Sparking a Love for Reading: The Cape Henlopen Curriculum Journey

This blog series shares the curriculum implementation journeys of districts across the country, through interviews with each of our squad members.

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?

First we knew it was time. We had been with our then existing  reading program, throughout its many iterations, for over 20 years. Bute looked at the data and saw that, while overall our kids had done really well, our subpopulations—our special education and our African-American populations—weren’t faring as well. 

I was an elementary school principal and before that I had been a reading specialist and a second and third grade teacher. I knew the research, which shows that kids who can read on grade level by third grade will likely be successful and that those who don’t will struggle throughout their school career. We also wanted our kids to read books by authors that represent them, Black and brown authors of books where the main characters looked like our students. I knew this would be an important part of changing the culture of reading in our schools. ARC Core has a strong focus on that culture, and I knew that if our teachers had the best tools in their hands they could teach all kids to love reading. 

What shifts in mindset were necessary for a successful implementation? How did teachers’ mindset change? How did leaders’ mindset change? 

ARC Core is more of a framework than a script. It affords teachers some creativity to make choices about texts and lessons. For example, in third grade we use the weather research lab during our ELA block. To engage the students, teachers on the team dressed in weather themed outfits accessorized with rain boots and other gear. They invited local “weather” celebrities into their classrooms to help with the research and even zoomed in with a parent who was stationed in Antarctica. Their creativity inspired students to take on the role of scientists and investigate the evidence about weather.

The big shift for teachers is instruction. Teachers had to give up some authority and put it back on kids to do the thinking work. They had to invest time in teaching students how to learn and talk about their learning. Also, at the same time as we implemented ARC Core, we also implemented standards-based grading pre-K-5, which is a much better fit for the curriculum than the way we were doing things. It was a lot of change, but it meant that teachers could really see the growth from this new way of teaching. Both changes—teaching the curriculum and standards-based grading—were supported by ongoing and job-embedded professional development from American Reading Company. They were real partners in our learning, providing individualized and differentiated support. Last year one of the vice presidents of ARC zoomed into a fifth-grade classroom once a week and gave feedback to the teacher so that she could be sure the curriculum was really serving her students in the best way possible.

How is this curriculum work driving greater equity in your district? What are teachers, leaders, and students doing differently to achieve a better outcome?

It’s hard to measure results quantitatively because we didn’t get standardized test data from 2020. I was actually looking forward to those results because I know that we’ve done a lot of work and I think the data would show that we’ve begun to close the gaps! Formatively and anecdotally, we see that kids made at least a year’s growth in reading, even in our sub populations. If I had to attribute that to what teachers are doing differently, I would say it’s because they have really created a strong culture of reading in their classrooms, a place where students love to read and to learn. I witnessed a kindergarten class that was having a full-blown debate on whether a slug is an amphibian or not, a truly evidence-based conversation based on their reading. When students take ownership of their learning like that, they are engaged and they want to succeed.

What missteps did you make along the way that others can learn from? What would you do differently if you could do it over? 

After a successful implementation at the elementary level, we expanded our implementation into middle school. Unfortunately we did that during the pandemic year, in 2020-21, when our middle schools were using a hybrid model—two days in-person, three days virtual. On top of that, we don’t use standards-based grading in the middle school, so there’s a disconnect between the way the assessments work in the curriculum and what teachers have to do to report a grade. In hindsight, I would have waited a year until kids were in person/in classrooms every day. That would at least have taken away one big learning piece for teachers so that they could just focus on new instructional routines and content. 

Can you share one exemplary aspect of your implementation that might be a model for other districts to follow?

One thing we’ve done is get the building administrators involved directly with the students, taking on the role of teacher themselves so that principals know who their kids are and who’s struggling. 

When we look at reader engagement, we’re asking three questions: 1) How well is this student reading (which you see through conferencing)? 2) How much is this student reading? And 3) Is this student growing? If a student isn’t reading enough to make growth, a principal or vice principal can pull them for 15 minutes to get in those extra minutes of practice. Those few minutes of conversation about books can turn the corner for a resistant reader and really get them excited about reading. 

We also make sure that the reading specialist is working with that child, so we can triangulate between principal, specialist, and teacher, each taking a part and supporting the other. Our students can’t miss the commitment adults in their school have to their reading success and it has made a world of difference in the love they have found for reading.