The Wild West of Open Literacy Materials

Identifying and using high-quality, ELA Open Educational Resources successfully

Editor’s note: This blog post has been republished with permission. It was originally published as a three-part series on the Achievement Network Blog. We’ll share parts 1 and 2 in this Aligned post. To see part 3, visit the Achievement Network Blog here.

We’ve all been there: Maybe it’s Sunday night; maybe you have a few precious minutes of planning time. You’re scrambling to prepare a lesson and you think, why reinvent the wheel? Let’s check the interwebs. You google your topic and…28,000,000 results pop up. How on Earth do you decide what might be worth using with your students?

It’s not uncommon for teachers to huddle in front of computers, sifting through the wild west of free education resources available on the internet. A recent report from the RAND Corporation revealed 99 percent of teachers in this country use “materials I developed and/or selected myself” as part of their literacy instruction.

And this is no small task. Almost half of teachers reported spending four or more hours a week searching for materials, with Google and Pinterest the most frequently consulted websites. Frustratingly, most of those hours are probably wasted trying to distinguish a few educationally sound resources amongst the clutter. And we know that in addition to teacher effectiveness, the quality of the instructional materials they employ is one of the most critical factors in student achievement.

“We’re seeing a need for concrete, ready-to-use materials that teachers can take and run with, but that also have a long-lasting impact on student learning,” explain Joey Hawkins and Diana Leddy of the Vermont Writing Collaborative. “Open source materials run the range and it can be a real challenge for teachers to navigate everything that’s out there.” They’re right. There are a lot of education resources out there, free for the taking—the challenge is figuring out what’s worthy of precious instructional time.

Clearly, there’s an urgent need to empower teachers and leaders to make good decisions about the instructional materials they choose. In response, we at ANet have developed a three-step system of guidance that will facilitate the selection process.

1. Select high-quality materials

The IMET rubric aims to help educators identify and evaluate the quality of an entire curricula while the EQUIP rubric was designed to help leaders and teachers evaluate the quality of lessons and units. The following markers of quality and alignment were developed with these two rubrics in mind.

What should I look for to know that materials are high-quality?

  • Texts are authentic and complex, and include reading, writing, and discussion questions that are based on the text and scaffold toward the key understanding(s) of the text.
  • Materials include scaffolded, text-dependent questions and writing tasks that are aligned to grade-level standards, not anchor-level standards.
  • Texts and questions push students to build world knowledge and don’t focus solely on discrete literacy skills in isolation from the text.
  • Materials provide multiple opportunities for students to express their thinking through a variety of question types and tasks.
  • Learning activities place the majority of “heavy lifting” on students, rather than teachers.

Resources

Below are several high-quality and Common Core-aligned free literacy education resources. Explore these materials with the markers of quality and the needs of your students in mind.

2. Unpack the materials for understanding

Getting your hands on high-quality materials is a critical first step, but  it’s how you use those materials to thoughtfully prepare and strategically plan your instruction that matters most for student learning.

Understanding the structure of a resource will help you determine whether it’s a good fit for your students. When it comes to open-source materials that are larger than a single lesson, start by asking yourself a few questions about the purpose behind their content and design:

  • What is the learning purpose and focus of the unit/module and how is that conveyed in teacher- and student-facing materials?
  • How does the design of the unit/module or lesson reflect and support the instructional shifts?
  • When and where are students doing the “heavy lifting” and how will you support them while maintaining high expectations?

When you sit down to plan, you may find it helpful to use this internalization protocol. Start by completing the tasks that students will have to solve so you can internalize what they need to know and be able to do by the end of the lesson or unit. Read the central text(s) and write a response to the culminating writing prompt. Answer the text-dependent questions yourself to understand how they connect to one another and build toward the big ideas in the text. Nothing helps you support students to meet learning goals better than pushing yourself to experience the exact same thinking and doing that students are being asked to do.

3. Adjust, teach, and reflect

When you’re using a resource that you know is high quality, try it out before making significant changes.  We’ve learned from our schools that taking the time to read through a lesson or unit closely helps deepen your understanding of the purpose behind the design and content, and how it all fits together. As you review, think about what you’ve taught and what you’re planning to teach, and look for opportunities to help students make connections between past and future learning. Teachers know their students unique strengths and areas of development, and constantly gather this information through qualitative and quantitative data. Leverage that knowledge to guide your approach and as you’re teaching, gather data that will help you think about ways to increase the effectiveness of those materials when you use them in the future. Ongoing post-observation conversations between teachers and leaders help us think about where we’ve found traction and where we might have missed the mark.

After identifying, analyzing, and adapting high-quality materials, you’re prepared to support your students in meeting their learning goals.

In our next post, we’ll take a look at how two teachers from AUSL in Chicago, IL, used materials from the Vermont Writing Collaborative to help develop a classroom of knowledgeable writers.

To continue reading this series, please see the final post on the Achievement Network’s blog here.

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