Building an Instructional Core for Student Literacy: Part I

Identifying the problem

Why aren’t many students graduating from our schools ready to perform the reading and writing tasks demanded of them by a college or career?

Answers to this will vary widely, of course. Based on my own experience working in NYC schools, I suspect that at the core of this problem lies incoherency, and beginning with this post, I’m going to try to persuade you that this is an issue, as well as provide some ideas on what schools can do about it. BTW I’m not the only one who suspects incoherency is at the core of our educational woes: researchers like Anthony Bryk have been making this case.

Read the vision and mission statements of most schools and you’ll see it for yourself in the vague, fluffy proclamations that bear little meaning to the content of what is actually taught.

What is taught in most schools? Who knows? Good luck finding data on curriculum being used. Despite the moniker of “public,” most public schools make little effort to transparently communicate what curriculum they purchase or develop and use from year to year.

There are a few charter networks that now publish most of their curriculum online. Kudos to Success Academy, Match, and Achievement First. Apparently KIPP will also start sharing their content. New York and Louisiana have at least made quality curriculum freely available, though it’s unclear how many of their schools employ it. (If I’m missing any schools, public, private, or otherwise that are doing this, please share in the comments so I can include them.)

Why we need to change how we approach literacy instruction

Every year schools examine state test results, then set targets for supporting their students’ literacy development. But they typically fail to consider the actual curriculum students receive in their classrooms each and every day—the texts they read and the writing tasks they are expected to perform—and whether that curriculum coherently and intentionally fosters and reinforces the skills and knowledge considered most essential to future student success (more on which skills and knowledge in a future post).

Or, they substitute one curricular program for another, ready to adopt the “next new thing” despite substantial time invested in adapting and tailoring a curriculum. Or, they adopt multiple curricular programs that don’t align, then expect teachers to be able to interpret, synthesize, and implement them with little support nor time for collaborative planning.

This is a significant problem I see in many of the schools I work with, which happen to be the schools in the Bronx struggling the most. There are schools using both EngageNY’s Expeditionary Learning curriculum for the “reading” period, and Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project’s writing curriculum for the “writing” period. If you know anything about either curriculum, this is confounding, both from a teacher and a student standpoint. Students are receiving two unaligned approaches, most likely delivered poorly, and teachers are being asked to read through and understand and plan and implement two very dense and confusing narratives for every single lesson.

Teachers, for various reasons, but most especially due to nonsense like the aforementioned, choose to do their own thing, drawing lessons from test prep books or online sources willy nilly, without coming to a consensus as a department or school on what is most important to teach across grades and classrooms.

Gaining academic knowledge, language, and skills are not natural and require a structured and systematic core curriculum in order to ensure all students have plentiful opportunities to practice and master them at the level necessary to succeed in higher education or in a complex career. We know from decades of research on learning and cognition that in order to transfer an understanding of new concepts and skills into long-term memory and apply them in real-world contexts, students require repeated exposures to those concepts and skills, spaced out over time.

Yet in many schools, most especially those that serve disadvantaged communities, students are exposed to an incoherent mix of concepts and skills that ill prepare them for success in a competitive college or career.

The literacy department of a school should promote a coherent vision oriented around shared instructional concepts, practices, and content. By coming to a consensus on what is most essential for students to know and be able to do in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, then designing backwards from those targets, the ELA team can build a backbone of coherency that will support literacy development across grades and classrooms.

A hypothesis

If a school comes to a clear understanding of what they teach, and can articulate why they are teaching it to parents, students, and the wider public, then this will ultimately result in improved academic outcomes for students due to the greater coherency and consistency in what is taught to students throughout the school.

In my next post or two, I’ll lay out some ideas and processes that can help an ELA team to do this work.

Exciting things happening in Louisiana

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Don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but Louisiana Superintendent John White, despite great controversy, has been making strong leadership moves over in LA, writing smart op-eds, maintaining a clear focus on higher standards in the face of volatile political headwinds, working with innovative partners to develop online curriculum, and pulling teachers together to conduct thorough reviews of curricular options according to LA state standards (I wrote a little more about how their reviews compare against EdReports here.)

And now, White is continuing to steer Louisiana on the path to meaningful reform with a proposal to pilot a new form of assessment that recognizes the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension. These assessments will do so by merging social studies and ELA texts and units throughout the course of a year. Here’s his explanation:

“Rather than administering separate social studies and English tests at the end of the year, Louisiana schools participating in the pilot will teach short social studies and English curriculum units in tandem over the course of the year, pausing briefly after each unit to assess students’ reading, writing and content knowledge. Students, teachers and parents will know the knowledge and books covered on the tests well in advance. Knowledge of the world and of specific books will be measured as a co-equal to students’ literacy skills. And teachers would have good reason to focus on the hard and inspiring lessons of history and books.”

