Snippets of Conversation: How Knowledge-Rich Curriculum Can Change a School Community
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Mrs. Luedtke watches as her students gather in small groups. This is their first time drafting a multi-paragraph essay, and the topic is ambitious: how and why Jacques Cousteau explored the sea. The class’s read alouds and discussions about Cousteau have been going well, but Mrs. Luedtke is not sure how her third-graders are going to respond to the essay project; this is not the type of work that used to be common in her school. As the small groups settle, the noise in the room is nonexistent, but silence is not what Mrs. Luedtke wants. She wants—needs—to hear discussion.
After a few silent moments, Mrs. Luedtke begins to hear snippets of conversation, hesitant at first, but growing in volume and deepening in content. One child, Tesa, says, “Jacques Cousteau felt a responsibility.” Cameron adds, “He was curious.” “He wanted to go into the unknown to see things never seen before,” Bailey says. The conversations grow louder, clearer, and more confident with each group Mrs. Luedtke passes. She continues to move about and slowly realizes she is letting out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. She hears Lana say, “He wanted to explore a new frontier.” Michael says, “He discovered new creatures . . . bioluminescent creatures with his inventions.” Maya chimes in, “He wanted to conserve the world’s oceans.”
A year earlier, I (Mrs. Luedtke and the author of this article) was in a room full of frustrated and devastated K–4 teachers. Most of the children who attend our school are from families with low incomes; in fact, my school has the highest number of families living in poverty in our district. Our community has suffered from the opioid epidemic, higher levels of unemployment, and the 2019 tornado outbreak, and our students tend to experience frequently changing living situations. So, after receiving our state English language arts testing results and seeing the drastic difference between our scores and the neighboring, more affluent districts, we knew something had to change.
Like so many other districts across the country, we lacked an aligned approach to language arts—an approach that provided a cohesive study of reading and writing, speaking and listening, and viewing and visually representing within each grade and across grade levels. Over the past several years, we had tried to fill in what we thought was missing by pulling materials from websites, seminars, and workshops, but it had always felt like grasping at straws. Nothing ever seemed to be enough; test scores always seemed to reflect our shortcomings and gave us very little to celebrate.
On this particular day, as we reflected once again on the scores, we decided we needed to offer our students more. But the question was: how? The principal of our school listened, took notes, and got our district administration to act. Having been a teacher in our district himself, he understood what we were facing and was willing to help us enact change. What followed was a series of meetings where staff members (including teachers, intervention specialists, Title 1 teachers, and district-level coaches) analyzed our test scores and discovered that our vocabulary, comprehension, and critical thinking scores were significantly lower overall than other districts in the state.
With this information, our next step was clear: we needed to find a comprehensive language arts program that would enrich our students in every area, starting with vocabulary. To pay the “educational debt” owed to our students (Ladson-Billings 2006), we also sought an approach with consistent terminology and alignment to ensure students’ skills and knowledge were built both within and across the grades in our buildings.
Our meetings also revealed that some grade levels planned as a team to create horizontal alignment, while others didn’t. No one was planning across grade levels to create vertical alignment. While we used the Common Core State Standards, there was nothing common about the way we chose the skills we were teaching each week: we were trying to teach reactively instead of proactively, and we did not have any systems in place for students to master skills. Month after month, we were setting up intervention groups and were reteaching skills (instead of providing rich instruction from the start). It was a continuous cycle that left us exhausted and frustrated—we knew we were not supporting our students to their full potential.
In addition, our discussions led us to the research. Research shows that students love learning, learning from each other, and knowing information that adults often don’t know (Chenoweth 2015). They also seek out opportunities to make connections from old learning to new facts. There was also evidence that changing to higher quality, well-aligned curriculum materials, including texts, can boost student achievement more than other major changes schools tend to make (Chingos & Whitehurst 2012; Berner 2017).
We decided to follow the research so that we could enhance our students’ opportunities to learn, and we also learned many lessons ourselves along the way. In this article, we discuss those lessons and the strategies we used for adapting our chosen curriculum to develop students’ critical thinking skills, language and literacy skills, and world knowledge.
Increasing students’ opportunities to learn: Choosing a new language arts curriculum
Having looked closely at our data and having reflected about what was (and was not) working, we determined that a well-rounded, challenging, and structured curriculum would help our students to develop knowledge about and skills to thrive inside and outside of our school. Our district instructional coaches, curriculum coordinator, and several teachers researched different language arts programs. Everyone agreed that we wanted to look beyond a traditional basal approach. We had gone down that path and had determined it wasn’t getting us where we wanted to be. After a few months of research, they found Great Minds’ new program Wit & Wisdom, which was being piloted in select districts around the country (Gewertz 2019).
