We have never needed our friends more than in 2020!
Our ‘squad’ has been convening for check-ins, which have been a mix of social and professional. It always starts social, but as we get into sharing, we find ourselves swapping resources and advice which are beneficial in our work.
As the community around high-quality curriculum grows, we’d like the opportunity to connect with additional educators, to build our professional learning networks. So…
Please join us for a Social Hour on October 6th at 8pm ET!
Our Squad will share a bit about the work in their districts, and we’ll have an opportunity to swap excellent resources and discuss potential areas for cross-district collaboration.
When we created modEL Detroit – a set of lesson resources designed to ease year one implementation of our ELA curriculum – we were trying to support our teachers. Little did we know that we were helping to prepare ourselves for a global pandemic, and also building a bridge to some of the top districts in the country.
Our story started with an equity mission in Detroit Public Schools Community District. Notoriously, the district had the lowest literacy rate of any urban district, after years of chronic underinvestment and a period of emergency management. New superintendent Nikolai Vitti was intent on raising outcomes for students, and we were excited to take on the challenge with him, after working together with Dr. Vitti to raise outcomes in Duval County.
One of our first steps was to facilitate an audit of Detroit’s instructional materials. In ELA, the district was using Imagine It, a curriculum purchased in 2008. It predated our new state standards, so unsurprisingly, the audit revealed that the curriculum was poorly aligned with the standards. In addition to a curriculum upgrade, we needed to invest in teacher leaders in our district, and we knew that a teacher-led selection would yield the best outcomes. Our teachers selected EL Education for its rich texts, social justice themes, and its integrated social-emotional learning.
The curriculum has many fans, in part because it incorporates tremendous amounts of professional learning content into the materials. (All of the “high-quality” ELA curricula are described as ‘educative,’ because they proactively support PD about math or ELA; we find EL Education to do an exemplary job.) It’s wonderful that lesson materials actually deliver PD – but the expansive lesson prep materials pose a challenge in year one of implementation: while teachers are learning new materials, they don’t always have time to read all of the content in the teacher guides, particularly in day to day prep.
Our answer was modEL Detroit. With generous support from the Skillman Foundation and assistance from StandardsWork, we worked with Meredith Liben to create PowerPoint slides for each lesson, which dramatically cut down on lesson prep time. (Recent teacher chatter in social media offers a good reminder that slide prep time can be a massive time sink for teachers!) We wrote notes into each slide to lift out the big rocks, then our PLCs could focus on how to scaffold those big rocks in lesson delivery. Our teachers were able to plan more thoughtfully and strategically, with a focus on pedagogy.
Of course, we also invested in multiyear professional learning for our teachers: a 5-day launch institute, as well as monthly professional learning for master teachers. We use the embedded professional learning in the EL Education teacher materials with our coaches and also in our own PD sessions. Our overall investment paid off, as we saw ELA (and math!) gains in every grade and outpaced our state’s average growth.
We published modEL Detroit as an open educational resource (OER), to benefit the community of districts using the materials. Its website has been viewed 62,384 times, so we know these materials have been useful!
‘Paying it forward’ paid off, as we deepened relationships with other districts using EL Education. People may not realize how many districts using a common curricula have begun collaborating across districts. We talk about how curriculum brings school teams together by creating a common language; the national community gains a shared language, as well. Whenever we see our teachers swapping advice with educators across the country in social media, our hearts swell.
Peak heart-swell came last summer, when our teachers were invited to provide Professional Development for the teachers of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a North Carolina district beginning its implementation of EL Education! Our teachers felt immense pride at this honor and accomplishment, and it deepened their commitment to our work. It was also a wonderful professional growth opportunity for our teachers: the best way to cement one’s own learning is to teach it. The cross-district bond with Brian Kingsley and his team means the world.
The Remote Learning Chapter
In 2019-20, we were on track for continued gains. In fact, grades 4 through 8 were on track to have double the growth of the previous year! We were over the moon when Dr. Vitti shared the indicators with our community!
