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Helping Students Own Their Learning

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    April Hattori

Chris Fields, a veteran 6th grade teacher at East Lower School in Rochester, NY, uses the first edition of EL Education’s ELA Curriculum in his classroom.  The school, which is an EL Education professional services partner, has 414 students, 92% of which are economically disadvantaged, according to the New York State Department of Education. The student population is 54% African American, 31% Latino, 10% White, 3% Asian or Pacific Islander, and 2% other.
EL Education School Designer Kerry Meehan-Richardson recently sat down with Chris to hear his experiences with the curriculum: 

What do you think is different about the culture at East Lower School compared to other schools where you have taught in the past?

The entire school is working to take on “EL spirit” —  we’re on the same page and have high expectations for students at all grade levels and all disciplines. We also use common formative assessments to adjust instruction and encourage students to think purposefully, and advocate for themselves and others. All teachers are on board and working together to meet the common goal of success for students.
Relative to when you first started using the curriculum, what do you think of it now?  
I feel more capable now knowing what to do with it. I know how to understand the flow. It is not the amount of times that I have used the curriculum, it is my effectiveness in using it — my understanding of the standards, the repetition in the design, and knowing how my students are doing.
Can you share your experiences with the curriculum?
I appreciate EL Education coaches coming in and helping us understand the design and how to bundle lessons based on the standards and assessment of the student to the learning target. We work in 72-minute ELA blocks every other day so it’s important to consolidate. The curriculum modules help me to be a better teacher.
Can you cite specific examples of how the curriculum has helped a student?
The other day I was giving an assessment and a student was trying to “close read” and I explained that he didn’t have time to do that. But I like that he owns that he has to close read. It is automatic now. I walk around and see kids annotating, identifying the gist, and circling unfamiliar vocabulary. One thing students have walked away with is the ability to write a solid response to literature even with getting in the counterclaim.
With the performance task, the students were completely engaged and excited.  I just looked at the assessments and it showed the students really dug in. The kids knew the assessments were coming and they went back to what they knew about how to respond to literature. I am also starting to see some “meatier” analysis. The other day I was watching a student and he said “While some people say that DDT is not harmful, what they aren’t telling you is that there are some long lasting effects.” These kids actually do research and learn how to present it.

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What advice would you give teachers who are thinking of using the curriculum?
Make sure you plan with your co-teachers and get past the personality issues or the time constraints. Some work can be done by email but it is not the same. Co-teachers should come in with intentionality. Be clear with each other about the expectations for planning and co-teaching and how to use the expertise of those who have used the modules in the past.
Pay attention to your pacing. I think teachers get caught up in “I have to cover all of this.” That’s where I was at other schools. I can now stick with it and move forward because I have internalized the design, seeing the repetition, and the bundling of standards. If I check how my students are doing and they are ready, the curriculum is designed so you can hurdle over lessons and move into the next sequence of lessons.
Use models of student work with analysis to help students see exemplars of what we are looking for in analysis. Have them look at the work with a rubric and what made it a 1, 2, and 4. Save student work at a range of levels so that you can have those conversations with kids about the success criteria. You have the push the students and give specific, immediate feedback.
Did you feel like you had to bring extra energy to the curriculum to “sell” the topics and texts to kids?
Not at all! The topics and texts sold themselves. I just had to adjust the workspace — I made the print bigger or added lines for more writing space. I didn’t change the questions in order to keep the integrity of the standards.
What advice would you give teachers as far as managing the active classrooms and relationships that have to be in play for this curriculum to work?

I would tell a teacher to “frame” the class so students know what it is going to be like and there aren’t any surprises. You have to start it on day one. I ask “What are your expectations of me?” and tell them “Here are my expectations for you. Every few lessons there will be an assessment.”
I explain to students that we will work with these things called Modules. There are 4 of them. There are central texts and supplemental texts that go with it — similar to college when professors will give you a syllabus and you’ll get assignments that you’ll have to do independently.
It is also key to teach students how to organize their materials and how to re-access them, keeping a binder with organized sections. If I ask you what the prefix “dis-” means you don’t just sit there, you use the module materials in your binder to look it up. It is a life skill.

The Rochester City School District recently spotlighted Chris and the after school reading program he created for boys.