There were several elements of the program that stood out to us:
- Each student gets their own copy of high-quality, authentic texts rather than basal textbooks. For example, third-graders read The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau, by Dan Yaccarino; Starry Messenger, by Peter Sis; When Marion Sang: The True Recital of Marion Anderson, by Pam Muñoz Ryan; along with poetry, fables, and myths. They also study artwork by Homer Winslow (The Gulf Stream), Mary Cassatt (The Boating Party), Hokusai (The Great Wave Off Kanagawa), and Pablo Picasso (Reading at a Table).
- Texts are linked by units, or modules, that are framed by different types of questions. (See “Developing Critical Thinking Skills” below for examples of these questions.) Each grade level typically has four modules for the school year, some of which include Westward Expansion, A Great Heart (covering both the literal and figurative meaning of this topic), The Civil Rights Movement, A New Home (featuring stories of immigrants arriving in the United States), the Continents, and the Revolutionary War.
- Teachers are encouraged to rehearse vocabulary, emphasize new terminology, and have children engage in challenging activities for each text.
Having high-quality, real, related texts is key, and framing questions provided the continuity we were looking for. Wit & Wisdom is designed to be used with a companion program to teach phonemic awareness, phonics, and other essential skills that lead to reading and writing fluency and automaticity. As I explain later in this article (see “Limitations: Ensuring Growth in All Areas of Language and Literacy” below), we came to realize our approach to these aspects of early language and literacy development was not sufficient in preparing students for engaging with challenging texts.
Developing critical thinking skills and building complex vocabulary
Enacting change is never easy, and we learned that doing it well depends on having sufficient support and flexibility to be responsive to our students. Although our administration was supportive, they decided that our school would pilot this new program while the other elementary schools would continue as they had been. Unfortunately, due to events beyond our control, we received our materials just two weeks before the school year started. Without enough book copies, we relied on the e-versions of some, YouTube recordings of others, and book sharing (including scanning and projecting pages onto whiteboards). We chose to hold extra staff meetings, practice teaching on each other, and completed work after hours to learn how to interpret the extensive lesson plans and to make adaptations to support each learner.
Another key change for us was learning how to rephrase critical thinking questions without losing the integrity of the original question. We believed that more complex texts and more challenging thinking about them were essential to increasing our students’ opportunities to learn—that was the crux of this whole shift in our curriculum and teaching. For example, a question recommended by Wit & Wisdom was, “In your opinion, which part of Moonshot best depicts the wonder or danger of traveling to the moon?” We replaced the word depicts (a word students may not have been familiar with), with shows, to scaffold their understanding until both words became connected and familiar in discussions, reading, and writing.
Developing Critical Thinking Skills
Each Wit & Wisdom module has several components. Here, we highlight each component and how it helps to develop students’ critical thinking skills through different types of questions.
- An essential question, which guides learning throughout the entire module and toward a greater understanding of the topic. For example: why do people explore the sea? This is the essential question for the first module of third grade, and it promotes students’ thinking and learning about what drives people to explore the sea.
A focusing question, which stays constant for about 10 lessons and helps students to view texts and discussions through a more focused lens related to the essential question. Following the previous example, a focusing question is: how do artists explore the sea? This homes in on artists specifically and how the sea draws them in with its beauty and danger.
- A well-designed progression of the focusing questions, which address different aspects of the essential question. For example, through a series of focusing questions, students investigate how artists, explorers, and scientists are curious about the sea and why they all explore the sea.
- A content framing question, which is more fluid and generally stays constant for one to two lessons to support comprehension. These ensure that students are working toward mastery each time the question is presented.
- A craft question, which also builds toward mastery by connecting a writing skill, such as supporting writing with evidence and elaboration, to process key questions and as a way to close the module.
- A deep dive, which involves examining grammar concepts, such as the use of adverbs, in students’ own writing and in the core texts they read.
The importance of planning
These types of scaffolds, while seemingly simple, took planning: we had to look ahead at each lesson part, see what vocabulary was being used, and then revise the question while still meeting the learning objectives. Because we were prepared, we could also focus on guiding peer interactions. We learned to rely on peer interactions to facilitate everyone’s learning of the content and vocabulary through active conversations and discussions. For example, using rich vocabulary in daily conversation filtered through everyone in the classroom and beyond (other teachers in our district soon came to visit to observe our lessons). As this continued to happen, we began to realize how the changes we made in our planning and instruction were fostering changes in children’s knowledge and learning.