But… you know what hit in March, 2020. Curriculum made moving into distance learning 10 times easier. It enabled our support of teachers, as our master teachers recorded videos in April for use in distance learning. These, too, were initially published openly; now we use them for PD.
Our modEL Detroit investment continues to pay back this year as we optimize our implementation. Based on our K–3 data, we saw a need to increase the amount practice with phonics skills that had been introduced, and to increase student time with decodable readers. To roll this out, we enhanced our modEL Detroit K–2 PowerPoints with daily routines, which made this far easier to roll out. We also added interactive workbook pages in K–2, which has helped to eliminate the need for shared resources between students..
As we have opened the school year, we are thankful to have a high-quality, coherent curriculum to draw on. It has provided a familiar foundation and comfortable routines at a time when teachers and students have had to acclimate to new online platforms. Our teachers have had time to focus on the digital transitions and to expand on the social emotional learning already present in our EL Education curriculum. We have seen teachers eager to get students into their first novels of the year – a refreshing bit of normalcy in a most abnormal season.
A Remarkable Two Year Journey
If you walked our district three years ago versus today, you too would feel moved by what you saw. Detroit’s performance data tells a tiny fraction of our story of improved instruction.
Our teachers have learned to give academic ownership over to students; kids do more of the lift because teachers have learned how and when to facilitate. In every classroom, the text is out and the kids are engaged – and all kids are working with grade level texts! Our teachers have learned how to bring this goal into practice, and whereas we initially had some teachers push for leveled libraries, that debate has stopped, because our kids showed they were all up to the task of grade level work..
Seeing our most fragile students discussing great texts with our most advanced students – it’s art in action.
As our story spread, we saw people who once looked down on our district using our modEL Detroit tools! We put ‘Detroit’ in the name intentionally, because we wanted to change the narrative of how people talked about literacy in our city. Our students’ and families’ pride in our growth is palpable, and we are so delighted to share in this work.
Beth Gonzalez is the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction and April Imperio is the Executive Director of K–12 Literacy and Early Learning for Detroit Community Public School District. We welcome inquiries about our work, and we warmly invite you to use and share the modEL Detroit resources linked from this article.
The following high-quality curricula are used in Detroit Public Schools Community District:
When we met this summer to collaborate and swap ideas, we kept returning to the same topic: synchronous versus asynchronous.
How would we optimize instruction across these two modalities, given our different (and evolving) school reopening plans? Which forms of teaching and learning were friendliest to each approach? These are essential questions as we shift our ELA and math work to remote and hybrid contexts.
In this webinar, we’ll discuss our early learnings and reflections, with plenty of time for Q&A.
This webinar was held on September 17th at 8pm EST.
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.
Professional Development is my thing. Arguably nothing is more important than investing in our teachers… and yet it’s an area that all too often falls short. I’m passionate about solving that problem.
It’s an urgent problem. In recent years, we’ve had a national reckoning about the critical need for professional development in reading instruction, as teachers shared frustration about their preparation. Sadly, many teacher prep programs don’t teach teachers how kids learn to read. (I’m shaking my head as I write that sentence.) This issue compels our attention: districts need to understand and address the unfinished learning of their teachers, which aren’t limited to literacy.
Mind you, this isn’t easy. We do our best work when we have truly great PD partners, yet those have been exceptionally hard to find.
Challenges abound, and it helps to name them:
The best professional development is tailored to the needs of the team – which vary!
Different roles have different arcs of learning: teachers, principals, and central office staff typically have specialized needs.
The first year of a district initiative comes with very different needs than year three. I can still remember the first year of our literacy work in Baltimore, when the learning revolved around literacy fundamentals, such as the importance of foundational skills as well as getting all kids working with grade level texts. Now we are in year three, and we’re working on refining our approach. Today’s questions look more like: How do you make lesson study relevant to teachers?
Also, as a believer in curriculum-aligned and job-embedded PD, I know that professional development providers need expertise in any materials that are in use, where districts have adopted high-quality curricula.
