Most people begin new year’s resolutions in January. But teachers know: summer’s end is when the new year really begins. As summer days draw close to the start of school, we turn our thoughts to the possibilities: This year, I’ll engage every student in my class. This year, I’ll ramp up writing. This year, I’ll teach rigorous, cross-curricular content in my English class.
When I was in the classroom, I always started the year strong—setting goals up front: engagement for all, writing for all, rigor for all. As the year progressed, the going got tough: I have so many students reading below grade level; teaching grammar might be boring; etc. Sometimes, when the going got tough, I’d default to an easier road. Much like the earnest health-seeker after a season of rich holiday meals, I initially set lofty goals but sometimes lacked the tools—or stamina—to consistently aim high throughout the year.
Two years ago, the idea of realizing an ambitious new year’s resolution list became more feasible. I joined the educator’s equivalent of a dream gym: a group of teacher–writers at a little nonprofit with a big mission. We set out to create an English curriculum—Wit & Wisdom—written for teachers, by teachers. We wanted to shift the paradigm by building a curriculum focused on content-rich books and compelling questions—for all students.
But it was not going to be easy to stick to the plan. Many teachers who implemented Wit & Wisdom for the first time last year admitted that shifting the paradigm to a demanding, book-based curriculum wasn’t easy. (But neither is showing up, consistently, to my yoga class.) As our teachers head into their second year teaching with Wit & Wisdom, we know that the payoff for sticking with a rigorous curriculum is far from instant. But we also know, as with all the research pointing to the benefits of yoga, that the payoff is real.
Here are three key outcomes I saw in Wit & Wisdom classrooms—from Worcester, Massachusetts; to Owensboro, Kentucky; to Aurora, Colorado—where teachers and leaders made a new year’s resolution to raise expectations and engage all learners. And they stuck with it.
1. Rigor is for all.
2. Engaging all learners is possible.
3. It’s more than ELA.
Come back to these three takeaways from time to time. They may help you sustain the energy for meeting your back-to-school goals when the going gets tough in your classroom this year:
1. Rigor is for all.Teachers included. A curriculum can be a trusted colleague. Choosing a high-quality one empowers you with tools to set all students up for success. But the first year will be focused on learning the curriculum, deeply reading and rereading the texts, practicing the instructional routines, and thinking carefully about the pacing of what and how you teach.
Alexandra Longo, a Grade 4 Wit & Wisdom teacher in Philadelphia, shared, “Initially, I felt overwhelmed. I’ve never worked with a curriculum that demanded students and myself to dive so deeply into a lesson or text.” Many Wit & Wisdom teachers know that studying and personalizing the educative lessons plans is a big investment. But sticking with it paid off when they realized that, even though we may think content is just too hard for our students, raising the bar can have surprising results.
2. Engaging ALL learners in grade-level text and writing is possible. Wit & Wisdom builds your toolbox for engaging the wide range of learners in your classroom. Wit and Wisdom teachers engage all learners with the following strategies (to name a few):
Focus on fluency.
Use visual art to generate critical thinking.
Practice daily Content Framing Questions to provide points of entry into text.
Practice daily Craft Questions to provide powerful structures for writing.
Engage in daily Deep Dives into vocabulary and syntax (the two most critical factors in complex text).
These powerful strategies have yielded some tangible results for Carla Chavez, an ELA acquisition teacher in Aurora, Colorado, who shared, “What I’ve been most impressed with are the Deep Dives. They are so supportive in helping students—especially English learners—become better speakers, listeners, readers, and writers.”
3. It’s more than ELA. Turns out, students want to be expert in deep subject matter. They will explore a science or social studies topic for six to eight weeks. When you put books in the hands of students—books that tell compelling tales—and surround those books with song lyrics, articles, visual art, and interviews on the same compelling topics, even students we may think are totally disengaged or too academically challenged can find something rich and deep in the vocabulary and the content.
Zack Duberstein, a principal in Philadelphia, noted, “At first, we were hesitant to engage with such a challenging curriculum, but now we are seeing students more engaged and experiencing higher achievement than we have in previous years.”
As my yoga teacher often reminds me, give yourself a pat on the back for showing up. As you implement a curriculum that challenges you and all your students, know that you are not alone in rising to the occasion. You are part of a community of educators who are finding the power—and joy—of partnering with a unique and compelling way to teach and to learn.