Another aspect of planning that was essential to our new approach involved organizing materials for teaching and learning. We worked hard to find an easier system that would keep the student’ minds on the content, rather than the program’s suggested interactive notebook approach. After several months and through trial and error, we finally stumbled on the idea of creating packets. One day per quarter, with time provided by our curriculum department, each grade level gathered to create the materials needed to successfully teach the lessons in the next part of the module’s arc. We realized that looking too far ahead created great confusion, and we had to slow down our planning in order to truly foster students’ learning. (If we couldn’t keep the texts and skills organized in our own minds, how could we expect our students to?) At each grade level, we
- created vocabulary charts with blanks for students to fill in;
- made t-charts with lines to write on instead of blank spaces;
- used response writing paper with dotted midlines to make writing neater; and
- added reflections with the question or prompt at the top so students could reread and see the question instead of just hearing it read aloud.
This time was invaluable for us to understand what we would soon be teaching, and we began to comprehend how the vocabulary, questioning techniques, and writing all fit together. In short, we began to see the big picture. Above all, we learned how to trust each other and knew that we were all in this new program together—even on days when lessons failed (and they did) and on days when we cried (and we did) and in moments when we wondered if what we were doing was right (which it was). Planning in this way improved our knowledge and practices and served as another lesson learned through this journey of change.
Genuine opinions and interesting discussions
Just as we were starting to hear students using rich language—and noticing, wondering about, and observing texts in completely new ways—the results of our fall state-mandated test came in. Results were mixed at best. Our scores were virtually equal to our peers within the district who hadn’t switched to the new program, but we knew our students were gaining new knowledge and skills. They were no longer just rehearsing information; they had begun to internalize the information and to have genuine opinions and interesting exchanges.
We were keen to continue these efforts to keep improving, and we discovered another area for attention—building students’ background knowledge from one grade to the next. In our journey toward increasing students’ opportunities to learn, we found that there is a large body of evidence—much of it from cognitive science—that critical thinking and comprehension are greatly influenced by students’ background knowledge. As explained by the Knowledge Matters Campaign (2018, n.p.),
Background knowledge is like Velcro; the more you have, the easier it is for additional knowledge and vocabulary to “stick.” Recent studies have found that students who read a series of texts on a topic are likely to learn new vocabulary four times faster than jumping from topic to topic.
Because our previous language arts curriculum lacked complex texts about history, science, the arts, and literature, our students had not explored, questioned, or critically thought through such content in school. Moving to a knowledge-heavy reading diet was hard, but we stuck with it through each lesson taught with as much fidelity, patience, and grace as we could muster. We had given up so much for this; not one of us was willing to give up and go back to what we knew didn’t work. Others started to notice too, and there was a decision that all elementary and middle schools (K–8) would begin using the Wit & Wisdom program the following school year. We were happy about this. For the first time in a long time, all elementary and middle schools would be vertically and horizontally aligned for English language arts.
Limitations: Ensuring Growth in All Areas of Language and Literacy
As mentioned in this article, Wit & Wisdom did not address certain areas of literacy and language development, and our lower-elementary students were suffering from a lack of a systematic phonics program. Through further research by our team of Title 1 teachers and further training especially for our K–2 teachers, we implemented other programs (one is Fundations and the other is Geodes) that blend systematic phonics instruction and handwriting instruction with high-quality, decodable texts. Research shows that children who receive multisensory direct instruction are then more easily able to apply the skills learned when reading in context. However, this can only be possible while utilizing a balanced literacy approach and providing various activities to improve overall language skills and development (Sessa 2003). Fundations was appropriate for us. This meant that our students were now being loaded with high-quality, research-based curriculum programs in all language arts areas. Five years later, we observed the benefits of a more comprehensive approach: the majority of the children now come to third grade with decoding and encoding essentials and strong handwriting skills.
Another area of growth involved stamina. Our past language arts instruction consisted of short texts, a phonics worksheet, and a writing assignment—and even those short activities were not all completed in the same lesson. Even within differentiated reading groups, students practiced skills but only in short bursts of time. Shifting to new and worldly texts and topics meant building stamina. It took time (and frequent wiggle breaks), and students reached new heights, grappling with and making meaning from these texts with fewer and fewer breaks.
Building stamina also meant thinking carefully about our youngest learners. In the second year of implementation, our kindergarten teachers worked with administrators to wait until October to begin Wit & Wisdom lessons. This was based on our pilot year experiences and a better grasp of what the program entailed. So, prior to beginning these lessons, kindergarten teachers spent time with their students learning about rules and routines and learning letters, letter sounds, numbers, and other foundational information before entering into the deeper work of content-rich instruction. Even now, five years later, our kindergarten teachers still begin instruction two to three weeks after the school year begins. Delaying the start of the program gives teachers and their students a chance to get to know one another and to get used to what it is like being in school. Importantly, this time is also used to gain insights—through both informal and formal means—to learn about each child and the contexts in which they live and learn and begin to provide early intervention for students who would benefit from it.
