Help students independently investigate and interpret unfamiliar words using context clues.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
When it comes to reading, one of the most significant challenges students face is vocabulary. If students come across a word they don’t know while reading, it can have a substantial impact on their comprehension and their confidence. I witnessed this as a classroom teacher, and I’ve heard it from many of the teachers I now coach.
Searching for clues
One of my most tried and true strategies, which I used in my own classroom as an elementary teacher, and one I continue to offer to teachers, involves encouraging students to read texts like a detective who is searching for clues. Asking them to engage in this way encourages students to look for clues that can help unlock meaning, offer insights, and assist them in interpreting unknown words.
But these clues — often referred to as context clues — go beyond the language immediately surrounding unknown words. Clues might be found in the paragraph before or after an unknown word or phrase. Sometimes there are clues in the text features, including pictures, visuals, captions, or word boxes. We need to support students in treating the whole text as a series of clues that can help them become familiar with specific vocabulary words as they read independently.
Monitoring for meaning
Our Monitoring for Meaning resource can support students with this process, particularly when it comes to identifying and investigating difficult words. It offers a helpful template that prompts students to:
This resource asks them to use their best guess and then either confirm or revise their thinking after using a dictionary. Furthermore, it prompts students to lean on their prior knowledge to help decipher new words.
Literacy teachers have the demanding and important task of teaching reading, and while there is no single strategy that can guarantee success, encouraging curiosity and investigation while reading is a high leverage way to support students in becoming competent, confident readers.
Connect the dots between larger goals and the specific needs of your students.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
As an instructional coach and elementary specialist for CPET, much of my work with elementary schools has involved helping teachers unpack and make sense of the chosen, school-wide pre-packaged curricula they’re asked to work with — a curricula that is designed by professionals to meet grade level and subject requirements, and includes most, if not all of the materials needed to teach. I often facilitate workshops and professional development sessions, introduce teachers to the curricula and its components, as well as engage in classroom visits and critical reflection conversations with individual teachers to support the implementation of the curricula.
While the curricula is packaged, there’s often a surprising amount of tweaking and adapting involved to make sure the curricula fits the school calendar, the style of the teacher, and most importantly, that it meets the needs and interests of all students. This can be a daunting and challenging task for educators.
How can you make sense of and revise curricula to meet the needs, goals, and interests of your students?
Identifying your goals
One of the biggest challenges I see when it comes to the adoption and adaptation of packaged curricula is just the magnitude and density of it all. There are often many components, books, inserts, handouts, and templates, and this can make it difficult for teachers to even know where to begin. They often express feelings of overwhelm or lack of time or opportunity to make sense of and collaboratively plan with the curricula.
Because packaged curricula often includes all of the individual lessons, with varying levels of detail and information, teachers often fall into the trap of teaching lesson to lesson and relying on the teacher manuals to drive their day-to-day instruction. But this can result in losing sight of the larger goals and what these lessons are in service of. Essentially, teachers can start to become the mouthpiece of a script.
I recently began to work with a school that had just adopted a new curricula for reading. After using a program for a number of years, many teachers were unsure and rather uneasy about this transition. After meeting with leadership and discussing their needs, my goals as the instructional coach were to:
In support of these goals, it was my intention to facilitate a number of workshops with the teachers to first and foremost ease their anxieties, answer questions, and cater to their varying levels of familiarity and comfort with the curricula. From there, we worked together to unpack the curricula in a meaningful and productive way, the specifics of which I will share with you, as I believe they can be helpful when it comes to adopting and adapting any new curricula.
Starting with the end in mind
In order to know where you’re going and how you are going to get there, you need to understand the larger goals and objectives of a curriculum, the driving questions, and the final tasks or assessments. To do this, I would suggest starting with the end in mind. Most curricula I’ve seen offer a unit overview or summaries that are often found at the front. Taking the time to read or skim these overviews can be a helpful starting place. With the teachers I worked with, each grade level engaged in jigsaw readings, where one teacher took on a portion of text from the overviews and underlined and annotated, made comments in the margins, and then shared their thinking, questions and interpretations.
From there, we examined the culminating assessment, asking questions such as:
This exercise was intended to not only understand the assessment as it’s suggested, but more importantly, to provide a lens through which to recognize opportunities for revision, including scaffolding or extending the task, and then consider the implications for instruction. No curricula can take into account the needs and interests of all students, so it is up to teachers to revise and adapt the curricula with their students in mind.
Lastly, we considered the necessary materials, resources, rituals, and routines that would be needed in order to implement the units successfully:
With this larger, more robust understanding of the curricula, teachers can more effectively navigate their curricula and instruction and move away from feeling bound to a script.
