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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 41

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    Katie Shenk

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

Come back the second Tuesday of each month for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog

Question: How can teachers adapt a performance task to help students feel empowered to become agents of change within their own communities?

What are performance tasks in EL Education’s K-5 Language Arts curriculum?

Unit 3 of each module culminates with a student performance task. Students get support in synthesizing and transferring their knowledge and understanding from the module lessons, in terms of both content and literacy, in an authentic, and often collaborative, task. The performance task is scaffolded with models, drafts, critique, and revision to lead to high-quality work.

Technically, the performance tasks at the end of every K-5 module are neither formative, nor summative assessments. They are not formative since they come at the end of the module, concluding students’ learning about the module topic and the literacy skills they have built over eight or nine weeks. However, they are also not summative because they are heavily scaffolded to help students create high-quality work, so they are not a strong measure of what students can do independently.

Why adapt a performance task?

As designers of a national curriculum, it’s nearly impossible to tailor a performance task to all of the contexts in which the curriculum is taught. Thus, the performance task is a good option for teachers to consider adapting to make more relevant to students’ personal lives as well as possible community needs. Making modifications to the performance task can enhance the authenticity of the task as well as give teachers the opportunity to be creative and feel greater ownership.

What enhancements might a teacher make to a performance task?

In this post, we’ll share the story of Kendall Reiley and Holly Armstrong, two fifth-grade teachers at Glenwood Springs Elementary School in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, who modified the performance task for 5th grade, Module 3: Athletes of Social Change.   Reiley and Armstrong give us insight into why they decided to adapt the task, the key steps they took, and how the changes have impacted their students and community.

It’s important to note that this modification is quite involved and complex and that Reiley and Armstrong were already experienced with the curriculum. Their previous experience teaching the module, understanding of the logic of the design of it, and collaboration with each other, the community, and school leaders were essential to students’ success. Based on your own context and experience with the curriculum, you may feel eager to take on the challenge of making modifications—but keep in mind it’s ok to start small (for example, maybe you simply want to find a more authentic audience for your performance task). Either way, adapting a performance task can feel like a low risk, high gain experience (remember, performance tasks themselves are not designed to be assessments in our curriculum).  Here are a few specific ways in which a performance task might be altered (in order of least complex to most complex):

  1. Determine a more authentic audience for your performance task. Example: Fourth-grade students create PSAs about voting and share share the press release with local media, such as television, radio stations, or newspapers. (Planning consideration: community connections)
  2. Adapt the format of the task. Example: Third grade students create their Freaky Frog books in an ebook format with an audio recording of the text. (Planning consideration: models, time, and technology needed)
  3. Add a new element to the performance task. Example: Kindergarten students publish a weather narrative as a bound book, creating a beautiful cover page and adding an “About the Author” and “Weather Facts” page. (Planning considerations: models of about the author and fact pages, time, visual arts instruction, and materials for book)
  4. Design a modified version of the task: Example and planning considerations: read below!

It’s important to remember that one of the Design Principles of EL Education is Responsibility for Learning. As teachers, we need to take ownership over our curriculum, and that means making it the best possible for your students. Kendall Reiley & Holly Armstrong, Fifth Grade teachers at Glenwood Springs Elementary School

What inspired you to adapt the performance task for the Athletes of Social Change module?

Reiley and Armstrong: We wanted students to feel that leading social change is an accessible thing for them to do, and that you don’t have to be famous or a pro athlete to do so. We felt that the performance task as it was designed was very specific and that students who weren’t interested in professional sports might be disengaged. Finally, we wanted to incorporate an authentic audience.

What modifications did you actually make? Why?

Reiley and Armstrong: We modified the performance task in order to make it more authentic and student-centered. Instead of a poster, students designed a campaign-like yard sign highlighting a personal quality that they identified in a leader of change. Then, instead of creating a presentation, they wrote an essay that connected that quality to their own actions. To support this “Campaign for Leadership” as we named this task, we made a few revisions to our instruction. We added a series of lessons between Units 2 and 3 so students could research local leaders. We also had to adapt much of Unit 3 to prepare them for this essay. However, we were careful not to make modifications that would impact the assessments (and because we had experience teaching the module, we were able to make informed decisions).

What knowledge, skills and tools did you use to make these modifications to the Task?   

