Adopting a Knowledge-Building Curriculum During the Pandemic

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Despite many obvious complications, starting to implement Wit & Wisdom® (the language arts curriculum from Great Minds®) during a pandemic delivered unprecedented benefits for Aldine Independent School District.

Matt_Warford“There actually was no better time for us to launch. Students deserve a high-quality curriculum more than ever, and Wit & Wisdom offers the best foundation for students,” says Matt Warford, executive director of teaching and learning for the diverse low-income school district north of Houston. “It’s the best thing for kids and teachers. Can you imagine trying to plan high-quality instruction during a pandemic without amazing materials? You couldn’t have asked for a better baseline.”


14,793 students

91% low-income

74% Hispanic

22% Black 

34% English learners

Adopted Wit & Wisdom in Grades 6–8 for School Year 2020–2021

Even before the pandemic hit, seeds of change had been sown. A new superintendent was convinced of the need for a knowledge-building curriculum after reading Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap. A curriculum audit criticized Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study. Student achievement was low and declining. And a new Texas law was pushing all districts to start using instructional materials that were based on the science of reading. A 45-member literacy task force selected Wit & Wisdom last May for use in Grades 6–8 after an extensive review of the science of reading show the importance of a knowledge-based curriculum. 

Aldine educators also spoke to Wit & Wisdom users such as Baltimore City Public School’s Demedia_EdwardsExecutive Director of Teaching and Learning Janise Lane; to members of Leading Innovation for Tennessee (LIFT), a group of literacy-minded Tennessee educators; and to a variety of Louisiana educators. “What was most powerful for us was hearing from educators that the curriculum is hard, that change is difficult, but that they’d never go back,” Warford says. “Seeing is believing. You can’t unsee what they were doing,” Demedia Edwards, the district’s director of literacy, says of the visits to Tennessee schools that were using Wit & Wisdom.


Aldine educators welcomed the rigor and relevance of the texts. “Wit & Wisdom is the perfect adoption for middle school. That whole idea of the mirrors and windows was what we really felt was important. The cultural relevance was built into our vision statement,” says Warford.

Janeth_CornejoJaneth Cornejo, a Grade 8 instructional coach, notes that teachers have had some isolated successes with other curricula in the past, but she expects to see stronger, steadier growth with Wit & Wisdom, thanks to its coherence and consistency. From grade to grade, she says, “you’re guaranteed to see the same structure.”


Teachers and school leaders were pleasantly surprised by how eager students were to pick up their new books at the start of school last August, when all learning was remote. Teachers were excited too. Edwards recalls the “unpacking parties” teachers had when the books arrived before schools closed for the year last spring.

"The level of student conversation is so high. They are really excited."

— Matt Warford, executive director of teaching and learning

As students gradually came back to in-person learning later in the fall, educators could see the growing engagement for themselves. “The level of student conversation is so high. They are really excited,” says Warford. Students are reading and discussing books at lunch. And when the superintendent visits schools, students walk up to her to tell her about what they’re reading.

“With the leveled readers used before in Units of Study, there was no common conversation. There was no engagement, no investment, no excitement,” says Warford of Aldine’s previous curriculum. Today, even English learners and others who may struggle with language arts are engaged. “There is so much support, they are eager to talk. And the more they talk, the more proficient they become.”

Bryce_PowersBryce Powers, a Grade 7 teacher at Stovall Middle School, uses Twitter (@MrSuperPowers_) to engage his students and showcase their work. And he has reached out to authors of Wit & Wisdom texts such as Angie Thomas, Nick Stone, and Jason Reynolds.

In April, Laurie Halse Anderson, who wrote Fever 1793, the Grade 7 Module 4 core text about the yellow fever outbreak in the American colonies in 1793, joined his students for a 45-minute online meeting. She discussed her thought processes as an author, how she did her research, and more. “It was amazing. Here’s someone who has sold 8 million books and is a New York Times best-selling author,” Powers says. “My students loved it. A lot of them want to become writers now because of this interaction.”


Parents and guardians are sensing the difference in the instruction. They’re excited about the amount of reading their children are doing. “And when the parents ask their kids what they learned in school today, the kids actually have something to say,” Warford reports.


