This month, we asked teachers across the country to reflect on how they engage their students in Wit &Wisdom’s® complex texts. Marisa Mondschein, a Grade 5 teacher from South Carolina, shares her experiences teaching The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, the core text for Grade 5 Module 2, during the 2020–21 school year.
Throughout this year, educators and students have experienced rollercoaster-like journeys in both academics and social-emotional growth. While navigating the unknown of a pandemic, my students could not help but connect to our beloved Milo. As we read our core text, The Phantom Tollbooth, the trials and tribulations of each character resonated with my class as we dove deeper into the chapters and met more quirky and treasured personalities. As a reflective teacher, I had some initial concerns: How would I be able to guide my students’ learning after the disruption of the school building closure? Did students receive everything they needed in Grade 4 to prepare them for Grade 5? How could I make sure my students were receiving the social-emotional support they so desperately need after going through such a confusing year? My apprehension quickly turned to excitement and optimism when I concluded that The Phantom Tollbooth was one of the best novels to bring out the vulnerabilities, desires, and self-confidence of my students.
The consistent use of figurative language, domain-specific vocabulary, reading stamina, and background knowledge to make connections and support comprehension were the main points of focus and challenge for my students and me. As I prepared for teaching the module, I wondered, “How can I scaffold and support my students with this challenging text while also making sure they are the captains of their learning?” I found that staying true to the fluidity and integrity of Wit & Wisdom helped us succeed and move in a clear direction. The use of the provided Question Sets, Text Dependent Questions, Vocabulary Assessments, and intermittent reading aloud of specific pages or sections of the novel proved to be the true support and scaffolding needed.
The idea was not to take away content or make things easier; instead, I continuously focused on what students could and would do as independent learners. Even though the 2020–21 school year was more challenging than most, following the curriculum with fidelity ultimately fostered my students’ success. There were times when I told myself it was okay to skip a Question Set or scaffold the Focusing Question Tasks to stay on track with this year’s scope and sequence. While reflecting on these hasty decisions, I soon found myself going back and incorporating the high expectations of the module’s Learning Goals rather than holding my students back from what I knew they could accomplish. It was important that I remind students that they can achieve greatness when they believe in themselves, expect to succeed, and stay determined in the pursuit of our Learning Goals. When we believe our students can move mountains, they do.
Milo’s tumultuous journey throughout this novel created connections for students who were slightly apprehensive at the beginning of Word Play. One of my students, who had a tough time making connections with her peers and rarely spoke in class, responded to Socratic Seminar questions with pride and confidence. Her participation was heartwarming because not only was the class surprised, but they stood up and gave her a standing ovation for her in-depth analysis. As a team and family in our classroom, we learned and practiced motivation, inspiration, and determination unparalleled by any other year I experienced while teaching this module. Seeing students cope with the challenging circumstances of an unusual year with passion for learning was beautiful and life-changing. The experience brought back memories from my childhood of the broken barriers that led me to a love of learning. My students were able to feel what each character felt (especially Milo, King Azaz, and the Mathemagician) and actively put themselves in others’ shoes while growing both in social-emotional learning and academic skills. My students also worked harder on their assignments—Exit Tickets, New-Read Assessments, and Focusing Question Tasks—and challenged themselves with new and exciting vocabulary. We had never used so many dictionaries and thesauruses before! When a student found a new word or a synonym for a word, they wrote the word and definition on a chart for the rest of the class to learn.
In a year of inconsistencies, I was thankful to be using a curriculum that lends itself to all types of differentiation and support so that our students could learn more than we could have imagined.
Marisa Mondschein has taught ELA at a Title I school (Grades PreK-8th) in North Charleston, South Carolina, since 2015. She has implemented Wit & Wisdom in grades 3, 4, and 5, looping with her students each year. She is now the Grade Level Chair for 5th grade and Lead Content Planner for Wit & Wisdom. Marisa was Teacher of the Year for the 2019-2020 school year. Building long-lasting joy, rigor, and trust in her classroom is always her number one goal.