Recenter Your Beliefs about Literacy: The Daviess County 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?

Jana Beth Francis: Even before implementing high-quality curricula, our district was in the top 25 districts in the state. So, our goal was to move the needle of proficiency up to even higher levels for all kids.  We realized this would be hard to see in quantitative data, at least at first. On a more qualitative side, what we wanted was to push children’s thinking and emphasize their independence and autonomy as learners. We wanted our kids to be engaged with truly complex text and learning how to learn more, not just reading what was already easy for them.

As a district, we set some priorities for our schools to choose instructional materials that were “all green” on EdReports, materials that would align standards and resources so that teachers would have the time to focus on the “how” of pedagogy without worrying about the everyday “what.” Of twelve elementary schools in the district, six chose Wit & Wisdom and six chose EL Education. While the two curricula are different, both of them support the instructional shifts of science-based reading, and both promote high-quality student work.

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

Jana Beth Francis: Leaders’ mindsets are especially important.  The challenge of running a school during a pandemic has pushed all our leaders back into a manager role. Our job has been to keep reminding principals how they impact students as instructional leaders. I analogize it to using Google Maps. In the beginning of our implementation, we all knew where we were going and we had a pretty good plan for getting there. But along the way, these past two years, circumstances have presented obstacles, and we need to recenter. Doing so will require all of us to refocus on our core principles about how students learn to read and what defines quality literacy instruction. 

Shiryl McAdams: To hold that center, some schools in the district unpacked the framework of literacy instruction as the core of their beliefs. Kids have to have complex texts. They have to have quality vocabulary and explicit foundational reading instruction. Every time they implemented something new, they went back to that framework and their beliefs about good reading instruction. It’s a red thread you can follow to get where you want to go: a place where all students are growing into thinkers and problem solvers, not just automatons who can find the main idea.

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

Shiryl McAdams: Our schools have used a hodgepodge of assessments in the past—MAPS, Fountas and Pinnell, Brigance—and state data collected during the pandemic isn’t yet conclusive. But what we’ve noticed is an uptick in the quality of student work. We analyze it as a team and we look for discrepancies in how the work is scaffolded or guided by the teacher and what kind of instruction supports students really doing their best work with deep understanding. 

What it comes down to is knowledge building.  Students have to think in complex and deep ways in order to have something to write about or present in their work. For some of our students that means specialists are also pushing in and using Geodes (decodable texts that align with the Wit & Wisdom curriculum) that make the text more accessible, but never takes them completely out of the content that the core/anchor text is building. This means students who are still building their foundational skills can stay at grade level and produce good work just like their peers.

Many of our schools have increased time for SPED teachers to plan collaboratively with general education teachers so that they can review assessments together and identify specific needs they can address through modifications. We look at the student work together and then unpack the next module or arc of lessons before we teach them. The result is that we see students communicating with confidence about their ideas, listening to others and building on other’s ideas. It’s really discourse at it’s finest, all the way through middle school. Students are able to write with evidence, are excited about compelling topics, really wanting to dive in, seeking additional texts on the topic or conducting independent research at the library. These are the outcomes we want for all of our students!

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

Jana Beth Francis: Our missteps had mostly to do with the unevenness of implementation in different schools. In the schools that had the strongest success, the faculty spent more than a year building a coherent set of beliefs about what good reading instruction looks like. Then they looked for a curriculum to match those beliefs. In contrast, when a principal just said, “Here’s what we’re going to do,” without building those beliefs first, the journey was not as smooth and teachers were inclined to grossly modify the curriculum in ways that changed the intent of the learning.

Can you share one exemplary aspect of your implementation that might be a model for other districts to follow?
Jana Beth Francis: Universal curriculum is all about providing a baseline of equity, so that a student’s success or failure is not dependent on an individual teacher. Every student deserves to be exposed to high-quality instructional materials taught with integrity. Because our leaders made sure that every teacher knew the pedagogical shifts they expected to see in the classroom and the kinds of texts students needed to be reading, we all agreed on the look fors. Keep your beliefs about good reading instruction at the center. Keep asking, “Is the text worthy of reading and complex? Is the vocabulary rich? Is needed time spent on foundations? Can you see these skills evident in student work?” If that’s the heart of every conversation with elementary principals and teachers, you’ll keep your forward momentum.