Pushing into the pacing calendar
Most often, pre-packaged curriculum includes a pacing calendar, sometimes called a scope and sequence. This calendar offers a snapshot for instruction, including when particular units, (also known as modules or bends) should be implemented, and for how long. These calendars can be helpful when thinking about a school year at large — where you’re going, and how long it’s going to take you to get there. In my experience, the suggested pacing calendars often need to be changed or revised to take into account breaks, testing, and school events. Perhaps more importantly, the pacing calendars need to be adjusted based on teachers’ understanding of the larger goals, objectives, and assessments.
With my teachers, we compared the suggested pacing calendar to their school calendar and grade-specific calendars, asking questions such as:
Asking these questions supported teachers in taking action to make adjustments. Having a larger calendar for instruction can make things feel more manageable.
Identifying the structure of instruction
In my experience, most packaged curricula have a consistent structure and organization, and even specific rituals and routines that define the units and individual lessons. Looking across the lessons and identifying these structures can be very helpful for teachers. Examples include rituals and routines like turn and talks, reflective writing, stop and jots, or structures such as progressive scaffolding. The adopted curricula of this particular school was organized around the workshop model, starting with a connection which led to a mini-lesson, an opportunity for student practice, and then culminated with a share out and reflection of the learning.
I supported teachers in understanding and unpacking these various components and their purpose and then modeled a few of the lessons for them. To facilitate this, we used a template to plan one or two of the lessons, adopting what we liked, and taking out what we felt wasn’t necessary. We revised anything necessary, based on our larger understanding of the goals of the lesson and what teachers thought would be most relevant and important to students. Lastly, we worked to revise the lesson to ensure it reflected their voice and their style, fostering a sense of authenticity and ingenuity that supports relationship-building with students.
By identifying and understanding the key structures, rituals, and routines of a curriculum, teachers can move through the lessons with more clarity and confidence.
Implementing packaged curricula takes a great deal of patience, persistence, and flexibility. We know that no curriculum can be implemented as it’s written if it is going to meet the needs and goals of a particular school community. We have to work strategically, creatively, and collaboratively with our peers to examine the curricula, consider aspects we can and should implement, and what needs to be revised, replaced, or even eliminated.
Are you adapting curricula in your classroom or community? Get in touch with me to receive support throughout the daunting — but doable! — process.
Three entry points for designing project-based, student-centered instruction.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
With the amount of interruptions and disruptions to learning over the last few years, many schools and teachers are faced with the reality that their curricula and instruction may no longer be relevant or appropriate, given all of the learning that’s been missed. As a result, teachers are wondering how to best revive their curricula to make it more reflective and responsive to their students’ needs. Furthermore, they are concerned with how to best promote and maintain engagement of their students, and incorporate fun into their learning.
Project-based learning can be a powerful solution. Projects promote high levels of student engagement while also supporting the acquisition of academic skills and content knowledge, and also real-world, 21st century capacities and characteristics, including: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and caring. Project-based learning puts students at the center, and are often inspired by real-world, community-based issues that matter to students, providing safe spaces for them to engage in meaningful reflection, and share their unique perspectives with the world.
How can we make our instruction more project-based? Where do we start? Many teachers I work with are eager and excited to transition to project-based learning, but struggle with knowing how to begin. Their excitement is often met with fear and apprehension as they feel bound to a certain curricula or scope and sequence. Use the three considerations below to imagine the first steps you might take in creating more student-centered, project-based instruction.
Consider: Student voice and choice
One of the core principles of project-based learning is student choice. As teachers, we want to be thinking about where and how students can make decisions about their own learning. But this doesn’t have to be overwhelming — we can offer students choice within manageable parameters.
A simple starting point can be to think about choice when it comes to topics, texts, or tasks. For example, if we know that students need to write a persuasive essay as one of our grade level or content area requirements, allow them choice in the topic they write about, or the texts they read as part of the process. Or, if we know that students need to read a certain text as part of a course, then allow them choice when it comes to the task of how they will share their learning (e.g. presentation, podcast, etc.).
Consider: An authentic audience
Another core principle of project-based learning is an authentic audience. Traditionally, the audience for student learning is the teacher, or maybe their peers. But how can we challenge this tradition and provide students with opportunities to write for a more real-world audience?
The ability to communicate with specific audiences is an incredibly important skill, and something that will serve them beyond the classroom. When it comes to identifying an audience, we can use questions such as: “Who would benefit most from learning about this topic or reading this work?”
Identifying an audience from the start, prior to launching into a unit, can support students in writing with this audience in mind, which should inform their tone, their language, and their vocabulary. But it doesn’t stop there — think about how your students can authentically connect with their audience, whether it’s through inviting them to a reading or celebration, posting their writing online, or even sending representations of their work in the mail.