Reiley and Armstrong: The performance task planner was a HUGE help to us as we made these modifications [a modified version of this tool can be found at  the end of the post]. It helped us think about the big picture of the goal of the modifications as well as the small picture of how to build instruction. Doing a test drive was the other key piece; we built the notecatchers and essay planners off of our test drive, so that we would make sure to have all of the key components of the essay.  [Read this post about test drives from December 2018]

How did you set students up for success with this revised task?

Reiley and Armstrong: Building excitement around this task was instrumental to the process. When students saw an exemplar of the final product, they were really motivated. For the writing, we created an essay planner that was similar to graphic organizers they had seen in the past that included writing prompts and sentence stems.  To see students’ completed essays, check out the Grade 5 “Campaign for Leadership” website. Another important resource was our experts—graphic designers from our community. These women helped students understand how to convey feelings through font and color choices, which really helped funnel a lot creativity into purposeful design.

How did you leverage your local community? How has your community responded?

Reiley and Armstrong: We reached out to our school to help us brainstorm local leaders of change, and they came up with so many ideas! We had local experts help us with branding and marketing, and our signs will be displayed in a public celebration. The community has been really supportive; the one challenge has been the availability of our experts. Next year, we want to incorporate more local leaders with in person visits—we will just need to be a little more ahead of the game on our scheduling.

What impact have you seen on students’ engagement and learning as a result of these changes?

Reiley and Armstrong: Students were incredibly engaged for the yard sign design process. They even wanted to work during indoor recess! Especially for our students who struggle with writing, the graphic design element allowed for uninhibited creative expression in their own work and a sense of leadership among their peers. It allowed them to step up and be experts, which is a role they don’t always take. Including the component of finding evidence in their own lives has been a natural fit for their learning as they conclude their time in elementary school.

What advice would you give to other teachers who want to adapt a performance task?

Reiley and Armstrong: Don’t be afraid to think big—and then to scale back! We went through a couple of versions of ideas before we landed on this one. At first, we were planning on replacing a lot more of the texts with texts about local leaders. However, once we looked at the richness and complexity of the texts in the module, we felt that we couldn’t find texts to match that. We totally changed our plans, and that was okay!

Also, having other people on the design team was key. We all had different strengths— big picture, small picture, note-catcher design, etc., and we were definitely better designers together than we would have been separately.

Be transparent with your students! We let our students know that this project was brand-spanking-new on top of being designed by us, so it was going to get messy. It was great for our kids to see that we are people too, and mistakes mean we are learning.

Do you have any final words of wisdom for teachers who might want to tinker with adapting a performance task?

Reiley and Armstrong: Don’t be afraid to change things! The modules are an amazing curriculum backbone, but making it more relevant to your students and community can only enhance your students’ experience. It’s important to remember that one of the Design Principles of EL Education is Responsibility for Learning. As teachers, we need to take ownership over our curriculum, and that means making it the best possible for your students.

And ask for help as this can be complex work! We leaned on the support of teachers across the state, our school coaches, our administration, teachers in our own building, and people in our community. This took the edge off of our workload as we realized how much we are supported by a really big crew with a really big heart.

An invitation

Feeling inspired to engage in the work of adapting a performance task to meet your students’ and community’s needs?  Consider these reflection questions and the corresponding performance task planning tool to support your work.  

1. What is your rationale for adapting the performance task? What might your students and community gain from engaging in this work?

2. Based on your rationale and experience with the modules, what change might you consider making? Consider these possible scopes (keep in mind that the first three options would not impact the 4Ts of the module significantly, whereas option the last option can potentially impact all of the 4Ts)

  • Planning a way for students’ performance task to be created for an increasingly authentic purpose and audience (perhaps even service) without changing the actual prompt provided in the curriculum.
  • Adapting the format of the task, often to include more technology.
  • Adding a new element to the performance task so that it’s the task as written with additional component(s).  
  • Altering the final performance task enough to warrant backwards planning that significantly changes the arc of instruction leading towards the creation of the new task (as Kendall Reiley and Holly Armstrong did).

3.  What modifications are realistic given your timeline and resources? 

4.  Who are the key players to support these revisions (e.g. colleagues, school leaders, EL Education staff, etc.)

5. What community partners could you leverage?

Have some great examples of your students’ performance tasks?   We’d LOVE to see them. Please share your student work via email at

For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K-5 Language Arts Curriculum