Professional Development should come from specialists with expertise that corresponds to these types of contexts, which will be unique to each district.
The challenge of needs assessment
Sometimes districts want help with the first step: understanding their needs and opportunities for improvement. Often this is especially valuable for districts beginning the curriculum selection journey.
Did you know that there are organizations that specialize in auditing the instruction across a district and recommending improvement opportunities – from PD to pedagogy to curriculum? This support is invaluable! Jared Myracle describes how a similar audit illuminated issues in his district, then aligned his team around an improvement plan.
Yet virtually no one knows that this service exists! We need to raise awareness of such options.
“Spray & Pray” PD from many traditional curriculum providers:
This issue looms large in our space. The big curriculum providers historically offered Professional Development “free with purchase” of a new program, and it was worth what districts paid for it, barely going beyond the anatomy of the materials. This legacy of weak PD from curriculum providers tarnished the impression of “curriculum PD” for many educators.
Fortunately, many of the newer providers offer vastly better professional learning experiences… particularly for curriculum-aligned PD. Yet this development, too, is largely unknown. Just as we talk of a curriculum renaissance, there has been a PD partner renaissance which deserves a conversation.
An opaque landscape:
You’ve probably noticed a theme emerging: the challenge of knowing the new and high-quality vendors and service options. Districts that came early to high-quality curricula have been getting to know the new generation of providers, as Brian Kingsley has noted. Yet this has essentially been insider information, known to a small community of early adopters. K–12 education has lacked a directory, as well as a source of ratings, for these PD providers.
Fortunately, this is changing, too! Rivet Education has just debuted a Professional Learning Partner Guide that is intended to help districts find their ideal partner across all of the criteria above. Trained educators have evaluated the Professional Learning providers, which is invaluable by itself.
For those who know EdReports, the curriculum review site, this new Guide can be thought of as a natural partner to EdReports, but for PD. It helps districts ensure results from curriculum adoption, by finding the right partners for each part of the journey – from needs assessment to the optimization of a mature literacy program. Simply seeing all of the options more clearly can help districts to craft a comprehensive, multi-year roadmap for professional learning.
I believe that this is a revolutionary and essential service to the field, and I have been proud to work with Rivet Education as they brought this work to fruition. Professional Development is a major investment for districts – in time, in dollars, in potential for impact. District leaders will benefit greatly from this insight into the previously-murky PD landscape, through transparency, reviews, and guidance in finding just-right options. Ultimately, our teachers and students win when PD yields true professional learning. Just as EdReports brought new visibility and discourse into the curriculum space, I hope to see a similar flourishing around professional learning in the years to come.
Janise Lane is the Executive Director or Teaching and Learning at Baltimore City Schools in Maryland. You can read more about her work here.
Janise would be glad to connect about these high-quality curricula which are used in Baltimore City Schools:
We’ve never experienced a school reopening like this one. (Understatements.)
When our ‘squad’ connected this season, the refrain was the same: “We would be LOST if we did not have high-quality curriculum in place in our districts.”
We’ve been hearing this message a lot. This Spring, teacher Kyair Butts explained why Curriculum Matters More in a Crisis. Given the importance of cross-district collaboration in these unprecedented times, we thought it would help to share our experience across districts. Some districts are considering ‘emergency adoptions’ due to the pandemic; perhaps our ‘Why’ will be helpful for the field.
Here’s why curriculum mattered during our ’20-21 Back to School experience.
High-quality curriculum eased our pivot to remote or blended learning:
Beth Gonzalez, Detroit, MI
Because we had high-quality curriculum in place, we have, at a systems level, been able to deliver the supports teachers needed to pivot to a digital environment. I think this is a lesson for the field. Because we had a curriculum, individual teachers weren’t running around trying to curate online materials; they had a solid foundation upon which to build. That foundation provided them the space they needed to learn the new things the pandemic called for – things like how to use online platforms and digital engagement strategies. So, we’ve been able to build on our existing curriculum with curated resources that have enabled us to adapt to the new environment in ways that are both supportive of teachers and aligned to the professional learning we’ve been pursuing for the past three years.
