The Power of Curriculum

I am thrilled to share this guest blog post written by Jessica Codispoti, a 3rd grade teacher in our district. Here, she reflects on her use of curriculum and what she's done this year to get even better. It's a fantastic example of how a strong curriculum in the hands of a reflective teacher is a powerful force for change in classrooms. Enjoy!

Over the last 15 years, I have had the opportunity to learn and grow from the many different curriculums, (or lack of curriculums) that I’ve been asked to teach. My first year of teaching was intimidating and stressful as I tried to figure out how to communicate with parents, manage classroom behaviors, and frankly just teach! Luckily, my school used a basal reading program that told me exactly what to do. We focused on one text and one concept (main idea, vocabulary, character traits, etc.) each week. At the end of each week, there was a comprehension assessment on the same text that determined if students learned the concept of the week. At this point in my career, I was stressed, but happy to have a curriculum to follow.

A few years later, schools started to realize that the basal programs had some gaps in covering standards because students weren't performing well on state assessments. We were asked to supplement the program to fill those gaps. This left me searching each evening for material that I thought would cover those standards. At this point in my career, I was unsure and confused if I was addressing the missed standards successfully and never felt as though I was doing the right things for my students. It wasn’t a great feeling!

Just as I was getting this down, wouldn’t you know it, education shifted again. I was now asked to abandon the basal reading program altogether and become a curriculum writer myself (not something I was trained to be). I had to search for a science or social studies text every week that would align with my ELA standards and that I could write tasks to. Students would read the text the first day and spend the next few days working through different tasks with the text. Tasks might focus on vocabulary, character traits, main idea, etc. The final day had students take a comprehension assessment on the text. That assessment was written by me and mirrored questions on the state assessment. I was working harder than ever! It took hours to find a text that I thought was rigorous enough, but not too hard, write tasks, and write assessments. The real problem was though, I never knew if what I chose was grade level appropriate, if the questions I was asking were on track, or if I was doing what was best for students. This time in my teaching career was EXHAUSTING!

Although, I was becoming a better curriculum writer and knew my tasks were better than the basal program, I still needed experts to write a curriculum where the text was at the center and students worked through many tasks to make meaning of that text. Enter…..EL Education! I was given this curriculum, which was written in the manner I needed, however, there…was…so…much! There were 4 teacher manuals, 4 supporting material books, 4 student work books, 4 additional center books, and 4 student center books. On top of all the books, we weren’t given a whole lot of professional development on how to implement the curriculum. It was overwhelming to look at and not something I was excited to read. So, I turned back to my previous experiences and began searching for something to make it easier and less time consuming. What did I find? Premade PowerPoint slides that went through each lesson. I was SAVED (or so I thought)! I followed the slides for each lesson and thought I was doing a great job. However, when assessment time came, my students were failing. Instead of thinking about how my teaching was affecting those assessments, I started reaching out to coaches and explained that I wasn’t covering the material that was on the assessments and I needed to change them (because after all, I’m a curriculum writer, right?) That’s what I did, changed the assessments to meet the needs of the PowerPoint slides. Finally, I thought I had it all together.

Then, Cathy Pressnell asked me to attend a summer literacy institute that changed my world! This institute focused on all things EL Education. I learned why the curriculum was written the way it was and then dug into everything within the lessons. I looked at the purpose of each lesson and how that purpose was taught through tasks. During this institute, I realized that by only following the PowerPoint slides, I was missing the purpose of each lesson and that my students weren’t learning what they needed to. I also realized that my questioning wasn’t quite what it needed to be either. I was asking great questions and getting great responses, but the questions were not guiding the students toward the purpose of the lesson. I also realized that because I was missing so much, this was affecting their assessment scores and causing those failing grades I mentioned before. This week of learning made me realize that I needed to change my thinking and dig in to that teacher manual if I wanted to get the most growth and learning out of my students.

So, that bring us to this year. 

I made a commitment to myself at the end of the literacy institute that I was going to teach the curriculum the way it was written to the best of my ability and that’s what I’ve done! Here is what I’ve noticed:

  • Students are doing the work! I'm no longer standing in front of the class having students copy what they need on those graphic organizers. Students are doing the work, finding evidence to support their thoughts, and writing their thinking on the organizers.
  • The lessons actually make sense! By following the close reading guides and what is written in the teacher manual, I'm actually teaching the purpose of each lesson and my students are able to connect ideas from day to day much easier.
  • The assessments were perfect BEFORE I changed them! By following the manual, asking the scaffolded questions, and following the guides, I found that the assessment questions were appropriate and aligned to the learning done in the lessons. So, I started giving the original assessments and found that students weren't failing them anymore! They were prepared for them because the lessons did teach the concepts!
  • Digging into the lessons and really figuring out what I'm teaching is not taking as much time as I thought. When I was first presented with the curriculum, I was overwhelmed, but now, after really teaching it for the last 6 months, I've found that it's not taking as long to read and figure out what I'm teaching. There are many parts within the curriculum which repeat or use the same format and that make planning easier now on the tail end of the year!
  • Following the teacher manual instead of the PowerPoint slides has increased my class involvement and has given me more time to spend with my students asking questions and listening to their thinking. I'm no longer standing in front of my class running through slides. I'm at their desks listening to their thoughts and know more about what they know than I did when I was teaching from slides!
  • Students are growing and learning more! I've noticed a new confidence in my students. They understand what they are learning and are applying that new knowledge to benchmark assessments. My iReady scores are higher, their goals are higher, and I've set higher expectations that they are reaching! It makes me excited, them excited, and their families!

I know the stresses that come from teaching and know that teachers don’t need one…more…thing…but if you are willing to take on one more thing, let it be to dig into that teacher guide! Following the EL Teacher Guided Curriculum has not only changed the way that I teach, but it has changed the way my students learn. It was a long a road to get here, but one that changed who I am as a teacher and one that I wouldn’t trade for anything! At this point in my career, I KNOW I’m doing the right thing, I KNOW I’m teaching the right way, and I KNOW I’m changing the lives of my students for the better!

I couldn't have said it half as well, Jessica.

Here's to simply teaching well,

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