The View from a District Leader: Applying Key Takeaways from the Science of Learning
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Nakia Hardy, Deputy Superintendent with the Durham Public Schools in North Carolina, is a career educator dedicated to ensuring all children reach their potential. Before her current role, she was an award-winning science teacher and then chief academic officer in Guilford County Schools. In this Q&A with Young Children’s editors, she explains the importance of selecting curriculum that builds children’s knowledge and skills, of teachers developing connections between the children and the curriculum to honor and extend children’s funds of knowledge, of maintaining high expectations for all children, and of examining our implicit biases.
You have become an advocate for high-quality curriculum that intentionally builds children’s knowledge and skills. Why are you so passionate about curriculum that focuses on both how children learn and what they learn?
Without a high-quality curriculum, teachers’ primary guidance comes from state standards, like the Common Core. But literacy standards amount to a list of skills; they don’t help teachers make connections across topics. They don’t provide engaging and challenging text sets that have several fictional and informational books and read alouds on important topics. They don’t help new teachers determine which vocabulary words are most important or show them how to ask open-ended questions to spur in-depth discussions. In short, standards do very little to help teachers develop students who can read, write, and think on grade level. High-quality curriculum alone is not a silver bullet, but it offers many of these essential supports.
A curriculum that explores academic topics by including multiple perspectives and many different types of people is good for children.
In my work with teachers in the early elementary grades, the biggest gap that I see high-quality curricula bridging is how to use informational texts in the most beneficial ways. Such curricula include text sets with complementary fiction and nonfiction texts that allow students to be immersed in a topic for a couple of weeks to build background knowledge and vocabulary that are critical for listening and reading comprehension. Children are also introduced to learning from informational text—which is most of what they will encounter in later grades, in their careers, and in any civic or community improvement activities they undertake.
As children’s content knowledge builds through these text sets, so does their comprehension ability on those topics. Then, teachers see that understanding translate into subject area learning. For example, children are much better prepared for a science project on the weather after they have read a text set related to weather. They have some vocabulary and basic facts, and they’ve been given opportunities to think and talk about the topic.
One of the points you have made in presentations and blog posts is that a high-quality curriculum enables teachers to devote time to what matters most. Please explain what you mean.
When the school district fulfills its responsibility to carefully select and provide a well-rounded curriculum, teachers no longer have to spend hours each week—or each Sunday night—figuring out what to teach. Instead, they can spend time customizing materials and activities to meet each child’s unique needs. Teaching today is extraordinarily complex. The social and emotional needs of our children and our communities are extensive. It is critically important that teachers have the time to develop relationships with children and families. It’s also critical for teachers to take what they learn in those relationships and ensure that each child is reflected in customized classroom instruction.
A site like EdReports provides reviews from experienced teachers who spend many hours in collaborative teams evaluating instructional resources. Districts have the responsibility to select a curriculum that enhances equity and has been highly rated by well-qualified teachers.
Your concept of the district’s responsibility to provide a high-quality curriculum and teachers’ responsibility to customize it is thought provoking. Could you offer an example of this from your district?
One thing I clarify with teachers is that the district’s curriculum provides the floor. It details what children have to know and be able to do by the end of the school year. Teachers need to bring in additional materials and add to or enhance projects to draw specific connections between the curriculum and the individual children in their classrooms.
One example I will never forget is that just before the beginning of this school year, a 9-year-old child was tragically killed in a drive-by shooting. Children throughout the Durham area knew about this loss. The teachers—with support from the district—had to figure out how to put that horrible event into context and help children build a sense of safety.
That context is a recent rise in violence in our community and a long-term lack of equity in the distribution of resources and opportunities. There’s a direct connection from the United States’ history of slavery and segregation to Durham’s community strife. The youngest children in our school system are not ready for that full history, but we do need to teach them enough for them to deeply understand that our community and our country are making progress. By giving them hope, grounded in the truth, we reduce their anxiety.
From the Pages of Teaching Young Children
Teaching Preschoolers about Segregation and “Peace Heroes” like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the February/March 2020 issue of Teaching Young Children, Nadia Jaboneta shares her experiences, questions, and reflections after teaching 4- and 5-year-olds about Dr. King, Rosa Parks, segregation in public transportation, and the power we all have to become “Peace Heroes” (the term she uses to introduce a diverse group of leaders from the past and present). During this months-long investigation, the children demonstrated their eagerness to learn about social justice issues, their strong sense of fairness, and their capacity to challenge inequity. To read Jaboneta’s article, go to https://NAEYC.org/resources/pubs/tyc/feb2020.
When teachers are supported by high-quality curriculum, they can better support children.
Thankfully, during most school years this work is done as a natural extension of the district curriculum—not as an urgent response to a tragedy. In kindergarten, for example, we normally have an extended exploration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We don’t simply celebrate the holiday, we guide our kindergartners to answer questions like, Why is there a national holiday for Dr. King? What were some of the reasons for the Civil Rights Movement and what remains to be done in Durham and across our country? What can each of us do—starting today—to increase fairness?