Robin McClellan, Sullivan County, TN
High-quality instructional materials have helped us lay the track for professional collaboration around instruction. If we had not begun that work already, I’m not sure we could have done it. But because we had common goals and expectations, we can focus on some of the more critical pedagogical moves – like how teachers can best engage with students. Our biggest challenge right now is in determining what parts of the lesson can be done asynchronously and what has to happen synchronously; what requires explicit teaching, what needs modeling, how we provide opportunities for conversation, etc. Such decisions are vital to how the lesson unfolds and we are also keenly aware that we have the luxury of thinking about these nuances of lesson delivery because we have a shared curriculum, around which we have experience planning, which makes thinking about these questions infinitely easier.
Colleen Stearns, IDEA Public Schools
Because we have a common, high-quality curriculum, we have been able to get laser focused in our training on how the lessons get moved to the virtual platform. We didn’t have to spend energy on figuring out what we were going to teach – or how the curriculum worked. As a professional learning community, we directed our collective efforts to identifying specific instructional tools that are best aligned to the delivery of our curriculum. We even created a resource for teachers that outlines how they could transform each lesson component within the curriculum using the district-supported virtual tools.
Janise Lane, Baltimore City, MD
We receive ongoing professional learning/implementation support from our curriculum provider (Great Minds) who was able to lift some of the burden from us by updating tools and resources, revising assessment plans, and helping us think through how to help students recover from potential lost learning and how to accelerate where we could in the curriculum. This allowed us the time and space to plan implementation supports and think deeply about how to best support our learners, teachers, leaders, and families. We continue to work in partnership to now lean in, learn, and listen as we begin studying our implementation.
Diana Fedderman, Palm Beach County, FL
In a distance learning environment, all of our educators face challenges typical of first-year teachers. The educative features built into high-quality instructional materials have been crucial to our successively pivoting online. When they’re in a building, working side-by-side, it’s second nature for new teachers to seek out experienced teachers who might help them understand what a standard is saying or provide them with suggestions for some of the pedagogical challenge they’re experiencing. Well, we can’t do that now – but, fortunately, the answers are there for all teachers in the curriculum.
Our curriculum providers stepped up with new supports and resources for distance/blended learning:
Nakia Hardy, Durham, NC:
The high-quality curriculum providers serving our district (Eureka Math, ARC Core, StudySync) have been generous in making themselves available for virtual professional learning and office hours to support our teachers and leaders in making the transition. They want us to succeed.
Jana Beth Francis, Daviess County, KY:
Our high-quality curriculum provider (Wit & Wisdom) has been extremely helpful in providing digital resources and making suggestions for modifications, both in terms of how a lesson is delivered and in accelerating the curriculum where possible.
Robin McClellan, Sullivan County, TN
Our provider (Amplify) has many onboarding webinars and reference videos that take teachers through the beginning steps, modeling lessons, etc.
Right now, we need to be sharing positive stories in K–12 education! That’s true because we’re going through a tough moment – and we don’t just mean the challenge of the coronavirus. Midway through this school year, the nation reflected on worrisome NAEP outcomes suggesting that literacy instruction needs work.
Once, Cecil County had a flawed approach to literacy – and weak outcomes. We think our turnaround story can add important and encouraging color to the conversation.
In our district, a focused effort to improve literacy outcomes paid off for students and for teachers. Jeff calls it the biggest win of his career! Yet it once felt like a gamble.
In 2016, we brought in a new curriculum called Bookworms, in order to align with key reading research. It puts a huge premium on work with authentic texts; kids read 205 authentic books between kindergarten and 5th grade during Tier 1 instruction!
Bookworms is a relatively ‘scripted’ program, but its daily routines are tightly optimized to develop skilled readers. Foundational skills are emphasized, and frequent assessment is paired with targeted differentiation resources, which has really accelerated student growth for our learners.