Consider: A larger purpose
In line with thinking about an authentic audience, is connecting student efforts to a larger purpose. Most often, the purpose of student work is for a grade, or to pass a class. Projects, in contrast, have a deeper purpose that connects to the world outside the classroom, which can make them more meaningful and enjoyable for students.
Whereas we might talk about the traditional purposes of student work as being to persuade, entertain or teach, identifying a more specific purpose can strengthen students' skills as writers and communicators. For example, a purpose could be to call someone to action to resolve a community issue, to share advice, or to challenge perspectives. Being more specific and deliberate with the purpose can help inform and inspire how students understand their efforts.
These three considerations reflect just some of the essential principles of project-based learning, and are a great place to start if you’re looking for manageable entry points to this type of work. These project elements can serve to inform extensions and/or revisions that you make to existing curricula, without it feeling overwhelming or impossible, and most importantly, help revive your curricula to make it more student-centered and student-driven.
Seamlessly navigate the pacing of your lessons.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
When I was in college, I waitressed at a French bistro on the Upper West side of Manhattan. During my first couple of shifts, I made all of the quintessential mistakes — forgetting to put in orders, getting orders wrong, not being able to greet all of my tables, not knowing if and when to ask for their order or when to drop the check. I found myself overwhelmed! Over time, however, I learned that to be a really good waitress is a skill, an art, something that you can improve. As one of my favorite managers once told me: you’ll know you’re a good waitress when your patrons don’t even know you’re there, when you seamlessly navigate the pacing of their food and drinks.
It’s all about the pacing!
Foundations of timing
In my time as an educator, I have leaned on many of my waitressing experiences. Like waitressing, teaching is an art, and so much success depends on successful pacing! How you pace your lessons, the order and flow of your instruction, how much time you dedicate to each task, and how you transition to each segment of a lesson are challenging yet crucial pieces of being a teacher. These actions have such important implications for student learning.
How can you tighten up your lessons?
Get started with our Foundations of Timing Instruction resource, which highlights helpful considerations and rules of thumb for timing and transitioning your instruction, including:
Whether you are just starting out, or are a seasoned teacher, your pacing can always be improved so that you are better able to serve your students.
Encourage curiosity and caring in young learners, and support an understanding and appreciation of differences.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
Conversations about race are not easy. They can bring about feelings of fear, anger, and frustration, and as a result, these conversations are often avoided. However, grappling with topics of race and diversity are truly important, especially with young children who are cultivating their understanding and their perceptions of the world. Experts argue that children are never too young to learn about kindness, fairness, and human rights. Research states that children “as young as three months old...may look differently at people who look like or don’t look like their primary caregivers.”
As a parent of a soon to be two-year-old and a professional development consultant who works closely with educators of young children, I am committed to seeking ways to engage in and facilitate my own conversations about race, especially in today’s world, as well as share strategies with educators that they can use in their own classrooms. What follows are a few strategies I’ve curated and adapted from my own musings and readings, as well as some concrete strategies inspired by one of our reimagining education initiatives: Literacy Unbound. These strategies can be particularly helpful when it comes to facilitating conversations about race with young students and cultivating skills, mindsets, and capacities that will serve us well today, and in the future.
The importance of asking questions
One of the most effective ways to grapple with topics of race and diversity is to ask questions. This is particularly effective with elementary students, as they commonly ask many questions of their own. By encouraging their curiosity and caring, and creating a safe space for them to be inquisitive, you can help pacify concerns, address confusions, and support an understanding and appreciation of differences. Additionally, you can raise your own questions focused on topics of race, diversity, and exploring differences to get students thinking and recognizing how they can be advocates of positive change. Here are some examples of questions that I turn to, curated and adapted from websites like PBS.com:
These questions can be a part of morning circle time, a weekly reflection or journal writing prompt, or even as a theme for a bulletin board, where students can share their responses using post-its or index cards (or, while online, students can add their thoughts online to Padlets and Jamboards).
Introducing & exposing students to diverse books
As Dr. Aisha White, Director of the P.R.I.D.E. Program at the University of Pittsburgh, explains, books — especially picture books — are a safe place to start when talking to children about race and racism. She suggests selecting picture books that offer multiple perspectives and explore various entry points for addressing complex topics. Some popular texts she suggests include:
These texts can be read as part of designated read aloud time, as part of a school-wide, character building initiative where the books are read in every classroom, or as a central text that guides and inspires a larger unit of study.
But as Dr. White explains, it’s not enough to just read the book. “If a parent (or educator) just reads the book and doesn’t have a conversation — doesn’t start to talk about racial disparities and racial discrimination and racism in America — then it won’t really affect a child’s attitudes toward race…it comes back to…having a background knowledge before speaking with their children, and being brave enough to have the tough conversations.”
