basically just to be our shoulder partner in the work.
Q: What shifts in mindset were necessary for a successful implementation?
Changing teachers’ mindset was tough! I really don’t like the words “this is what we’ve always done” because if you do what you’ve always done, you’re going to get what you’ve always gotten. Teachers and leaders needed to understand that we’re not just pulling something out of the air here. There’s a research base and there’s a process for bringing students up to the level of rigor in our curriculum. Teachers always want to do what’s best for kids, but they have to change their mindset to believe that what’s best for all kids is truly complex, grade-level texts and kids engaging in the hard work of responding to and discussing those texts, not having the answers spoon-fed to them.
Q: How is this curriculum work driving greater equity in your district?
We have inclusion teachers who work with students, and the EL curriculum has strategies for differentiation that we maximize. We’re not watering anything down for our special needs population. The beautiful thing about this work is you can walk into any classroom and most of the time you have no clue which students are receiving special services. Sometimes the kid raising his hand and asking more questions than anybody in the room has an IEP, but you can’t tell because they truly are fully included and empowered by this type of instruction.
What’s really driving equity is that this curriculum and instruction is rigorous for all students. My own son was in sixth grade when we started with the EL Education curriculum. I remember him coming home and saying, “Wow, this is tough. I don’t know if I can do this.” But the unit they were doing was about perseverance and people like Steve Jobs who have had to do really hard things, so he was able to tie it into what he was currently going through in his life. Now he’s getting ready to be a freshman in high school and he’s really ready for that level of reading. In fact, some of the things he’s doing now—writing and responding, having a dialogue with his peers—reminds me of what I was doing as an English major in college! He’s really prepared for that, and it’s because our school system made this shift.
What missteps did you make along the way that others can learn from? What would you do differently if you could do it over?
I think one of the hardest things is onboarding new teachers. One teacher might be on year three of the curriculum and really rocking and rolling, but then all of a sudden you have a teacher on that team who is in year one. We’ve learned to be much more intentional about how we bring those teachers up to speed without overwhelming them—and also not holding back the teachers who have already got it.
Now we differentiate our teacher groups and match them to different presenters and supports so that everyone gets what they need. We invite coaches from the curriculum providers and those from Instruction Partners to work more intensively with our new teachers, unpacking the lessons, and figuring out the instructional moves. It’s a little like studying the owner’s manual of a new car so you understand which buttons to push and where all the parts are. We don’t need to do that again with teachers who’ve been teaching the curriculum already, but it makes a world of difference for our new teachers.
Can you share one exemplary aspect of your implementation that might be a model for other districts to follow?
One of the things that’s been crucial to our success is that we make sure that everybody who has contact with the kids—teachers, teachers’ assistants, principals, inclusion teachers—they’re all at the table and everybody knows what their role is in the process. All of these people are involved in regular PLCs that meet every week, and on other days they’re still working together as a team to unpack lessons and look at their data and bring student work to the table. Some days we look forward to what we’re going to do and other days we look back at what we have done. That reflective planning has really strengthened our teachers’ ownership of the work and their overall confidence.
Before we had this curriculum it was almost like teachers were scared of each other. They didn’t want to talk about what they were doing, and they didn’t want others to know what they didn’t know. But we’ve witnessed a whole transformation of that culture to where teachers are getting better together and looking forward to walkthroughs and helping each other spot trends in their data. That collaboration and deliberate practice of the teacher moves that help all kids read well is a total game changer for our district.