And boy, has this work paid off. In Cecil County:
1. Our reading outcomes went through the roof:
We were clearly underperforming in literacy before the change. Of 24 counties in Maryland, we are #16th for wealth, but our reading outcomes were near the bottom of the state.
After the curriculum change, we noticed that our 4th graders performed higher than the previous year’s 5th graders in MAP testing, which is normed against millions of kids. We’ve seen drastic jumps in all sub-groups and in all grades.
Perhaps the most powerful outcome: our intervention program is shrinking! Today, we have very few children needing Tier 3 intervention for reading. Before, children were doomed to repeating the same intervention without making much improvement. Now our kids are moving and growing!
2. Our students are demonstrably more engaged with reading.
After we changed curriculum, our public libraries reported shortages of books with the authors and themes studied in Bookworms! The library asked for our text list, in order to expand its collection in these areas to meet the growing demand.
3. We empowered our teachers as instructional leaders.
Our teachers say they have become actual teachers of reading because of Bookworms, which is so carefully aligned with reading research that it has an “educative” effect. Teachers can’t help but learn excellent practices in the initial years of using the materials. Their comfort with foundational skills is far higher, for example.
4. We gained a culture of collaboration.
When the curriculum was Do It Yourself, teachers were on different pages… literally.
Using a common curriculum created a systemwide Professional Learning Community. Our teachers now have a common language and understanding. In meetings, they no longer simply share out what they are doing in class – instead, teachers actually have substantive conversations about student work.
5. We improved equity.
Our previous “hodge podge” approach to curriculum resulted in significant discrepancies in instruction classroom to classroom. We’ve nipped that in the bud.
6. We saved money.
We saved around $1M per year by using Bookworms instead of Journeys or Wonders, the other programs we considered. Best of all, a significant portion of our investment goes to PD each year. We’re investing more in teachers.
As district leaders, we aren’t the only ones thrilled with the outcomes. In surveys, 80% of our teachers give this new curriculum a thumbs up.
Does this all sound too good to be true? It shouldn’t. These gains didn’t come easy, so we’ll share the journey – including its challenges.
Jeff was Associate Superintendent of Academics when our 2016 PARCC scores showed 30% proficiency. It simply wasn’t good enough. He’d been a high school math teacher, and didn’t have strong opinions about how reading should be taught. Jeff simply wanted improvement, and when the Bookworms curriculum was recommended through University of Delaware contacts, it sounded promising.
Yet at the time, guided reading was nothing short of gospel in Cecil County. In retrospect, we can see that we were not really teaching reading: we were good at getting kids to read in their comfort zone, but not always delivering instruction that would grow students as readers. Also, guided reading was keeping many kids trapped in low-level texts.
We had to make a serious mindset shift to implement Bookworms. That mindset shift started with Cathy, a long time believer in guided reading. Once she began learning reading research behind Bookworms, she was stunned at how much she hadn’t known, and ready to lead a change.
Some folks plan a phased rollout of new curriculum, but our implementation approach was “all in.” We went whole hog with a districtwide implementation of Bookworms in the 2016-17 school year. In the process, we asked folks to take a leap of faith. We provided PD on the materials and how to use them, but we saved a lot of the PD on the reading research behind the curriculum for year two. Our thinking was: when you’re asking teachers to change practice, sometimes you have to go ahead and change practice, and the change in beliefs follows when teachers see students respond… which is what ultimately happened.
We had growing pains in the first 4-6 months. Teachers were concerned about pacing; some struggled to get through 45-minute lessons in 45 minutes. The culprit: they were over scaffolding, unpacking texts so much before reading that students almost didn’t need to read them! Teachers learned to dial back the pre-teaching and allow students to learn from the text itself, which is a beautiful thing.
Teachers also had fears: Did the curriculum go too fast for struggling kids? Was the text complexity simply too high for our lowest learners? Was it taking away teacher autonomy?
We needed to work through those fears, and that meant a lot of time in schools in that first year, logging listening time. Sometimes you just need to let people vent. And while you’re being proactive with support, you also need to hear – and react to – the issues you didn’t anticipate.