Implementation has not been without challenges. “It’s been a huge learning curve, a new curriculum and a new situation,” Cornejo says of teaching during the pandemic. The district’s typical eight-period day with 47-minute classes is an obvious limitation for Wit and Wisdom’s 90-minute lessons. But many schools have already created double blocks for literacy, and the district is rethinking its bell schedule for next year.

Educators had to make sure that all students had access to a computer and accompanying texts for remote learning. They used everything from door-to-door delivery to “drive-through” parties where students could pick up their books.

Teachers had to rethink the skills-focused, test-heavy approach that has prevailed in the state for decades. Some teachers had to be assured that all of their students could handle the challenging materials. Cornejo says teachers were worried that the texts would be too rigorous, but now they’re saying, “Oh my gosh, my students are having the best conversations. It wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t pushed them.”

"Students totally love it. All eighth graders know about messy romances."

— Janeth Cornejo, Grade 8 instructional coach

Cornejo herself was skeptical that the World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front would resonate with eighth graders, but the students have been deeply affected by the book. “We have amazing neighborhoods in our community, but we also have areas that are ruled by gangs. Our students witness turf wars on their streets and can connect to the experiences in the novel.”

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream clicks as well. “It’s the messiest love triangle ever,” Cornejo says. “Students totally love it. All eighth graders know about messy romances. I love hearing them now using Shakespeare’s words like ‘besotted’ and ‘vexed’,” she says.

Powers was also skeptical at first; he was used to selecting his own books. But he says his students have responded to Animal Farm (“all the power shifting”), Code Talkers (“how Ned used his culture to help win the war”), and even the Canterbury Tales.


To help their students engage in “productive struggle,” teachers took measures to step back and allow students to work through challenges on their own. “It’s okay for kids to struggle. It’s how we support them that matters,” says Warford. Teachers, too, have needed support to implement the curriculum. These supports have taken many forms, including protocols to help unpack modules and lessons and look at student work; one-on-one coaching; teachers modeling lessons; and observation feedback. Teachers have also been using lesson videos from the distance learning version of the curriculum, Wit & Wisdom in Sync™, as part of their own preparation. “Great Minds’ support has been phenomenal,” says Edwards.

Making time to gather in professional learning communities helped educators dive deeply into the materials. Powers says teachers in his school meet for 45 minutes daily in PLCs to discuss different topics: Monday and Tuesday they concentrate on lesson study protocols, Wednesday on student work, Thursday on how the lessons align with the Texas standards, and Friday on focusing task questions and End-of-Module assessments.

In February 2021, the district also hosted a major literacy conference online that spotlighted good practices and helped reinforce the wisdom of their decision to switch curriculums.


For schools considering a shift, Warford and others offer some advice. First, understand that materials matter. Second, understand the science of reading, which makes the case for knowledge-based curriculum. “It’s a matter of equity and cultural relevance,” he says. He urges educators to read Natalie Wexler’s book The Knowledge Gap if they’re not convinced about the need for a knowledge-building curriculum. He and others point out that the district spent a year studying good practices before even starting to select a new curriculum. Shifting mindsets has been key.

Third, talk to colleagues in school and out; Aldine has been particularly influenced by those from Baltimore, Louisiana, and others in the Curriculum Matters professional learning network.

"Put any doubts aside. Try your best. Trust the process."

— Bryce Powers, Grade 7 teacher

Fourth, make sure to celebrate successes along the way. “I wish we had done more of that this year,” says Edwards. “You’ll be amazed at what students can do,” Cornejo says. “It is priceless, having students who used to struggle now say, ‘Hey, I’m smart.’”

Fifth, lean in. “Put any doubts aside. Try your best,” says Powers, who still has some concerns about his students’ writing performance.

Finally, be patient. “Trust the process,” he says. Aldine’s goal is to have 80 percent of its teachers implementing the curriculum with skillful fidelity by the end of year one (school year 2020–2021); 90 percent by the end of year two; and 100 percent by the end of year three.

The educators are looking forward to next year, with a year of learning under their belts and the pandemic receding. “This year was a learning year. Next year, let’s really get into it. This has really opened my mind about the work we need to do for our students,” Cornejo says.


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Topics: Student Engagement Professional Development Data Stories