This month, we encouraged educators across the country to reflect on their transition to using the Wit & Wisdom® curriculum. Anna Barnoski, a professional development implementation specialist for Great Minds®, describes her knowledge-building journey.
“Hey, can I drive the bus?”
That question introduced my Kindergarten students to the famous pigeon in Mo Willems’s Pigeon series. After laborious planning and preparation on my part, my students were beginning our unit focused on story elements, character traits, and comparisons across texts with Willems’s Pigeon Series as our centerpiece.
Knowing that my students’ proficiency on grade-level standards was the goal, I made sure I based this unit’s instruction on as many standards as I could. I worked to integrate as many Kindergarten skills as the texts would allow—ask and answer questions about key details, retell the story, compare the pigeon’s experiences across texts, and choose a favorite story and write an opinion piece about it. Our whole-group work and center activities included all things pigeon for one week straight! Standards-based question stems framed our discussions, imaginative tasks prompted our writing, and anchor charts decorated our classroom walls. My students were engaging with the texts, laughing and smiling while we read through six different Pigeon stories! I felt so confident and sure of myself as an educator that week.
That was seven years ago, and still I think back on that memory with fondness. A smile comes to my face when I remember the range of activities we took part in, all strenuously thought out and linked to standards so our learning would be fun and worthwhile—a combination that many of us educators strive for. But I can honestly reflect and say I missed the mark. That Mo Willems unit was delightful, but it did not hit the bar for providing my students with the instruction they most needed. As a recent statement from Great Minds suggests, my students would have been better served with a focus on the “two greatest instructional priorities: ensuring students (1) persist and succeed with grade-level complex texts and (2) build knowledge through reading a wide variety of texts organized around a coherent topic.”
Don’t think that I am being too hard on myself. I am a firm believer in “know better, do better.” I’m also a self-proclaimed teacher nerd (defined as one who thoroughly enjoys reading educational research articles). As that Pigeon unit was being birthed, along with a plethora of other topic-based unit studies over the years, what was lacking was the opportunity for my students to construct a strong foundation of content-rich knowledge and vocabulary from complex grade-level texts that would propel them toward achievement at college and career readiness.
The year before my district implemented Wit & Wisdom, I was a Grade 3 teacher. Our literacy instruction centered on one or two standards a week. We used informational passages and award-winning picture books to bring reading standards to life. Our blue English books provided practice on whatever grammar skill came next in the table of contents. We used mentor sentences, thematic prompts found online, or any other resource a teacher was familiar with to support writing skills. We taught using context clues to define complex vocabulary through packets of practice purchased online. Again, I was checking boxes, but there was no cohesion across the learning experiences. By this time, I knew there had to be a better way to integrate the ELA skills without burning myself out planning and teaching all these skills in isolation. I needed a recalibration.
A year later, I experienced Wit & Wisdom, a curriculum dedicated to integrating standards while building students’ knowledge. Year 1 of implementation had several challenges but also a multitude of achievements and celebrations! Although I still spent many hours internalizing and preparing for instruction like I had done with the Pigeon unit years before, something different was happening. Unlike “packaged programs” that seemed to check all the right boxes—read aloud, phonics, sight words, spelling, handwriting, small group lessons, unit tests—our Wit & Wisdom lessons centered on a topic and provided texts that appealed to my students while also being thought-provoking. My students were experiencing a greater depth and breadth of worldly knowledge while simultaneously learning, practicing, and ultimately mastering their literacy skill development.
The complex texts at the heart of Wit & Wisdom modules meet qualitative guidelines and quantitative Lexile® ranges while still being extremely engaging to students and worthy of instructional time and attention. I will never forget the moment a colleague walked in on an Amos & Boris introductory lesson and interrupted the discussion to inform me that this text was “too hard for our students; there’s no way our students know what some of these words mean.” Caught off guard and not the best with in-the-moment responses, I simply replied, “Yeah, I see your point.”
After some time reflecting about my colleague’s concern, though, I determined that we had differing opinions. As many of us know, students learn best when they grapple with challenging content. This core text was a challenge for my students, but I believed they were fully capable of noticing and wondering while listening and following along as I read it aloud. Secondly, many of my students had experienced needing and/or offering help just like the characters in our story, so they had some prior knowledge to pull from. Finally, our students were experiencing complex vocabulary in this text, but they were not on their own. The lesson provided me with scaffolds and guidance for maintaining high expectations for all of my students while still supporting them in reaching those high, yet attainable, goals.
Adding in the Volume of Reading lists allowed students of various reading abilities to expand their knowledge on the module’s topic and build confidence in their ability to share additional content knowledge with their classmates. The texts in the lists helped students deepen their knowledge about each module’s content in an accessible way. It was very gratifying to watch all the students discuss and share newly obtained information with pride. Excited students chatted about exploration of the deep oceans, how to survive in the wilderness, and different ways creatures defend themselves. These types of conversations had never taken place during our ELA instructional block before. We teachers had front-row seats to a beautiful display of equity and excellence playing out in our very own classrooms!
Four years into implementation, I continue to expand my understanding of Wit & Wisdom and the value of students building their own knowledge. In closing, let me share some implementation wisdom for other educators on this journey with me:
- Discover the path that has been carved out for you by the teacher–writers of this curriculum; then own it!
- To discover this planned-out path, take the time to study and internalize the module components, lesson scaffolds, and instructional guidance provided. It is worth the time up front.
- Trust the knowledge-building process. The more we know about our modules and topics, the more our students will be able to learn and grow. And don’t forget: They feed off our energy and excitement.
The stakes are high. Our students must be able to read and comprehend complex texts. To be successful at that, they must have a strong knowledge base to pull from and well-developed skills to utilize. These expectations far exceed my self-made Pigeon unit or week-by-week standards pacing. The knowledge-building work has been done for us through Wit & Wisdom. We just need to bring it to life in our classrooms.
Great Minds. Prioritized Instruction for the 2021–2022 Academic Year: A Position Paper from the Great Minds® Humanities Team. 13 Sept. 2021, https://gm.greatminds.org/witwisdom/prioritized-instruction-for-the-2021-2022-academic-year?hs_preview=eWgBOitu-54734389889. Accessed 14 Oct. 2021.
Anna Barnoski lives near Fayetteville, N.C. where she resides with her husband and five teenage sons. Anna has worked in elementary schools for 16 years, traveling wherever the Army sends her family. These moves have afforded her the opportunity to experience an array of curricula while teaching and coaching various grade levels. She was a Grade 3 teacher when her most recent district adopted Wit & Wisdom four years ago. During Years 2 and 3 of implementation, Anna had the privilege of working as an Instructional Coach and supporting her school's teachers as they deeply internalized this curriculum and utilized the planning protocols. She currently works part-time providing professional development support to teachers across the country using Wit & Wisdom and Geodes, and the rest of her time with her family.