Simplify Your Literacy Curriculum, Part 1

Including Four Elements for a One-Page Unit of Study

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Wherever I go, there is a chance I will be talking shop. This includes Thursday night league softball games. 

One of our new players is a veteran math teacher in a neighboring city. In the dugout before the game began, we were chatting about how hard the year was. “Teaching both in person and online is not something I am going to miss!” he shared. I asked him if his district was not offering any online option next year. “Oh no, they are. I am retiring at the end of this school year.” Although it sounded like he might have stuck around if the pandemic had not happened, I was not surprised to hear this. 

A more general concern here is what this might mean for education at large. For instance, typically a teacher is going to leave education in their first couple of years. They realize this was not what they had imagined teaching would be, they are not effective, and/or there is a lack of support for new teachers in a district. 

What we are now seeing is effective and experienced educators choosing to leave. Why? “The pandemic”, yes, but what specifically about it is/was so challenging that it caused some of our best to call it quits? 

Teacher Cognition and Instruction

In the book Cognitive Coaching: Developing Self-Directed Leaders and Learners, the authors devote an entire chapter to how teachers think and the impact on their instruction. It is important, they note, that:

“What teachers think affects how they behave, and their behavior directly affects student achievement. Coaches cannot achieve their goals without some understanding of the processes of teacher thinking: how teachers reason as they plan for, execute, and evaluate instruction” (131).

This would suggest that professional improvement occurs when a teacher or a leader can honestly and objectively examine their own thinking processes. What am I doing? Why am I doing this? How do I know “it” (a practice, a strategy, a resource) is truly effective? This takes both the courage to admit we can always improve and often a trusting colleague to help us see reality.

Coming back to our more seasoned colleagues, the Cognitive Coaching authors found in one study, which compared expert and novice teachers “that, although none of the expert teachers had written lesson plans, all could easily describe mental plans for their lessons” (139). Experienced teachers seem to be able to hold in their heads multiple variables – classroom management, big picture goals vs. today’s targets - instead of in a lesson planner. As a former 5th and 6th grade teacher, I did some of the same: once I was confident in and familiar with the curriculum, I could get away with only writing down the objective, what resources I needed, and evidence expected from a formative assessment. The Madeline Hunter templates from college collected dust in my file cabinet.

Why does this matter? Because teaching either online only or in combination with in-person instruction was a new experience. I lost count of how many teachers shared that “this feels like my first year in the classroom again”. In some respect, it was. One teacher who works with five- and six-year-olds confided that it took her twice the time to teach a lesson online as it did in a physical classroom. 

Combine this new situation with people’s limits in handling too many variables (David Rock is cited in Cognitive Coaching as concluding that we can only operate on about four variables simultaneously), you get teachers who are constantly overwhelmed. Not because we need to work harder or devote more time, but because the technology wild card monopolized too much of our decision-making capacity. Teachers now have to worry about whether their kids will be on Zoom on time, if the link and password works, if the wireless at home is operating as hoped, if the students have all the resources they need to learn from the living room, or the kitchen, or their bedrooms (and we could go on about how unconducive many homes are for learning).

Online learning will still be with us this fall. Elementary students will not be able to get the vaccine until at least later in the fall. Quarantines will happen. So how can we better prepare for the complexity we are dealing with? One humble suggestion is to simplify your literacy curriculum. Something must come off our mental plates. There just is not the time nor the patience to read through pages of teacher guides for every lesson, in resources written before the pandemic.

Four Steps to Simplify Your Literacy Curriculum

“When humans approach the outer limits of their capacity, a state of stress begins to set in and they feel a loss of control. Most intellectual energy appears to be invested in techniques and systems to simply, reduce, and select the number of variables. For teachers, certain planning strategies help reduce this stress.”

- Costa, Garmston, Hayes, Ellison, Cognitive Coaching: Developing Self-Directed Leaders and Learners, pg. 139

So, what comes off our plates? My vote is to revisit our units of study. This time: focus as much on the long-term goals as the daily objectives. I tried this out last summer. A co-teacher and I taught upcoming 4th graders via Zoom about growth mindset through literature. But even that unit could have been pared down and simplified. 

That is why I encourage one-page units of study now. They consist of four elements:

  • Big ideas and corresponding big questions

  • Knowledge and skill prerequisites

  • A learning projection that includes the intention and the process for each lesson

  • An authentic assessment around some type of personal project

This process is adapted from many curriculum resources. See below for a visual representation. It includes guiding questions to support the development process.

I realize that I am over 1000 words, so I think this will be at least a two-part post. Later this month (sign up below if you are not already), I will go into more detail about each of the four steps laid out here to simplify your literacy curriculum. 

Join us next month for our annual summer book study. We are reading Cultivating Genius by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad. Read along with us while several educators will offer their contributions on this site to the text.

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