This type of assessment is something I’ve been dreaming about for years, and that former NY State Commissioner and current Executive Director at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, David Steiner, has been talking about for years. At a Research ED conference back in September, I had a chance to chat with Steiner about this a little bit. It’s not a topic that non-wonkish education people seem to care about, but he is also passionate about this issue, and it’s really nice to see that this might finally get a chance to get “tested” by a state.

Too bad NY couldn’t get itself together to make this happen first.

Here’s a short video I had made about ideas for successful implementation of the Common Core standards back in 2014 in which I also make the case that all teachers on a grade-level should be held accountable by literacy assessments:

States don’t measure what kids actually know. That needs to change. John White / The Hill

 

The Symbiosis Between Scaffolding and Differentiation

A while back I wrote a long post redefining scaffolds and examining their connection to success criteria.

I then wrote a post drawing a distinction between scaffolds and differentiation, and I cast some shade on differentiation.

But I’m no longer quite as opposed to differentiation, and I can now see how there can be a strong symbiosis between scaffolding and differentiation.

I’ve been working with a school in the Bronx where we’ve been talking a lot about these concepts, and they’ve helped me to think a little more deeply. So I figured it would be worth sharing my updated learning.

Why it’s important

Teachers are often criticized by school and district leaders for not “differentiating” enough, yet rarely provided any clear guidance on how to do so. And there’s furthermore a lot of vagueness out there in the field on the distinctions between scaffolding and differentiation.

I want to share my revised thinking on the connection between the two concepts in the hope that I can help to clarify, rather than muddy, the use of these terms.

Here’s a visual model of how I now view scaffolds and differentiation:

Scaffolding = Steps

As students practice a skill or develop knowledge of a concept, their ability and understanding increases in complexity. A master teacher breaks down a skill or concept into smaller components, all the way down to the most basic and fundamental level, so that students can accelerate up the ladder towards mastery (just as jump school recruits do with a parachute landing fall).

Those sequential steps are the scaffolds.

Scaffolding, therefore, requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught (content/skills).

Differentiation = Where each student is on those steps and what they need to progress

Differentiation, on the other hand, requires a teacher to know their individual students well enough to know what each student requires at every step on their trajectory towards mastery, and where they are on that trajectory.

Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each of their individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

Distinguishing between Scaffolds and Differentiation

  • Scaffolding is aligned to a concept or skill.
  • Differentiation is aligned to the individual student.
  • Scaffolds are the sequential steps that lead to mastery of a skill or a deeper understanding of a concept.
  • Differentiation is in what manner and how much time a student may need to practice or review a step, as well as how much feedback may need to be provided.
  • Scaffolding requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught.
  • Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

The two thus work in tandem.

A sidenote on how all this relates to personalized learning

This brings out something interesting about the edtech industry’s drive for “personalized learning.” The concept of personalized learning arguably aligns most strongly with differentiation.

What is not frequently discussed is that in order to personalize something, you must first define that “something” and break it into its component parts. How you do this and the decisions you make and the feedback you provide are just as important as matching that content to a student’s needs.

In other words, whenever you hear about personalized learning, ignore the inspirational student-centered rhetoric and home in on the content itself. What platform or curriculum is being used? What trajectory is presented by that content? Does this trajectory align with widely respected standards or guidance from national or international professional organizations.

Definitions and Characteristics

Scaffolding

Definition

A scaffold provides opportunities for performance and practice of the component content and skills that a student requires to achieve success in a unit of study.

Characteristics

  • Smaller, sequential components of a complex concept, task, or skill
  • Requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, a scaffold isn’t about making something “easier” for students
  • Must be mastered at each step along the way. Students shouldn’t move along or have a scaffold removed until they have demonstrated mastery of each component
  • Doubles as performance-based formative assessment

Differentiation

Definition

Differentiation provides an individual student with the targeted practice or thinking, and with the necessary feedback, in order to progress towards defined learning goals.

Characteristics

  • Adjustments in environment, content, process, or product to account for an individual student’s current level of knowledge, ability, or interest
  • Based on the trajectory of scaffolding for the current topic or unit of study
  • Requires the teacher to be deeply aware of an individual student’s needs and current level of performance
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, differentiation isn’t about making something “easier” for the student

You’ll notice that there is a key characteristic that is shared between these two: neither are about making something easier for a student — they are both about moving learners closer to mastery of whatever it is that they are practicing and studying.

This is important because unfortunately there is a strong tendency by educators to deem some students as incapable of achieving mastery of success in academic learning.

But what is most often the case is that the educator doesn’t know what they are teaching well enough in order to provide specific and targeted supports for their students.

There’s still a lot more to dig into on this topic — specifically how it relates to formal education plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities. But I think this is more than enough for one post!

Please push back on any of this to help me further clarify and refine my thinking on scaffolding and differentiation.

