Looking Backwards, Thinking Forward: Some Thoughts at the End of the Year

Another Wild Ride

It was another wild ride this year as districts and schools like New York City’s ramped up their efforts to implement the Common Core Standards and the Instructional Shifts, and to my mind at least, the speed of change was astounding—if not downright terrifying. In what often felt like one fell swoop, Fountas & Pinnell reading levels were out, and Lexile levels were in. Just right books were out, complex texts were in. Genre-based units seemed to be out, while theme-based units were in. And structures and practices I personally believe in, like balanced literacy and writing workshop, suddenly seemed under siege.

Additionally contradictions and mixed messages abounded. New York City, for instance, adopted a teacher evaluation system based on Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching—which, among other things, scores teachers on their ability to design high-level, coherent instruction—at the same time they recommended that schools adopt a scripted packaged reading program. And while the Common Core asks students to demonstrate self-directed independence, self-directed independent reading based on student choice risked becoming an endangered species as whole class novels made a comeback and differentiation, as we’ve known it, was like a dirty word.

school-segregationAll this led to an unprecedented level of uncertainty, and not just here in New York. According to an Education Week article titled “Rifts Deepen Over Direction of Ed. Policy,” “Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized . . . . ” And a piece in the mainstream publication The Atlantic called “The Coming Revolution in Public Education” made a Common-Core-worthy argument for “Why the current wave of reforms, with its heavy emphasis on standardized tests, may actually be harming students” (which was the piece’s subtitle).

This turmoil also left many teachers unsure of exactly how to proceed as we gathered together for the annual ritual that’s known as June planning days—i.e., grade-level and across-grade collaborative meetings to revise and align curriculum maps and unit plans for next year. To get a sense of what was coming down the pike, I began some of these sessions by looking at the Model Content Frameworks for ELA/Literacy put out by PARCC, one of the two consortiums awarded grants to design what purports to be the next generation of Common Core assessment as well as the assessments that will eventually evaluate how well schools are addressing the Standards.

PARCC Model Content Framework

As you can see in the 8th Grade sample above, PARCC divides the year into modules, with specific numbers of texts and tasks specified for each module and grade. And while many of us, including me, were intrigued by the idea of theme- or topic-based units, I worried about the emphasis on texts instead of readers—or on what we read, not how we read—as I believe that understanding how we read is critical if want students to be able to transfer learning from one text to another. And as much as humanly possible, I wanted to keep the writing authentic and not turned it into a string of assignments.

That meant we had to figure out how to preserve and build in some kind of genre-based inquiry work, which would give students opportunities to practice the particular kind of thinking a reader does in particular kinds of texts, into the content framework. And after wrestling with this for a while, I came up with a unit template that looked like this:

Theme-Topic Graphic w copyright

The template is built on an idea I borrowed from Heather Lattimer‘s great book Thinking Through Genre: that rather than balancing reading and writing on a daily basis, we can balance them over the course of a unit by beginning with an emphasis on reading and ending with a focus on writing. Within a designated topic or theme, we would also identify a particular genre to study in depth in reading and in writing, and while that study work went on in reading, students could be doing lots of quickwrites and responses connected to their reading across the three writing modes of the Standards. Then as the unit became more writing heavy with a specific genre focus, they could be reading some texts in a variety of genres that added to their understanding and discussion of the topic or theme. This means that in the kind of author study I’ve written about before, students might be reading fiction to see, practice and experience for themselves how readers construct an understanding of an author’s themes. Then as the instructional focus shifted to writing, they’d read some biographies and/or interviews with the author or books the author’s written in other genres.

The hope is that this kind of blending and balancing of topics or themes with genre studies will allow students to both build the kind of content knowledge through texts that the Common Core calls for while developing students’ capacity to independently make meaning, which can only happen when we focus on readers and ways of thinking more than texts. Of course, it’s still a work-in progress, which I’m sure will grow and change. But it helped some teachers enough that I feel ready to move on to other projects—which includes starting a new book on reading, which I’ll share more about over the summer—and to trade in what often felt like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride for a nice, slow boat down a river.

Wind-in-the-Willows-logo

8 thoughts on “Looking Backwards, Thinking Forward: Some Thoughts at the End of the Year

    • You’re so welcome, Randy! I think I heard from Laura that you all decided to hold on to your own curriculum and not jump on the ReadyGen bandwagon, which I think is great. Know, though, that I’m here and would love the opportunity to work with all of you again if you run into any snags.

  1. Thanks for sharing Vicki! Our teachers were struggling with all of this as well. It certainly does seem like a “wild ride.” We have been trying to reconcile grade level texts with texts that students can read, especially at the elementary level. I like how you were able to merge what you know about good instruction with the demands of the CCSS and PARCC.

    • That does seem to be the challenge, Tina–taking a step in the PARCC direction while still holding on to what we know about best practice. And despite what other models out there say, I think the best way of moving kids up the ‘staircase of complexity’ is to help them engage in complex thinking in texts they’re able to access and then step them up to texts that are more challenging, building on their strengths not their deficits. In addition to using read alouds wisely, that means finding some low reading level texts that offer real opportunities for inferential/interpretative/thematic thinking. They’re out there but we have to choose carefully and balance the work we do around fluency and word attack skills with some deeper thinking work.

  2. Ooh, Ahh! I’m loving your template and your thinking about balancing reading/writing not on a daily basis, but over the course of a unit. I did that by accident sometimes last year, but seeing your graphic makes me want to try it by DESIGN in the coming year!

  3. This is very interesting to read now in December, after I tried something very similar in my class earlier this month. The idea of mixing up the reading and writing time so that it is more task and purpose based- rather than schedule based, well that makes a lot of sense to me. And it worked really well in my class as we worked on our “Traditional Lit Awards” – for serious lack of a better title! I saw some of my students absorbed in their work in ways our normal schedule doesn’t foster for them. I like the idea of designing instruction like this, thank you Vicki. I found this post as I am doing some reading around differentiation, and found it very informative and helpful. I am not sure of the etiquette around responding so late to posts, but I just read it and wanted to respond anyway!

    • And I’m so glad that your comment led me to your blog and the post about your Traditional Literature project, which sounded amazing, and the great Kathy Collins quote. And no worries about etiquette. Reading blogs and writing comments should be purpose-based rather than schedule-based to!

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