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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 16

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    EL Education

Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back every week for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

Question: How can I foster a culture of grappling in my classroom so that students learn to enjoy taking on the challenges in the curriculum?


“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” 

There are two important messages embedded in this quote by Maria Montessori. The first is that students should have the opportunity to try things and to puzzle through challenges independently or with peers. In other words, they shouldn’t always be “taught” how to do things before they try them, and they shouldn’t be bailed out at the first sign of struggle, because engaging in a productive struggle is how we learn.

The second is the message about the importance of getting the level of challenge right. Students must be able to see a path to success—they must grapple with something within their reach. This doesn’t mean that they won’t need scaffolds and support to help get them there, but those must be skillfully employed. Some of the most intricate work of designing this curriculum was finding this sweet spot with the level of challenge. What are the texts and tasks that will give students an opportunity to grapple productively and to see that they can succeed by persevering through something difficult? What scaffolds can we predict students will need to find success.

The close reading/close read-alouds that are woven throughout the curriculum often involve grappling as students have a first go at reading complex texts. The process is carefully scaffolded so that students have the experience of pushing through challenging material in a way that leads to success, not to frustration. Close reading is also carefully introduced to students at the start of the year, in Module 1, in a way that builds in them a sense of playful exploration and academic courage.

It is important to note that often lesson arcs of two to three lessons might feature a period of grappling in the first lesson, with students reaching greater clarity over the course of a few days. They won’t always push through and reach those “aha” moments during one lesson. This is why it is so important to look out ahead with lessons so you have a feel for these rhythms and can help students stay in the zone of the productive struggle without being tempted to “rescue” them.

Building Academic Courage

A sense of academic courage, which allows grappling and productive struggle to thrive in the classroom, can be fostered in all parts of the school day. The following list provides an overview of strategies you can use to create a class culture in which challenge or struggle is viewed as a way to learn, not as a barrier to learning:

  • Build common language in your classroom for “grappling.” You don’t have to call it grappling, but label it for students. Make grappling a class routine with specific strategies (e.g., anchor charts for what to try when we feel stuck).
  • Give students tangible successes early in the year by designing tasks you know they can be successful with and supporting them to do the tasks with quality. Give students lots of individual feedback to help them grow and regularly point out their growth.
  • Talk explicitly about the importance of taking on challenges in order to learn. When appropriate, read and discuss with students short pieces of research about having a growth mindset and its impact on learning.
  • Use group initiatives to practice grappling with a challenge, tenacity, and problem-solving; discuss application to classroom lessons when debriefing the initiative.
  • Engage students in discussions that make the link between character traits and the grapple phase of your lessons (e.g., “What does perseverance look like? What are tips for helping yourself keep going when the going is hard?”)
  • Create meaningful metaphors for instilling a growth mindset (e.g., the mind is a muscle that can get stronger).
  • Do a “zones of comfort” activity: Draw concentric circles for the comfort, stretch, and panic zones. Students identify the types of experiences they have that fall into the different zones. Point out that the stretch zone is our learning zone—we learn best when we are a little uncomfortable. 

While our curriculum, particularly at the beginning of the school year, goes slow with grappling activities, this is an area that benefits from a holistic approach in your classroom. Building a culture of grappling throughout the day—from morning meeting to recess to mathematics lessons—will support students to build a growth mindset, persevere through challenging material, and take academic risks in an emotionally safe and supportive environment.

For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or our book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum. If you have questions related to this blog, please email us at: ELcurriculumblog@eleducation.org.