Adapting an ELA Curriculum for Standards-Based Learning

Cassie Mense teaches at a Title One, suburban school in Escambia County, Florida with 100% of the students receiving free breakfast and lunch.

I embarked upon my first real teacher challenge, full of excitement, the year I became part of the adoption process for what would become our district’s new reading series.  Companies sent in colorful samples of their products, carrying bags, and technology ideas. The whole process was fascinating. In the end, we were presented with two options from which to choose. A representative from each came in and gave us their well-rehearsed pitch. We took this information back by us to our schools and teachers voted for their choice.  These votes were used to determine the overall school choice.  Each school vote was taken to the next district reading meeting and was used to determine the chosen series. Eventually, the Wonders series from McGraw-Hill Education came out on top. To be honest, I voted for the other guy.

We now had to quickly dive into this new series. We heard the district refer to it as a “buffet” of resources during training. To me it was overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. Wonders held many great resources but they were not being used to the best of their abilities. It was a Picasso painting with many wonderful and functional pieces that seemed all jumbled up.  My biggest concern was that I felt that I did not have enough time to stop and really focus on a skill in order to help my students build mastery. If a student struggled with theme, it would be weeks before we swung back to the topic. The pacing and structure of the curriculum didn’t allow me the flexibility to provide support that I knew was needed. The series was also lacking in rich text-dependent questioning. The essential questions were easily answered in the first day or so of the lessons.  I wanted more depth to my lessons and time to present it. My students needed to be challenged.

Within the reading department, word was spreading about another county that had taken the Wonders series and devised their own set of pacing guides, or frameworks, around it.  Essentially, Lake County took the whole series and rearranged lessons, stories, standards, and rebuilt it in a way that it gave teachers more time to aid their students in mastering those standards. These new frameworks also provided more opportunities to incorporate additional content-rich text and gave the time for project-based learning activities and deep dives into ideas. Our department leaders received permission from Lake County to adapt these frameworks for our own Escambia County, and I very happily joined the committee that would carry out the process.

We built our frameworks (accessed here by permission) as the school year was in motion and added resources as we, on the committee, were personally using them in our own classes. This current school year is the first that we have had the completed set of frameworks. The creators, myself included, presented the training prior to school starting. In that hour we broke down the frameworks for the educators. We first gave the “why” behind the new framework guides, explaining to our teachers how the guides would provide them with the opportunity to truly dive into a standard before moving on the next week. Because I had spent a year with this guide in my own classroom, I felt confident in praising its ability to give us back the power to teach through the incorporation of fun, project-based lessons by giving us the time we needed to complete them.

We then introduced the teachers to the new layout, helping them locate all the familiar information in its new frame or colored block, and demonstrated the new resources that would make their lesson planning and execution flow easily. Among these resources was a section dedicated to standards-based question stems for each unit for both the writing standards and “additional tasks” to help with project-based learning ideas. We also took all of those incredible web-based resources — that are generally only shared among teaching friends or mentioned in professional development — and included the links and a short idea of what each resource provided. Sites such as Newsela.com, Teentribune.org, and Readworks.org were presented as additional tools to help provide students with content-rich text. We let them ask questions and, most importantly, express concerns about everything that seemed new to them. I had many teachers approach me after the training and thank me for explaining the frameworks in a way that was grounded in the classroom. Using them myself made it easy to share the positive possibilities of using the Wonders lessons in a different order than was recommended by the publishers.

The frameworks themselves are standards-based and serve as a home for each grade’s resources. Each unit is broken into weeks, like Wonders, but is a blend of standards and skills that relate to each other. Wonders stories are assigned to those weeks as well as additional resources from sources like Readwritethink.org and Newsela.com.  Most importantly, these new frameworks give us the time we are always looking for to teach a standard thoroughly without rushing on. In Unit 5, students are understanding poetry, drama; in addition, they now have three weeks to make these connections to theme. This gives us time to build our own plays based on a science standard (Who doesn’t love STEM?!), create a 3D diorama of a written poem, or tie the lesson into a written presentation.

The students are introduced to the Unit standards at the start of each Unit and have time to become comfortable with them over the weeks given. There is time for students who quickly grasp the ideas to be assigned those enrichment projects that we, as teachers, love but often have to jump past. There is time for students who need a day or two more to keep practicing. Most importantly, there is time to reteach for our lowest babies who previously were having to quickly move onto another skill that might not relate at all to the previously missed one.

I love many parts of the Wonders series. The bones are great!  Calling the series a “buffet” helped us see that it was there to serve our needs and our students’ needs. We accepted that sometimes the script can be changed. By using the stories and resources within Wonders as pieces in our frameworks, we are using the curriculum to the best of its abilities.

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About the Author: Cassie Mense, Florida, has been teaching for 8 years in Escambia County, Florida. In 2017, she was named one of the top 5 finalists for the Escambia County School District teacher of the year. She is a Level One Google Technology certified teacher, PBS Learning Media Digital Innovator, contributor with Student Achievement Partners and a presenter for Barnes & Noble Maker Day events. In her personal time she is a member of TeacHER, a group focused on building relationships with female educators and other child-focused career paths. She has a passion for math and STEM based learning that she works to build into hands on activities for her students. Through community-funded projects, she has incorporated cooking skills, robotics, and 3d printing into math, ELA, and science lessons with her fourth grade students.