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What Does Deeper Learning Look First Grade?

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    Anne Vilen

In Education Week's Learning Deeply blog, Anne Vilen, EL Staff Writer and School Coach, discusses how EL's new primary grades curriculum supports even the youngest students' deep investment in their own learning.  Read the story on the Learning Deeply blog or below. 

Meet Tyjhamere, a student who is repeating first grade at Kuumba Academy Charter School in Wilmington, Delaware. Tyjh, prounced “Taj”, is seven years old--energetic, curious, clever, and determined. Nevertheless, last year, Tyjh’s attendance faltered, and he struggled to pay attention. He frequently acted out his frustration with the challenges of reading and writing by getting off task and just not doing his work. At the end of his first year in first grade, despite a whole school year of instruction, Tyjh was still stuck at a kindergarten reading level.

Puzzled by his lack of progress, teachers recommended that Tyjh be retained in first grade. Tyjh’s mother did her homework and reluctantly agreed, as long as he could be placed in Kady Taylor’s classroom. Taylor was happy to have Tyjh, and committed to creating an emotionally safe and academically focused learning environment for her new student. “Tyjh came with a lot of negative stories,” she says now, “and in just two years of education, he had internalized all of them. We needed to make things different for Tyjh, so that he could grow in a new direction.”

Coincidentally, at the same time that Tyjh was joining her classroom, Taylor was also tuning her own pedagogical approach by piloting EL Education’s new primary grades curriculum in her classroom. (You can read here the backstory of EL Education’s success scaling up deeper learning through its curriculum.) Like may primary grades teachers, she had been grappling with how to teach literacy in a way that sets students up for success for more challenging reading standards and teach it in a way that is developmentally appropriate for young children whose brains and bodies may not yet be ready to sit still and read. Her inclination might have been to back off the complexity of material she was asking Tyjh to understand. But Taylor leaned in and did just the opposite. The new curriculum introduced more challenging texts than she’d been using previously, but it was also infused with instructional strategies that leveraged Tyjh’s inclination to chatter, move, and ask questions.

Taylor put the new curriculum to work for her students, and now, at the end of Tyjh’s second year in first grade, she describes Tyjh as deeply invested in his own learning. “This child never gives up,” she says. “Even if I ask him to redo his work seven times, he’s determined to make it better--and he does.” I sat down with Ms. Taylor to find out what transformed Tyjh into a confident, increasingly fluent, and persistent reader and writer. Here’s what she said.

Challenge Students with Topics and Texts They Care About
“One of the things we know about young kids,” says Taylor, “is that they learn through stories and play; they develop their sense of self through discovery.” In previous years, reading and writing had been something Tyjh just wanted to be done with. But the new curriculum,  grounded in the Characteristics of Primary Learners, and full of topics and texts that tickled Tyjh’s curiosity, helped him and his classmates  find meaning in the text not just through decoding, but also through play, song, and movement. 

A module called What’s Up in the Sky: A Study of the Sun, Moon, and Stars, offers a good example. It begins with the narrative text, Summer Sun, Risin’. Students learn to retell stories from this narrative text before listening to a close read-aloud of an informational text called What Makes Day and Night? The combination of fiction and informational texts allowed Tyjh to build on more familiar skills and stories in order to learn the scientific content and more challenging nonfiction reading skills embedded in this module. “Then we learned the Sun Song and the Moon Song. We sang it with hand movements many times in class to help us remember how things move in the sky and how the sky changes. Now Tyjh knows it by heart,” says Taylor. “He can talk to other students about the book. He knows as much as they do! The fact that he can understand the content of the book and share it with others has really boosted his confidence.”

Engage Students with Protocols that Give Them Ownership
The EL Education curriculum Taylor uses establishes a daily literacy routine that includes both content-based literacy lessons and foundational literacy skills. The repetition of this routine means that Tyjh knows what to expect each day and what his role is in the learning. In addition, Taylor infuses her lessons with protocols that regularly ask students to speak and listen to each other respectfully, and to learn first as a community and second as an individual learner. Tyjh has been able to channel social skills that previously had only brought him negative attention into deep conversations with other students about interesting topics.

Each module also focuses on a character trait that helps students learn and demonstrate their learning. Tyjh has embodied the character trait of “integrity” with a new willingness to take risks. Building on his success talking about a book, he stretched his comfort zone to participate in a silent gallery walk where students can only write responses to their classmates.  Now Tyjh is willing to grapple even with very challenging reading, and to stick with it even when he fails the first time.

Build Confidence and Motivation by Teaching Content and Foundational Skills
For Tyjh, as for many early readers, the biggest stumbling block to learning to read was decoding. At the end of his first year in first grade, Tyjh was diagnosed with learning disabilities in reading and math. He had difficulty matching sounds to symbols, hearing phonemes, and reading and writing even the simplest sight words. These foundational skills were addressed systematically in the new curriculum’s Reading Foundations Skills Block. And the special education teacher who supported Tyjh built on and reinforced the skills block lessons. Cracking the code of language by learning how to read boosted Tyjh’s excitement about what he was reading. Finally, Tyjh didn’t have to opt out of reading aloud in order to save face in front of his peers. The skills block instruction provided a foundation that enabled him to grasp big ideas about the world that can be found in books. Using the assessments built into the curriculum, Taylor saw Tyjh’s grasp of decoding and comprehension gain momentum.

Empower Students with Meaningful Tasks
At the end of What’s Up in the Sky, first graders are given a very challenging task. They have to write a three-stanza narrative poem describing what the sun sees and create an illustration to accompany it. “This would have been overwhelming for Tyjh at the beginning of the year, when he couldn’t even spell the simplest sight words,” recounts Taylor. “But after weeks of reading, thinking, talking, and writing about the topic, Tyjh was ready. He spent an entire week writing, editing, and revising his piece.” The reading he’d done throughout the module gave him lots to say about what the sun sees. What’s more, knowing that he would be sharing his knowledge and his final products with his mom and other parents during a special morning in the classroom motivated Tyjh to do his best work. The smile on his face as he presents his poster to an authentic audience beams with pride.


What the Sun Sees

By Tyjh
It is morning.
The sun is yellow.
The sun is low in the sky.
The sun sees the cars go to work
It is afternoon.
The sun is bright in the sky.
The sun is high in the sky.
The sun sees kids playing.
It is dusk.
The sun is orange and low in the sky.
The sun sees people eating dinner.
The day is over.

Growth Mindset Fosters Motivation and Mastery
“After a year of working with this new curriculum,” says Taylor, “I’m looking at a young man who can persevere through longer assignments, collaborate with his peers on group tasks, and take initiative when given a challenge.  Those are the character traits that will help him eventually catch up academically and give him a strong start in second grade.” Furthermore, Tyjh’s Habits of Scholarship (as noncognitive skills are called in EL Education schools) are matched by his new academic performance. He’s well on his way to mastering the first grade literacy standards.
For Tyjh, and for primary learners of all abilities and backgrounds, instruction that invites students to use not only their heads, but also their hearts and hands to read and write about the world is transformational. “Being able to grapple with exciting and difficult books, and also wiggle, talk, and sing,” says Taylor, turns even young students into experts who are eager to share their knowledge and excited to keep asking questions, testing out new ideas, and trying their hand at new skills. That’s deeper learning in a nutshell. 

Photos: Kady Taylor