The fears began to dissipate as soon as teachers saw growth in DIBELs and MAP testing. We knew things were on track when teachers said, “I’ve never seen my kindergarten students reading so well so early in the year.” Now, two years later, we hear NONE of the initial concerns about this work. It’s amazing what schoolwide reading improvement does to motivate a team.
We embraced two key things in order to foster success:
First, grace and space for teachers. In Year 1, we told building leaders to stay out of classrooms at the beginning. We didn’t think they knew the curriculum well enough to know what to look for and critique, and teachers deserved time to get their feet wet before being evaluated, even informally. We gave everyone time to come up the learning curve.
Second, flexibility. We had to alter the school day for Bookworms, which has a firm requirement of 2 hours and 15 minutes of instructional time. We also allowed teams to departmentalize, because we were implementing math curriculum at the same time, and this allowed all teachers to focus on one change, rather than two.
But the ultimate success factor was the quality of the curriculum. Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but our positive story only came together because the curriculum quickly drove up our outcomes, leading to buy-in. Evidence-based curriculum works – implemented well, of course.
Seeing our outcomes, some might wonder why everyone isn’t doing this work. So… why do other districts persist with weak reading programs – or even try high-quality curriculum and bail on it? Some district leaders aren’t ready for the hard conversations. It’s difficult to ask teachers to put practice ahead of beliefs, and leaders need to be ready to work through doubts and fears. In addition, we have seen districts attempt curriculum pilots in which a small number of naysayers create resistance to change. It’s one reason that we recommend the just-go-whole-hog approach.
Our advice to district leaders: this is a risk worth taking, with a payback that is greater than we could have imagined.
Although we didn’t use the Bookworms curriculum in our recent “at home learning” materials (because students didn’t have access to the books at home), we certainly used the Bookworms routines, and we relied on our Bookworms-inspired learnings about good reading instruction, to craft lessons that:
Provide quality grade level texts, fiction and nonfiction, for all students
Incorporate reading and then rereading opportunities in our “at home” lesson plans
Utilize questions that help students identify and discuss text structures
Focus discussion questions on grade level standards
Incorporate discussion and sharing of ideas around fiction and nonfiction texts
Interact with text rather than completing isolated grammar worksheets
Read and write about what you’ve read
And READ some more!
People talk about the “educative value” of high-quality curriculum, and this is something we have experienced, as well. We know what good looks like, so our team is better prepared to create lessons for this unique challenge, with focus on the right instructional priorities.
When we think about our “hodge podge” curriculum era, and what distance learning would have looked like if every teacher was tasked with DIY Distance Learning, we are even more convinced that our curriculum investment has been essential to our efforts to provide strong instruction to all students.
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.
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:
Yet most of our activity has happened behind the scenes. Since sharing our curriculum work, we’ve had numerous inquiries from across the country, seeking to learn more. Often, we’ve been speaking with districts evaluating new curricula. We’ve also connected with peers on the implementation journey to learn from each other’s experiences. It has been fun to see ‘Curriculum Road Trips’ in which Sumner County, a Tennessee district in its first year with Wit & Wisdom, visited Baltimore City for connections and insights.
Recently, the volume of these inquiries has grown, probably because it’s adoption season. And we can’t help but wonder… is there a better way for us to support the field than to have 1:1 conversations? Could we reach more people – and learn more ourselves – if we could organize small groups around these topics, since the same themes keep recurring?
Also, how many educators have good questions, but have been too polite to ask them directly?
We want to turn this question back to you: What would help your curriculum learning journey?
Webinars comparing the different curriculum options – or unpacking individual curricula?
Zoom chats about implementation challenges?
Opportunities to visit our districts, and see the work in classrooms?
Virtual tours (videos, webinars) of the work in our districts?
Investments in teacher PLNs for users of specific curricula?
Discussions focused on PD providers?
All of the above – or something else?