This is hard work. Teachers of young children are, rightfully, unsure of how to share enough to help children make meaning without sharing too much. How much background knowledge do children need to understand Dr. King as a great leader? To find a sense of safety in knowing that their community and their country are making progress? To prepare for more in-depth studies of US history in later grades? And how much background knowledge is too much? These questions do not have simple answers and responses will vary from one classroom to the next. This is also why a high-quality district curriculum is so critical. I want teachers to spend time figuring out how to connect Dr. King to the children in their classroom—I don’t want them to have to search for the initial set of resources about Dr. King.
There is a lot of discussion in the early childhood field about the importance of teachers developing meaningful relationships with children and families. But that’s harder than it seems. How do you support this work, especially when educators have different cultural backgrounds than the children they teach?
That directly speaks to the equity challenge we have in our schools. In Durham, the student population is very diverse, and many children live in severely under-resourced communities. Teachers need to ask themselves, How do I make sure that I’m lifting up each child’s heritage in an equitable manner and as early as possible? In social studies projects, such as in North Carolina history, which we’re required to teach in early elementary, how do I present a particular time period while ensuring students see themselves in positive ways in history?
We have children in our classrooms who feel disconnected because they do not see themselves in books and other materials. There is a great opportunity for us to honor students and their cultures. Teachers feel better equipped when the curriculum provides supports. High-quality curricula are well rounded, cover topics in depth, and provide multiple perspectives and guiding questions.
When the curriculum supports teachers in this way, children become connected to what they are reading. Their academic experience begins to improve; they feel valued and they have some relevant knowledge to use for better understanding texts. When children see themselves in books, when their families are involved in their learning, and when they are asked to demonstrate their understanding through authentic projects, then engagement in reading, writing, and thinking increases.
A curriculum that explores academic topics by presenting multiple perspectives and including many different types of people is good for children—even young children. It respects them as people and as thinkers, and they respond to it.
The power of high expectations is always part of your message for teachers. Why are expectations so important to you?
I moved to Durham at the age of 5 after suddenly losing my father when I was 3½ years old. I had to adjust to a new place while dealing with grief. The teachers in Durham had a choice: they could allow me to deal with that grief by holding me to lower expectations and allowing me to retreat from learning, or they could make sure that I had support while holding me to the same expectations as the other children. I’m grateful that they chose to lift me up and push me forward. I wonder if they hadn’t, would I be where I am now? I owe my career and my success to those teachers.
When children face difficulties like living in a chaotic household or going hungry every weekend, it’s tempting to make the classroom a safe space with minimal expectations for learning. But when teachers don’t maximize children’s learning every day, they’re adding to the challenges those children face. Some children may need to see a counselor, and their families may need wraparound supports like health and housing assistance. The teacher and the school system are responsible for ensuring that happens—but not at the sacrifice of the academic work.
It’s comforting to believe that children will catch up in later grades, but research shows that most do not.
What can teachers and administrators do to counter implicit bias, locally and nationally?
I’m excited about the increasing discussions among educators about implicit bias. Conversations are happening in many communities, and I’m pleased to help them take root throughout Durham. Teachers need to reflect on the implicit biases that they bring to the classroom. Biases are inevitable—but our actions are not. In my experience, the average White, middle-class teacher was taught very little about people of color, women, or even the working class in high school and college history courses. That inhibits their ability to foster open-ended conversations with children about the contributions of the women and men of color in our history. Children pick up on that so quickly.
Once you start examining your biases, your perspective on your role shifts.
Teachers must develop an equity lens. They need to examine their implicit biases and question what that means for the conditions they create in the classroom. They have to learn concrete strategies for how to be comfortable with things that make them uncomfortable. The district has to create the safe space needed for that work by providing opportunities to grapple with colleagues and try out different approaches in the classroom. Building knowledge about different groups’ experiences and cultures takes time, but some important changes can be made immediately. For example, instead of saying “No, you can’t eat in my classroom if you come in late,” teachers need to ask themselves what it would be like to go hungry. They also need to reflect on what assumptions they are making about children who come to school late without having eaten breakfast and how those assumptions affect their ability to support and educate those children. Then they need to rethink how to solve the problem. If their school has a breakfast program, can it be expanded to offer in-class breakfast when needed? If the school does not offer breakfast, could school leaders create a small budget for graham crackers, applesauce, cheese, and other nutritious snacks to be available? Once you start examining your biases, your perspective on your role shifts.
I place a lot of responsibility on professional educators to not only teach children but to create the conditions for their success. At the same time, as a district leader, I have to ensure that all of the essential pieces are in place. Those pieces include a high-quality curriculum, ongoing professional development, family engagement, wraparound services, community involvement, and leadership support at the school and district levels. Districts must provide support to teachers through resources and strategies to ensure all children meet our very high expectations.
Photographs: © Getty Images