What does it look like to support students in reading complex texts more closely, more carefully, more creatively, and more critically?
Sparking conversations around texts
Literacy Unbound, one of our signature initiatives, aims to unbind traditional approaches to the teaching of reading and writing using drama and play-based strategies to spark conversations that are inspired by questions raised in a specific, shared text. Teachers and students are brought together in this process as critical and creative thinkers, which helps foster a space for collective inquiry and exploration.
Using drama and play can be particularly effective with young students, especially when looking to support engagement and participation, while also providing a safe entry point for complex and challenging conversations.
Let’s look at a few strategies from Literacy Unbound to see how they can be effective and what they can look like when applied to one of my favorite texts, The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson. The Other Side follows the story of a little Black girl named Clover who sees a little white girl across a fence, but is told by her mom that she can’t cross to the other side of the fence because it isn’t safe.
Facilitating conversations about race with young students is no easy task. It takes courage, patience, and a lot of thoughtful planning and reflection on the part of educators, parents, and caretakers. Moreover, it takes a lot of persistence. Being open-minded and developing understanding, kindness, and an appreciation of others who are different from us is not something that happens after reading one text or engaging in one conversation.
As Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton note in their book Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools, courageous conversations about race require that we stay engaged and anticipate feelings of discomfort, as well as expect and accept non-closure.
We encourage you to create space for these conversations with your students and reimagine the ways in which you can spark curiosity and critical thinking around race and equity in a safe and supportive classroom.
Observing student behavior and communication to inform our instruction and create meaningful learning opportunities.
CRISTINA ROMEO COMPTON
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
Productive struggle, a term that has gained popularity over the last decade, is found in instruction that “stretches students’ thinking and performance just beyond the level they can do on their own — the zone of proximal development.”
Finding and teaching to each of our students’ sweet spots is no easy feat. As teachers, we are often guilty of over-scaffolding, or rescuing our students out of fear or our desire to avoid student discomfort. Alternatively, we sometimes push students too far by introducing a task that is well beyond their level, without also providing the necessary tools or assistance they need to meet the challenge. In order to support students in productive struggle, we need to be patient, persistent, and committed in gathering and using data in our instruction. This can include quantitative data such as reading levels and test scores, or perhaps more importantly, student actions and behaviors — what we know as qualitative data.
How can we gather qualitative data about our students in order to support them in finding a meaningful, productive level of struggle in their learning?
Identifying zones of struggle
Before we can locate promising practices for our instruction, we first need to identify look fors and listen fors that can help us determine if and when students are being pushed too far, or are not being pushed enough.
When students are not being challenged enough or instruction is below their level, we consider this a level of no struggle. At the other end of the spectrum is destructive struggle, in which tasks are too challenging for particular students, or are significantly above their level. A zone of productive struggle lies between the two.
Let’s identify the look fors and listen fors for each of these zones:
When students are in a no struggle zone, it might look like and sound like:
When it comes to the destructive struggle zone, we might observe students who:
In contrast, when students are in a zone of productive struggle, we are likely to see them:
Observing student behavior online
Given that so much instruction is happening remotely, and we may not be able to observe the same behaviors from our students in a remote setting, we can also identify look fors and listen fors when online teaching and learning is taking place.
In a no struggle zone, we might observe online students who are:
When students are in a place of destructive struggle online, they might:
In contrast, productive struggle might look and sound like:
Determining students’ current zones of struggle is a helpful starting point for potential shifts in your instruction. Different students at different times might exhibit these behaviors, and this can inform your responses and course of action. By leaning on these look fors and listen fors, we can more effectively and confidently determine if, when, and how many scaffolds need to be introduced so that students are advancing their skills.
In addition to locating student behaviors and communication that can surface as they’re working on tasks, we can also lean on preemptive planning, which will support us in predicting and creating opportunities for productive struggle in our classrooms. Preemptive planning encourages thoughtful consideration and analysis of each task we’re offering students — whether it’s a culminating task of a unit or a task for a particular lesson. This process involves asking questions such as:
These questions can inform your instructional design as you work to meet the individual needs of students. Your assessment of students’ areas of struggle can inform where and how you’ll need to scaffold your instruction, and the areas of strength can inform where and how you introduce extensions or opportunities for deeper learning.
Similar to identifying and responding to look fors and listen fors, preemptive planning is a meaningful form of data collection that can help you predict or anticipate student performance and ultimately use these predictions to inspire, inform, and cater your planning and instruction to your students.
There is no denying the challenges involved in meeting students where they are, especially when teaching large numbers of students — many of whom are on vastly different levels — or teaching at a distance. But by engaging in strategic planning based on data and evidence, we can create opportunities for our students to challenge themselves, recognize that they can do hard things, and make progress in their learning.