If we can understand the needs of our peers, we may be able to create more effective collaboration opportunities; everyone wins, including our teams, if we can foster cross-district learning. (We don’t want to overpromise… but we’ll certainly do what we can!)
We believe we’re witnessing a movement that is beginning to elevate literacy and math instruction. And we’d like to talk about the role of social media, and specifically a hashtag – #CurriculumMatters – in that work. (At first blush, that might seem silly. Please stay with us!)
We use social media in a lot of rewarding ways:
Sharing stories of our work with high-quality curriculum – because these positive stories deserve telling.
Elevating the work of our teachers, many of whom are having incredible success with their students right now.
Connecting with others who are using high-quality curricula – the ones we use, and the ones with similar characteristics. We just saw a fun exchange about equity between Robin and a Baltimore teacher which shows how much learning is happening in this growing community – even when we are using different high-quality curricula.
Keeping up with the news and evolutions in the fast-changing curriculum space.
Professional learning generally: conversations about curriculum are often connected to conversations about research and evidence-based practice. We can’t get enough of that.
We know we are a part of a growing community of schools and districts across the country who are using curriculum with similar goals… and similar positive stories. If you’re working with “all-green” curriculum, we want to be connecting with you, following you, learning from you! We see a lot of power in a Professional Learning Network around this work, as we’ve shared.
Here’s the challenge: it isn’t always easy to spot each other in the Twitterverse, which is where a lot of K–12 conversation happens.
Why is it hard to spot people who’re sharing about work with curriculum? Because tweets about curriculum can often look like tweets that are simply about engaged students… or great student work… or beloved texts… or productive student discourse… unless the Tweeter is intentional about connecting the tweet to work with curriculum.
We’d like to change that, and it’s where the #CurriculumMatters hashtag comes in.
Exemplars help, so we’ll take a few recent examples from the social airwaves.
Beth Gonzalez, the Chief Academic Officer in Detroit Public Schools, has been leading the implementation of new ELA and math curriculum. Recently, she tweeted this inspiring set of photos:
Now, if you saw only the above Tweet, you might not know that this rich text study and ‘electricity’ was connected to curriculum work. So, Beth’s next tweet gives us that context:
NOW we understand what we are seeing! Beth is helping us see quality curriculum in action, and it’s the EL Education curriculum. (That detail helps… how many times has someone talked about their work with a new resource – whether a curriculum, rubric, or app – and your first question is: “What are you using??”)
Another example was this teacher’s Tweet:
This could be a history lesson we’re glimpsing. Jared Myracle helps connect it to the district’s work with the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is built around history and science topics, by using the hashtag and noting the materials:
One more example illustrates the ambiguity that we’d like to overcome. The teacher in the tweet below is sharing her students’ work with the ARC Core curriculum. We can tell because she tagged American Reading Company, the curriculum author. But… we have a hunch that most educators don’t realize that American Reading Company developed a curriculum in recent years, and it earned all-green reviews on EdReports. If this tweet said “curriculum” in it, or included #CurriculumMatters (or better yet, added the #ARCCore hashtag), we’d know.
Our Twitter Pro Tips
If you’re talking about curriculum work in Twitter, help us know it… and find you! Use #CurriculumMatters, please. Our Tweeters are likely to find and retweet you.
Help us know which curriculum we’re seeing. We hear that some educators are especially interested in connecting folks using the same materials, so those provider tags/hashtags are great for finding your tribe.
Fast Facebook Facts
We don’t mean to leave out Facebook… in fact, some incredible things are happening in Facebook Groups for the individual curricula! This really deserves its own blog (we’ll try to write more soon), but let us just say… if you are using one of the “all-green” curricula, chances are you can find a community for that curriculum in Facebook, and sometimes at the individual grade level.
You can also join our facebook group. So far, that facebook group has been less quiet than the Twitter community, but we’re looking to change that. So, get in there and help us! #BeTheChange
Be Sweet And Tweet
We hope to connect with many more of you in Twitter as we start raising our voices about how and why #CurriculumMatters.
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