Final thoughts: Becoming a knowledge-rich school
We finished our first year exhausted and weary, but hopeful. We were prepared to view our spring test scores through a different lens than before. We had done something completely different and had pushed ourselves mentally and physically. We hadn’t taught to the test; rather, we had taught skills and content that students would encounter on the tests through engaging, knowledge-rich units. We taught them how to have respectful and effective debates and discussions and how to write narratives, explanatory essays, opinion essays, and complete sentences in the grammar of academic English. Students across grade levels connected to the texts. They read more engaging, complex texts and, through those texts, they learned about the human body, seasons, feelings, and many other science and social studies topics. Overall, they became engaged and involved in their own learning and were no longer passively participating in lessons that were teacher-led and lacking meaningful content.
Families commented on how their children were coming home and sharing knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement, the American Revolution, and poetry. They expressed amazement at the changes in and level of depth of their children’s understanding of these topics. Our students could persuasively discuss why they would have or would not have been a part of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, and they could express great sadness that Galileo was condemned for his beliefs about the solar system. They relished learning about how and why families immigrate to America and what they leave behind in their homelands. They discussed the need for the conservation of the oceans due to learning about Jacques Cousteau. These topics were made accessible through well-chosen texts and related materials and through our hard work developing vocabulary-enriched lessons.
Our spring state test scores indicated growth, which in turn led to more training and materials. Over the next two years, we became the specialists of the program and watched our test scores continue to rise. We were observed by other teachers, principals, and administrators. Never did we think we would be included in the prestigious Knowledge Matters School Tour and receive the High Progress Schools of Honor Award from the state of Ohio. Now, our elementary school is the highest scoring in language arts in our district.
There were those who doubted us and our students because of the statistics. But what started as a room full of frustrated teachers became a discussion of research and teaching techniques, and it grew into a school family like no other I’ve seen in the 18 years of my career. While I believe an individual can and should be a force for change, this dynamic shift was the result of a staff coming together. That is why, throughout this article, I intentionally chose the pronoun we, not I. Our success was not just dependent on our students, it was something we all had to deeply believe in. Today, we are still learning and growing together. The knowledge-rich curriculum, adapted to make it our own, changed our school, our teaching and learning, and the dynamic of an entire school. It has changed us. Forever.
As our students learned about the struggles and triumphs of Jacques Cousteau, John F. Kennedy, Ruby Bridges, and the Founding Fathers, we all learned to be strong and choose to do the hard things. I have no doubt that you can do this too. If we can ask our students to do hard things, why shouldn’t we ask the same of ourselves?
Finding High-Quality Language Arts Programs
While Wit & Wisdom is ultimately the program we chose, there are many other great programs to use if change is something you’re seeking. To find the right program for you and your students, take a look at the following websites.
- The Knowledge Matters Campaign highlights research about the importance of academic vocabulary and broad knowledge for listening and reading comprehension. It also points to curricular materials recommended by teachers.
- EdReports.org is dedicated to reviewing K–12 curricula, and all reviews are led by experienced teachers and administrators.
- The Louisiana Department of Education’s instructional materials reviews are based on an extensive process in which everyone from expert educators to members of the public can weigh in on programs’ quality.
Berner, A. 2017. “How Rethinking Classroom Instruction May Have Boosted Student Achievement in Louisiana.” The 74. www.the74million.org/article/berner-how-rethinking-classroom-instruction-may-have-boosted-student-achievement-in-louisiana/.
Chenoweth, K. 2015. “Kids Love Knowing Stuff.” The Huffington Post. www.huffpost.com/entry/kids-love-knowing-stuff_b_8117398.
Chingos, M., & R. Whitehurst. 2012. Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core. Report. Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings.
Gewertz, C. 2019. “A Look Inside One Classroom’s Reading Overhaul.” Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/12/04/a-look-inside-one-classrooms-reading-overhaul.html.
Ladson-Billings, G. 2016. “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools (2006 AERA Presidential Address).” Educational Researcher 35 (7): 3–12.
Knowledge Matters Campaign. 2018. “It’s Time for a Reading Reset!” http://knowledgematterscampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/KMC-Announcement-re-2018-NAEP-v2.pdf.
Sessa, A.J. 2003. “A Study of the Effectiveness of the Wilson Fundations Program when Applied to a Group of Children with Mild to Moderate Special Needs.” Masters thesis. Rowan University. https://rdw.rowan.edu/etd/1376.
Photographs: © Getty images
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Katie E. Luedtke, MEd, is currently a third grade teacher at Saville Elementary, a Title 1 school in the Mad River Local School District near Dayton, Ohio. Katie has previously taught both first and second grade, as well as being part of her school and district PBIS and PRAXIS teams.