Using the Expeditionary Learning/EngageNY curriculum in your 6-8 ELA classroom? Here’s some resources for you.

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I’ve worked in ELA classrooms in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade using the Expeditionary Learning curriculum (freely available on EngageNY), and now I work supporting other ELA teachers in the Bronx, who often also use this curriculum.

I think the curriculum has a lot to offer*, but it’s also a heck of a lot of work to unpack. While each lesson provides a script, there’s few you could deliver as is. First of all, you’d never be able to get through many of them in a normal period. EL throws the kitchen sink into these lessons. Furthermore, you’d find yourself stranded in the middle of a lesson confused, trying to figure out where it was supposed to be going, or discovering you were supposed to have an anchor chart drawn up to refer to.

Like most curricula, Expeditionary Learning ELA curriculum requires each teacher to have first read, processed, adapted, and developed additional resources to complement each and every lesson. My co-teachers and I would develop our own “talking points” based on our interpretations of a lesson, then create an accompanying presentation, and finally, create a student guide/handout that matched our talking points and presentation. Doing this was intensive work for each individual lesson. The teachers I’ve been working with also find this incredibly daunting to do — most especially because they are also often told to implement the Teacher’s College writing curriculum alongside of it (. . . which is a whole ‘nother can of worms I’m not going to get into here). Suffice it to say, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can help other middle school teachers process and implement the EL curriculum efficiently and effectively.

So this summer I worked on a couple of tools to try to help ELA teams and teachers to be more strategic about how they are using the EL curriculum.

First on offer is a curricular overview of all the modules from 6-8, starting from a departmental-wide overview, then moving to a pacing calendar, which includes all of NYC’s official calendar dates. If you’re not in NYC, then of course modify to match your own district’s calendar.

At first glance, this may look like I’ve just copied and pasted a bunch of stuff from the original EL materials and reorganized it. And much of it is exactly that (my intent is to make it more accessible; EngageNY’s materials can be hard to manipulate and adapt). But I’ve also made a few editorial additions and decisions, which I will explain shortly.

In order to use the document, first make a copy for yourself, then you can edit it as you wish. Please share this with any teachers you think might be able to use it.

  • The first thing you’ll see is a departmental overview, consisting of Enduring Understandings, Essential Questions, and Focus Skills/Standards. These are not an explicit part of the EL curriculum itself, so I created the EUs and EQs based off the the module-level content. The focus skills I pulled from the EngageNY 6-8 Curriculum Map, which lists those focus skills for each Module 1-4 across the grades, so I thought those made sense as an encapsulation of the overall focus.
  • You’ll want to discuss these as an ELA team. Are these the Enduring Understandings you and Skills you want your students to graduate your school equipped with? Modify these first, then tailor the modules and units to match your focus.

  • I then included all the protocols and practices that EL provides as part of the curriculum. These are all good. But you would be wise to discuss these as a school, across all your content areas, and select a few common protocols and practices that you will use consistently across classrooms.

  • You’ll notice I’ve included every single module, including the alternative modules. So you will need to delete the columns and content that your team are not actually using, both in the section for Essential Questions/Assessments and in the Sequence section.

  • For the Focus Skills/Standards for each module, I literally went through every single lesson standard for each unit and looked at what was consistently practiced across the unit, then counted only those most practiced as the focus skills. I then pulled the “I can” statements that were developed by EL to align with those standards. But even still, you’re most likely going to want to focus and narrow these down to make them even more targeted.
  • I didn’t include the Focus Skills/Standards for Unit 3 of any modules because I’ve made the strategic decision to advise the schools I am working with to cut Unit 3 from each module. There’s simply not enough time, and while Unit 3s are nice, they are not essential. They are the fluffier “performance task” pieces. There’s a lot more to explain about my rationale on this, but not going to get into it now. Ask me if you want to know more. In any case, I didn’t want to waste my own time digging into something I wasn’t going to use.

  • Now you get to the pacing calendar. This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s nice to say you want to do all 4 modules. Go ahead, try to pace those out, while ensuring you’re including assessment days for MOSLs, baselines, iReady, test prep, or whatever the heck else your school will throw into the mix.

  • Or don’t. I already did it for you, leaving some extra time in there in March with the assumption you’re doing some test prep. If you wanted to do full modules, including Unit 3, you’d only be able to barely get through 3 modules.
  • So either you barely do three modules (probably still would need trimming). Or you cut Unit 3s and do Units 1 and 2 only for four modules.
  • You then need to consider your marking periods. Do you want the modules to align with those? If you’re doing four marking periods, it can be done. But it requires cutting Module 1 quite a bit. What you can do is cut Module 1 at the Unit 2 Mid-Unit assessment. This isn’t as tragic as it seems, since if you think about it, module 1 is really about getting students up to speed and engaged in reading and writing — then you can move on for deeper work in module 2.

