Part 11 of Teacher Perspectives

Inside Implementation of Wit and Wisdom

Bringing complex content and instruction into a high-needs school district

I recently reconnected with Cassie, one of my past students, who is now in 8th grade. Cassie has always had a difficult home life and is now bouncing around foster families and group homes. A couple weeks ago she was reminiscing about a book we read in 4th grade and I immediately cringed. It was a fun and funny book, but I knew that Cassie read that book because it was a good match for her group’s level more than anything else. It certainly wasn’t the best choice I could have made for a student like Cassie, dealing with poverty, abuse, and neglect. Until last year, I diligently used guided reading groups based on students’ instructional levels and while I was certainly aware of the discrepancy in content between the different levels of text, I didn’t really think of the impact this might have on my students.

I teach in the Mad River Local School District, outside Dayton, OH. We have 60.2% of students on free/reduced lunch. Last year, I was part of a pilot program in my district implementing the Wit & Wisdom curriculum, created by Great Minds. Wit & Wisdom was the first Language Arts curriculum I had used since I packed my basals away a decade ago. I was skeptical, but knew my current instruction was failing to meet the depth and rigor of the new standards. Wit & Wisdom is a total language arts program, including writing, language, and speaking and listening standards. Each grade has four units, each based on an essential question and a thematic text set, including novels, informational text, poetry, videos, and artwork.  All of the reading, writing, vocabulary, and grammar are woven into the quality texts that are carefully chosen to build knowledge and deepen understanding of a topic. In 4th grade, we studied the literal and figurative heart, extreme environments, the American Revolution, and Greek mythology.

Meeting the expectations within the Wit & Wisdom program was really hard– for me and my students! The program leads students to a very deep level of thinking that requires a great deal of teacher preparation. We engaged in repeated reading and close reading, both of which were new to my students and required them to build endurance. Wit & Wisdom also expected much more quantity and quality of student writing than I had been asking of my students previously, and they had to build this stamina as well. Finally, for my striving readers who had been in leveled reading groups, it was an adjustment to engage with grade-level, complex text.

The adjustment was hard, but it was so worth it. My students built their endurance and they were excited to stick with one topic for such a long time, enjoying the opportunity to become experts on these topics. They were especially excited about sharing their knowledge and to write four-paragraph essays to demonstrate this. They started thinking about reading differently and making connections between all sorts of texts in their lives.

For example, the final 4th grade module asks, “What can we learn from myths and stories?” We read Greek and Native American myths, such as Pandora’s Box and Cannibal Monster, as well as the novel Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. All of these core texts address the presence of hope in the face of hardship. It’s very powerful to see 4th graders connecting ancient Greek mythology to their chapter book. My students were able to make connections between how both the reader and the main character in Walk Two Moons dig deep to uncover the truth and the way Pandora opens the box, getting more than she bargained for. One of my students, Annie, put this beautifully when she said, “Ever since we started reading this book, I’ve been seeing things different. It’s like life is made up of puzzle pieces you have to put together.”

Now I think, what if this were the story I had shared with Cassie? How much more powerful would it be for her to have internalized this message of taking pieces of your life, even if they’re broken, and figuring out how they fit together?  I wish I’d had Wit & Wisdom to share with Cassie so that she could have experienced the integrated, thought-provoking journeys that my students now enjoy. I know she would have risen to that challenge and blown me away just like Annie and so many others did last year. I always knew the importance of having high expectations for my students, but sometimes we need something new and difficult to make us stop and reflect. What would happen if I expected more? What would happen if I gave them complex texts to help them make sense of their complex lives, along with the confidence and tools to fit the pieces together?

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About the Author: Sarah Webb taught third and fourth grade for 10 years and now does ELL and Curriculum Support for Mad River Local Schools in Riverside, Ohio. She has a Masters in Literacy from the University of Dayton where she also teaches adjunct courses.