  • Finally, the next thing you’re really going to need to take a look at as a team, aside from the actual lesson planning and development, are the mid and end-of-unit assessments. Do these align with the focus that your department has for your students? Do you want to modify them to include more multiple-choice, or more short-response writing? Do you want to design your own to supplant them? This is important work, because it will determine the type of data that you are looking at most closely to determine student feedback and grades.

Here’s an example of an adapted calendar in which Units have been cut and paced out in order to match a real school’s calendar. You can see that once you cut out all the school’s assessment days and “skill” days on Fridays, you’ve only got roughly 100 calendar days for the EL curriculum, and even that’s probably being optimistic.

The other resource I’d like to share is that EL has done some nice work turning the standards into student friendlier “I can” statements. But unfortunately, they embedded these wonderful statements deep within and across their many lengthy documents. So I pulled them all out and put them alongside the relevant grade-level standards so that you can access them more easily.

I am aware that the NY standards are being revised, but let’s be honest — they aren’t substantially different than the CCSS, and tests won’t align to the new ones for a few more years. I’ll update these accordingly, but it will just be a matter of some shifting around and deleting of a few of the standards.

I hope these are useful resources as you plan for your upcoming school year. Please let me know if there’s anything that I need to clarify or revise, or if you need further assistance in using these. Good luck!

* As a footnote, I want to note that Expeditionary Learning’s materials have a long way to go before they could be considered a viable curriculum in practice (in my opinion). And yet, comparative to most other ELA curricula, this is some of the better stuff out there, though I’d advise you to check out LearnZillion’s work with Louisiana’s Guidebook Units (disclosure: I’ve done a little bit of work on those and with LZ in general) or Great Mind’s Wit and Wisdom for clearer and more user friendly ELA curriculum.

What this tells us is that we’ve got a lot of work to do before we have rigorous curricula in more ELA classrooms that every teacher can effectively deliver.

But I also want to point out that the fact that EngageNY has provided this curriculum under an open license and for open access is the only reason that we’re able to have this conversation and that I’m able to provide these resources. I can’t do that for Teacher’s College curriculum because it’s proprietary. So the more we can share open educational resources, the more transparently and widely we can develop better stuff.

Thanks, Expeditionary Learning, EngageNY, NYSED, and the Public Consulting Group for providing these resources to the public. Now let’s get to work making ELA curriculum better and more usable.

 

Scaffolding vs Differentiation

My recent post on scaffolds and success criteria seemed to be useful to folks, so I thought I should share something more on scaffolding that can help to further clarify the term.

Scaffolding and differentiation are both words frequently thrown around in schools, often interchangeably and without precision. But there’s a clear distinction between the two that must be made, most especially as teachers are increasingly pressured to “differentiate” their lessons by school and district leadership with little guidance and concrete models.

So what is differentiation?

Differentiation asks teachers to plan different tasks or learning experiences for different groups of students, with the idea being that we can better meet the needs of diverse learners.

So for example, if we had our “high” student, our “medium” student, and our “low” performing student, we might provide a different text for each one in order to ensure they would be reading something at their “level.”

But there’s a problem with this. If the so-called “low” students only ever receive less complex and challenging expectations, texts, and learning experiences, they will continue to perform at a lower level.

This is why too many of our kids end up in “remedial” classes if and when they make it to college. This is why too many students consigned to a segregated “self-contained” program rarely even make it to graduation.

There’s another problem with differentiation. It demands quite a bit from a teacher to design (at least) 3 separate tasks or resources for any given lesson — time and energy that could perhaps be more effectively spent elsewhere.

To acknowledge these problems is not to say that differentiation can’t be applied effectively nor that it is universally the wrong thing to do. Structures for guided reading, for example, draw from this model and can be very effective in a school and classroom that have developed the necessary systems and routines. But these problems are big enough that they should give us strong pause before mindlessly evaluating and chiding teachers about whether they are adequately “differentiating” their lessons.

What is scaffolding, and how is it different?

The concept of scaffolding shifts how we approach meeting the needs of diverse learners.

We may have students coming into a learning experience with differing levels of knowledge, ability, or background, but rather than providing them with something different, we instead consider how we can provide the scaffolding necessary to ensure they can work together in grappling with a common task or text.

This is a shift offered by common standards, which demand a shared set of expectations for all students. For our students who may struggle in meeting these more rigorous demands, we must consider how to scaffold the concepts, procedures, and environment to support their engagement in practice with the texts and learning experiences that can enable them to meet those expectations.

This is certainly not an easy thing to do, either. But if I had to take a pick about what is going to give me the most bang for my buck, designing access and practice with common vocabulary, tasks, and texts is where I would ask educators to more wisely invest their time and energy.

For more on what that scaffolding should look like, take a look at my prior post, Scaffolding and Success Criteria.